Toronto might have influencers, but they don’t want to fly Virgin

The following is a guest post from Erin Bury and it was published earlier today on her blog.

It was the talk of the town last summer – Virgin America is launching in Toronto! And they’re giving away free flights!! But only to people who some company called Klout deem influential enough!!! Cue chaos among the city’s digital elite. When the arguments over Klout’s authority and convincing claims from everyone about how influential they were died down, pretty much everyone I followed on Twitter had gleaned themselves a round-trip flight to California (including me, though I couldn’t use it during the allotted timeframe). 

Then came the party. Richard Branson landed in his Virgin plane, complete with rapper Drake with his likeness painted on the side of said plane. He then proceeded to host a mega launch party at the hip new Thompson Hotel, a spectacle that included all the booze you could drink, B-list celebrities like Gilles Marini, and a meet-and-greet with Mr. B himself. 

Finally, after all the pomp, circumstance and social media fervor died down, Virgin’s Toronto routes started to compete with Air Canada and the other established airlines we’re used to flying. And this is where their problems began. Because it seems that when you take away free flights, fancy parties and a rockstar entrepreneur, people just didn’t clamor to fly Virgin. Keep in mind I don’t have any stats to back this up, nor am I an airline routes analyst. And I do know that several people in the Twitter community, including Renee Warren, have flown Virgin several times in the past year and absolutely loved it. 

But on Friday afternoon, buried in the bottom of a press release announcing an expansion of Virgin’s Dallas routes, was the announcement: the Toronto routes would be suspended effective April 6th of this year. A Virgin America VP had the following to say about the route changes:

“We would like to thank the Toronto airport and community for supporting us. We hope to return to YYZ at some point, but in the smaller Toronto-West Coast markets we were not able to stimulate demand as quickly as we would have liked. As a young and growing airline we’ve decided to instead focus on the immediate opportunities that DFW and other markets offer from our California base.”

I immediately e-mailed the press contact to try to get some clarification – what had changed in the past eight months? What about people who are flying Virgin American after April 6th? And what do you think about your influencer promotion NOW? Abby Lunardini, director of corporate communications at Virgin America, responded to my e-mail after a mere 19 minutes – either she’s really efficient, or the press hadn’t caught on to their little news release. 

She maintains that airlines normally don’t put out press releases for their route closures, so that’s why they tacked the news onto an expansion release. She says they announced it to media this morning, and also sent the news out on Twitter (I found the Tweet, in a sea of shorthand and acronyms). She also maintains that the reasons behind the suspension were simple supply and demand – Torontonians aren’t filling up planes, and the good people of Dallas are. 

Now on to the Klout promotion. As I wrote last summer, I think it was an effective way to build buzz around the launch and get people talking about the brand. I don’t think it targeted the right interest groups, since business travellers are probably a more lucrative demographic, but it sure got people talking. Some people on Twitter are denouncing the campaign as a failure now that the route has proven to be ineffective, but I disagree. You can’t blame a company’s failure on a launch stunt that didn’t lead to long-term customers. That’s what a launch stunt does, it raises the brand’s profile for a short amount of time, to get the initial word out.

Sure, last summer’s Klout promotion and giant party should have opened people’s eyes to the existence of Virgin America in Toronto. But existence and action are two different things – I wanted to try fly Virgin, but simply didn’t have a reason to go to California. Which leads to me the real reason I think they floundered, which is lack of short-haul flights. Torontonians are flying way more frequently to NYC, Montreal and Ottawa – again, no airline data to back this up, but Lunardini did say that the demand for flights to California throughout the year just wasn’t there. Then again, short-haul offerings would have put them in direct competition with Toronto’s airline darling, Porter (and I would choose the latter in that battle of the fares – free Wifi AND free wine? Sold).

Lunardini is the first to admit that the launch campaign wasn’t a long-term sales strategy. “For us, it was an interesting experiment in a new market.  It was a fairly limited test, so we didn’t really expect it to move the needle significantly for or against as it went directly as a trial offer to a small group of influencers,” she says. She also says that the word of mouth feedback was generally extremely positive. Finally she added that this may not be the last we hear from Virgin America. “We’re very appreciative of the folks who supported us in Toronto, and we do hope to be back at some point.” 

And what about Toronto’s Virgin America Provocateur winner, Casie Stewart, who was chosen after campaigning for votes last year to represent the brand? She’s as surprised as we are. “In December I got a call they things weren’t going as well as they hoped in Toronto,” she says. “I was told I could keep my title and would be contacted if they were doing stuff here but that my Virgin America Provocateur blog and in flight videos weren’t going to happen as planned.” She says she’s a little let down by the whole thing, since her friends, family and online audience banded together to help her win the contest. “From a corporate standpoint I’m sure it was a great idea, they definitely got the attention they were looking for. It’s just a shame that Virgin ‘couldn’t keep it up’ in Toronto.”

So how about it – did you fly Virgin since the launch last summer? Are you sad the service is ending? And more importantly, do you think the company’s influencer campaign was a giant, whopping failure, or a much-need boost of launch publicity?