Trey Grayson, president of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, remembers the Bengals’ Thursday night loss to the Cleveland Browns Nov. 6, 2014 vividly.
He was part of a group of local business executives hosting Southwest Airlines at Paul Brown Stadium.
“Normally, I’m not good in those settings because I want to watch the game,” says the avid Bengals fan. That night, he says, “I didn’t have a problem missing any game action to talk to Southwest about why they should come to Cincinnati because the game was so bad.”
One of the things he learned is that airlines usually don’t make decisions quickly.
“They were looking out a couple years,’’ he says.
Southwest’s decision-making process culminated in January when the nation’s largest domestic carrier announced it would launch eight daily flights from the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport June 4—five to Chicago-Midway and three to Baltimore-Washington.
Southwest and airport officials say the cooperation and support demonstrated by businesses on both sides of the river was vital to its decision.
“The business community on both sides of the river helped drive us to be able to make the move into Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky,” says Dave Harvey, Southwest’s managing director for business development.
“The support of local businesses, leaders and travel managers gave us the confidence that the air service market was ready for the Southwest brand,” he says.
At the announcement, Candace McGraw, CVG CEO, jokingly called landing Southwest her “great white whale.” She says her first trip after becoming CVG’s top executive more than five years ago was to Southwest’s Dallas headquarters.
“We’re their largest unserved market. They needed to be here,” she says.
“When Southwest saw the business community acting in a collective way for the benefit of the region that made it an easy decision,” she says.
Part of the reason was because CVG’s traffic is growing. Last year, the airport had its biggest growth in passenger traffic in more than a decade, up more than 7 percent from 2015.
More traffic means lower costs for airlines in the form of lower landing fees.
“We’re a very cost-effective place to operate,” McGraw says. “And Southwest saw the growth here.”
Dallas-based Southwest built its growth and reputation as low-cost, high-service carrier by flying into less-crowded metro areas where it could turn around flights quickly on its fleet of Boeing 737s.
But as the airline has grown it’s focused more on the long-distance business traveler and competing directly with other large carriers.
Grayson says Southwest needed to be reassured that the local businesses would support it.
“This was such a Delta-dominated market because of all the nonstops over the years,” he says. “[Southwest was] trying to gauge whether business travelers, not leisure travelers,would be open to it. It’s one thing to come in with lower fares to locations where there is demand but would [businesses] actually switch over?”
A coalition of local business groups including the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, the Northern Kentucky Chamber, REDI and Northern Kentucky Tri-ED, the Cincinnati Business Committee and the Cincinnati Regional Business Committee pursued a two-pronged effort. One was to identity the ticket demand from local businesses. The other piece was to get pledges of marketing support for Southwest once service was launched.
McGraw says the airport is actively trying to recruit new carriers and improve local service, but it can’t provide financial or marketing support for one carrier over the others.
“That is really a business community activity,” says Grayson. Much of the effort was focused on the Cincinnati side of the river, which generates most of the business travel.
“There was an effort to grab companies that flew a lot to certain markets and gauge what their usage might be,” says Grayson.
The effort not only included the region’s biggest corporations but “but also the mid-cap companies that fly regularly to engage them,” he says.
A spokesman for Southwest says, “We are working with local travel managers on commitments but we wouldn’t comment on specifics such as dollar amounts of travel that’s included.”
The airline says it’s not unusual to seek those types of commitments.
“It’s vital for us to know that we already have support before launching a new market or new destination,” he says.
While it was no secret that the airport was interested in landing service from Southwest or another leading low-cost carrier such as Jet Blue, the local business effort was largely a secret. That was by design, says Grayson.
“There were articles about how in other communities there were very public recruiting efforts by the business community and we didn’t have one,” he says. “It was kind of frustrating because we knew efforts were going on but we chose not to go public.”
Partly he says it was to not create expectations that couldn’t be fulfilled.
“These are private companies making decisions you can’t control,” he says.
Additionally, he says, “the belief was that Southwest would make a decision based on the merits and not be swayed by the PR stuff.”
That was probably a sound decision in hindsight because while Southwest expanded here it ended service in Dayton and Akron. A public effort might have created the incorrect impression that local effort stole service from those cities, Grayson says.
“It was all about: We believe you can do business here. There’s enough opportunity based on the numbers.”
For its part, Southwest is already looking at the future.
“We’re already looking ahead to see where our customers are heading so that we can continue bringing nonstop travel that our customers are looking for,” says Harvey in a statement.
For the region, the Southwest effort may have other dividends.
“I think it builds stronger ties for the future,” says Grayson. “We have a great leader in Candace McGraw and we have the engagement of the business community from both sides of the river to promote the airport in a way we never have had before.”
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