Judging Southwest’s Halloween

It’s always hard to write about an event like Halloween at Southwest. I mean, the airline invited me out to judge the contest, put me up in a nice hotel, showered me with gifts (hilariously including a full Southwest bottle of Coke that is too big to get through security), and fed me Chick-Fil-A. Seriously, how could I write something bad about that?

So I spent the weekend trying to figure out how to write about this fun-filled event without gushing. I mean, it’s supposed to be a fun The Deckevent, so what could I possibly say that’s negative about it? Sure, I could say that the amount of time and money that goes into preparing for this extravaganza is absolutely insane for an airline that prides itself on productivity. But then that would be missing the point completely.

Southwest’s Halloween contest is actually one of those things that fuels productivity and builds culture. The time and money that go into this event may make a (very, very) small dent in the airline’s income statement, but ending an event like this would without question have a much greater, negative impact. How can the airline continue to adapt to a changing industry without destroying a culture that was built so carefully? One way to help is to hold on to some old (more than 20 years so far) traditions that keep people happy, motivated, and connected with the past.

Halloween falls into that category. It’s a tradition that may seem insane to an outsider, but it really helps employees to feel proud of their company and have a lot of fun in the process. And I think that’s incredibly important. And yes, it was a ton of fun.

To be honest, I didn’t know what I was getting myself in to when this all got started. But it quickly became apparent when I arrived at headquarters early on Halloween that this was no mere holiday. They take this day VERY seriously. The entrance to headquarters was completely decked out with Halloween decorations. Spirit Halloween stores sponsored the event this year (nice cost reduction move), and it ended up being a very professional-looking job. Amish GarySpirit also was responsible for getting Gary Kelly dressed up in his Billy Gibbons (of ZZ Top fame) outfit. They put him together well, though as you can see, he did look Amish without his hat and coat.

Once we had breakfast, we headed out toward the maintenance base for our first stop of the day. This was no ordinary costume contest, as I had originally thought. Each department decides whether to do a walk through (like a haunted house) or a skit. Maintenance was the only one to do a scary walk through while other departments did more family-friendly things. And it’s a good thing, because it seemed like half the people wandering Packed Hallsthe halls on Friday were kids of employees dressed up and ready for candy, as you can see at left.

As we moved from place to place, we quickly learned what it’s like to be a groupie. Wherever Gary went, he was surrounded by employees, cheering, clapping, and hugging him. We just followed behind him as the anonymous “judges.”

The anonymity didn’t last long, however, since I was apparently the first judge ever to bring treats for the performers. Since I was dressed as a Canadian Mountie (get it? they’re starting their first codeshare to Canada with WestJet . . . .), I decided to hand out a bottle of Molson to one person who did a fantastic job in each skit. Generally it ended up being some frightening cross-dresser, like the tattooed version of Cher during the Executive Offices’, “Cher the Spirit Spectacular.” The actually female Colleen Barrett impersonator in the People Department’s sketch also received a bottle, and that was, (as tends to be the case with HR teams), the only group that asked if they could have a couple more.

See, this is what happens when you invite bloggers. We bring gifts. Just the fact that the airline would invite bloggers to participate in an event like this shows that they are committed to actually working with new media instead of hiding from us, as some other airlines have chosen to do. This kind of openness will serve the airline very well.

So did I notice any themes during the day? Yep. Nearly every skit featured fuel hedging or not having any fees. The other theme I really noticed was that of competitiveness. As one member of the winning skit told me, it’s nice to get free passes (the winners received a few free passes to use at department events), but it’s really just a competitive airline. All that mattered was winning.

And SWAma Mia Takin' Advantagewhile beating the other departments was important, there was more to it than that. The skits that received the most cheers were the ones that took shots at other airlines. Marketing’s winning skit was called “SWAma Mia: The No Hidden Fees Musical,” and beyond its surprisingly decent choreography and vocals was a biting criticism of other airlines.

Yes, Takin’ Advantage Airlines was clearly a shot across the Metroplex at another AAirline and the audience loved it. (It focused on fees of course.) Then it was time to hit the LCC world with Almost Virgin Airlines. People laughed when the they SWAma Mia Almost Virginbrought out a DJ pumping techno music, but the highlight was when the potential passenger asked something along the lines of, “Can you get me to Orlando for my honeymoon?” and the airline shot back with, “Is that near LA? No? It must be near New York then.”

In the end, the entire day was like a pep rally for the employees, and it worked. As far as I could tell, everyone was really having a great time. These kind of events help build relationships between people and create lifelong memories. That’s important in that it also helps build a relationship between the airline and the employees.

At the end of the day, we (the judges) were all brought into a room and put up on stage where they had a big party (yes, there was non-Molson alcohol) to celebrate and, of course, announce the winners. The Maintenance Haunted Maze Operation“Haunted Maze” from Maintenance (at left) won for best scary walk through while the incredible Indiana Jones ride from Finance and its life-size boulder won for best family-friendly walk through. But it seemed like the winner of the best skit was the most anticipated. To be honest, they were all fantastic, but we had to pick someone. In the end, the Marketing skit won, and the whole marketing team jumped up on stage to celebrate and claim victory.

We stood at the back of the stage watching everyone celebrate when the marketing team members turned around to start thanking us. I was actually quite surprised when they didn’t thank us for picking them. They just thanked us to coming out and being a part of the day, and they wanted to make sure that we had enjoyed ourselves. I couldn’t imagine saying no.

See all my Southwest Halloween Pictures.

4 Responses to Judging Southwest’s Halloween

  1. Brian Lusk says:

    CF,
    It was great seeing you, and I am so glad you enjoyed the day here at Headquarters. It’s amazing, you couldn’t even tell anything unusual happened here on Friday, when I came into the building this morning. In a few weeks, the Holdiay decorations go up, and HDQ will be a winter wonderland for a few weeks.
    Brian

  2. Brandon says:

    We couldn’t be happier that you enjoyed your time at HDQ!! Halloween is such a great time for everyone involved. Thanks again for coming out and sharing the experience with us!
    -Brandon

  3. elaine Sullivan says:

    The marketing skit was phenomenal. My husband and I enjoyed the great work of the cast. More importantly we were amazed at the spirit that was present among employees and visitors. What a great way to build community and have fun.

  4. I recently discovered your blog and I have been reading it for a while. From all your posts this one specially caught my attention. I totally believe that happy employees work better and product of that are happy customers. Halloween at my company Rentalo.com has always been important. And it definitely creates a sense of belonging, to a team and to the company as a whole. People get very creative about customs, and what they want to wear. So yes… I really appreciate initiatives like this when it comes to work environments. And by the way, If you ever want to find a vacation rental you can use our website, its very useful for travelers as they can submit destination inquiries and let property owners respond to their inquiry! I am sure you would like it :)

    Keep up the good work!

    Carolina

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