DES MOINES — From the end of 2002 to the end of 2004, Des Moines International Airport experienced record growth, increasing enplanements by some 114,000 to nearly one million. The airport has managed to keep fairly close to that number for 2005, according to Roy Criss, marketing consultant and airport spokesperson. However, enplanements are down less than one percent this year over last, which equates to some 5,100 enplanements. Criss says integral to attracting new — and retaining existing — air service is educating the community on how the airport industry works and what using DSM means to the region.
Criss is a private contract marketing consultant for the Des Moines International Airport Authority board. He is not an employee of the city or the airport. As marketing consultant, he also serves as airport spokesperson. His current contract ends August 2006.
As for the slight dip in 2005 numbers over 2004, “I think there’s a couple of reasons,” explains Criss. “People here are hypersensitive to ticket prices ... And I also think it’s because we increased our enplanements so tremendously over the last couple of years.
“If we would have had this year last year, everyone would have been tickled to death... But we just blew ourselves out of the water last year.”
In 2004, DSM lost ATA/Chicago Express service to Midway. The airport has not seen any new entrant carriers since that time, but new routes have been announced.
The central Iowa airport competes for passengers with Kansas City International in Kansas City, MO, some three hours south. “We’re in competition with some bigger airports in the region, says Criss. When enplanements at Des Moines increased, Kansas City noticed and came running to our backyard and bought a lot of advertising on the morning radio stations. And anytime you make those vague generalities of ‘You can save 30 percent,’ there’s a certain number of people who are going to buy that.”
Laying Out the Numbers
Criss says his job has been to “educate the community on how this industry works” in an effort to encourage travelers to choose the Des Moines airport and, in turn, improve service at the airport.
Says Criss, “You wouldn’t believe the number of people who call, write, stop me the grocery store, poke me in the chest and say, ‘I can get a ticket to Bend, OR out of Kansas City for $300; will the airport match that price?’”
Using the analogy of a shopping mall manager that cannot dictate at what prices its tenants sell products, Criss says he explains to residents that the airport can have nothing to do with the pricing of airfares.
Another part of the education has been Criss’s marketing program, which he calls “Do the Math.”
“It’s really very simple,” he says. “All you have to do is do basic math to figure it out and understand it — it’s supply and demand. The more customers an airport has, the more the carriers who operate at that airport have the ability to keep their ticket prices down.”
A second layer to the marketing campaign is creating a formula to help people quantify the difference of flying out of another airport. The Internal Revenue Service puts the cost of driving a car at 48.5 cents per mile; the cost of driving to Kansas City or Omaha from Des Moines generally makes up the difference in the cost of an airline ticket.
Adds Criss, “Obviously there are some ticket prices where the gaps are much bigger. If you’re truly doing the math and there’s a savings of $400 or $500, then I say God bless you, have a safe trip.”
Reminding the community of the economic impact of the airport on the region is another aspect of Criss’s marketing campaign. “As more people use the airport, more jobs are created,” says Criss. “So I’m driving that message too, along with the message that the only way you’re ever going to get increased and enhanced service is not by going someplace else.
“I have people who say to me, ‘I’m going to keep driving to Omaha and getting on Southwest planes until you get Southwest to come here,’ and I have to tell them, that’s the very reason why [Southwest] won’t come here.”
Des Moines International has used various forms of media to market the airport, including billboards, radio, and television. In September and early October, Criss had four radio interviews which he says “allows me to explain how the airport works, and I’ll take calls.”
Criss has an advertising budget of some $100,000 annually, which he says is “pretty good for an airport this size.”
An advertising agency has collected empirical data which Criss is using to make sure the marketing messages are being delivered to the appropriate people: business or leisure travelers. “I’m hoping different messages are being delivered to different end-users, so that you’re not hearing the message that you don’t need to hear all the time, and hearing the message you need to.”
Determining the best delivery method for each traveling group is based on statistics such as age, income range, and how often they travel.
Explains Criss, if the research shows that predominantly 39- to 55-year old females need to hear the “Do the Math” at 48.5 cents per mile for leisure travel, then the airport wants to make sure it’s positioning that message on a radio station with similar demographics.
The airport also had a four-week program with Casey’s General Store, a chain of convenience stores, for tank toppers (advertising mounted on top of the gas pump). Between Des Moines and Kansas City, says Criss, there are some 50 stores which feature the advertisements which read: “What do your friends and neighbors know that you haven’t discovered yet?” along with the DSM logo and web address. Inside stores, brochures on the airport are available.
Additionally, Criss has public speaking engagements with community groups, and has what he calls reciprocal partnerships with the local zoo and the AAA baseball team, the Iowa Cubs.