Virgin America asks travelers to go '60s mod

Virgin is promoting its year-round service to Palm Springs with a '60s-themed social media contest

"Mad Men"’s Don Draper would no doubt have approved of Virgin America’s newest marketing caper.

The airline is asking customers flying to and from Palm Springs, Calif., to dress up in mid-century garb to blend in with the Virgin America gate at Palm Springs International airport, which is temporarily outfitted with 1960s furniture and art. If the passengers take a selfie in their "Man Men"-styled duds and post it on Twitter with #LetModFly by Feb. 21, they might win a free upgrade.

The marketing push, which launched Feb. 12, promotes the airline’s expanded year-round service to Palm Springs from San Francisco. (It also has seasonal service from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.) "We love to engage our fans and flyers, and we host activities on many flights and in many airports to help drive awareness," said Patricia Condon, head of events and public relations for Virgin America.

"Because we're out-spent by our big airline competitors by a margin of 10 to 1, and because once people try our product they tend to stick with us, it makes sense for us to find creative ways to let our loyal flyers spread awareness about how different our experience is."   

Four days into the promotion, the response has been disappointingly light, with just a handful of #letmodfly selfies posted on Twitter and Instagram over the President’s Day weekend. Virgin America will be posting about the promotion on social media again this week to boost interest, said organizers. "Since it just one city in our network, we were not anticipating massive engagement on this," said Condon."It is more about quality and fun engagement with flyers headed to Palm Springs," she said.

Virgin invited travelers to participate in the Palm Springs promotion via posts on its social media channels, including Twitter, where it has 751,000 followers on Twitter and Facebook, where it has 669,000 fans.

For the Palm Springs initiative, Virgin partnered with the organizers of Modernism Week, Feb. 11 to 21, which celebrates the desert region’s mid-century modern design history and community. ("Mad Men" devotees might remember the "Lost Weekend in Palm Springs" episode in Season Two. Most of the sets in that show were real locales in the desert city, which scrupulously protects its vintage aura.) The airport gate exhibit was designed by Marc Joseph, curator of the Wonderama vintage boutique in Palm Springs, and the backdrop was created by Los Angeles artist Nat Reed.

"Our stylish flight experience is a perfect match for travelers headed to the design-driven desert oasis," said John MacLeod, senior vice president of planning and sales at Virgin America. 

In-airport and in-flight experiential efforts have become a regular part of Virgin America’s marketing mix. Back in 2007, the airline partnered with Victoria’s Secret for an in-flight pajama party and fashion show, and in 2013, with Banana Republic, for a fashion show that included in-flight makeovers. Last year, it brought rescued dogs to the San Francisco airport gate for people to play with, and then transported the dogs on board the flight to New York to be adopted. 

The brand "is always looking to find new ways to surprise travelers … and they, in turn, amplify our message for us," Condon said.

Also, whenever Virgin America enters a new market, it hosts attention-grabbing marketing events at its home airport in San Francisco. When service to Hawaii started in November, hula dancers and drummers paraded down the SFO concourse to meet with Virgin Group founder Richard Branson at the gate. Upon arrival at Honolulu International Airport, passengers were feted with a Hawaiian luau. 

But despite its high-profile marketing efforts, Virgin America still only has tiny share of the domestic air travel market. With yearly revenue of about $1.5 billion, it trails rivals like Southwest Airlines with about  $20 billion in annual revenue. So far, the airline is on track to buy new planes and expand at about 10% a year for the next three years, according to Seeking Alpha.

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