The fate of a huge Tampa International Airport initiative rested on Chris Minner's sales pitch, and he threw it into the dirt.
He had been the airport's new vice president of marketing for just weeks when, in May 2011, he joined a delegation of Tampa Bay leaders on a visit to Panama City, Panama. Their mission: persuade Copa Airlines to add service to Tampa, which had long coveted a direct flight to a Latin American hub city.
Minner started his PowerPoint. One slide showed that more than 300,000 residents of Central and South American origin lived within a two-hour drive of Tampa. Those 300,000 residents could use Tampa International to fly on Copa planes.
The entire Copa Airlines executive team was there. So was Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and man who had just hired Minner, Tampa International CEO Joe Lopano.
Then Copa CEO Pedro Heilbron deflated Minner with a simple question: Since that two-hour drive included Orlando International Airport, which Copa already flew to, why would it ever fly to Tampa?
"Pedro called me out in front of the mayor," Minner said, "and my new boss."
Copa said no. Over the next two years, there were more meetings, 12 in all, and more nos — until last week, when Copa unveiled plans to fly to Tampa International four times a week starting Dec. 17. It's a huge economic development win for the airport and the bay area.
This is the story of how it got done.
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Buckhorn has some not-so-fond memories of that May 2011 meeting.
"We showed up and they looked at us like we were tourists," the mayor said. "They were nice to us. But I think they thought they were sort of entertaining us."
It was clear Tampa Bay would have to come up with a good response to Heilbron's challenge: What could Tampa's airport offer Copa that Orlando's airport could not?
The next meeting was in October 2011 at a conference in Berlin.
This time, Minner showed Copa officials that Tampa International served a population of Central and South American origin comparable to Orlando International.
Tampa had 124,331 of those potential customers living near its airport, while Orlando had 135,167. The airline remained unconvinced.
Then, in March 2012, Tampa Bay drilled further down into the data. The delegation gave Copa a "heat map," based on U.S. Census data. It showed clusters of residents from Central and South America and their locations in relation to each airport.
There were no large clusters of more than 1,000 potential customers living between Tampa and Orlando. Tens of thousands were grouped a short drive from each airport.
That proved that Tampa Bay had its own market for Copa flights.
"We loved this," Minner said, "because we could finally say there's Orlando airport, here's Tampa's airport, and here is the population we serve."
Copa's then-director of planning, Jose Montero, now its CFO, was the first airline executive to get it.
"That was a pivot point," Minner said. "This was the 'aha' moment."
The two sides would meet more than a half dozen times in the next 14 months.
• • •
The sales pitch moved to a more personal touch.
"When we bring these airlines to town, we try to just dazzle them," Minner said. "We try to give them an experience they can't get anywhere else."
Montero was a huge baseball fan. In July 2012, Lopano took him to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. It was Rays versus Yankees. They sat behind the Rays dugout.
Montero's face appeared on the JumboTron.
"He's grinning ear-to-ear and all of a sudden his phone blows up," Minner said. "His wife and friends watching on ESPN in Panama saw him on TV."
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay kept working the data. Different Copa divisions had different needs. Network planning was on board, but sales needed convincing.
"They said … we need to understand who are the business clients in the Tampa Bay region?" Minner said. "Who would be most likely to use this service?"
That query came out of a January 2013 meeting in Panama City. On the ride back to the hotel, the group — Lopano; Minner; Justin Meyer, Tampa International's director of Air Service Development; Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. CEO Rick Homans; and Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce president Bob Rohrlack Jr. — sketched out a plan to survey Tampa Bay businesses.
They surveyed 246 businesses: 61 percent said they would increase their travel to Latin America if Tampa had nonstop service. More than half said they already travel to Latin America, making nearly 4,000 trips a year. About 40 percent of those businesses said they book 20 or more flights a year.
In May, Copa's American sales team visited Tampa Bay. It got an airborne tour of the beaches, and custom Rays jerseys with their names sewn onto the back.
The airport also offered Copa nearly half a million worth of airport fee waivers and marketing dollars to push the route. Bay area tourism and economic development organizations also pledged to donate hundreds of thousands worth of marketing dollars and efforts to promote the new Panama City route.
Weeks later, Copa called. The airline was coming to Tampa.
"There was a fair amount of screaming and yelling," Minner said.
• • •
Speaker after speaker lined up to address Wednesday's celebratory news conference.
Lopano. Buckhorn. The Tampa Hillsborough EDC. The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. The St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce. Visit Tampa Bay, the Hillsborough tourism agency. Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, its Pinellas counterpart. All of the agencies, governments and organizations that had chased after Copa from day one.
"When we first started on this journey, we were like the no-we-can't city," Lopano told the crowd. "We can't have international flights. We can't do that. No, we can't.
"Now we're not only the yes-we-can city. We're the watch-this city. We're on a roll and we ain't stopping."
(Friday's announcement that Swiss carrier Edelweiss Air was expanding its existing nonstop service to Zurich backs Lopano's boast.)
The biggest applause of all went to Joseph Mohan, a senior vice president for Copa.
"I've never had a standing ovation in my life," he told the crowd.
Afterward, he was as blunt as his CEO had been two years ago: Tampa was not on Copa's radar back then.
"We have a very long list of places we are considering," Mohan said. "This was not on the short list. When you look at other cities in the U.S., they are generally much better known as a destination or have much larger ethnic populations. This place doesn't jump out."
Tampa Bay never stopped trying, though.
"The business case didn't work two years ago," Mohan said, "and I think Tampa did two things. They continued to give us information that was important, that made it a better business case, that made it more compelling. It was also very important to us to see the support of the community."
Still, Copa signed only a one-year contract. But the airline has never retreated from a market in its 66-year history. All the organizations that helped bring Copa to Tampa Bay now have to help make the route work.
"Now the fun begins," Mohan said. "It looks like this has potential. But we have to realize that potential now."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404.