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Taking Flight: Is the Latest Venue Trend in the Air?

Southwest, American, Disney, and MasterCard are among the brands that have partnered on unusual mid-flight events in the past year.

By Alesandra Dubin January 28, 2015, 7:00 AM EST

MasterCard partnered with American Airlines to surprise passengers with a showing of Annie before the film hit theaters. The screening was followed by an in-air meet and greet and Q&A session with guests from the film, including star Quvenzhané Wallis (pictured).

Photo: Rich Polk/Getty Images for MasterCard

Event professionals who feel they've exhausted every type of venue on the ground may want to consider a new type of party space: one that's not actually on the ground at all. That's because a recent trend has seen a swirl of affairs from a diverse set of brands taking place in midair in the form of in-flight events and promotions that happen in the seats and aisles of airliners.

Evidence of such successful approaches to event marketing goes back at least as far as 2008, when HBO partnered with Virgin America to fly an Entourage-branded plane. The flight showed an advance screening of the show and offered first-class perks between New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and Las Vegas, including noise-canceling headphones, champagne, and branded blankets and eye masks.

But the concept has taken off—so to speak—in the past year, with multiple airlines and corporate partners getting on board.

In December, MasterCard partnered with American Airlines for its Priceless Surprises platform, surprising passengers on a flight between Los Angeles International Airport and J.F.K. with a special premiere of Annie before the film hit theaters. The screening was followed by an in-air meet and greet and Q&A session with special guests from the movie, including Quvenzhané Wallis and director Will Gluck, who were both escorted onto the plane by fellow cast mate Jamie Foxx.

In August, Southwest hosted an in-flight event that marked a partnership with Chicago's Magnificent Mile Association. The official airline of Chicago’s famed Magnificent Mile shopping district, Southwest turned its flight 904 from New York LaGuardia to Chicago Midway into a fashion show in the air. Models made a catwalk out of the aisle, showing off fall fashions from Macy’s at Water Tower Place on North Michigan Avenue. At the end of the show, every customer received a $100 gift card.

In October, Southwest also hosted a partnership with Disney that saw the Dapper Dans, a barbershop quartet that usually performs at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort, harmonizing mid-flight for passengers aboard flight 887; the flight marked the first nonstop Southwest trip from Dallas’s Love Field to Orlando International Airport. In addition to the in-flight entertainment, each Orlando-bound passenger received a specially made pair of mouse ears, Mickey Mouse-shaped desserts, and free tickets to Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Party at the Magic Kingdom Park.

Southwest spokesperson Dan Landson says in-flight events are uniquely compelling from a marketing perspective. “By taking an event off the ground and into the sky, you're delivering a very special experience to customers in a fun way,” he says, citing additional programs like the airline's in-flight concert program, midair giveaways, and even an in-flight wedding between two frequent-flying customers. ”These events leave a lasting impression with our customers, leaving them with a smile, and in some cases money to spend with our partners or on future travel on Southwest Airlines.”

He says the goal of any such program is smart, logical partnerships that lead to R.O.I. for all brands involved—whether that's a credit card company, a theme park, a TV series, or any other inspired matchup, in addition to the airline providing the plane. “It's important to leverage relationships with partners in ways that's beneficial to both parties. When events come together, it's truly a collaborative effort between the airline and the partner.”

Of course, there are specific logistics unique to pulling off such high events—including security clearance and streamlined load in.

Landson says that can mean extended lead times. For the Runway in the Sky event, for instance, initial discussions started about six to seven months before the actual flight, he says.

“When it comes to organizing events in the sky, there are a lot of moving parts that all have to come together at the same time,” Landson says. ”We work with our [brand] partners, airport partners, and various departments throughout our company to make sure everyone is aware of the event and what's happening. In some cases planning can take months to work through all the logistics.”

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