The closest competitor Tampa International Airport has for overseas routes is Orlando International Airport. Except it hasn't been much of a competition.
Orlando has 204 international flights, many to Europe and Central and South America. Tampa has just 31, most of them to Canada or the Caribbean.
That's a gaping hole Tampa International is trying to fill. Chief executive officer Joe Lopano was hired to attract more overseas flights to the airport and the millions of dollars they generate for the bay area.
In May, though, Tampa International scored a rare victory: Swiss carrier Edelweiss Air switched its nonstop route from Orlando to Tampa. That gave Tampa its first direct route to continental Europe in 15 years — a flight that fills more seats in Tampa than it did in Orlando.
So how did Tampa International do it? How did they steal a route to a major European hub from Orlando and make it more successful? And how can the airport duplicate that international success?
The answer is knowing when to compete with Orlando — and when not to.
• • •
Orlando International handles 35.4 million annual passengers and has routes to England, Brazil, Colombia, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama and Switzerland.
But they're not just visiting central Florida's famous theme parks.
Tourism officials there claim to have more lodging than anywhere else in the world: 115,000 hotel rooms and 46,000 rental homes and condos. That has helped turn the 7-million-square-foot Orange County Convention Center into a top meeting destination.
All those attractions give Orlando International an advantage attracting overseas routes. The local economic development agencies in tourism, conventions and business chambers all offer the airlines marketing help and support a new route. The theme parks do the same, and they often have marketing staff and resources in the target airlines' nation.
"We work with our community partners and say 'We're working with X airlines, they're looking to fly into Orlando,' " said Vicki Jaramillo, director of marketing for Orlando International Airport. "They will look into it and work with the airline and put together a community marketing package."
This is important because Orlando International cannot do what many airports around the country can: offer financial incentives, such as cash or reduced airport fees, to attract new routes. It's forbidden in the airport's three-decade lease with its original carriers to offer incentives that would favor one airline over another.
"What we do is look at the business case for that route and that alone," Jaramillo said. "Because if the numbers aren't there to justify that the route will be successful if you use incentive money then it won't survive when the money goes away. That doesn't make sense."
• • •
Here is where Tampa International found a way to compete with Orlando: It offered Edelweiss $464,000 in cash and waived airport fees to attract the Zurich route.
Tampa International officials had long resisted paying airlines and waiving fees until Lopano started in January 2011. He had successfully used incentives when he was marketing chief at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to attract routes to Amsterdam, Los Angeles, Paris, San Francisco and Tokyo.
Edelweiss was the first airline to benefit from Tampa's new incentive package. The deal announced in 2011 called for Edelweiss to offer two nonstop flights a week to Tampa during the summer tourist season and one during the winter.
The incentive was to help Edelweiss mitigate the risk and cost of relocating the Zurich route, said Tampa International vice president of marketing Chris Minner, not simply to sweeten the pot.
Federal rules limit the incentives airports can offer for new route development to just two years. So once they expire, Minner said, the route still has to make economic sense on its own.
"We would want an airline to make a decision about coming to the Tampa Bay market based on its belief in our profitability," Minner said. "No airline should ever make a decision based solely on the incentives offered in a community."
Edelweiss spokesman Michael Trestl said via email that before the airline decided to come to Tampa, it had to know that the route would stand on its own, without subsidies.
"Successful route development is about sharing risk among various stakeholders," Trestl said, "and not about 'buying' an airline to open a new route."
• • •
So when Edelweiss first approached Tampa International about relocating the Zurich route, airport officials had to prove that it was "sustainable and viable."
Here, Tampa International chose to compete with its rival by not competing with Orlando International.
Instead of claiming superiority to Orlando, Tampa officials chose to be complimentary: They told Edelweiss — and every other airline they pitch — that if the route was doing well in Orlando, then it would do well in Tampa, too.
"My pitch is, if your destinations in Florida are successful," Minner said, "then you should be looking at how you can be successful in Tampa as well."
