Just Plane Serious

Posted on Nov 1, 2010 :: Cover Story
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Marty Lenss and Kim Sippola, photo by Shane VanBoxtel, Image Studios

Not long after starting as marketing director at the Outagamie County Regional Airport, Kim Sippola was talking with a business professional in downtown Appleton.

He asked where she worked. His reply astounded her:
“We have an airport?”

Marty Lenss, who took over as the airport’s executive director in 2008 – about a year after Sippola arrived on the scene, had similar experiences.

“I was amazed at the lack of awareness there was in the community about the airport and everything going on out here. I knew we had to kick it up a notch,” he says.

You might say that’s an understatement. As the business of air travel has become fiercely competitive – and the consolidation of airlines has changed the playing field dramatically for smaller markets nationwide – Lenss and Sippola have approached their jobs with a palpable sense of urgency. Is the airport meeting the demands of business, especially in the face of so many options? What must be done to keep it vital? What can be done to get local companies to spend more of their travel dollars here in Appleton rather than at airports hours away? What does the future hold?

And somehow, despite the very serious – possibly even scary – answers to such questions, the airport director and marketing director are able to step back from the intensity every now and then and allow a sense of levity in – just to keep it all in perspective. One day, they might preside over a heavy panel discussion with national speakers about the complexities of the airline industry as it relates to the local market. The next, they’re brainstorming promotional giveaways like model airplanes or a scavenger hunt for three oranges netting the winner a trip to Florida. They might be hobnobbing with an industry bigwig one weekend evening or hosting a Denver omelet breakfast on a weekday morning to kick off a new flight to the Mile High City. They are intense, but they enjoy a good laugh.

“The airport is vital to our community’s economic development and Marty and Kim have done a great job of attracting new services and making air travel as easy and convenient as possible for people doing business here,” says Jim Schlies, vice president of economic development for the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce. “We routinely meet with businesses as part of our retention efforts and always ask about the airport and how important it is to them – and the response is always favorable.”

While owned by the county, the airport is self funded and doesn’t rely on tax dollars to stay afloat. Instead, it operates on fees from airlines, onsite services and businesses renting space on the 1,697-acre site. At a time when the airline industry is struggling, Outagamie County Regional Airport is mixing it up with an innovative marketing strategy and broadening its revenue streams.
During the past year, the airport released a study from the state that pegged its economic impact at $407.5 million. Lenss and Sippola met with businesses to encourage them to fly from Appleton rather than points south. They also enhanced its marketing to leisure travelers by touting its nonstop routes to Las Vegas and Orlando. They’ve looked at other ways to bolster revenue, such as the purchase of Max-Air in July, which provided the airport’s fixed-base operator services. (Max-Air is now called Platinum Flight Center.)

Lenss came to Outagamie County Regional Airport from Dane County Regional Airport in Madison where he was director of operations/public safety. Sippola, who landed at the Appleton airport in 2007 after the county created a marketing position, worked for seven years at the Akron-Canton Airport in Ohio.

Last spring, Lenss and Sippola enlisted the help of community leaders to organize a breakfast forum to present their challenges, as well as a call to action. Airline industry experts, including Jim Koslosky, who has overseen a successful, strategic campaign to boost passengers as executive director at Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, discussed the state of the industry. This past year – while other airports have struggled – the Grand Rapids airport saw an 18 percent increase in the number of its passengers. With his experience in a similar-sized market, Koslosky has served as a sounding board for Lenss and his crew.

“The key to being a successful airport is marketing,” Koslosky says. “You need to realize that airlines don’t serve airports, they serve markets. Airports have cut a lot of capacity in recent years to stay profitable, so the competition is fiercer than ever. Communities and businesses in particular need to get out there and support their airport. That’s essential for growth.”
Lenss says changes implemented today may not pay dividends next month or even next year, but will down the line.

“I keep reminding myself this isn’t a sprint, but a marathon.”

Laying the groundwork

As marathon runners know, proper preparation is essential. That’s exactly what airport management has been doing for nearly two years. The first step was developing a consistent marketing strategy.
“We talked with travelers and asked them what they wanted when flying and the result from that is seen in our ‘Quick. Close. Convenient.’ campaign. Travel is stressful and people want it to be easy and they want to get home as soon as possible,” says Sippola, a mom to toddler twins who understands the necessity of keeping things as easy and stress-free as possible.

Billboards, print, radio and TV ads and an aggressive social media campaign promote the message to not only business and leisure travelers, but also the general community. “That goes back to the awareness problem we had. We want people to know we’re here and what we’re about,” says Sippola.

She oversees the airport’s Facebook and Twitter endeavors, which not only share airport and community info, but also award prizes, such as tickets to Timber Rattler games and last summer’s PGA Championship in Sheboygan County. “We want to be more top of mind and fun so we’re not just a place to fly out of,” she says.

That being said, being a place to fly out of is still the No. 1 revenue stream for the airport, whose mission is to be financially self-sufficient. Through the first seven months of the year, about 315,000 people passed through Outagamie’s turnstiles, a 1 percent decrease from a year ago.
For Lenss, one of the major challenges facing the airport is getting airlines to consider adding new routes and flights to Appleton. He says if Appleton gains a new airline or flight, that service is coming from another community.

