As passengers in Toronto and Hamilton airports waited to board their flights to Calgary, a giant video screen within a gargantuan Christmas present asks them to scan their boarding pass. Suddenly they are face to face with Santa Claus. He knows their name. He knows who's standing beside them. This is no pre-recorded message, the jolly old elf is on a live feed. And he wants to know what they want for Christmas.
During the approximately five hours the 250 passengers were in the air, about 175 Westjet employees in Calgary rounded up every single thing Santa was asked for, from socks to a big screen TV. Wrapped it all up and sent it out the baggage claim in Calgary.
The looks on all the passenger's faces, as well as the brand lovefest the video has garnered online so far, makes it look like a win for everyone involved. Except for the guy who just asked for socks.
In three days the video has more than 7.7 million views and gained worldwide media coverage. It all started at Toronto-based production company Studio M last summer. The shop produced Westjet's holiday video last year and was asked to come up with something bigger and better for 2013.
Executive producer Mike Mills and his team presented five ideas. Westjet picked this one and added on the idea for a big screen Santa. From there the shop began the process of turning an ambitious creative concept into a reality.
One of the biggest challenges was working and shooting inside three different airports, amid all the obvious security issues. "Even though none of these gifts would be put on a plane, they still had to pass through a secure area in the airport," says Mills. "So we had to leave ourselves enough time and work closely with the security people to make sure we could get the gifts back behind baggage claim in time to get them wrapped."
The production team started working with airport officials a month ahead of time and began its baggage claim set-up, which included 19 hidden cameras and a snow machine, a week in advance. The video is a composite of two separate arrivals, five hours apart.
"For the first flight, we're taking the passengers' gift requests, sending them to the shoppers in Calgary, and it's hectic and crazy and we barely get the gifts on the baggage belt in time," says Mills. "But as the magic is happening, we have 10 minutes to get the shoppers back out to the stores because, Santa's taking the gift orders from the second flight. It was all happening at the same time. It was like an 18-hour sprint. It was intense."
Even with all the logistics sorted out, there was one thing they couldn't plan for. "The X factor for us was we didn't know how the passengers would react," says Mills. "We can control where the cameras go and just about everything else, but we can't tell people how to react or where to stand. We had a few little tricks—there was one area of the baggage carousel that was a bit of a dead spot for our cameras so we had plainclothes Westjet employees stand there to prevent the real passengers from standing there. But I think the reason it's caught on so much is because of how genuine the passengers' reactions are. They're truly amazed, happy, and joyous. There's tears and laughter. All of that is 100% real and our job was to have our cameras in the position to see those things."
For Mills, the success of the video so far has driven home three key lessons. The first is story trumps all. "This video, by the gospel we normally preach, shouldn't really work," says Mills. "It's five and a half minutes. Everything in online video and brand content is going shorter and shorter and anything more than 90 seconds is considered too long to capture anyone's attention. What this says is if you have a good story with real emotion in it, length is irrelevant."
Secondly, to borrow an old adage, keep it real. "It fits so well with the brand image and personality," says Mills. "They have an amazing company culture. People genuinely love working there. All those Westjet people who helped us were volunteers, they weren't on regular working hours. So being true to the brand is crucial."
And third, never underestimate the power of tears. "A lot of people have mentioned how many tears have been shed watching it," says Mills. "Sex might sell, but people love a good cry too."
This story has been updated.