Sunday, April 9, 2006 Airport Marketing Takes flight By SUE BOOK The New Bern (NC) Sun Journal Craven facility looks to spend $75,000 to attract passengers Rick Keehn took a few moments to look at the history of flight exhibit as he sipped coffee and awaited an outbound flight at Craven County Regional Airport Thursday. His bags were checked for a business trip, like those the manufacturing engineer and his coworkers at Chatsworth Products in New Bern frequently take to company facilities in Texas and California. Keehn sometimes flies from Raleigh or Kinston, depending on scheduling constraints, but he likes flying from New Bern best, he said. "There is never a line," he said. " . Security is easy in and out . Parking long term is a fair price, and I never worry about the vehicle." He enjoys wireless Internet access at the airport, and is particularly happy that when the plane lands, he's 10 minutes from his home of the past 3 1/2 years. Keehn's list of reasons why he prefers flying from New Bern could almost make him the poster person for a marketing program the airport has launched and hopes to pursue more vigorously starting in June with a $75,000 budget approved in principle in March. Chatsworth Products Inc. and other area businesses participated in a recent travel survey of business travel needs. "It became obvious to us we could not sit in a vacuum and decide needs long term without asking the people who use the place," said Bill Naumann, who heads the airport authority marketing committee. "The staff interviewed everyone who departed the airport for five weeks." The business survey was mailed to 500 small and large businesses, a third of which responded. "We concluded that we have underused and underappreciated the facility in our backyard - the best airport in eastern North Carolina," said Naumann. "And, like it or not, other airport options should be viewed as competitors, and we should work to get those people here." The information gathered identified passengers here as affluent, educated and price conscious and will steer the marketing plan, developed for the airport by Lisa Rowe-Ralls. Rowe-Ralls identified objectives that included customer focus and heightened exposure as a way to ensure growth. The growth objective is a 5 percent year-over-year increase in those boarding, which prior to the Sept. 11 attacks of 2001 was almost a given. Boardings at the airport were up 6.1 percent in 2005 over 2004, two percent higher than the national average. With national flight numbers declining, regional competition increasing, and wartime deployments decreasing the area traveling population, however, the airport is experiencing boarding declines in 2006 - 12.7 percent in January and 11.6 percent in February. "We have had five consecutive months of negative enplanements year over year," said Rowe-Ralls, when the national numbers show slight .2 percent decline. She said fares out of Craven are comparable to other area airports. Though flights from Raleigh are cheaper, she said the time and gas needed to drive there evens out the fares. Rowe-Ralls said the primary lure of other airports for the region's departing air travelers is access to a hub other than Charlotte for connections. But for those traveling to New Bern, the main reason for choosing another airport is they aren't familiar with Craven County Regional Airport, she said. "And, any successful business needs to understand and stay connected with its customer base," said Naumann. Both feel Craven, Pamlico, Carteret and Jones counties - and some travelers in Jacksonville, Greenville and Kinston - are part of the appropriate customer base. Marketing is set to begin with billboards, not unlike those near the airport trying to send travelers to Kinston. Those same "Fly Kinston" billboards got authority members thinking about telling their own story. The plan would have airport staff and authority members getting the word out by speaking to area groups and inviting them in, sometimes in connection to scheduled regional events. Rowe-Ralls advises print and radio advertising as well as working with US Airways and area travel agents on promotions that could include airline ticket prizes. "I think we have an exciting story to tell," said Naumann. "And I think there are people out there who will listen." It is a challenge the airport authority sees as critical to its success. Attached Photo: Karen Wasiak, of Fort Worth, Texas, shares a laugh with Beverly Barber, US Airways ramp supervisor, as she checks in for her flight home at the Craven Regional Airport in New Bern. Wasiak, who was in town for business, said she found it easier to fly directly in and out of New Bern as opposed to one of the other regional airports.