The in-flight environment has the makings of a promotional dream come true, offering large groups of often disoriented people who cannot leave the room, all of whom carry spending money. Many of them are in holiday mood, too.
Yet, far from being a simple bums-on-seats exercise, the world of in-flight promotions is diverse, despite the unifying theme of large captive audiences. There are huge differences between charter and non-charter airlines and contrasts between airline cultures. The traveller’s experience will be completely different in economy to that in first or even in business class seats.
British Airways (BA) is committed to offering “as many advertising opportunities as possible”, says airline sales and marketing manager Caroline Rogers.
“This means companies can target passengers at each stage of the journey, starting with lounge activity, where advertisers can place leaflets and brochures. Avis has done a shoeshine promotion with us and it advertises on the back of our ticket wallets. Concord Hotels has done a wine-tasting promotion in the lounges.
“On board we offer advertisers’ mealtray cards; we classify that as an ambient opportunity and it must include some sort of offer for the passenger. For example, Famous Grouse offered passengers the chance to win tickets to the Rugby World Cup. Other ambient opportunities are seat back cards and advertising messages,” says Rogers.
Brand-building activities can achieve good results in on-board environments, says Mark Gracey, client services director at Miltonpdm, which specialises in what it calls en-route marketing.
He says: “In our work with Schweppes and BA, we’ve tried to build global awareness of the brand. From BA’s perspective, it wants to add value to its in-flight position because the airline is coming under pressure from competitors.”
As the official soft drink supplier to both the Open Golf Championship and the MacLaren Formula One team, Schweppes is well placed for promotions, says Gracey.
“We know that historically BA passengers, particularly business-class executive club members, have a keen interest in sport. Last year we ran 30-second in-flight TV commercials, which directed the passenger to direct response ads within High Life magazine, with a chance to win a trip to the Open Golf Championship or Italian Grand Prix.”
Not all airlines approve of bombarding passengers with buying opportunities and chances to win prizes.
A Virgin Atlantic representative is emphatic about this: “Once we’ve got passengers on the plane, we’re no longer interested in selling them anything – even our own products. We encourage them to fly with us again by giving them a memorable service. We want passengers to enjoy themselves and are careful not to exploit the fact that they are a captive market. If passengers felt they were being treated this way, we would lose their trust and respect.”
Therefore any offer has to add value and be unobtrusive, in Virgin Atlantic’s view. For example, the airline works in partnership with World Telecom Cellhire to offer passengers good rates on mobile phones in the US.
The highest-paying Virgin Atlantic passengers are strictly off limits for sales activity, although the airline offers treats such as complimentary beauty therapy.
“We tend to take the view that, particularly in Upper Class, passengers want a bit of a break from the hard sell they get in many other areas of their life. During the flight, the accent is on relaxation and recuperation. Our beauty therapy is a good example. The hours that people fly with us may well be the only oasis of peace and calm they get in that business day.”
BA takes a similarly protective attitude to its first class passengers who are not targeted with any in-flight promotions.
Britannia Airways in-flight media manager Michael Earley says the charter airlines have a significant advantage in this respect. They can offer advertisers UK-based customers, clearly segmented according to package holiday, and quite reliably all in holiday mood.
He thinks an added bonus is that charter flights offer passengers a complete on-board experience.
“As well as entertaining people, we’re also feeding them. That gives our partners a unique opportunity to communicate with or sample millions of passengers every year. All of our passengers are holidaymakers; that’s what distinguishes us from scheduled airlines,” says Earley.
Another major selling point for promoters is that travellers with the major charter lines seldom fall below C2 in terms of purchasing power. Earley points out: “The average price for a family of four is over £1,000.
This is an upmarket bias and that makes it an attractive proposition to advertisers. We carry over 8 million UK passengers a year and advertisers have no wastage in terms of who they communicate with in this mass audience.”
Offers include free newspapers (Britannia works with the Daily Express), BT offers of cheap calls from abroad, and Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein product promotions. Early points out that passengers have ample opportunity to object to the hard sell.
“We have our own company satisfaction tool and we analyse nearly a million customer questionnaires every year. Because we’re part of the Thomson Holiday group, those results are published in the next year’s brochure.”
Appropriate product sampling is popular with charter passengers, says Debby Freeman, advertising and sponsorship manager for Inflight Productions, which offers in-flight entertainment to more than 20 airlines.
“People going on holiday can try things such as shampoos, toothpastes and washing powders. The outbound journey is an ideal time to offer samples of general skincare products,” she says.
In-flight promotional items need to be kept small because of storage, says Freeman, and the distribution should be as simple as possible since cabin crew cannot always be trained to deal with product demands.
“The crew are primarily there for safety and are kept terribly busy. If a product is aimed at a specific target staff need to be trained. At the very least, they need to know the product,” says Freeman.
Freeman has seen the charter airlines make up for the loss of the duty-free market by well targeted on-board promotions. “They are very commercially minded. But they don’t want to intrude on the passengers’ privacy too much. There’s a fine line that the airlines have to tread.”
New product lines are also making their way into charter market promotions. Razorcuts is a company which has pioneered the customised CD, offering consumers the chance to compile their own playlist. Britannia passengers receive leaflets which give them the chance to choose the content of and name their own CD. “We came up with a personal CD compilation album token,” says Razorcuts commercial director Tony Ragan. “Passengers can choose from four genres of music: love, film and TV, dance and show music. This hits all the airline’s customer profiles, from Ibiza clubbers through to older people who go to Venice for the weekend.”
Passengers buy the token, then take it home or on holiday with them. Once they decide which tracks they want, they fill in a tear-off coupon and mail it back. Delivery is in four working days.
“We undertook a year’s trial for Britannia, to see whether we could develop a product that would work,” says Ragan. “We’re now negotiating with other airlines.”
As consumers pick and choose between a growing array of airlines and travel packages, it is likely that more carriers will see in-flight promotional partnerships as a way to enhance their offerings. Gracey believes that in-flight promotional activity is still fairly limited in the UK.
“It has certainly not been used to its full advantage. I think that is going to change, however, given the growing competition, particularly from low-cost airlines. Increasingly, airlines are asking what added value they can offer to passengers in-flight.”