Last November's announcement that Tampa International Airport would begin daily direct flights to Germany was more than just celebrating a new connection with what has become a strong economic ally across the Atlantic. It will connect Tampa to the rest of the world, the same way Atlanta serves as a hub domestically.
And it came not because the German airline Lufthansa just happened to suddenly notice this part of Florida. It came because TIA has been aggressively recruiting airlines to create new destinations over the past few years. Efforts led not only by airport CEO Joe Lopano, but his front-line troops, such as Vice President Christopher Minner.
Minner says the first step in recruiting is to have the facts ready to back up your pitch.
“The key for us starts by doing our homework, and that is a very data-intensive process,” Minner says. “We have to look at everything. We analyze passenger flows, the number of people going to different destinations, how they are getting to those places, and how much they're paying to get there.”
Through that homework, Minner and his team identified its prospect list of five key markets they felt were underserved at TIA. It was topped by Panama City, Panama, with Frankfurt right behind.
Then the hard work really started, not only introducing these airlines to the Tampa market, but using data and incentives to persuade them they should spend the more than $100 million it typically takes to create service.
And Minner says you have to meet in person to make a connection.
“It's never a one-shot deal,” Minner says. “You have to put yourself in front of them, because it's hard to build rapport and credibility over the phone, or over e-mail. And once you finally do all that, you can extend an invitation to come here.”
TIA has now succeeded in pulling in its top two targets -- four flights weekly have connected Tampa to Panama City, Panama since late 2013, and Frankfurt flights will begin next September. Now the focus turns to others on Minner's target list: Mexico City, Sao Paolo and Bogota.
Right now, Tampa Bay travelers are driving to Orlando, Miami and even Fort Lauderdale to catch direct flights. But hopefully not for long.
Recruiting is the same no matter who or what you're targeting, Minner says.
“It feels a lot like having the biggest and best flat-panel TV on the wall in your home. But if you don't have cable, you can't watch the football game, or your favorite movies,” he says. “We know we have the TV. Now we just have to connect the cable.”
- Michael Hinman