TAMPA — Not quite a decade ago, Tampa International Airport offered a meager 24 nonstop international flights a week — fewer than it did in the 1990s and a fraction of what you could book at that time out of Orlando (199 weekly nonstops), Fort Lauderdale (359) or Miami (1,300).
That's changed since the arrival of airport CEO Joe Lopano in 2011 with a growing roster of nonstop overseas destinations: Zurich; Frankfurt; Reykjavík, Iceland; Panama City, Panama; and, most recently, Amsterdam.
To do it, the airport has pursued a three-part strategy, airport director of research and air service development Kenneth Strickland said Friday at Café con Tampa, a weekly current events discussion group. Here are those parts:
Before Lopano arrived, Strickland said, the perspective was "absolutely that Orlando is the destination for international flights."
That attitude showed in the numbers: More than half the Tampa residents flying to London caught their flight out of Orlando, which had more competition and cheaper fares. But the attitude changed. Most people with Strickland's job tend to have backgrounds in marketing or sales or airport operations. They often know each other and many have worked at more than one airport. Strickland was an outsider, with previous experience in market research on the behavior of Home Shopping Network viewers and Caesars casino gamblers, among others.
"I came into my role and said, 'Hey, I don't mind telling an airline this is why you shouldn't be flying to Orlando' ... because I didn't have any friends at any other airports," he said. "And I haven't made any."
One thing Tampa International started to do, and there was some controversy to it, was offer incentives such as a two-year waiver of gate fees and assistance with marketing the Tampa flights for two years.
The results: Tampa's nonstop international flights have about tripled. And since Halloween, when Norwegian Airlines launched service from Tampa to Gatwick, 75 percent of local residents heading to London have flown out of Tampa.
An airline thinking of adding an international flight might look at a handful of similar fast-growing mid-sized markets: Tampa, but also places like Nashville, Austin, Raleigh, N.C. or Indianapolis.
As the conversation narrows, it helps a lot to have help from Visit Tampa Bay, Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater and increasingly Visit Pasco, which Strickland says is doing more and more good work in sports marketing. Those organizations' marketing funds and legwork in overseas markets help make international flights happen, he said.
And that includes Visit Florida, which was marked for elimination but got a one-year reprieve during this year's legislative session. It helps with introductions, but also supports the local organizations.
"If you were to ask me what concerns me with respect to my business and continuing this growth, it's this potential to see the destination marketing organizations cut," he said. "Without Visit Florida ... there is no Amsterdam flight to Tampa."
Tampa International buys traveler data from Airlines Reporting Corp., and it can look at flight booking data broken down by zip code to determine how many people are traveling through Tampa on any given day, where they live, where they are going and what airport they are using. Data from tourism and convention recruiters also helps determine why they travel. Last year, Southwest launched nonstop service to San Diego after Tampa airport analysts determined that the route was ripe for business travelers in the defense, aerospace and medical industries.
Many airports get that data through consultants, but Strickland felt comfortable using it. A week after the airport bought it, Norwegian Airlines asked for an analysis of potential Tampa-to-London passenger traffic. The request came in the Friday before Mother's Day. Norwegian wanted the report the following Monday, and got it.
"That data," he said, "is what got us the flight."
Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times