A year ago yesterday, a WestJet Encore turboprop airplane touched down for the first time on the McGill Field runway, kicking off commercial air travel between Brandon and Calgary.
More than 1,000 people came out to welcome WestJet to the community that day.
By all accounts in the year since, ridership on the flights into and out of Brandon have been generally full, and it would appear that residents of western Manitoba have heeded the call to support the airline’s continued service in the Wheat City.
In short, it has been a great success.
In the lead-up to that auspicious day, many groups stepped up to woo the airline to this city, including the Brandon Chamber of Commerce, Star FM and the Brandon Sun. And to its credit, the City of Brandon took it a few steps further with a corny and fun-loving campaign that was nearly impossible to ignore.
Thousands of people signed up to the city’s online petition — people from all over North America and other points around the globe who would fly to Brandon to see relatives or come here on business put their names down. The city also sent WestJet a "Wish you were here" postcard and a rather kitschy electronic Valentine’s Day card that read, "In our hearts, you soar above the rest."
There were, of course, other "love affair" marketing tools used by the city, including a rather curious picture of Mayor Shari Decter Hirst in a flight attendant’s uniform. Whatever the case, the strategy captured WestJet’s attention, and for that it should be deemed successful. It was a big win for this city, and a huge feather in the cap for Decter Hirst and her re-election chances.
But there can be a point where any strategy is carried a bit too far, to the point of becoming somewhat strained and uncomfortable — if not downright disturbing. As a city, we crossed that line yesterday when the City of Brandon released a poster on the one-year anniversary of that first WestJet flight into Brandon, as reproduced on this page.
"First comes love, then comes marriage — which way are we pushing the baby carriage?" it reads. Obviously this is a reference to the fact that WestJet is considering adding a new route to and from the city, a decision that will be made more likely once renovations to the Brandon Municipal Airport are complete in 12 to 18 months.
Last month, Brandon-Souris Conservative MP Larry Maguire confirmed the federal government would pick up one-third of the $8.8-million construction project. This was the last major financial hurdle the city needed to clear before going ahead with the renovations.
But as we have always maintained, whatever WestJet ultimately decides will come down to making a business decision — in short, it all comes down to cash. If seats are full, the business model may look good for an eastern route or even a second western route. But we obviously already have their attention, and they seem very pleased with the results thus far. It’s only a matter of time before WestJet starts the props for another route.
Nevertheless, the city has continued to woo WestJet, but the stalker-like character of the evolving "love affair" marketing strategy is becoming a little creepy — only one of the parties involved thinks there’s anything other than business in this relationship.
It’s time for the city to rethink its marketing strategy for WestJet. There’s always room for corny, cheesy tag lines and innovative ideas. But sometimes those ideas can fizzle, and we need to move on.
Besides, if we really want to carry this analogy further, Brandon is having a love affair with a company that has a port in every major city in the country and still many more in the United States.
And these kind of affairs never end up well for the faithful.