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Tampa International seeks help to fill international flights

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Published:   |   Updated: August 10, 2013 at 03:10 PM

TAMPA — When it comes to celebrating new flights, no one does it with more zest than Tampa International Airport.

May 2012 was Swiss month to celebrate the inauguration of Edelweiss Air flights between Tampa and Zurich, with weekly music by the Alpine Echo entertainers replete with cowbells, a sampling of chocolates and plenty of yodeling.

Panama hats and tropical smoothies accompanied the celebratory news conference last month announcing Copa Airlines' inaugural flights between Tampa and Copa's key Central and South American hub in Panama.

That prompted airport Chief Executive Officer Joe Lopano to kid his staff at a recent board meeting, “One thing is certain, you really know how to throw a party.”

But Lopano's more serious side showed when he said: “Getting the new flights is the second hardest thing. The hardest thing is keeping them here.”

While the incentive program Lopano created two years ago helped persuade Copa and Edelweiss to launch Tampa service, now local business groups must work to enhance passenger demand to make the flights profitable enough to continue as well as bring new spending into the area.

In the past, airlines have added and discontinued flights between Tampa and Germany, Costa Rica and Mexico.

But Edelweiss has announced it would add a second weekly flight after its Tampa incentive program runs out and Copa has said its never left a market its entered.

Lopano maintains it's not simply a matter of competing for an airline's interest between Tampa and another destination.

An airline might evaluate its profit on a flight between Tampa and a city in Europe versus using the same airplane, for example, between a different European destination and Japan. Then executives choose the route with the best returns.

“A lot of different elements go into maintaining new flights,” Lopano said. “The most important is that we have been approved (since June 2011) for an incentive program for marketing dollars. We can ensure we are making a flight successful right away, not subsidizing it, but investing in a message to help sell tickets.”

That dynamic is under way to support Copa's four weekly flights beginning Dec. 17 to Tocumen International Airport in Panama City, the airline's headquarters and primary hub.

Early bookings for Tampa's Copa flights are coming in according to expectations, said Copa vice president-commercial Joseph Mohan.

“However, (bookings) are much stronger with Tampa as the origin vs. as a destination,” Mohan said in an email. “It is fundamental that we quickly implement the marketing plan we are jointly developing to take advantage of the Latin high season, December and January.

“Until we can build the brand awareness for the Tampa Bay area in Latin America we are still counting heavily on local support to sustain us.”

The airport, and Hillsborough and Pinellas visitors bureaus, chambers and economic development agencies have provided cash and in-kind marketing incentives to Copa of about $1.2 million and another $750,000 for Edelweiss.

On Aug. 2, officials with Visit St. Pete/Clearwater and Visit Tampa Bay, Hillsborough's visitors bureau, met at Copa's Miami offices to continue to refine marketing efforts, in particular to help the inbound ridership Copa seeks and the visitors bureaus' covet.

“We reviewed a lot of moving parts with Copa in Miami,” Visit St. Pete/Clearwater Deputy Director David Downing said. “Those involved public relations, advertising and many others.

“Copa's expertise stood out. For example, we suggested an event in Colombia on a Thursday night and Copa said basically people don't come out on Thursday nights, but Wednesday would work. Small things like that can make a big difference.”

The Pinellas visitors bureau has jumped into the promotions for Copa in a big way, funding $200,000 of incentive programs for each of two years for Copa and $120,000 for each of two years to support Edelweiss.

In addition, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater Executive Director D.T. Minich announced plans to budget $200,000 for a new department to oversee all sales and marketing in South America.

Visit Tampa Bay, Hillsborough County's visitors bureau, made a direct cash marketing contribution of $50,000 a year for two years to support the Copa flights, Trade show participation, market representation and media promotions will cost about $200,000 a year for two years.

Plenty of people have stepped up to the podium to celebrate the airport's recent successes in drawing new flights, Visit Tampa Bay President and Chief Executive Officer Santiago Corrada said.

“Now the real work begins,” he said. “We have to fill the flights to be successful.”

Rick Homans, president and chief executive of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp., said his agency's goal is to create tangible business connections between Tampa Bay and the markets the airlines serve so that business people are flying back and forth.

“We have told Joe Lopano we agree on the priority markets from the community and the airport,” Homans said. “Latin America is a huge one and we have a trade mission to Brazil in October. “We also support expanding flights to Europe and Canada.”

Homans cites the collaboration between Pinellas and Hillsborough groups as a key factor in gaining and supporting new flights, a sentiment Tampa businessman Bill Carlson, a longtime advocate for international flights his agency uses, agrees with.

“The airport is working closely with all of the business community and the business leadership has stepped up,” said Carlson, president of Tampa-based Tucker/Hall public relations and communications consulting firm. “It has not always been like this.”

tjackovics@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7817

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