Like other airlines, Southwest Airlines uses sponsorship to tap into the passion of local communities and position itself as the hometown airline of choice.

Unlike many of its competitors, the low-cost carrier leverages sponsorship to enhance the travel experience through “surprise and delight” moments ranging from appearances by professional athletes at airport gates to surprise concerts at 35,000 feet and exclusive content on the Southwest entertainment portal.

Recent deals include iHeartRadio in Atlanta—around which Southwest titles a branded lounge and performance stage—and Street Food Cinema, a partnership that provides consumer touchpoints in Santa Monica, Burbank, Culver City and other neighborhoods throughout the Los Angeles Metroplex.

Southwest plans to announce four more partnerships in the coming weeks.

IEG SR spoke with Melissa Millice, Southwest manager of customer engagement, about the thinking behind the airline’s sponsorship strategy, new activation programs, its shift away from in-kind deals and other topics.

Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.

On the thinking behind Southwest’s sponsorship strategy
We try to tap into the local passion of a community. We want to be the hometown carrier in local markets, so we want to align with consumer passion points. We stay away from individual athletes, which can be polarizing. It’s about tapping into the local passion of the community and trying to leverage that passion.

On what makes a property attractive
When we enter a new market we meet with the media and CVB to find out what’s important to the local community. We heard that people in Denver missed a downtown skating rink, so we brought a skating rink back to the City of Denver (Southwest Rink at Skyline Park).

We partnered with Street Food Cinema due to the length of the partnership (May to October) and because it goes to so many neighborhoods in Los Angeles, which is a tough market to break through in. It’s very local, allows us to tap into multiple markets, and it speaks to our 18-to-54-year-old audience.

On having a consistent look and feel across events
We have local sponsorships across the country, and at every event we were reinventing our on-site presence and how we engage consumers.

We built the Southwest Porch to overcome that challenge. It travels across the country, gives us a consistent voice and plays up our hospitality message. We can personalize the porch for each event with relevant messaging. The Chicago Blues Festival featured musicians playing on the porch, while the Taste of Chicago had cooking demonstrations.

It’s a cool way to activate and have a consistent look across the country.  

On using sponsorship to promote new routes
The 2014 repeal of the Wright Amendment allowed us to introduce new nonstop services and routes out of Dallas Love Field, and properties like the Texas Rangers play a critical role in sharing that news.

It’s the same with the Baltimore Orioles—we use the team to talk about our new international routes.

On moving away from in-kind deals
We moved away from barter deals two or three years ago. We don’t have many smaller deals—most of our partnerships are bigger ties like the Rangers, Baltimore Ravens and Atlanta Falcons.

Our tickets have a dollar-for-dollar value, so it was not a big shift in how it hit our budget. Now we’re moving forward with cash deals.

On what rightsholders need to do better
All too often, properties try to sell you what they have available instead of listening to your needs.

Partners that ask questions and listen are few and far between. It’s more about ‘here is what’s available, and this is what it costs.’ Smart properties ask questions, listen and build partnerships around a sponsor’s specific needs.