Like – And With – A Local
By Jana Soeldner Danger
The Icelandair Buddy Program pairs travelers with local airline-employee residents for personalized layover adventures
Hiking a glacier. Backpacking. Exploring caves. Scuba diving. These are just a few of the adventures travelers have experienced with Icelandair’s unique Buddy program, which pairs passengers with airline employees who share their interests. The buddies not only make the arrangements, but also accompany the passengers on the excursions, all at no charge.
Exploring a new country can be intimidating. Sure, there are guide books and group tours, but suppose a traveler wants a more intimate look at a destination and a more personal experience? The Buddy program, which started last year, offers the solution.
Since the 1960s, Icelandair has offered passengers the opportunity to do a stopover in Iceland for up to seven nights at no extra ticketing charge. The Buddy program is designed to enhance the stopover by letting people from other countries experience Iceland like a local.
Take, for example, Dianne Schifini of Long Island, NY and Tina Flintoff of Enumclaw, WA. When the two friends decided to take a transatlantic cruise from Copenhagen to New York together, they began researching airlines to find connections that would bring both of them to their first destination at approximately the same time, even though they live on opposite sides of the country. “I’d never heard of Icelandair,” Schifini said. “But a friend told me it was a great airline.”
A friend also told her Iceland was a great place to visit, and that she should think about doing a stopover. As she did more research, she discovered the Buddy program and told Tina about it.
“It sounded too good to be true,” Tina recalled. “I said, ‘are you sure it isn’t a scam? Who does something like that?’” Well, Icelandair does. Eventually, the two women were paired with flight attendant Unnur Eir Arnardottir, and before the trip, the Americans corresponded with their Icelandic buddy via email. “We described ourselves to her and told her what activities we like,” Dianne said. “She gave us some possibilities to choose from. She arranged for us to be picked up, and then met us at our airbnb.”
While there are Buddy activities as mild as joining a knitting group or visiting the town coffee shop, Dianne and Tina craved adventure. “We wanted to take advantage of what Iceland has to offer, and to get off the beaten path,” Tina said. “The program caters not to touristy things, but to creating a real Iceland experience.”
The ladies’ adventure began with a visit to a spectacular waterfall. “Then we went glacial hiking,” Dianne said.
To climb the slippery glacier, they wore helmets and crampons for safety. “It was like climbing up a mountain, except you’re walking on ice,” Dianne said. “And because of all the volcanic ash, the ice looks black.”
Next came whisking across an Icelandic beach in an all-terrain vehicle. “It was all black sand, and it was barren for miles,” Dianne said. “It wasn’t like anything we’d see in the U.S.”
A Global Trend
Not surprisingly, the program originated as a way to encourage people to visit Iceland and take advantage of the stopover experience.
“We did research into travel trends, and the results showed that people want to experience their destinations like locals do,” said Jon Skafti Kristjansson, a brand manager for Icelandair. “To help our passengers get the most out of their stopover trips in Iceland, we decided to offer them a free local host with local knowledge.”
Traveling with a buddy has many advantages over simply doing research on the Internet or in books, said Josh Popsie, a marketing research specialist with Icelandair. “When people come to Iceland, they don’t always know how to spend their time. Travel sites might give you the top 10 things to see and do, but there’s much more to getting to know a place,” he said. “The Buddy program helps them do the things they really love.”
Besides helping to create unique experiences, a buddy can provide information and knowledge travelers might otherwise not get. “Unnur could answer every question we had,” Dianne said. “While we were doing something active, we were also getting an in-depth feel for it.”
“It allows you to make a deeper connection with the place you’re visiting,” Tina said.
Employees, who are not paid extra for their services, have been enthusiastic. “When we first launched the program, we didn’t expect such a great response from them,” Popsie said. “But they all wanted to participate. They have amazing hobbies that involve really cool adventures, and they wanted to share them.”
That was the case for Unnur. “I joined the Buddy program because I’m quite familiar with my country and I travel a lot — hiking, backpacking, cross-country skiing and driving, and I wanted to share my passion,” she said.
Unnur has already had adventures with visitors from the U.S., Europe and New Zealand. “We have explored caves and canyons, hiked up a natural hot river, seen geothermal mud pots right by our feet, and gone scuba diving between two tectonic plates that divide Europe and America,” she said. She’s also taken guests to visit Thingvellir national park, a UNESCO heritage site, and, of course, shared her knowledge of some of the area’s best restaurants that offer traditional Icelandic dishes.
Occasionally, Unnur worried that her itineraries might not please her guests because, after all, she had never met them except through email. But so far, the adventures have all turned out well, and her guests seem to have fun, she said.
Dianne and Tina gave rave reviews. “We felt like we were living the Iceland Dream,” Tina said.
“It was an absolutely fabulous, once-in-a-lifetime trip,” Dianne said.
Last year, the program focused on six different categories: nature, health, culture, adventure, lifestyle and food. This year, the focus will include celebrating important occasions like milestone birthdays, a perfect proposal, weddings, honeymoons and anniversaries. Buddies will make arrangements for parties or other events passengers request. It’s a good match — Icelandair is celebrating its own milestone: 2017 marks the airline’s 80th anniversary.
The ultimate goal of the Buddy program is to make people think about Iceland as a leisure travel destination — one to which they will want to return.
“When people come to Iceland once, they come back,” Kristjansson said. “We want to showcase Iceland and make their first trip the best it can be.”