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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 26, 2003 14 years ago

Trade Zone: International Calling

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Sarasota airport hopes to attract international carriers. But the going is slow.Johannes Werner writes on trade issues for the GCBR.

Trade Zone: International Calling

Sarasota airport hopes to attract international carriers. But the going is slow.

Two-and-half years after the 9/11 shock, most vacation airlines still are stuck in consolidation mode. That may sound like bad news for the efforts of SRQ executives to justify the "International" in the name of Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. But consolidation brings change, and change is good for emerging destinations.

Take Germany's largest tourist mover, Thomas Cook AG. The German-British tour operator that owns Condor airlines just decided to axe its Frankfurt-Tampa route. Instead, Condor jets will be shuttling tourists on weekly flights from Frankfurt to Fort Myers' Southwest Florida International Airport.

"Our priorities are tourism routes," says Dieter Knoefel, head of long-haul capacity planning and sales with Thomas Cook. "We fly to Orlando because of the theme parks. We picked Fort Myers because of its beautiful beaches."

Condor has been barely able to fill one or two weekly Tampa flights, he says, and yields on the route remained below expectations. In other words, the airline is seeking a new destination that would allow it to get by without offering too many discounts.

Knoefel hopes that's what Fort Myers can do. The fast-growing airport has been hosting flights from Dusseldorf by another major German vacation airline, LTU International, for almost a decade. Since 1994, the Fort Myers-Naples area has become a magnet for tourists from Germany, Switzerland and Austria.

Meanwhile, Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport wasn't even worth an afterthought for Knoefel.

This seems to fly in the face of the area's strengths. Sarasota-Bradenton recently invested more than $5 million to extend its runway to 9,500 feet, enabling fully loaded and gassed-up intercontinental jets to take off here. Given that tens of thousands of foreign tourists visit the region every year, that thousands of Europeans, Canadians and Latin Americans own real estate here, and that there are neat beach hotels aplenty, the runway extension makes perfect sense.

Yet the only airline taking advantage of the combination so far has been CanJet, a Halifax-based no-frills carrier that began offering weekly flights on Boeing 737s from Toronto and Ottawa in November, adding Moncton, New Brunswick this February. Although it's a little early to tell, bookings so far have met CanJet's expectations, according to SRQ officials.

So why is SRQ still being snubbed by European route planners?

One reason, maybe, is that the airport administrators aren't always on top of things. Specifically, they weren't aware of Thomas Cook's reshuffling in Florida. But, more importantly, airline executives point at Sarasota's lacking name recognition in European markets. Thousands of European sun seekers must be convinced to make Sarasota and Bradenton their destination instead of just a stopover. To that end, airline executives are asking emerging destinations such as Sarasota and Bradenton to pitch in lots of bucks for joint advertising efforts.

"I've had a [European] airline interested in flying here," says Michael Walley, director of development at SRQ. "[But] they asked if we were willing to spend $5 million in advertising."

Walley simply shrugs off such offers, after years of declining passenger numbers and constrained budgets at SRQ, and with the Sarasota County Convention and Visitors Bureau squeezing its advertising budget by 13% to under $1 million this year. As part of those budget cuts, the CVB eliminated its participation in the Berlin marketing office it runs together with the Manatee County CVB.

To be sure, airport officials haven't resigned themselves to waiting for the foreign airline prince to come by and kiss awake sleeping Sarasota. For one, they keep an eye on the British market, probably the most dynamic in Europe right now, as well as on Holland. Also, Walley, a former marketing executive at CanJet who helped bring in the airline, hopes SRQ can build on this achievement, flying in Canadians for the broader region. What's more, the airport succeeded in attracting a major industry event to Sarasota.

Sarasota will get a unique chance when dozens of airline route planners and airport executives huddle together at the local Hyatt hotel March 7-9 for "Network 2004." Instead of having to hop up and down in front of airline executives at mega tourism fairs in Europe or large global airline planning events such as "Routes," Walley will have the privilege of playing the role of generous host. That's worth the equivalent of lots of marketing dollars.

In addition to the U.S. majors, a half-dozen or so foreign airlines will send delegates to Network 2004. As of late December, Iberia was the only foreign airline that had confirmed its booking. But Ireland's Aer Lingus, Air Canada and CanJet, Aeromexico, as well as Mexico's Aviacsa and Azteca Airlines, Cayman Airlines, Bahamas-based Laker Airways, and Thomas Cook had reserved their attendance.

Started by the U.S. subsidiary of British publishing and trade show giant Reed Elsevier PLC, "Network" is trying to cultivate an image of a laid-back regional alternative to the more formal and global Routes conference.

SRQ and Sarasota understood that approach. The airport will be hosting a golf day March 7.

It seems to work: Golf was the first item Knoefel mentioned in his telephone conversation with GCBR. "I don't play golf," he said with a laugh, when asked if he would attend the conference. He added that he still isn't sure if he'll be there. But, he said, "We're testing this. It's a nice way of getting in touch with airports on our long list."

And that includes SRQ.

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The orders from the island just keep coming. Since early November, Cuba's food import agency Alimport SA. has committed to more than $140 million worth of purchases from the United States.

Problem is, Manatee and Sarasota businesses have yet to wake up to the call from next door. So far only one local player, Strickland Ranch in Myakka City, has taken advantage of those opportunities, selling a herd of cattle (owner Jim Strickland also happens to be Manatee County's director of agricultural property appraisal). During a three-day event in Havana Dec. 15-17 hosted by Alimport for 257 U.S. businesspeople that netted more than $80 million in sales, Manatee resident Steve Rupert was the sole representative from the two-county area. (Participants from the Tampa Bay area and Naples included cattle broker John Parke Wright, shipping agent Arthur Savage, produce broker Mike Mauricio, consultant Danny Fernandez, and lumber dealer Francois Petot)

Officials at Port Manatee, eager to ship more locally sourced goods to Cuba, now want to change this.

Steve Tyndal, the port's director of special projects, is trying to mobilize a group of local businesspeople interested in traveling to Cuba to sell their products. The trip, planned for early in the first quarter, is not easy to organize, because the port's U.S. license for travel to Cuba only covers full-time employees. That means those businesses will have to go through the hassle of applying for their own licenses with the Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

But Tyndal is optimistic he'll get a substantial group together, because the lure is substantial.

In November, Alimport chief Pedro Alvarez told the five-member port delegation that the island nation wants newsprint, linerboard, lumber, orange juice, tomatoes, carbonated beverages, fish, chicken, cucumbers, and sugar in bulk. Alvarez also asked the port to provide Alimport with prices for goods Freight on Board (FOB) Port Manatee.

Johannes Werner is a Sarasota-based business journalist. He carries a German passport, is married to a Mexican, and publishes a trade monthly, Cuba Trade & Investment News. He can be reached at [email protected].

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