“It’s a zero sum game. There are only a certain number of flights. You really need to make a strong business case for an airline to add another flight or bring a new destination here. It is so competitive. They are so conscious about cost. It’s not like how it used to be when they would just add a flight to add a flight,” he says earnestly. “You have to prove to the airline that it’s worth it for them to make a change.”

One way to do that is by keeping costs as low as possible for airlines flying into Appleton. The $3 million purchase of Max-Air, a fixed-base operator and provider of fuel and service to all planes at the airport, was a way to gain more control over the fuel cost and service offered to airlines.
“We had already taken steps to control rent and landing fees for the airlines, so the next step was to get a better control of the fuel prices. It’s part of our strategy to attract more airlines and flights to Appleton,” Lenss says.

Outagamie found success with attracting direct flights to Denver and Orlando in recent years, which opened up a new audience for the airport. “The Orlando flight has really expanded our market. Families from Manitowoc and to the west of the Fox Valley are taking a look at us for their travel needs since it’s such a convenient flight,” Sippola says.

Taking the airport to the next level will require community support – especially the support of local businesses, Lenss says. The June airport summit launched a campaign to convince local businesses that an investment in the airport today will pay future dividends.

“We are encouraging businesses to use our services here rather than flying out of another larger airport. They need to see us as a viable part of their business travel planning,” he says. “If we could get local companies to shift a small portion of their travel budget to our airport – let’s say it’s 5 percent – it would make a huge difference” in eventually bringing more travel options to Appleton.
Lenss isn’t worried about competition with Austin Straubel International Airport in Green Bay, which is less than 40 minutes away and flies more passengers than Outagamie every year: “We trade off passengers all the time.” Austin Straubel offers complimentary services, he adds, and both airports are able to adequately serve the New North.

Businesses need to understand while a flight out of Milwaukee or Chicago looks cheaper on paper, they need to also figure in the cost of gas, as well as the work time employees are losing by sitting in a car, Lenss says.

Koslosky goes further. He says top local CEOs and business leaders need to go along with the airport when it comes time to recruit airline service. “You really need to show that support. We had businesses pledge a portion of their travel budget to be used locally. At first, sure, it cost more to fly out of Grand Rapids, but as our numbers grew, we had more options and fares went down,” Koslosky says.

A strong airport is vital to the area, says Sue Humphrey, corporate travel manager for Thrivent Financial. With corporate employees split between Appleton and Minneapolis and financial representatives across the country, Humphrey guesses that on any day at least one Thrivent employee uses the local airport.

“Being located in a community with such a great airport is a real asset for our business. Having an airport close by really makes travel more efficient,” she says. “Besides helping us get to other places, having the airport here makes it easier for people to come to us. The airport is essential to the community’s economic health.”

The chamber’s Schlies echoes that assessment, remembering something the owner of Bel-Kaukauna said in 2006 when the company moved its headquarters from the Fox Cities to the Chicago area. “They told us it was because of the lack of direct flights out of Appleton. We know that having access is important to businesses getting their movers and shakers in and out of town.”
Sippola says the airport is surveying local businesses to find out their flight needs – is there a certain destination they’re looking for? What would they prefer when it comes to flight departure and arrival times? “We can’t help them if we don’t know what they’re looking for,” she says.

More than an airport

Lenss and company are looking at other ways to keep revenue flowing and help the airport stay aloft without county tax dollars. The airport is home already to several businesses, including Gulfstream Aerospace, Air Wisconsin Corp., FedEx and several businesses working out of the terminal serving travelers’ needs. With more than 800 employees, Gulfstream provides maintenance work on corporate jets and completes finishing work on new corporate jets. Air Wisconsin is the nation’s largest independently held regional airline, flying routes for US Airways and providing ground services for United Airlines. The airport’s FedEx operations continue to grow as the site serves as a mini-hub providing overnight, next day and freight service to locations in northern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan.

Looking to the future, Outagamie is eyeing two potential projects to bring in more revenue. The first is leasing land to a convenience store to be located near the airport’s entrance. Located at the high-traffic intersection of College Avenue and County CB, it’s a project that could happen in the next year.

The other project in the works is the construction of a state-of-the-art public safety training center for Fox Valley Technical College. The airport and FVTC agreed in principle on the project, which would accommodate hands-on, tactical training needs in the areas of law enforcement, fire protection and emergency response coordination. The college would lease the space from the airport, providing another income stream, while also bringing more people to the area. The key to the project is figuring out how to pay for it.

“We’re definitely excited about the FVTC project. It’s a good fit for both us and the college,” Lenss says. “Now, we just need to wait as that project funding comes together.”
In whatever it’s involved with, Lenss says the airport wants to be an active participant, not “just a landlord. We want to be responsive and make sure we’re meeting tenants’ needs.”

At the same time, Lenss and Sippola are getting the airport involved in more community projects, whether it’s sponsoring the Honor Flights, which take World War II veterans to Washington on a one-day trip to see the war memorials and monuments, or the children’s parade in downtown Appleton.

“We want to be an active member of the community in whatever we do,” Lenss says