By Julie Baxter

WestJet has been breaking the mould, working with suppliers in a design hackathon to reinvent itself. Julie Baxter explores just how this unique collaboration is working

Born a domestic low-cost carrier in Western Canada, WestJet now operates over 700 flights a day across the Americas and the Atlantic, and has a new coming-of-age growth strategy designed to reposition it as a global network carrier.

To make that happen it has segmented its business, launching the ultra-low cost airline Swoop last year and upgrading its narrow-body Premium cabin to create a highly-competitive business travel offer earlier this year. This week it launched its first ever Business cabin on new 787s – operating initially into Europe. These will compete head-on with other Business products in a highly-competitive market.

The team has had to move fast. From the onboard product perspective, it had just a year to reimagine, reinvent, source and implement what is effectively a completely new offer, working with more than 20 suppliers and kitchens, and six specific tableware and amenities suppliers.

Intensive collaborations

WestJet vp guest experience, Louis Saint-Cyr, explains: “Essentially, we’re launching a whole new airline with a three cabin, premium operation whilst also overhauling our narrow-body offer. You could liken this to carrying out open-heart surgery on a marathon runner whilst the marathon is underway! So far, we haven’t lost the patient and we’re looking good.”

To meet the deadlines, the team threw away the usual procurement processes and took its cue from digital innovators, hosting a design consortium in Calgary that brought together five suppliers, some who were actually competitors, for one week of focused product development; challenging them to collaborate in a unique, innovative hackathon-style design week.

At the table was Clip for Business tableware; Galileo Watermark for Premium and Economy tableware; Sola for cutlery; Global C for amenities and soft furnishings, and Formia for amenity kits. The interiors were designed by Priestman Goode.

Simon Soni, director of catering, says: “Because of the time constraints we needed out of the box thinking. We brought together the best suppliers to spark off each other. It was a different way of working. They came with their creative teams, their designers, innovators, and logistics staff – not their sales team. And we asked them to roll up their sleeves, work 12-14 hour days turning around 3D prototypes, samples or AR imaginings of concepts overnight for refining the next day. It was a very cool, intense process.”

There was a clear set of parameters established before they began and a clear vision to create a cabin brand that drew on the heritage of Canada – its landscapes, multi-cultural mix and First Nations roots.

Soni adds: “We set up a full day’s briefing session with WestJet leaders to give an overview of our mission, target markets and competitive landscapes, the design principles and work we’d done locally on F&B style, philosophy and sustainability targets. It was clearly a challenging approach as natural competitors were asked to work together but they all stepped up and worked well together so that at the end of the week we had 80% of the development completed.”

The new brand colours draw on the Canadian landscape: soothing Alpine lake-blue in Economy; aurora-inspired shades in Premium; and rich earth tones inspired by Canadian summers in Business. The goal was to bring the airline’s Spirit of Canada slogan alive onboard with an authentic feel, and detailing that tells the nation’s story.

Saint Cyr says: “Canada isn’t just about covering the world in maple syrup, it is a much more diverse and interesting nation than that and the new branding reflects that. The goal is for passengers to feel they are in Canada from the moment they step aboard.”

Soni highlights the deep blue of the tableware bowls inspired by geological structures and Canada’s Great Lakes; the Sola cutlery with a granite effect finish reflecting the solidity of the iconic Rockies or glaciers; the cruites shaped like mountains or a iceberg clusters, and stitching detail which draws on First Nation traditional designs. LED lighting will allow passengers to fall asleep under the northern lights and wake to a Canadian sunrise, with an evocative Canadian soundtrack of loons calling.

In its low-cost guise, WestJet previously had a minimal catering team. Now a new team is in place. It’s drawing on street food and food truck trends in Economy; presenting the style and service of a favourite, trendy neighbourhood restaurant in Premium; and developing fine, up scale dining in Business. Gate Gourmet and Optimum Solutions are the lead catering partners in Canada but LSG Group and North American partners and others are also supporting new menus with a strong focus on local provenance. The menus include signature dishes from acclaimed First Nation chefs such as Chef Bill Alexander from the Tsuu T’ina Nation, and beverages include Canadian wines and craft beer. Exciting onboard pop-up tastings are also planned.

Behind it all has been a great deal of restructuring and disciplined budget planning to ensure strong structural foundations and a sustainable future for the new offerings.

Onboard crews have undergone the airline’s biggest training programme with new manuals and support set-ups, plus 10 days of service, hospitality and leadership training in collaboration with the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology.

Saint-Cyr concludes: ”We have shaken up and rethought the way we work in every area, including procurement, and that is at the heart of the transformation. At every level we have set the bar high. But remember this is just the beginning.”