LEISURE TIME: New-look WestJet ‘leans into leisure’
Despite his 20-month tenure at WestJet being “quite a roller coaster for sure” through the pandemic and its aftermath, WestJet CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech is enthused about his prospects for the company, for which he boldly proclaims, “We want to be the national leisure champions for Canada from coast to coast.”
Addressing key stakeholders and community members at the Toronto Region Board of Trade late last month, von Hoensbroech tracked WestJet’s 27-history in Canada up to the present, which includes the purchase of Sunwing earlier this year, and the final ride of Swoop last weekend ahead of its integration into the WestJet fleet.
But for all the up and downs and company course changes over the years, von Hoensbroech says WestJet’s current mission to rule the leisure sector is clear.
While he noted that “the only event in aviation history that reversed growth was the pandemic – and the pandemic was really, really bad,” von Hoensbroech added that “everything is recovering, and by now, I would say it’s not really bad.”
Moreover, he pointed out that 4.5 billion people globally travelled in 2019 (with almost as many expected this year), making WestJet a player in a “massive, massive industry.”
And at the same time, rising living standards and mobility will enable even more people to travel, he said, observing, “Four out of five people on this planet have not sat on an airplane.”
All of which sets up the airline up for success in a country with “long flight distances across its vast geographic landscape,” and, as such, one that “relies on air travel (and) needs airplanes more than any place in the world” due to lack alternative travel infrastructure (like trains).
And despite a dominant competitor (Air Canada) and new entrants in the market (Lynx, Flair, Canada Jetlines, etc.) creating “fierce new levels of competition,” WestJet says its ambitious growth plan (inclusive of Swoop and Sunwing) will see it provide more seats than any other Canadian airline across over 230 nonstop routes from 26 Canadian communities to 55 sun destinations in the U.S., Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America.
Further, its newly formed vacations division, Sunwing Vacations Group (which encompasses both Sunwing Vacations and WestJet Vacations) forms the largest Canadian tour operator and allows WestJet to boast “two leisure champions” amongst its assets.
Indeed, underpinning the WestJet Group’s future is the airline’s strategic focus on the addition of Sunwing Vacations Group to its leisure portfolio, as well as expanding fleet of 737 aircraft.
And with the largest narrow-body orderbook in Canada, WestJet will soon begin to implement plans to densify its aircraft cabins to distribute costs across even more seats, while continuing to serve guests who prefer a more premium offering.
By leveraging the ultra-low fare products pioneered by Swoop and vacation packages offered by Sunwing Vacations, the WestJet Group says it “will harness a newfound ability to provide affordable fares alongside increased leisure vacation packages across Canada through its growing fleet.”
Notably absent from the plans is a desire to target business class travellers, a choice that aligned with the company’s decision coming to out of the pandemic to focus on three main priorities:
• To be a leader in western Canada – “a market where we can be No. 1”
• To “lean into leisure” and lead the sector across the country
• To target and be affordable to every Canadian, “and not just the elites.”
As important as knowing what it wants to be, von Hoensbroech says, what WestJet doesn’t want to be, namely operating where it has “no path to be No. 1” – such as flying in eastern Canada, particularly the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal triangle, or to New York, and instead “investing our assets into leisure flying in the West.” Similarly, not investing in non-core products.
But the WestJet boss notes that the airline still as a sizable presence in Ontario and eastern Canada, albeit with a greater focus on cross-country flying than regional connectivity.
And with the merger of WestJet and Sunwing, he enthuses, “this is the most comprehensive leisure network that Canada has ever seen… with 236 non-stop routes.”
And there’s the combination of the tour operators (WestJet Vacations with Sunwing Vacations), which von Hoensbroech calls the “new powerhouse of Canadian vacations.”
Since its launch in 1996 with three aircraft, WestJet has become “a large mid-size airline” (second largest in Canada), and “and a real success story,” that currently offers 30 million seats to over 100 destinations, says von Hoensbroech.
And, if the WestJet boss has his way, there’s nowhere to go but up.
First published at Travel Industry Today