Porter Airlines may be disrupting economy air travel with elevated in-flight service – such as free Wi-Fi, complimentary beer and wine, and premium snacks for all – but it’s also twisting the template for industry events.
The growing airline hosted a Toronto edition of its “Mr. Porter’s House Party” series Wednesday night (Nov. 15) at lofty Evergreen Brick Works, where nearly 800 travel pros – from buyers and advisors to media and customers – gathered for a night of runway-ready revelry.
The concept of the glam event, which debuted in Vancouver in July, is to immerse guests in the Porter experience with activations that showcase the products and elements that can be found on a Porter flight.
The venue, for example, is fitted with sections that guests can interact with, such as “Mr. Porter's Living Room,” which features two-seat couches (conveying the message that Porter has no middle seats on any flight).
Decorative pillows with the phrase “middle seat” – with the word “middle” crossed out – placed in homely vignettes help drive the point home.
Stations are also placed throughout the venue where guests can sample Porter’s cocktails, wine, beer, meals and snacks, which are linked to Canadian brands.
Last night unfolded in two parts. First, a corporate (but not uptight) soriee with fun activities, like a photo station where guests could dress in Porter uniform items and pose on the “cover” of a giant issue of re:porter, Porter’s in-flight magazine.
There was a ceiling-high map where guests could place stickers to indicate their favourite destinations for food and scenery.
And, those who posted their party pics to social media, using the hashtag #PartyWithPorter, had a chance to win a free flight for two.
Meanwhile, behind a curtain, a disco ball-lit dance party was brewing with U.K-based house DJ and producer, Marsh, who invited 170 of his fans to get down and boogie to a sexy set of bopping beats.
At 7 p.m. sharp, the curtain opened up – the ultimate reveal – and the two crowds became one.
“Mr. Porter,” for those who don’t know, is Porter’s mascot, a black and white raccoon (an animal synonymous with Toronto) that first appeared in 2006 when the airline launched.
Today, the cute character is inseparable from the brand, showing up in the airline’s advertising and collateral, and at his House Party, he’s everywhere, from framed pictures hung on walls to a ceiling-high map depicting Porter’s current (and possible future) flight network.
The event coincides with Porter’s strategy to grow in North America using new 132-seat Embraer E195-E2 jets, which debuted at Toronto Pearson earlier this year, and its existing De Havilland Dash 8-400 fleet, which have flown out of Billy Bishop island airport (YTZ) in downtown Toronto for 17 years now.
Porter’s all-economy E195-E2 also coincides with the introduction of a new fare class.
Its standard fare, PorterClassic, includes the perks long-time fans have come to expect, from good snacks (like kettle chips) to beer and wine. It also comes with 30 inches of legroom and free high-speed Wi-Fi.
PorterReserve, meanwhile, has extras, like dedicated check-in lanes, early boarding and deplaning, more leg room, as well as included pre-mixed cocktails and fresh meals.
The plan, as Porter has said before, is to “disrupt” economy flying as the world knows it.
“For over two decades, the entire industry has chipped away at the economy experience and today it has become very painful, stressful and, in many cases, dehumanizing for most people,” Michael Deluce, president and CEO of Porter, told PAX in January. “No carrier has removed the pain points for economy travellers or focused on making their experience more enjoyable and so that's exactly what we're going to do."
“With the expansion of our fleet, we are setting out on a mission to redefine air travel.”
Speaking to PAX last night, Kevin Jackson, executive vice president and chief commercial officer at Porter, noted how “disruption” has been in Porter’s DNA since day one.
“When we entered the market, we had the objective of demonstrating that we could disrupt the status quo of aviation,” Jackson said.
READ MORE: Porter Airlines celebrates 17 years
Anyone who has experienced the stress-free comfort of flying out of easy-breezy Billy Bishop in Toronto, and the perks of a Porter flight, like two-by-two seating and free wine and beer served in glassware, knows this well.
For years, it was a luxury contained within Porter’s Dash 8-400 fleet, within Eastern and Atlantic Canada and some U.S. cities, like New York, Chicago and Boston.
The E195-E2, however, has allowed Porter to expand to Central and Western Canada, and major U.S. cities, like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and five cities in Florida.
The disruption, once a regional concept, is now a coast-to-coast mission across North America.
“We're doing it through the way we treat our economy passengers,” Jackson said. “Remember, economy is 90 per cent of those who travel. We're disrupting a very large segment of the market.”
Not the Porter you think you know
Porter’s summer Vancouver party was about introducing the airline to the West. Last night’s Toronto event, however, had a different objective, Jackson said.
“This is our hometown where we’ve established ourselves quite well,” he said. “But tonight is about showing people that we're not the Porter they think they know. Many know us as Billy Bishop airport. And we will always be Billy Bishop. But we’re also now Toronto Pearson, the Western U.S., Florida, and eventually, the Caribbean.”
The event was also about sharing new tastes, like Porter’s revamped meals, which are all served chilled to preserve freshness and flavour.
“We take the philosophy that if we were to serve hot food, it's going to get cooked in a kitchen, refrigerated, then get put in a galley, reheated, and then the sauce will break, and the protein, rice and pasta will be dry,” Jackson said.
Chef Robert Volstuben was on the scene last night to present some of his new creations, like soba noodle and grilled salmon bowls, a coronation chicken duo croissant and a seven-layer dip.
Quality cheese plates are also big deal in the Porter universe. Toronto’s iconic Cheese Boutique provides the airline with savoury slices, which, last night, were spread across a table for guests to enjoy.
The event even had a “pantry” stocked with Porter’s premium snacks, from handcrafted chips to shortbread cookies (which were all up for grabs), as well as immunity health shots from Greenhouse.
Future expansion + Florida boom
Porter has an order for up to 100 E195-E2s, and by the end of December, 29 of that aircraft will be in the airline’s possession (in addition to 29 Dash-8s), Jackson said.
By the end of next year, Porter will have its first 50 Embraer jets, and once that happens, the company will look at further expansion.
“Mexico and the Caribbean are on the map,” Jackson said.
Other potential additions to Porter’s network in the near future include Saskatoon, Regina, Seattle, Phoenix, Denver, Dallas, Minneapolis, Nashville, Atlanta, Charlotte and West Palm Beach.
Porter’s recent entry into Florida – to Tampa, Fort Myers, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Miami – has particularly taken off, Jackson shared.
“On the first day we lit up Florida, revenue performance was through the roof,” he said. “It caught revenue management off guard with the volume of bookings. The demand is clearly there.”
Big changes coming to loyalty program
At the start of the year, Porter relaunched its VIPorter loyalty program, with new benefits, and it will continue to play a key role in the airline’s growth strategy.
But “things are really going to change in 2024 and into 2025,” Jackson said, revealing that new partnerships (which he isn’t able to name just yet) are coming.
Alliances could be made through credit cards or “even other airlines,” he shared, noting Porter’s various codeshare partners.
“It will continue to be a program that's designed to be very simple to understand,” he said.
Travel advisors “critical”
Canadian travel advisors also play an important role in Porter’s growth, Jackson added.
“They are mission critical for us,” he told PAX. “Travel agencies, for us, introduce Porter to other markets. We may be a new carrier in some places, but we have a very mature distribution capability.”
He shared some numbers to demonstrate his point. Historically, travel agencies produced about 35 per cent of Porter’s revenue, Jackson said.
Now, with the expansion, it’s at 45 per cent “just within nine months."
“Travel agencies help educate consumers and introduce us to new customers,” he said. “They are critical to our success.”