In-Flight Events Hit the Runway


Business travelers have got this down.

They hit the airport with a perfectly packed, carry-on suitcase and plenty of time to spare. Thanks to TSA Precheck, they zip through security. Next, then spend a few minutes in a lounge or restaurant answering emails and completing a few last-minute tasks, before boarding the plane and heading off.

The flight itself is usually pretty humdrum. Granted, thanks to in-flight Wi-Fi, it is easier than ever to keep working while in the air. Still, even in business class, it’s hard to be productive while cocooned in the ambient drone of the airplane surrounded by noisy or annoying neighbors. As a result, most of the time on a business flight is spent watching movies on a tablet, correcting the previous passenger’s answers to the in-flight magazine’s puzzles, or trying to get some sleep.

However, a recent trend is turning the monotonous downtime on a flight into a productive and entertaining experience. In-flight events are really starting to take off (pun intended). The idea is that a meeting, conference, or convention can actually launch after liftoff with an educational presentation, networking session, or cocktail reception.
In-flight events are pretty exclusive affairs, typically by invite only or if you happen to be on the lucky flight that’s staging one. These experiences tend to be top-notch, with premium food and beverages, surprise gifts, and intimate networking opportunities. As a result, passengers who partake in an in-flight event have a favorable view of the experience – very few misses editing those Sudoku puzzles.

A few companies have been at the vanguard of producing engaging events 30,000 feet in the air.


Power Trip

For its “Power Trip” conference in San Francisco, Marie Claire created an unforgettable travel event. Faced with what could be a tedious cross-country flight, Marie Claire instead seized the opportunity to give around 100 New York-based female execs, founders, and influencers an exclusive in-air experience.

The festivities began in JFK’s JetBlue terminal, which was decorated for the occasion, where the passengers got to meet the all-female flight crew. After the plane took off, the first surprise came when every passenger was gifted a Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 laptop in a case decorated with the phrase, “The future is female.”

Once it was safe to move around the cabin, the real fun began as the plane was divided into several engagement spaces. For example, the business class “Mint pods” were repurposed to become photo booths. There was also a mini-spa section, relaxation consultations, an area for facials, and a makeup touch-up counter. Naturally, snacks and cocktails were included in the experience, as were several additional giveaways. Once the plane landed, passengers were whisked to a W Hotel for the first land-based events of the conference.

Marie Claire wisely did not attempt this achievement alone. It brought in several sponsors, including the airline, MDNA (which provided the mini-spa experience), and Shiseido (which hosted the makeup bar).

The VIPlane


Getting 114 meetings industry professionals from Toronto to Victoria, British Columbia for the Canadian Innovation Conference is usually no big deal. After all, the majority of these professionals are likely on the road more than they are home. However, Tourism Saskatoon, WestJet, and ProPlan Conferences and Events joined forces to create a remarkable airborne event.

The flight included gift bags, a mid-flight dance party, and an educational session presented by Jennifer Spear, President and Chief Strategist of the event planning company Clean Slate Strategies.

“[Spear] did a lot of research prior to take-off on how she was going to design the educational component of this experience,” Bettyanne Sherrer, President and Owner of ProPlan Conferences and Events, said in a Skift article. “You can imagine how challenging it was. As a speaker, she’s usually on stage with a mic, with all the sightlines to her lit, all that good stuff. But now, she’s basically constricted in a venue where only the people in the first four rows can see her. And she’s talking into the PA with a cord only two feet long. So, she literally was only able to step into the threshold.”

Because VIPlane passengers were given special badges adorned with specialized ribbons, the VIPlane experience extended throughout the landlocked event. Networking at the Canadian Innovation Conference was gamified with attendees getting points when they scanned a code on the back of an event badge. However, badges with the VIPlane ribbons earned the most points, making them a highly valued commodity and guaranteeing that the passengers received plenty of valuable networking opportunities.

Shakes on a Plane

Business passengers do not have a monopoly on in-flight events. Some companies have experimented with the concept during leisure flights.

JetBlue partnered with Tales of the Cocktail to create the “Shakes on a Plane” experience. During this mixology event, bartenders positioned in the plane’s aisle elaborately created three different cocktails. As the libations came together, a Bar Business editor read ingredient descriptions and step-by-step directions over the PA system. At the end of the presentation, passengers were offered two complimentary cocktails (or mocktails) to enjoy during the beverage service.

However, JetBlue did not spring this cocktail showcase on unsuspecting vacationers. Travelers were notified ahead of time that their flight included the presentation. Uninterested customers were able to change their flight free of charge. Airborne passengers who decided they weren’t invested in the display also had alternatives. Anyone who wished to tune out the mixologists was given complimentary earbuds and allowed to watch movies for free.

Festival Shuttles

Photo Credit: Skift

Photo Credit: Skift

The Los Angeles airport is a lively hub. However, traffic noticeably spikes at certain times of the year – and it’s always when a festival occurs in another part of the country.

Delta Air Lines noticed this increased activity and wanted to capitalize on the traffic specifically by targeting tech and entertainment executives. So, the company developed a shuttle service to a variety of events, such as South by Southwest, the Sundance Film Festival, the Summit Series, and various TED conferences.

“We intentionally find people that are not Delta loyalists to take these flights with us, and we try to make a concerted effort to really get to know people that we don’t already know,” Melissa Abbott, Manager of Sales Partnerships for Delta, said in the Skift article. “It’s been a really great way and a unique way to showcase Delta’s products and services to people that might not be familiar.”  

The festivities begin before the plane leaves the tarmac. Upon arrival at the airport, passengers receive a gift bag, complimentary checked luggage, and expedited check-in and security. Then the lounge area provides a preflight breakfast and cocktails while they wait to board. The flight itself delivers unlimited food, beverages, and Wi-Fi, which are all included in the ticket price.

For the 2019 SXSW shuttle, Delta expanded the offering by experimenting with in-flight presentations given by actors Ravi Patel and Patrick Schwarzenegger. Sometimes, the shuttle service features activities, like giveaways for luggage and airline tickets. Once landed, passengers are quickly shuttled to their hotels, thanks to Delta’s partnership with Lyft.

“People constantly reach out to us: ‘Are you still having the flight? When is it going to be?’” said Abbott. “I think that’s just a big testament to how successful it’s been and how engaged people are.”