These days, smaller cities are getting a bigger share of meeting business.

Not only are companies holding more regional meetings and choosing sites that are inexpensive to fly to, but they're also responding to a lingering reluctance to travel long distances. In an informal reader poll done in late April on our Web site (www.meetingsnet.com), 50 percent of respondents said they were holding more regional meetings since 9/11; a similar recent poll of members of the MIMlist, a listserv for the meeting industry, found just over a third of respondents holding more regional meetings.

At the same time, many smaller cities have lost significant airlift. Hundreds of flights and 116 routes have been cut nationwide since September 11. Many were to small cities such as Eugene, Ore., which saw its 20 United Airlines and United Express commuter flights cut in half.

US Airways spokesman David Castelveter says that his airline reduced capacity by 23 percent after September 11, mostly by cutting the frequency and size of airplanes on selected routes. “We're slowly bringing it back — we're at around 20 percent now — but the number of traveling passengers isn't where it was pre-9/11, and many organizations have furloughed employees who used to travel.”

This situation has presented a special problem for planners: Will they be able to get their attendees to their meetings — and back out again — conveniently and expeditiously?

Don't Assume

“You can't assume anymore that that five o'clock flight out is going to be there,” says Christine Duffy, president and COO of Philadelphia-based McGettigan Partners. “In the past, planners didn't give much thought to lift — they knew it was there. Now, before you get that contract written, you have to make sure you can get your people into and out of your destination within the prescribed amount of time.”

That was the problem facing Barbara McManus, vice president of meeting management for Embryon Inc., Somerville, N.J. In January, McManus was looking to book a small meeting for 20 people for May in Charleston, S.C.

“There just weren't a lot of seats left to handle even our small meeting,” she says, “and the ones that were available were very expensive, so we wound up looking elsewhere. I've had no problems with the large-market cities in terms of lift or reasonable fares — it's some of the smaller cities where it's tough to combine sufficient lift on the dates you need and at good fares.”

“The typical question we get isn't ‘Do you have sufficient airlift?’” says Tim McNeil, deputy director of the Greater Omaha, Neb., CVB. “It's more, ‘Do you have an airport?’ I think they're worried they'll have to land in Wichita and take a covered wagon to get here.” But Omaha in fact does have an airport that is a five-minute drive from the new convention center that is scheduled to open in August 2003, and plenty of direct flights from prime locations such as Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, and Pittsburgh. “While we were down about 30 percent last September, we've already regained half of what was cut, and by summer we should be flush,” says McNeil.

Hartford, Conn., another city with a new convention center coming online, this one in 2005, also isn't worried. Its Bradley International Airport is served by 18 carriers that offer same-plane service to 75 U.S. and Canadian cities, which adds up to nearly 275 flights per day.

Smaller markets that are within a couple of hours' drive from major airports appear not to be hit as hard as places such as Eugene, Ore., which saw its flights cut from 76 to 49 a day after September 11. Two years ago, America West and Horizon Air added three direct daily flights each from Phoenix and Los Angeles, respectively. Each of those additions has been cut to two daily flights. On top of that, United has downsized its equipment on daily flights to and from Denver, resulting in fewer seats. (One flight from Seattle, cut after September 11, has been reinstated.)

“We've been hit hard, and there is concern over lift, but we do have an advantage because we're in the middle of the state, only about two hours' drive from the Portland airport,” says Pat Phillips, vice president of convention marketing for the Convention and Visitors Association of Lane County.

Special Orders

Until the air travel market rebuilds to its former glory, airlines say they're prepared to help planners concerned about lift. “If for some reason we had to eliminate a market your group was traveling to, of course we'd work with you to make arrangements with another carrier. It's our goal to work with you to find suitable solutions,” says US Airways' Castelveter.

“What we do there is offer extra sections — that is, another aircraft — that follows closely behind the scheduled flight, to ensure that a group can get in and out within its prescribed time frame,” says George Coyle, product manager for group and meeting travel for American Airlines in Dallas.

American's policy is that 60 percent of every flight is blocked for groups — a group being defined as 10 or more travelers. When need be, says Coyle, that percentage can be expanded. But key to making that happen is planners giving as much advance notice of their plans as possible.

“As far as blocking goes, if a group can ensure that it will use the seats they say they need, and is willing to put up the required deposit money, we can expand the percentage of group seats we make available on a given flight. The same is true if we need to upgrade the size of the plane for a particular flight to accommodate a group. We're more willing to do that with longtime corporate or association clients, as opposed to new clients — but even with new ones. We want to get people back on our flights,” says Coyle.

