More than a year after the pandemic turned the airline and tourism industries into shells of what they once were, there are increasingly positive signs a return to normal is underway.
Tourism and passenger numbers across the region, for starters, are on the upswing as are hotel occupancy rates.
But one of the surest signs a resurgence is happening is the ever-growing number of nonstop flights and destinations airports region-wide have added in the past several months. Since the beginning of the year, airports from Tampa International Airport to Southwest International Airport in Fort Myers have added nearly 60 new nonstop destinations. These include flights to and from Germany, Canada, Oregon, California, Wisconsin and Arkansas.
These new destinations are a boost for tourism groups that now have new markets to target in efforts to lure visitors to Florida, as well as for businesses that now have a chance to move around and reach new customers.
Santiago Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay, says one reason there has been such a jump in the number of new destinations is airlines already recognize Florida as a popular destination. This, he says, makes this a reciprocal arrangement, in that the airlines have a built-in passenger base clamoring to get to Florida. Then, on the flip side, as the area attracts more visitors, it becomes more appealing to airlines.
“It’s one of those, is it the chicken or the egg things,” Corrada says. “They both kind of work in tandem because you build the demand and then the supply follows. And I think we’ve done a very good job building the demand here.”
One sign the demand airlines seek is already there stems from the number of hotel rooms the city added during the pandemic. Corrada says about 2,000 rooms came on-line last year as hotel owners prepared for the rebound and from demand prior to COVID-19.
With that information in hand, local airport officials were then able to make the case to airlines Tampa was a place that should be high on the list of potential destinations.
Similar conversations were had up and down the Gulf Coast.
“It’s that kind of symbiotic relationship,” Corrada says. “A destination is hot, it gets the attention, it can no longer be ignored.”
Reel them in
When it comes to bringing in new airlines and adding destinations, airport officials are both facilitators and instigators.
Thomas Jewsbury, executive director of St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, says it takes a concerted effort to recruit an airline — even when you are in a destination people want to travel to.
“It’s certainly a process that doesn’t happen overnight, that’s for sure,” he says. “Usually it’s several years in the making.”
Jewsbury says airport officials meet with potential airlines several times a year, providing data to support St. Pete-Clearwater as a viable destination.
"They both kind of work in tandem because you build the demand and then the supply follows. And I think we’ve done a very good job building the demand here." Santiago Corrada, executive director of Visit Tampa Bay
Officials also attend air service conferences where the process is a lot like speed dating: “The tables are set up with the airlines on one side and airports on the other side of the table. And you’ve got 20 minutes to pitch your airport.”
He says tourism offices and other local entities help in selling the airport and sometimes competing airports in a region will even join forces.
The goal? Convince airlines that opening a route can be profitable. (In many cases airports will aid the wooing process by offering gate-based incentives to land airlines and routes.)
“It’s a huge investment for an airline. Not just the aircraft, the starting up and staffing,” Jewsbury says. “It’s one of our No. 1 priorities, to build air service and be an economic driver for the community.”
That effort has shown remarkable results at St.Pete-Clearwater, with the call letters PIE. In just the past few months, Allegiant Air has announced it would start flying nonstop to Northwest Arkansas National Airport in Bentonville in July, followed Oct. 7 with flights to Provo Airport in Provo, Utah, and on Nov. 19 to Wichita, Kansas.
While the airport's biggest airline is, by far, Allegiant, PIE officials also managed to score a travel package-based charter flight to Atlantic City through Sun Country Airlines. The airport also recently brought in Swoop, a low cost, low frills Canadian airline, that will fly from Hamilton twice weekly starting Nov. 9 and from Toronto three times a week starting Nov. 5.
One of the biggest recipients of the economic boost that comes with bringing in more flights and destinations is the business community — and not just in hotels, restaurants or shops at the beach.
Pasco County Economic Development Council President and CEO Bill Cronin says having new markets open to nonstop flights is a major tool both for companies already established and those looking to do business on the Gulf Coast.
For existing businesses, new destinations allow a company to easily reach potential or existing clients, saving time and money. It also allows companies from those new markets to consider this region for new investments.
Cronin says one of the biggest things overseas companies look for when considering a move into the U.S. is the ability to move around. If an area like Tampa Bay, or other communities on the Gulf Coast, have airports with nonstop access to dozens of other cities, it makes the area more attractive to company looking for a foothold in the U.S.
And it’s not just international companies that look at the region as a potential home because of easy access to markets. Businesses headquartered on the West Coast are already three hours behind most of the country. That means sending salespeople on the road only to sit in airports lessens any competitive advantage.
But all companies, Cronin says, want the ease of movement and without the worry that employees are waiting for connecting flight to a destination without direct service. An employee sitting around for a flight is lost revenue for a company, he says.
It’s worse for small businesses that can’t afford to lose the human resource and productivity while taking a financial hit. “When we’re courting companies, one of the first thing they ask us is, ‘How do we get to your place (and) how hard is it to get there?’”
For Cronin and other economic development officials across Florida's Gulf Coast, that question is getting a lot easier to answer.