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Southwest Airlines Takes Flight from SeaWorld

In January 1988, Southwest Airlines and SeaWorld of Texas announced their plans for a marketing partnership that would later be extended to all SeaWorld parks and over 25 years of marketing promotions and publicity, including planes painted with the likeness of ‘Shamu.’ Southwest Airlines has been the official airline of SeaWorld until today when Southwest officials announced that they will not renew their contract with SeaWorld theme parks when their contract expires at the end of 2014.  

In what is labeled a joint statement announcing a mutual decision, Southwest officials announced that they have decided to not renew their promotional marketing partnership with SeaWorld when the contract expires at the end of the year. The reasons given for this decision are shifting priorities, refocused exploration of local markets (for Southwest), and expanding exploration of international markets (for SeaWorld). According to Southwest, this partnership focused on co-marketing opportunities between Southwest passengers and SeaWorld visitors.

The two companies have had a marketing partnership for over 25 years, but Southwest has weathered increasing pressure from animal welfare and conservation organizations, as well as grassroots protests, to end the relationship. As a result, it is fair to speculate the dissolution of this enduring partnership is less about the two companies’ stated desire to pursue international markets and destinations, than it is about Southwest’s receptivity and responsiveness to its consumer base—especially considering the host of businesses, musicians, and others that have walked away from relationships with SeaWorld in the past year.

In early January, WDC called on Southwest to sever ties with SeaWorld as long as the marine park continued to hold whales and dolphins in captivity. WDC engaged with top-level management at Southwest and provided them with long-term data and current research findings pertaining to orcas being held in captivity. As a result of this and other pressure stemming from growing public awareness ignited by the documentary Blackfish, Southwest launched an internal review of its business partnership with SeaWorld.

It is true that SeaWorld is exploring international markets, forecasting its intentions to expand and contribute to the culture of captivity overseas. Unfortunately, captive facilities continue to proliferate in locations such as China and the Middle East, two of the primary destinations for whales and dolphins acquired from the wild.

While the termination of this marketing partnership is good news to WDC, and we believe a reflection of Southwest’s sensitivity and responsiveness to the captivity issue, one aspect of the announcement concerns us—Southwest has stated that it will continue to work with SeaWorld through its Southwest Vacations. This means that Southwest will continue to include travel packages to SeaWorld as a destination offered through its Vacations website. In our minds, this is still a marketing and promotional relationship. However, considering their 25 year relationship, the incremental uncoupling of the broader business partnership is welcomed as a positive step in the right direction.

With continuing dialogue, and perhaps the influence of other holiday providers, such as Virgin Holidays who are currently undergoing similar evaluations regarding their business relationships with SeaWorld and other suppliers of vacation opportunities that exploit whales and dolphins, maybe we can convince Southwest to abandon all ties with SeaWorld and refrain from promoting travel there until they adapt their business model and phase-out whale and dolphin captivity.