But airport officials also had to change the airline's perception of the Tampa Bay market. When Lopano came on board, he also boosted the use of statistics, demographics and airline databases to determine the exact size of the airport's market to help attract more routes.
Their conclusion: The west coast of Florida is a far bigger and richer travel market than the airlines realized. Tampa-St. Petersburg-Sarasota has an effective buying income of $96 billion, more than any other metro Florida market, and 3.5 million people within an hour's drive.
"Tampa Bay is an underserved international gateway when you look at the demographics," Minner said.
The pitch worked. Trestl said Edelweiss was attracted to "the diversity of the Tampa Bay area and its geographic location" and its "attractiveness for the European tourism market."
• • •
So Tampa International showed Edelweiss that it was willing to mitigate the cost of relocating the route and that the Tampa Bay area could sustain a Zurich route.
But the airline would still need to fill seats. Tampa International assembled a coalition of local partners to help Edelweiss do that as well.
Orlando International does the same thing to attract routes, and the theme parks are powerful marketing allies. But here is another area where Tampa International believes it was competitive: The airport and its partners drafted and executed plans specifically tailored for Edelweiss.
"I think that's what we bring to the table," Minner said, "that focus."
Here's what the airport's partners did:
• When the Zurich flights began in May, the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. traveled there to start networking. It held a party at a downtown Zurich restaurant and hosted local business, government leaders and Edelweiss' executives.
The development group's president, Rick Homans, said the group will return to Zurich in April for more meetings. The goal: get Swiss businesses interested in doing business — and traveling — to Tampa Bay.
"What really makes these routes profitable is when they start filling up the business class seats," Homans said.
• Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the tourism arm of Pinellas County, said it would spend $140,000 to promote the flights in Switzerland. Tampa Bay & Company, Hillsborough County's tourism agency, said it would spend $60,000 toward that purpose.
D.T. Minich, the executive director of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, said his agency has spent a lot of time, money and energy promoting Tampa Bay to Swiss tourists.
"We've hosted a whole bunch of different journalists and Swiss television shows," he said. "It's been a great combination of marketing and public relations and educating the consumer about this destination itself, how great the beaches are."
• The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce offered sponsorships and promotions worth $175,000. The chamber advertised the route in its 2012-13 location guide; marketed Edelweiss by giving the airline top sponsorships in its annual events, awards and luncheons; and connected the airline with local businesses to spread the word about the Zurich route.
The sales job hasn't stopped. The Pinellas and Hillsborough tourism agencies recently teamed up to land a $100,000 matching grant from the state to continue promoting Zurich flights.
Trestl, the Edelweiss spokesman, said Tampa International put together a better long-term plan for promoting and marketing the Zurich route in Europe and the bay area.
"The investment-climate created by key partners we have found in the Tampa Bay area," Trestl said, "has been friendlier compared to Orlando."
• • •
Edelweiss has already been successful in Tampa. Just compare the load factors — the percentage of an airplane's total capacity — of the Orlando versus the Tampa route.
Orlando had a 58 percent load factor during its once-a-week Zurich flight in July 2011. But in July 2012, the twice-a-week Tampa flights were at 73 percent. Now the route is down to once a week for the winter, but it's doing well: 63 percent in September and 89 percent load in October.
Neither Edelweiss nor the airport can yet say if the route will continue after the financial incentives expire in 2014. But Edelweiss did say it intends to keep working with the airport.
"The partnership we are having with all the organizations . . . will definitely continue in the future," Trestl wrote. "These create mutual benefits for everybody involved and their strategic relevance are much more important to us than any incentive could ever be."
The success of the Edelweiss route is also important in that it can help Tampa make the case that airlines can be just as successful here as they are in Orlando or other Florida airports. The airport has pitched airlines in Brazil, Colombia, Germany, Mexico and Panama.
Attracting new routes takes years. But now Tampa has a success story to point to.
"That just gives me more validation," Lopano said, "that we could sustain more international service."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3404.