Business and tourism leaders from across Missoula gathered in the airport Thursday night to announce a new campaign aimed at growing revenue to bring more airlines and flight options to the Garden City.
With a new air service announcement expected in the coming months, backers of the campaign, dubbed Take Flight Missoula, believe they’re on track to expand the city’s air service, a move that could lower fares and serve as a boon to local businesses.
“When we kept seeing the need over and over again, looking at what’s happening in Bozeman and Billings – competing against Idaho and Washington for that same market share – we realized we needed to step in and help plan for air-service expansion and get more seats into Missoula,” said Jim McGowan, CEO of Windfall. “The strategy is pretty simple.”
Windfall, a local ad agency, was contracted by the Missoula Economic Partnership in July to help spearhead the new campaign, which looks to raise around $250,000 each year. The revenue would be on hand as airport officials negotiate with airlines that are considering service to Missoula.
Other communities have revenue programs in place, setting Missoula at a disadvantage when competing for expanded service. Airlines often require such guarantees when entering new markets to ensure they’re compensated if the flights don’t fill.
“The playing field has completely changed,” said Barb Neilan, executive director of Destination Missoula, which serves as a partner in the program. “In order to be competitive and get the service in here that serves our whole community, we need to have this guaranteed fund – one the community gets behind and is willing each year to dedicate money to.”
McGowan on Thursday unveiled “Take Flight Missoula” and its associated domain. He also described a two-tiered approach aimed at drumming up cash contributions from local businesses, along with services the program could sell as incentive packages.
The model is based on a similar program in place in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
“The first wave is going to go after direct cash contributions to drive to that target of $250,000 this first year to get the organization moving forward,” McGowan said. “We’re also going to go out and solicit services, which is why tourism was a good fit. Our hope is after year one, it will be completely sustainable.”
Backers have been working for nearly three years to establish a program capable of generating the revenue needed to make the city more competitive in the changing world of air travel.
But Thursday night’s coming together of high-level businesses, including local hospitals, banks and technology leaders, reinvigorated the effort.
“Five or six year ago, this wouldn’t have happened,” said airport director Cris Jensen. “I’m more enthusiastic today than I have ever been. I know we’ll be successful, and I know we’ll have an air service announcement in the not-so distant future.”
Last year, Missoula International Airport landed a $600,000 Small Community Air Service Development grant. Local businesses also invested $400,000 to match, providing a package valued at $1.2 million when in-kind services from the airport are included.
That pool of funding has enabled airport officials to negotiate with both United Airlines and American Airlines in an effort to establish nonstop service to Texas. It’s expected that American Airlines could begin serving Missoula next year. It has already entered the Bozeman and Billings markets with service to Dallas/Fort Worth.
But local business leaders, along with the airport, are also looking at other markets. Building the revenue guarantee through Take Flight Missoula could position them to act as new opportunities open up.
That, the Missoula Economic Partnership believes, will drive down the price of local fares, benefiting leisure travelers while making the city more attractive to businesses looking to locate in Missoula.
The Tourism Business Improvement District presented a $50,000 check to the program on Thursday night.
“We need that revenue source to attract new airlines into our market,” said James Grunke, president and CEO of MEP. “We’ve spent the last 18 months looking at the best practices across the country for developing a revenue guarantee program. We think we have a final strategy.”