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Sun Peaks and Colorado’s resorts setting an example

Successful air services rely on partnerships

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As Prime Air attempts to get a chartered air service flying into Pemberton within the next month, the success of regional airports in other resort communities has become a focal point.

Resort communities such as Sun Peaks as well as Vail and Steamboat Springs in Colorado have all benefited from regional airports.

In B.C., Sun Peaks convinced Horizon Airlines to start an air service into Kamloops airport last winter and in it’s first season the service attracted 8,400 customers.

This air service was a vital step for Sun Peaks because it is not situated close to a big population base, such as Vancouver, and therefore it’s more reliant on customers who fly in.

In light of this success Executive Director of Tourism Sun Peaks Christopher Nicolson, who is a former public relations manager for Whistler-Blackcomb, said he did not know why the stakeholders in Whistler and Pemberton had not facilitated an air service into Pemberton airport.

"The marketing people in Whistler are certainly very aware of the importance of an air service but I don’t have a good answer as to why it hasn’t been done yet," said Nicolson.

While the airport situation in Sun Peaks is similar to the one in Pemberton there are some differences.

The first is that unlike Pemberton, Kamloops has a working airport that is classified to accept regularly scheduled passenger service.

Pemberton airport is only classified by Transport Canada to accept chartered aircraft.

The other advantage Sun Peaks had in arranging their air service is that Kamloops has a bigger tax base than Pemberton and with more tax dollars comes more funding for community projects.

Where Whistler has a distinct edge on most other resorts is the number of visitors. Sun Peaks has about 300,000 skier visits a year whereas Whistler-Blackcomb has more than two million.

Whistler does not guarantee any airlines seats on flights into Vancouver International Airport or anywhere else.

Nicolson said the air service to Sun Peaks happened as a result of a series of partnerships with the resort, the city and a number of community groups.

"Each deal is different depending on the airline and in the Sun Peaks example we have a partnership between the properties, the hotel partners, the resort developer Sun Peaks Corporation and Tourism Sun Peaks," he said.

"We’re also working in close partnership with the City of Kamloops, YVR (Vancouver International Airport) who operate the Kamloops airport, and something called the Kamloops Airport Society which is basically a collection of stakeholders in the Kamloops area.

"It’s very much a community-driven thing because various stakeholders within the community have all jumped on board and have offered financial assistance, which is what it requires."

With so many people in the community involved in the expansion of the airport there is an enormous incentive for residents to use the airline services.

"The norm in an airline deal is that you guarantee a number of seats and you go for it, so it’s an incentive for the community to really try and drive seats on that airline," said Nicolson.

"Just like us, Tourism Whistler, Whistler-Blackcomb and the hotel properties all know that Seattle is a key market and they all know that direct flights into Seattle and into Pemberton is a market just waiting to be tapped.

"We (Tourism Sun Peaks and Sun Peaks Resort Corporation) were fortunate that the City of Kamloops and partners in Kamloops were very keen to increase air traffic.

"It was a partnership that was successful because we lifted about 8,400 people last year in our first year."

A similar situation exists in Colorado, in particular Vail, where the resort has been guaranteeing seats for airlines to fly into the Eagle County Regional airport since 1989.

According to Allen Best from the Vail Daily, approximately 40 per cent of the out-of-state skiing visitors to the resorts of Vail and Beaver Creek fly into Eagle County and the remainder fly into Denver International.

What makes Eagle County significant is the fact that the skiers who use that airport are statistically high-end customers that stay for longer and spend more.

The popularity of Eagle County has grown such that Vail Resorts is now petitioning the community to guarantee airline seats.

Such community funding for winter flights is already common practice at several ski areas, including Telluride, Crested Butte, and Jackson Hole.

Steamboat Springs adopted this community-based funding strategy about 10 years ago. There the ski company posts about 60 per cent of the guarantees, and the community about 40 per cent.

Another significant aid smaller airports have in attracting investors and competing with the major airports is that smaller airfields are usually more efficient.

"Another key component, and Pemberton would share this (with Sun Peaks), is that from the U.S. perspective the hassle factor of crossing the border is huge," said Nicolson.

"Coming into a Kamloops airport in the case of a Dash 8, you’ve got a 37-seater or a Q400 you’ve got a few more people but those are the only people going through customs.

"So in a small airport customs is very, very quick to move through and that hassle factor is virtually eliminated," he said. "And that is a huge advantage and a key selling point when we’re selling to U.S. markets."

Nicolson said the long-term goal of Sun Peaks resort was to organize a year-round service, which is exactly what Prime Air, Intrawest and the Pemberton council have been negotiating in Pemberton.

"From a tourist perspective Kamloops has a lot of different product, from golf product to adventure destination like whitewater rafting to fishing where a lot of people from longer haul destinations would come in.

"There’s also people in this neck of the woods that would use the flight to get out and that’s one of the tricks, you can bring people in but you also have to fill outgoing seats."

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