Tampa Bay's long courtship of Copa Airlines pays off — and doesn't stop

Published Sept. 13, 2013

TAMPA — Forgive Copa Airlines chief executive officer Pedro Heilbron if he was constantly looking over his shoulder during his frenetic press tour of Tampa International Airport.

Wherever he went on Thursday, airport CEO Joe Lopano lurked nearby.

"You know, some people call him a stalker," Heilbron joked. "No matter where we went, whenever someone from Copa was there, he and his staff were there."

Lopano, his airport team and their political and economic development allies spent 2½ years pursuing Copa, trying to convince the airline that Tampa Bay was ready for its first direct connection to a major Latin American hub. Their tenacity was rewarded in July, when Copa announced that it will fly four times a week from Panama City to Tampa starting Dec. 16.

The courting of Copa, though, will never really end.

For the route to be successful, seats must be booked, planes filled and new markets built. Local tourism officials must sell the concept of Tampa Bay as a vacation destination to Latin American tourists more familiar with Orlando's theme parks and South Florida's beaches.

"We celebrate the win," said Visit Tampa Bay CEO Santiago Corrada, who heads Hillsborough County's tourism agency. "But there's a whole lot of work that has to follow."

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Copa is one of the fastest growing, most modern and most profitable airlines in the world. It serves 66 destinations in 29 countries. When it enters a market, it does not retreat.

"There is no market, no city, in the 66 years of our history that we're not servicing today," Heilbron said.

Tampa Bay does not want to be the first. But the airline only signed a one-year contract.

To ensure Copa stays here, local officials must create a market for Tampa Bay tourism from scratch in Latin America.

It sounds daunting. Tampa Bay has beaches, but so does South Florida. Orlando and South Florida both have shopping, and Orlando has the theme parks. How can Tampa Bay compete?

Ernesto "Tito" Orillac, the vice minister of tourism for the Republic of Panamá, believes the bay area's advantage is that it's a smaller-scale locale that's not as crowded, far-flung or densely packed. The beaches are more convenient and there are plenty of hotels and dining, entertainment and nightlife options.

"It is a very family-friendly city," Orillac said. "You can go to a smaller airport that is easier to access, you have easier access to shopping — and Latin Americans love to go shopping."

D.T. Minich, the CEO of the Pinellas tourism agency Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, said those tourists aren't just looking for luxury brands.

"I've had Brazilians come in and spend $500 to $600 at Walgreens in a few minutes because the stuff is so much cheaper," he said. "Miami is a great destination, but you don't think of it as a family destination and Orlando is absolutely a family destination, but we have the beaches."

Tourism is big business for Tampa Bay, and Corrada said direct flights here will fuel that.

"Traveling needs to be convenient to be effective," he said, "and direct flights make it convenient. You don't want to transfer two or three times. Then you might not even make it to the destination."

Heilbron said Latin America will like Tampa Bay.

"Once discovered," he said, "this area has incredible potential."

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The story of how Hillsborough and Pinellas agencies courted Copa is one local officials love to tell. But it's another thing to hear the same story from the object of their affections.

Airport officials needed to convince the airline that the numbers made sense, that Tampa Bay had enough business travel to justify the route without cannibalizing Copa's successful route to Orlando. The bay area wasn't even on Copa's radar. There were more attractive suitors.

It took time to build Tampa Bay's case, along with persistence and a personal touch from local leaders like Lopano, Corrada and Minich.

"We're bottom-line oriented, we're numbers oriented," Heilbron said. "We love friendly, but that's not going to convince us. But that opens doors, that gets us to listen, that gets us to pay attention.

"But if they had not been that way, maybe we would have stopped listening."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at (813) 226-3404, or @jthalji on Twitter.