WestJet's Blue Santa brought a snowy Canadian Christmas to a beach in the Dominican Republic in this year's "Christmas Miracle" video.
The Calgary-based airline says it has built a special bond with the Puerto Plata community of Nuevo Renacer — one of the four destinations it services in the Dominican Republic.
Airline staff have been visiting that community for several years to build houses in partnership with Hamilton's non-profit organization Live Different. They have completed 23 homes for families living in poverty.
This is the third year the airline has put a Christmas video together, following past videos that have made quite a splash online.
"Having shared the holiday spirit last year with our guests in Toronto, Hamilton and Calgary that resulted in the more than 36 million views of the video in every country around the world, we decided to celebrate Christmas this year with a community that is near and dear to our hearts," said Bob Cummings, WestJet's executive vice-president of sales marketing and guest experience, in a release.
"This was our chance to give the people of Nuevo Renacer a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
WestJet's Richard Bartrem said building on last year's 36 million YouTube hits wasn't the point of releasing another video.
"The goal was not for this year to try and simply surpass last year's numbers," he said. "At that point that becomes the wrong target."
Instead, he said the target was to tell a story about a community the airline feels connected to.
"These are communities and people who are asking for stuff that they need," he said.
Beach party held for locals
This year a sleigh was plunked down in the sandy streets, and kids and adults alike are given a chance to talk to Santa — in Spanish, of course.
WestJet used secret cameras to capture their response.
One woman requested a blender so she can make local fruit into drinks she can sell to help support her family. Another woman asked Santa for a washing machine to cut down her manual labour and free her up for more family time. One man even asked for a horse to draw his carriage.
"I'm a motorbike taxi driver, but the engine is broken," said one resident on the video in Spanish. "And to support my children, I wish I would be granted a new engine."
WestJet staff went out the next day to pick up the gifts before inviting the town to a Christmas celebration on a nearby beach. Fake snow was brought in for a snowball fight before the lighting of a Christmas tree and fireworks.
Playground part of holiday gifts
The airline also built a playground in the community, as the closest one was previously a 20-minute drive away.
WestJet worked with Toronto-based Studio M on conceiving the story and turning it into the video.
Studio M's Mike Mills acknowledged the terrain was a bit different than the previous videos, which were filmed in airports and baggage claims. The studio wanted to focus on the airline's real ties in the community, its "entrenched relationships," Mills said, rather than on some of the "traditional images of developing countries."
Both the airline and Studio M acknowledged the video may raise some questions for viewers, so they released a behind-the-scenes "Why we did it" video.
"We believe we're bringing awareness to some of those issues, rather than being exploitative," Bartrem said.
The flash-mob ways of the 2012 video couldn't be exactly followed this time, Mills said.
"We didn't want to just show up in the community unannounced. We were careful to plan this very carefully with the leaders of the community," he said.
The kids were a different story, as they didn't know what was up.
"When they hit that button on the sleigh" to talk to Santa, Mills said, "that was still a moment of pure magic for the kids themselves."
Bartrem said he recognizes people can be skeptical of a big company trying to engender those feelings of magic.
"For all of these, it was important to us that that these are not ending with the message 'Book now,'" he said.