I spent part of last week in Cancun watching airlines and airports speed-date. The venue was the Tourism and Air Services Summit, or TAS, a regional conference put together by Route Development Group to facilitate airport-airline courtship.
At the Americas edition, about 300 aviation planners and a handful of tourism boards got together for a series of brief, one-on-one meetings to help airports, airlines and destination marketers size each other up as potential partners.
It was fascinating. As in human romance, many of the attributes that ultimately attract partners to one another are not obvious to anyone but the partners themselves.
At past industry conferences, I have listened to airlines and destinations engage in chicken-and-egg conversations about opening new routes. The airline will say, "We'll provide lift when you prove you can draw traffic." The destination will respond, "How can we draw traffic if you won't provide lift?"
What became clear to me last week was that there's traffic, and then there's traffic.
Consider this: There were no scheduled direct flights to Orlando from continental Europe until Lufthansa initiated service in October 2007. Now anyone who has been to Disney World knows this is a polyglot destination, with substantial numbers of French, German, Spanish and Scandinavian tourists walking the streets of Tomorrowland. Orlando Sanford Airport handles a substantial amount of charter business from European packagers, but until recently, no European living on the Continent could arrive in Orlando via direct scheduled air on her or his national carrier.
Victoria Jaramillo, director of marketing and international development for the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, told me at TAS that it took 14 years for her to persuade Lufthansa to come to MCO. (She had concurrently been courting Air France and Iberia, the flirt.)
Lufthansa's entry into the market appears to have been a successful match. Before service even began, the carrier increased frequency based on initial high demand, and a year later, it began flying larger planes there.
Why did it take so long? The problem, Jaramillo said, is that airlines find leisure destinations to be "scary." It took her 14 years to convince Lufthansa that it could fill the front of the plane as well as the back.
That sort of persuasion is unlikely to occur during one of the short networking meetings that take place at gatherings such as TAS in Cancun. "This type of effort is a marathon, not a sprint," Jaramillo said. "I just plant the seeds here."
If Orlando could barely attract direct lift from Europe, what hope do other leisure destinations have?
Harry Kassap is senior vice president of business development for GCW Consulting, which provides strategic advisory services to aviation interests worldwide. In a previous job, he spent 10 years developing markets for McCarran Airport, and many of his current clients have hired him specifically to bring additional lift to Las Vegas.
He feels their pain.
"I was meeting with hoteliers there recently," he said during a panel I was moderating at the conference. "For the first time, I saw panic in their eyes."
While airline courtship is always a challenge, today's economy exacerbates it. These days, fewer and fewer people who work in Las Vegas are authorized to fly business class, and that includes executives at Las Vegas hotels, resorts and casinos. If the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which is supported primarily by the local hospitality industry, is in conversation with airlines, "the airlines have the right to ask, 'What's your outbound travel like?'" Kassap said. It's a question that makes hoteliers uncomfortable in today's economic environment.
"Las Vegas used to be a destination an airline had to serve," he said. "It was important to their network. But I was told by a carrier recently that now it's a luxury to serve Las Vegas. They showed me how they were losing $10 million a year flying there. They said they still have to serve it, but they no longer have to serve it five times a day."
Keeping a carrier is tough enough, but landing a new one presents challenges of a different sort. "There's no more investment buying," Kassap said. "We used to be able to convince an airline to run a route for six months, to give it a shot. They won't do that anymore. In fact, now they're saying, 'You want service? Show us how badly you want service. What are the incentives?'"
None of this sounds like good news. Cutbacks in corporate travel budgets may end up affecting leisure routes negatively during a period when losing a carrier can be especially traumatic.
But Kassap ended on a surprisingly optimistic note.
"You have to be creative," he said. "Recently, people thought I was nuts when they heard I was talking to Philippine Airlines on behalf of Las Vegas. But I'm not after Manila-direct. What people don't know is that Philippine has the rights to fly to Vancouver and then on to Las Vegas from there. If I can get them to Vancouver, it opens opportunity for traffic to us."
The speed-dating analogy seemed apt to me when the conference began. After all, what is speed dating if not expeditious risk analysis? But I ultimately concluded that human courtship is nowhere near as subtle, time-consuming or complex as route development.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].