Luke Wheatley: Flight Centre

So crazy it just might work: The Flight Centre story

In Examples by Peter Gearin

How Luke Wheatley turned a wild idea into a winning content solution for Flight Centre.

As you might expect from Flight Centre’s head of creative, content and engagement, Luke Wheatley spins a good yarn. Especially when the topic of conversation is his pet project – the travel retailer’s own television show, The 48 Hour Destination, now in its second season on Network Ten.

Although Wheatley is busy managing Flight Centre’s content and a large team, 48 Hour Destination is his baby. He writes and directs much of the material for the show and is responsible for logistics and production. He’s the executive producer, assists the on-camera talent – Flight Centre consultant Greer Gardiner – and handles deals with TV executives. Wheatley has full creative control. Network Ten just puts it to air, currently on an early Saturday afternoon timeslot.

As an example of owned branded content, 48 Hour Destination is about as good as it gets. As a way of showing how to turn a creative idea into reality – almost out of thin air (and with a budget to match) – it’s worth retelling in full, in Wheatley’s own words …

“Well, like all ideas, it came out of necessity. I thought, ‘Who better to make a travel series than one of Australia’s most loved and known travel retailers?’ So, I went to my boss at the time and said, ‘Let me go produce our own travel show’. He said, ‘You’re crazy’. 

“I was given a small budget to make a pilot … and it wasn’t enough to fund the pilot in total, so I had to match those funds through another way. Out budget included everything, right? Flights, accommodation. Nothing is free. No-one’s gonna help you.

 “I went to Tourism New Zealand and said, ‘This is what I wanna do’. My end pitch was: ‘If it all fails, you’re gonna get half an hour of content you can have’. And they went: ‘For sheer audacity, we’re gonna give you the money.”

 “I was then in production, so I started to call up suppliers, like helicopter companies, “OK, I’m trying to make a TV show, we don’t have distribution, do you want to be involved?” People were like, “No. You’re crazy.” One guy’s like, ‘Yeah, mate, I’ll do it with you. Flight Centre sends so many people our way.” They were so open to helping and even let us open the doors and film on top of a glacier. It was like guerrilla filmmaking at its best.

 “Our editor, Digby Hogan from Empire Post, came over with us because we didn’t know how it would all come together. I mean, I know how to tell a story, but this is different. And we had a real [Flight Centre] consultant as our host. She had no experience being in front of the camera like this. So it was like, ‘All right, Greer, get in front of the camera, we’re gonna go in a helicopter, we’re gonna jump in a glacier, we’re gonna go down the rapids…’ She’s like, ‘OK.’ Let’s strap Go-Pros to it.

 “We did it [in Queenstown]. We literally filmed it in 48 hours … something I’ll never do again. I edited it and showed my boss, Darren Wright, Head of Marketing for Flight Centre Jason Wolff and Skroo [Graham Turner] our CEO turned up to the meeting as well. No one’s seen the TV show. Here I am, showing the TV pilot and Skroo’s there. I thought: ‘This is going be the death of my career’.

 “I was pretty proud of what we’d done. And he’s like, ‘OK, that’s great. What’s next?’ I said, ‘Well, we need distribution’. He said, ‘OK. How?’ I said, ‘I dunno, I’ll just call ’em up’. So I emailed Channel 10, 9, 7, SBS … all of their CEOs. I didn’t know them – I was just emailing them. I Googled ‘CEO’ and found their email addresses.

“Channel 10 got back to me. Two weeks later they said, ‘You know what? You got something. Let’s talk.’ Jason and I flew down to Sydney, they took the show, and we’re in the second season now. We’ve sold it to National Geographic internationally. We’re still trying to sell it to other areas.”

The 48 Hour Destination has turned into a ravenous time beast for Wheatley and his team, but it’s not the only content Flight Centre produces. It publishes a series of 100-page destination-based magazines called Travel Ideas (with a 100,000 print run for each) and an SEO-friendly blog that has travel tips, news and information.

“When I started [in 2014] we were doing three stories a day, seven days a week on the blog,” Wheatley says. “No one was reading anything on weekends, and trying to amplify 20 stories a week is impossible. It’s all about quantity, not quality.” Wheatley says.

Flight Centre also produces The Wow List, its annual guide to the top 50 things travellers could do over the following year. “We’re thinking about turning into a TV show,” Wheatley says. It also pumps out product-oriented advertising and printed brochures.

Then there’s 48 Hour Destination. Wheatley says the show has had a positive impact on the brand’s tone of voice, which he says is now more irreverent and cheeky, and less stuffy. Flight Centre promotions traditionally included the heavily lapelled male “captain” character front and centre, with the brightly jacketed female consultants standing behind. “My job is really to bring the consultants forward a bit more,” Wheatley says.

While he always envisaged 48 Hour Destination would feel like “editorial”, he learned this can be a drawback on travel shows. “Like most creatives, you have this idea that your idea is pure and you won’t sell yourself – that it won’t be too advertorial,” he says. “Funnily enough, that went against the success of the show.

“The first season has no real product information. Greer went to a place in New York that was the No.1 bar in the world two years running. But we didn’t tell anyone where it was. Now we give information with maps. We want to show people where [things are], not just keep it all to ourselves.”

“Our content writers can produce [shows], and they will come on set with me and write. Some of our designers will help direct, so we’re upscaling the team. Most of those people in the credits are my team.”

Despite the show’s name, Wheatley says each show takes about five days to shoot. “We have to be realistic,” he says. “It’s everything you can do in 48 hours if you’re willing to give it a try. The show was never about ‘You should do this in 48 hours’ … it’s about trying to make a story with a purpose.”

Destinations are a mix of locations with good promotional potential for Flight Centre and places Wheatley wants to cover. “My dream was to film in New York when it was snowing, and that’s what I got,” he says. “It wasn’t just snowing, it was a blizzard … Greer was ice skating in Rockefeller Centre. Cape Town was incredible, too. The animals there are just phenomenal.” Most featured destinations have been overseas, although the show has covered places closer to home – for example, north Queensland, Darwin and Western Australia, as well as Auckland and Christchurch.

He says he’s fortunate he has a team of “leaders” at Flight Centre who can help when he’s not around. “Most people on my team touch the show in some ways. Our content writers can produce [shows], and they will come on set with me and write. Some of our designers will help direct, so we’re upscaling the team. Most of those people in the credits are my team.”

Although the 48 Hour Destination is now flying, Wheatley says some things haven’t changed since he made his “crazy” suggestion to Flight Centre management. “We have the same budget per episode, pretty much,” he says. “We get a little bit more help. And I have people calling me now.”

Links & references

Tenplay’s page for Flight Centre’s 48 Hour Destination

Brand Tales article about content’s role in overtourism

Brand Tales Q&A with APT’s Fiona Corsie

Please share