Employees often travel long distances to get to conferences, boarding planes to travel anywhere from a few states over to an entirely new country. In the air, they will usually spend the time catching up on sleep, sending out emails, or watching back-to-back movies.

Sometimes, though, the meeting will take place on the plane itself. Nearly unheard of only a few years ago, more and more companies are starting to organize in-flight events. In 2018, Canada’s WestJet brought more than 100 planners from Toronto to Victoria, B.C. to attend Canada’s Professional Convention Management Association convention that started on board the plane. Next year will be Delta’s sixth running “festival shuttles” for execs in the entertainment and tech industries.

Boozy networking events with free food and drink, most attendees of these airborne meetings actually seem to love them, rather than viewing them as an imposition on their free time. It helps that they tend to be pretty exclusive, invite-only affairs, with service that rivals first class.

For the organizers — whether they be airlines, tourism bureaus, or corporations — the novelty events are a chance for them to reach out to potential clients and customers.

“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,” said Melissa Abbott, manager of sales partnerships for Delta, who oversees the airline’s festival shuttles. “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.”

For Delta, which runs the flights out of Los Angeles, this mostly means people in tech and entertainment. The company flies executives out to South by Southwest and the Sundance Film Festival each year, and also makes trips to more tech-driven events like the Summit Series, TED conferences, and meetings in the Colorado ski resort town Telluride.

According to Abbott, the airline had been brainstorming ways to reach out to potential customers and decided it may as well showcase what it does best: fly. Delta’s festival shuttles transport between 160 to 180 people each flight, and offer free food, alcohol, and Wi-Fi, though attendees must pay for the tickets themselves. Although it’s primarily a networking opportunity, Delta will also organize activities like luggage or ticket giveaways.

The event starts at the gate, with a cocktail reception for attendees before they board, and it ends after participants have arrived at their hotels via Delta’s partnership with Lyft.

International Appeal

European airlines have done similar flights, though generally aimed at leisure rather than business travelers. Brussels Airlines may have been one of the first: In 2011, the company organized flights from different destinations around Europe, bringing partiers to Tomorrowland, the massive electronic music festival held annually in Boom, Belgium. Twenty nineteen marked the airline’s eighth consecutive year running the party flights.

And for the past two years, United Airlines has partnered with Marie Claire for the publication’s Power Trip series, flying out hundreds of women execs for an on-flight experience celebrating women in power. Before that, the publication partnered with JetBlue for the series.

In 2018, the trend reached Canada as well, when Tourism Saskatoon, WestJet, and ProPlan Conferences and Events collaborated to bring 114 meetings industry professionals from Toronto to Victoria, British Columbia for the Canadian Innovation Conference hosted by PCMA. The three organizations covered the cost of the trip through sponsorships, paying for tickets as well as food and drink.

The companies also organized dancing activities for the flight, handed out gift bags, and recruited Jennifer Spear, president and chief strategist of event planning company Clean Slate Strategies, to come on as an educational speaker.

The hardest part was dealing with the logistics of everything while in the narrow cabin of a plane, according to Bettyanne Sherrer, president and owner of ProPlan.

“[Spear] did a lot of research prior to take-off on how she was going to design the educational component of this experience,” said Sherrer. “And thank God she did because you can imagine how challenging it was. As a speaker, she’s usually on stage with a mic, with all the sight lines 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.”

The event extended all the way to the PCMA conference itself, where the WestJet attendees received badges with custom “V.I.Plane” ribbons.

Networking at the PCMA conference was partly turned into a game, according to Sherrer, with attendees racing to rack up as many points as possible, which they did by scanning the code on the backs of other attendees’ badges. The codes on the backs of the V.I.Plane badges had the highest point value associated with them, making them valuable targets.

“Our people were stalked throughout the entire conference,” Sherrer said.

Because of where the 2019 Canadian PCMA convention is being held, WestJet, ProPlan, and Tourism Saskatoon will not be running a flight this year. The organizations are hoping to hold it again, however, because of the good feedback it got from attendees and sponsors alike.

Delta, meanwhile, will soon be sending out invitations for a flight to the 2020 South by Southwest Music Festival in March.

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

Photo Credit: Delta's SXSW Festival Shuttle flight on Friday, March 8th, 2019 from LAX in Los Angeles, CA. Delta News Hub / Flickr