When Sony launched its online music store, Sony Connect, last year, the company took the launch event to the next level. Literally. The party took place 35,000 feet above the ground, in a United Airlines 777 jetliner. And the entertainment? A live, acoustic concert by pop singer Sheryl Crow.
The Sony Connect launch, while on the more extravagant side, is one example of several events being held on airplanes, not just as a way to fill time en route to another destination but as the destination itself. These high-flying functions are planned to celebrate special trips, to draw extra attention to product and service launches, or even just to lift the spirits of glum employees.
Throwing parties on planes isn't a new concept. The Make-A-Wish Foundation in Phoenix, AZ, for example, has been doing it for years. Wish Flights, as they're called, were originally planes chartered in association with American Airlines that would transport the children being honored to Orlando, FL. "We used to have big events on the plane, with news media on board, and the kids would have pillow fights, blow bubbles, bounce beach balls back and forth along the aisles," says Chandra Luce, president of Something Magic, the organization that coordinates the Wish Flights. Luce and her team decorate the interior of the plane, arrange for a high school marching band to see the family off, and prepare T-shirts and gift bags for every attendee. "The kids would get to come up and visit the cockpit mid-flight and get their picture taken with the pilot." That, of course, was all before September 11, 2001. "Security wasn't quite such a big deal back then," Luce notes, saying instead that the biggest challenges her team faced in planning the on-board events were those arising from accommodating the schedules of children with life-threatening illnesses. "Sometimes they'd have to cancel at the very last minute, or the Foundation would find another family to take at the very last minute," she says. In 2002, the dedicated Wish Flights were discontinued as economic pressures made it impossible for American Airlines to pull aircraft from flight schedules for the chartered Make-A-Wish flights. These days, children still take Wish Flights to Orlando, but they are included on otherwise commercial flights.
Events on planes have been used to cheer up adults, too. One Minneapolis-based planner recalls an unforgettable morale-booster cooked up by the CEO of a small, local firm. After a two-week stretch of bad weather, the boss used the guise of an off-site lunch meeting to bus his employees to a nearby airport. Once there, everyone boarded a private plane and, for an hour, took in the sun from their perch above the clouds while sandwiches were served.
SOMETHING SPECIAL IN THE AIR
It helps to have planes at your disposal, so it makes perfect sense that the airlines themselves use their aircraft as event venues. That was the case in April, when Air Tahiti Nui hosted 250 travel agents and tour operators on a "flight to nowhere" to celebrate the airline's new nonstop service from New York's John F. Kennedy Airport to Papeete, Tahiti. "We wanted to bring the agents on board and let them experience our Tahitian service," says Nick Panza, who helped plan the event. "We knew we wanted the flight to be three and a half hours long so that we could have a full meal service as well as a bit of Tahitian culture." During the flight, passengers sampled the airline's in-flight services (many played video games on the seatback monitors), lunch was served, and some of Tahiti's cultural offerings were showcased. First, a ukulele band performed traditional Polynesian music and models turned the aisles into catwalks to show off jewelry made from Tahiti's famous Robert Wan black pearls. The event continued after the flight landed with another Tahitian dance performance—by the airplane's crew—in the terminal.
Panza said he worked with air traffic control to devise a flight path that would keep the plane in the air for enough time without interfering with normal air traffic. He also worked closely with the management of JFK's Terminal Four to minimize the security hassles. "The terminal management worked with the security people to make it very easy," he says. "Everyone had to clear security, of course, but there were no problems." Panza says the event took about three months to plan.
But even if the event isn't held to promote an airline's services, it pays to have a major airline involved. For the Sony Connect launch, partnering with United Airlines for the event seemed natural. "We also announced our alliance with United Airlines Mileage Plus to use frequent flier miles to pay for Sony Connect downloads," says Sony Connect's Jay Samit, who organized the launch event. "So the venue was more than just a venue; it enhanced the overall message."
According to Samit, "The event couldn't have been done without United Airlines' diligence and expertise. United dealt with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which had to certify every single piece of musical equipment as safe." Samit says the event was an unqualified success: "It was absolutely worth the money and it got us worldwide exposure," he says. "It was, by all accounts, a complete home run."
STARS IN THE SKY
The event was not without its challenges. The venue—an airplane in midair—made the logistics remarkably difficult. "It was a huge undertaking," Samit says. "There are the things you think about when planning an event and then the ones you would never think of beforehand." For one thing, says Samit, "Guitars sound different 35,000 feet up because they're tuned on the gravity of Earth. So we tuned the guitars once we were in the air, and we had to maintain the same altitude throughout the concert." Another challenge Samit faced involved the power supply. "You can't use the plane's power system," he says, "so you have to have self-contained battery power for the amps, speakers, and lights." And then, of course, there was the matter of safety. "United had us do a test flight with all the equipment but no passengers" to make sure everything would be safe for the attendees, Samit says.
Samit says he and United had about one month to plan and execute the event, including painting a Sony Connect logo on the outside of the plane. "There's a photo of us all at LAX under the plane's logo," he says. "That was our follow-up gift to reinforce the experience."
Samit says the venue played a large part not only in garnering publicity ("We got a concert-business trade magazine to certify Crow's performance as the 'Highest Concert Ever,' as opposed to 'Highest-Grossing,' " Samit says) but also in convincing as popular a performer as Crow to get involved. "To get top artists, you need something that catches their imagination," he says. "That is often overlooked by people doing major events."