Linda Rutherford, SVP & CCO, Southwest Airlines, shares her predictions for the comeback of travel. She emphasizes the increased importance of integrating communications with marketing. Linda also discusses lessons learned from the pandemic that will continue to be relevant moving forward.
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About the Host:
Host: DOUG SIMON
Guest: LINDA RUTHERFORD
DOUG: And Linda, let’s start off with the real important question, which is what is the pathway to a comeback in the travel space which has seen so much disruption?
LINDA: I think that’s a great question. The number one thing that we need to do is spark travel inspiration. Obviously, we’ve been through a year of lockdown, we’ve been through a year of very cautious behavior while we try to eradicate the virus. And now that we have more and more people choosing to be vaccinated, I think we’re going to see an opening up of the want to get out and explore and travel and be with friends and family and get back to the travel that we did prior to the pandemic. So, we’re heavily invested and focused on how we inspire travel. We definitely know in this environment the focus is going to be first on leisure travel, getting people to take those incremental vacations, weekend trips, and then slowly, we’re also focused on rebuilding business travel, which basically shut down during the pandemic.
DOUG: And you talk about how travel behavior will be changing. You even launched some new destinations during this covid pandemic because of shifts in what people are doing. Can you tell us about how that process went?
LINDA: That’s right. We obviously saw a sharp decline in travel demand, and much of that obviously was people canceling trips they might have made for vacations and business travel coming to a halt. What we did with the spare employees and the spare aircraft that we had that were sitting on the ground was to put them in new places where we could, again, inspire travel, or build a pool of new customers that we didn’t have previously. So, we had a set of about 17 destinations in the last year that we’ve either announced and or started service from. And they are places that we never flew before. Places like upcoming Santa Barbara going to Houston Intercontinental Airport, where we already serve Houston Hobby, looking at mountain and ski destinations such as Telluride and Colorado. And those are all opportunities for us to get new customers that didn’t have the option of flying Southwest Airlines previously and then putting idle employees and idle aircraft to work.
DOUG: You really have to be able to pivot quickly, and that’s something that’s sort of been a trademark of the Southwest persona, if you will, that you were more flexible than maybe the other characters were more relaxed and able to do things differently. One of the things that might be a touch ironic, and I’m not trying to be light during the pandemic, is that while people have worked remotely and more spread out and apart, the importance of collaboration between communications and marketing has never been higher. It’s a trend we see all over. How do you manage to try and bridge and increase that connectivity while this has been going on?
LINDA: Marketing and communications, while we don’t report we’re not part of the same structure, we work very closely together. And during the pandemic, I think one great example of where we came together was to launch a series of education and process changes at the company called the Southwest Promise. Baked into that, where all of the things that we were going to do differently as an airline to help people feel more secure, more comfortable and safe while flying. So, we came up with a number of process changes, product changes and operational shifts that allowed us to help people feel more comfortable. That was, requiring masks for a period of time, holding the middle seats open, changing the cleaning chemicals and products that we were using, increasing the frequency of those cleaning protocols, changing up our in-flight beverage service so we could limit the amount of time and exposure our flight attendants would have in the cabin, or that a customer would need to have their mask off their nose and mouth. And together we worked really well to put together the elements of the Southwest Promise, whether it was creating a microsite off of our homepage, creating videos with some of our senior officers to explain what the Southwest Promise was going to look like, being able to engage in research to see if once a customer experienced the Southwest Promise, they were more likely to fly again, and then monitoring and listening to our customers in the social spaces, educating our employees. It was a true teamwork effort, and obviously during a time of crisis, but I think we’re very proud of what we did together.
DOUG: And it’s hard to predict how much of this will stick going forward. What’s your take on some of the changes and policies and approaches for increased passenger safety because of the pandemic might still remain for a reasonable period of time? It’s hard to say when you’re just going to say, OK, now we’re stopping all of that and going back to the way it was.
LINDA: I think part of, as we think about the Southwest Promise has been what parts of it over time might we end up rolling back. For instance, while we have limited in-flight beverage service, we’re actually hearing from our customers who are flying with us that they would like to see us reintroduce alcohol sales as an example. We’ve also tried to use our medical advisory partners that we have both in California and Texas to help us be science based in some of the decisions that we’re making. For instance, after the Airline Trade Association, Airlines for America did their study with the Harvard School of Public Health, they determined that based on HEPA filtration systems that are on board all of our aircraft, we didn’t need to be concerned about spacing people, physically distancing people on the airplane. And so that allowed us with some comfort to begin to book the middle seats again, which we did starting December 1st, 2020. So we’re relying on customer sentiment, we’re relying on science as we begin to make some of these changes, along with seeing increased numbers of people want to travel and obviously fuller airplanes.
DOUG: Cool, and, while some of the policies might remain, the ones that make sense going forward, you’ve also learned some really cool things about how to improve how well the team works together in this new environment. One of them you mentioned was the importance of quick decisioning. Can you maybe talk about that and how you can put it into place and how others can even put that into place and also connect with each other to create those small connection moments that may be harder to do, or maybe not?
LINDA: One of the exercises that we were intentional about was to look at the past year and say, while we were in crisis mode and while things were certainly anxious and uncertain, there were things that we did that we want to keep doing when we emerge from the pandemic. And so, we called it “capturing the goodness.” What out of this crisis was the goodness that we want to continue and develop new good habits on? And one of those is being able to make fast decisions, not getting caught up in bureaucracy, not getting caught up in those things that would get in the way of a good decision. And so, I think that’s an example where we want to help leaders with tools and advice on how they can kind of keep projects moving as we come out of the pandemic. The other is obviously with a portion of our workforce working remotely, you don’t necessarily have those physical opportunities to have the watercooler conversation, or that hallway chat. So, we wanted to continue to be intentional about how we create those moments that matter to employees for those cultural connections and those opportunities to get to visit with people. So, we’re working on collecting all of the ideas that our various departments and leaders have encouraged over the last year and putting them together almost in a guidebook type way to offer tips and hints at how we might be able to continue that kind of behavior as we as we again emerge from the pandemic.
DOUG: It’s sort of a planned spontaneity kind of thing to bring it back. But I think you’ve really provided some great connections and information. I think, on quick decisioning, one thing I think that’s important with that, is if you’re going to go that route, you have to really assess what’s working, and what’s not quickly as well to learn when you can say, hey, we made this, it looked good at the time, now that we’re seeing it unfold, doesn’t make sense, let’s try something else. You really need to have that flexibility if you’re going to move to a quick decisioning environment, any guidelines and guidance for that?
LINDA: You know, one of the things that we learned over the last year is obviously no one predicted how long this would last. There was a ton of uncertainty because we’ve never been in this space before as a crisis response. One of the mantras that our CEO said at the outset was, we are going to launch something, and then we’re going to continue to modify, adapt and iterate. So, don’t worry about having the perfect solution, and have a good enough solution and then be willing to and be vulnerable enough to know that we learn something. We want to change something up, we want to think about it differently based on the evolving situation that we find ourselves in. So, the methods that we used were to look and see what the impact to customers and employees would be, first and foremost, to look at how we could educate on the change and get people kind of through the change curve quickly, and then if we learn some things, then being willing to stop for a moment, make those changes and put the product, or the decision, or the process back out there again. So, we had to be afraid to not know the end of the story as we were sort of moving along through this crisis and be willing to say, it’s OK, don’t be worried about being perfect. We’re looking for to be thoughtful and to be responsive to the environment, but if we have to fix things, we’re willing to fix them.
DOUG: Thanks so much for spending time with us. It’s been a pleasure.
LINDA: Thank you. Enjoyed it, Doug.