Continuing Growth: At Akron-Canton, dedicated marketing is making a difference

At Akron-Canton, dedicated marketing is making a difference

AKRON, OH – In August, the Akron-Canton Airport some 30 miles south of Cleveland set a new record for monthly

passenger counts. It’s the third time this year they’ve set a record at CAK, and overall for 2002 the airport has seen a 23 percent jump in airline passengers. At a time when few U.S. airports are witnessing airline traffic growth, CAK officials are reaping the benefits of a six-year program to boost marketing and work more closely with airline tenants.

"It’s butts in seats," says CAK airport director Fred Krum, "which is crude but accurate.

"It’s a lot easier to get more seats than to put butts into the ones you have. When you run very high load factors, then it’s real easy to go to an airline [for new service]. You put passengers on those airlines and life is wonderful."

It was not always so wonderful. Prior to 1996, Akron-Canton was part of the downward spiral which many smaller commercial airports have experienced since deregulation. On the other side of the equation, however, the airport has benefitted by being the No. 2 airport in a market of some 4.2 million people, more than a million of them closer to CAK than to nearby hub Cleveland Hopkins International.

Explains Krum, "We had been in the dumper, basically. We had mainly Metroliners, 19-seaters – a lot of planes that people didn’t like.

"This business is really a momentum business, and our momentum was downward. We had had four straight years of down. We were talking to carriers and nobody wanted to come. Then we came across AirTran, and they decided to come in February 1, 1996, and since then we’ve been on an upward trend."

Krum recalls that during his initial contact with AirTran, officials with the carrier were most interested in the type of marketing the airport was doing and who was the person heading up the effort. He relates that he was the marketing contact, and that the effort was at best minimal.

"I did a little marketing here and there; a few ads, nothing you would call a program," he says. "When I went down to visit AirTran in the fall of 1995, they asked if I had a marketing director, because the airports they use need a marketing director to help them be successful. I said, ’I’m getting one,’ which was an honest answer because at that very second I decided to get one. It took a few months."

Developing a Marketing Program

By mid-1996, Krum had found his marketing director, Kristie Van Auken, who had been working as an economic development specialist for the Chamber of Commerce. Recalls Van Auken, "The mid-90s were tough on regional airports. We were part of that whole trend. He [Krum] was feeling a little battered."

Her first task was to work with Krum in putting together a program, with a first-year budget of $60,000, she says. Today, her annual marketing budget has been holding around $400,000 annually.

Explains Van Auken, "I essentially went in there and looked at the distribution of airline tickets and how we could affect that distribution. We put together a plan that started hammering at the different distribution elements. The travel agency mix was very important then and we found that they didn’t even consider us. So we put together a travel incentive program for them.

"And we put out a whole new image of how we speak to the outside world: a new logo; brochures for hotels, travel agencies, core leader groups; an economic impact report that we could go out to the local community with for support."

Van Auken also researched how the local market viewed Akron-Canton Airport for use as a baseline in creating an advertising campaign. A big part of that campaign has been with billboards and with the Internet, she explains, with the airport website (www.akroncantonairport.com) attracting some 40,000 hits a month.

"We’ve done some geographic targeting [banner ads] within Travelocity and it’s been very effective for us. We can actually track the conversion of buyers from Cleveland to Akron."

Van Auken says that billboard advertising has also been effective, and she annually researches the local demographics to identify those people in the region who are most likely to use air service for travel. "We split them out into three different mixes for our advertising: family fun seekers, young upscale actives, and matures on the move. We craft our messages to resonate with the particular flyers. We know that they want to save time, money, and have a more peaceful experience," she explains.

The airport also publishes a quarterly newsletter which focuses heavily on air service growth.

Post-9/11 Initiatives

Akron-Canton Airport is served by AirTran, Delta, Comair, Northwest Airlink, United Express, and U.S. Airways. It was AirTran that started the dramatic upward climb in passenger counts in 1996. The addition of Delta on September 1, 2001 has had a similar impact during the past year.

"When Delta came in on 9/1, we had a 22 percent increase in our seats and then came 9/11, which was a speed bump for us. But we’re back now to where we’re about 25 percent above our seats from last year. We did have a temporary loss, but our seats have come back a lot more quickly here than it has in other places," explains Krum.

According to Krum, a central component of the marketing effort’s success has been keeping in close contact with the carriers. He says that proved to be even more important in the year since the 9/11 attacks.

"Kristie kept in constant contact with the carriers," he says. "The carriers were being very nimble about watching where bookings were coming back and they were adding capacity faster where they saw bookings."

The airport was already in the midst of its largest advertising campaign ever, says Krum, because of the introduction of Delta to the market. The focus, of course, was to fill the seats for Delta and the other carriers that had made a service commitment to Akron-Canton. After 9/11, instead of cutting back, CAK kept pushing.

Explains Krum, "After 9/11, we looked at the carriers who were looking at the bookings, which were coming back fast here. So we continued our advertising program and kept at it. We were out there marketing hard, and it was bringing seats back. We were getting more bookings; they [the carriers] were adding more seats; and we were adding more bookings.

"Even though we were running in the red because of security costs, we kept the advertising investment. In the last quarter of 2001, for the first time ever we lost money in a quarter but we kept saying, we’ve got to do this. We can’t stop and hope things get better. So I was a little nervous. We had to prepare the board and tell them we’re going to lose money and we had never done that."

He says that having an independent airport authority and related board of directors has afforded him more flexibility to accomplish such feats as post-9/11 advertising, as opposed to having to get the approval of a city council that would be dealing with other financial pressures. "We are much more nimble," says Krum. "We’re not going to do travel banks or programs like that, but we do offer marketing assistance, and that’s based on what the carrier sees and on what we see with a new airline and the marketplace."

Krum estimates that over time the airport’s marketing has switched 3-4 percent of the Northeast Ohio market from Cleveland Hopkins to CAK.

Competing with the Neighboring Hub

Actually, both Krum and Van Auken don’t view their efforts so much as competing with Cleveland International as it is a matter of capturing a market that would have naturally evolved. They have helped push it along and in the process helped define the role CAK will play in the region in the years ahead.

Says Krum, "We have been carving out this position. We have built an awareness of what it is we’re doing down here.

"We’re the second airport in a large metropolitan area. For instance, in L.A. you have five commercial airports, with LAX and four satellites. Well, we felt Northeast Ohio was big enough to have a satellite. There’s enough population, and our costs are low so that an AirTran would be far more interested in operating out of here than Cleveland, and not necessarily at the expense of Cleveland. For example, when AirTran started flying out of here to Atlanta, what happened in Cleveland? It’s traffic to Atlanta improved 43 percent. Why? Because the fares were lower.

"You don’t beat the big hub."

While officials at CAK have enjoyed the continuing growth for six years, it has created a need for terminal expansion. A master plan has been completed that takes the airport to five million passengers, with the current annual total approaching 900,000. The first phase of development will take the terminal to a capability of handling 1.5 million passengers within three years.

"We’re straining a little bit right now, but not terribly so," says Krum. "We’re not going to be very far behind the power curve, but more right on the power curve."

CAK is also expanding its main runway from 6,400 feet to 7,600, and is studying if that length will be adequate. "We just want to be able to get a 737-700 to L.A. from here on a hot day," says Krum.

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