COLUMBIA — A Northwest Airlines representative came to Columbia this week and met with MU officials, travel agents and representatives of local businesses to tell them about the commercial air service provider that will start its Memphis flights here in August.
Jeff Brand met with university types on Wednesday and nearly 30 business folks for a Thursday lunch at the Tiger Hotel. Then he met with travel agents over breakfast at the downtown Upper Crust restaurant on Friday.
The Missourian could not attend any of the meetings without interrupting and ending them, given that Brand is forbidden by Northwest Airlines policy from speaking in the presence of any press. The Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau, however, provided a list of certain stakeholders present at Thursday’s meeting, which was hosted by the Columbia Chamber of Commerce.
Mesaba will begin providing three flights per day between Columbia and Memphis on Aug. 19. Under its contract with the U.S. Department of Transportation, it will receive an annual subsidy of $2.2 million per year to provide the service.
The conversations Brand joined during his visit complemented the city’s efforts to market the commercial flights coming to Columbia Regional Airport. In addition, the city is working to drum up interest in the new airline with a series of guerrilla advertising techniques aimed at attracting all types of travelers.
Bob Gerding, a partner at a certified public accountants firm in Columbia, attended Thursday’s event. Gerding said he has never used local commercial air service but will in the future. It’s a boost for the regional economy, more convenient for him than a shuttle to St. Louis and a good way to combat rising gas prices, he said.
“I did not know that they had so many direct flights out of Memphis, both nationally and internationally,” Gerding said of Northwest Airlines. “I was blown away.”
The nearly 80 connections available from the Memphis hub would increase with a likely merger between Northwest and Delta airlines that is still in the works.
Wayne Whitehead attended Thursday’s meeting to learn whether fares from Columbia to Memphis would be affordable and convenient enough for his business. Mesaba has said its one-way fares will be $95.
“Of course, it was good to see so much enthusiasm from the airport manager and the gentleman from Northwest Airlines,” Whitehead said, referring to Kathy Frerking and Brand. “If we can just convince people to fly out of Columbia, that’s the main thing.”
Whitehead is one of the Columbia directors at Shafer, Kline & Warren Inc. The company, headquartered in Kansas, just started a mixed-use project in Tunica, Miss., that is intended to improve retail and residential infrastructure in the town, which is only about 30 miles from Memphis and its airport. Whitehead said Memphis flights would be an obvious advantage for his company.
But it will take more information to convince Whitehead that fares out of Columbia are more affordable than the alternatives.
“It’s hard to say,” he said. “I didn’t really get good answers (from the meeting).”
On Wednesday, Brand spoke with MU’s business services department. Paul Toler, the department’s director, said on Friday that he learned a lot about the perks Northwest Airlines offers to big businesses. MU officials look for ways to maximize time and money for students, faculty and staff, Toler said, especially because MU spends millions of dollars on travel each year.
“For one, we’re excited about the opportunity good commercial air service will present to the university,” Toler said.
The advantages of Columbia flights to Memphis include shorter connecting times, fewer connections to reach international destinations and more nonstop flights, said Chyrstal Shiverdecker, a consultant at Summit Travel.
Shiverdecker said she deals mostly with leisure travelers booking trips to Memphis primarily to visit family. And based on her recent sales and conversations with customers, Memphis is more of a connection destination than a vacation destination. She added that, for vacation, many travelers look to Florida as their final destination.
“A lot of people want beach vacations,” Shiverdecker said.
Brand likely did not reach this group of leisure travelers in his time here. But that wasn’t his purpose.
Lorah Steiner, director of the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Brand met with the business community this week because that’s what makes the most sense.
“If I sell copiers, I want to find out who are my major purchasers of copiers and want to go talk with them,” Steiner said, crafting an analogy between an essential office machine and Columbia’s essential air service program.
The city is stepping up its marketing efforts, as it promised earlier this summer it would do, to reach mid-Missourians that Brand did not during his visit.
Steiner browsed a Web site for the Eastern Iowa Airport on Thursday. The site, crairport.org, is the model for Columbia Regional Airport’s new Web portal, which Steiner said will be up and running in about a month. The site will track flights in real time and list fares for flights out of Columbia, among other features.
Radio and print advertising is in full swing, too, casting its net wide in Columbia, as well as in the Lake of the Ozarks and toward St. Louis. The city is looking to put billboards up along Interstate 70 soon.
It must now find a main contact at Northwest Airlines to act as marketing spokesperson for the essential air service program, although the airline is already doing more than any other provider the airport has worked with in the past, Steiner said.
“We want (Northwest Airlines) to look as good as we perceive them to be,” she said.