It's the same at United Airlines which, systemwide, has regained about 1 percent of its service levels after a 20 percent cut post-9/11. Routes are being reinstated on a market-by-market basis. “We are willing to add extra sections for groups,” says Juan Carlos Cruz, manager of industry relations. “I suggest that meeting planners call us way ahead of time when planning an event.”

If there's one universal piece of advice when it comes to requiring extra lift, it is: Plan ahead.

“I'd bet many planners aren't aware that there's an additional 5 percent off the published flight rate if you book flights more than 60 days in advance,” says Coyle.

Another factor to consider: transportation once you're on the ground. “With the airline cutbacks, a lot of shuttle companies and cab companies have done what a lot of companies in other industries have — they've laid people off, especially in smaller cities,” says Ed Simeone of Webster, N.Y.-based Fusion Productions, who works in Nashua, N.H.

“Don't forget that once you get to the airport, you have to get to your hotels and convention centers. Make sure that's not going to be a problem.”

On the Rebound

When is airlift expected to return to normal?

United is seeing a gradual return: Since January, the airline has added flights to some smaller markets, including Richmond, Va.; Des Moines, Iowa; Seattle; and Charlotte, N.C. “Before September, we had between 2,300 and 2,400 daily flights internationally. That fell to 1,600 immediately after September 11,” says Hopkins. At press time, United projected that number would increase to 1,850 by the end of April.

It's certainly not unreasonable to look at the end of the year as the point where we'll be back to 100 percent,” says American's Coyle. “Since January, we've seen a gradual build in flights being put back on. It's going to continue that way until we're back to where we were before September 11.”

Milwaukee is a prime example of a secondary city that felt the sting of the airlines' post-September 11 service cuts, but now sees the end in sight. “We have maintained our air connections with major markets, but like everywhere else, the number of flights is down,” reports Doug Nelson, president and CEO of the Greater Milwaukee Convention & Visitors Bureau. The good news is that Midwest Express, which is based in Milwaukee, is expecting to increase its number of flights by 18 percent this spring.

Like Milwaukee, Pittsburgh expects to see a rebound in group business after September 11, in part because it's a hub city for U.S. Airways. “Primary hub cities that are also secondary-size cities were affected a bit differently,” says Robert Imperata, executive vice president of the Greater Pittsburgh Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We've already begun to see the meeting business coming back.”

Incentive planner Richard C. Gaeta, president of Premier Incentives, Marblehead, Mass., predicts a return in airlift by the fourth quarter of this year. He also sees a bright side to the growing use of secondary cities by groups. “Until recently, cities such as Charleston, S.C., have been hard sells, even though they're great cities. I think one of the long-term outcomes of this trend is that people are going to uncover some undiscovered jewels in these smaller cities — and it could well be that they'll be used later when things get back to normal.”

Small-Airport NIGHTMARE

Yes, this is a true story — and one to which we're sure many of our readers will relate!

Barry Maher, a professional speaker based in Santa Barbara, Calif., had just finished a speaking engagement at an event in Monroe, La., and was eager to get back home. Of course, that was when the trouble began.

The plane he was scheduled to take out of Monroe was hit by lightning on its way in, so his 11 a.m. Delta flight was canceled. Because the airport was so small and flights had been drastically cut back after September 11, there were no other flights until 5:30 p.m. But even that flight was no good: It would get him to a Delta connection in Dallas, but that flight would get him into Las Vegas too late to make his United connection to Los Angeles, where he again had to connect for the last leg home to Santa Barbara. Sound familiar?

The one-two punch of Monroe having so few flights out and Maher's booking on different airlines ended up with him getting only as far as Las Vegas, where he was forced to spend the night. “I finally made it home, but it took me 17 hours — I could have given a speech in China and made it home in that length of time.

“The whole thing wouldn't have happened at all,” he adds, “except for the fact that Monroe was a small airport and all the early afternoon flights out had been cut.”

The 10 Hardest-Hit Cities*
City # of flights
in mid-2001
# of flights
end of 2001
Percent
change
1) Hartford, Conn. 246 167 - 47.31
2) Milwaukee 278 196 - 41.84
3) Oklahoma City 137 97 - 41.24
4) El Paso, Texas 150 114 - 31.58
5) Tulsa, Okla. 143 109 - 31.19
6) Anchorage, Alaska 295 225 - 31.11
7) Omaha, Neb. 164 130 - 26.15
8) Kansas City, Mo. 453 364 - 24.45
9) Cleveland 561 459 - 22.22
10) Kahului, Hawaii 66 54 - 22.22
*according to the most current figures available, from Dec. 31, 2001
Source: Bureau of Transportation Statistics