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Southwest Airlines

Capitalizing on Culture: How Southwest Airlines’ 50th Anniversary Celebration Increased Employee Engagement


It was poised to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2021. In true Southwest style, the celebration was expected to showcase the company’s rich history and culture and its robust employee pride.

Southwest was no stranger to celebrating its history through anniversaries and milestones. Since Southwest wanted this particular milestone of 50 years to be “epic,” it sought outside help.

The Challenge: Elevating Southwest’s 50th Anniversary to Epic Proportions

Southwest is not shy about putting its employees first. It hosts annual rallies around the country that energize and inspire its broad base of workers. Its company parties and celebrations are the stuff of legend.

Of course, Southwest’s faithful employees and longtime loyal customers expected a celebration as momentous as the 50-year anniversary to be huge. The Southwest team imagined books, exhibits, events in flight and at the airport, volunteer opportunities—and a once-in-a-lifetime party to cap things off.

The challenge was to capitalize on one of the most enduring and beloved sources of Southwest’s appeal—its culture—in partnership with its experienced and knowledgeable team. After all, they had already set a precedent for creating and executing unforgettable experiences.

A Multipronged Solution: Fresh Content, Legendary Companywide Events and More, Despite a Pandemic

Our engagement with Southwest began in 2019.

The key to making Southwest’s 50th anniversary as outstanding as possible was strategizing a unique course of action to solidify theming and concepting. Then we applied our proven processes and frameworks to tag-team executing all the aspects of what makes a corporate anniversary celebration successful.

We kicked things off by conducting focus groups with employees across the country to get to the heart of what Southwest’s 50th anniversary should look like according to the people who knew the company best.

Just after we presented our plan, COVID-19 hit, and like everything else, our plans became uncertain. Despite facing the biggest crisis in the history of the company, however, Southwest knew how important celebrating its anniversary would be to inspire and engage both employees and customers. Though some events were downsized, Southwest was committed to recognizing this incredible milestone in appropriate ways and appreciating the employees and customers who made it possible.

Fostering Employee Engagement When It Was Most Necessary

History Factory laid the groundwork for an anniversary celebration like no other. Through the pandemic, we supported Southwest’s most important milestone yet with:

  • Playbooks for how its internal ideas and concepts could be executed (for example, considerations for painting planes and executing large events).
  • A content bank for the microsite that reinterpreted well-known stories in new ways and unearthed more recent stories.
  • Two books: One, “Leading With Heart,” focused on a 50-year legacy of leadership, highlighting past and current Southwest leaders (including Executive Chairman and former CEO Gary Kelly and others)(available in June 2022); the other, “50 Years. One Heart,” focused on Southwest’s rich history.
  • Exhibit planning in airports, at the Frontiers of Flight Museum, and at Southwest Headquarters at Love Field in Dallas, TX.
  • A new archives system to ensure the organization, protection and accessibility of Southwest’s artifacts.

Nearly 6,000 employees opted in to celebrate the hybrid day-of anniversary event on June 18, 2021. Additionally, employee engagement on Southwest’s private SWA Culture Facebook page during Southwest’s Birthday Week was up triple digits from 2020’s Birthday Week, thanks to compelling storytelling and company activations.

At a time when most companies were scrambling to figure out how to keep employees connected, the multifaceted components of Southwest’s anniversary kept employees excited and active in their work culture.

 History Factory Services Delivered 

  • Corporate Anniversaries & Milestones
  • Exhibits & Experiences
  • Publications
  • Archival Services
  • Digital
  • Videos & Storytelling
  • Oral Histories
  • Employee Communication


“[Our 50th anniversary] was the first time that we sought an outside strategic partner to help us really think beyond what we’ve always done and how we’ve always done it. … [History Factory] challenged us to … put folks together who maybe don’t always work together, have them work differently, have them stretch in new ways. And that was very deliberate throughout the original planning process.” — Beth Harbin, retired Sr. Director, Communications at Southwest

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