Pushing the envelope and expanding summer service
Despite early winter concerns that spring break flights were filling up slowly, March numbers suggest that it’s been a strong year for the local air program. Inbound seats into the Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport increased substantially, and special promotions by the Gunnison Crested Butte Tourism Association (TA) helped make up some of that difference. Even January—notorious for being a slow month—was up over last year.
“January was positive,” said airline consultant Kent Myers at a March 13 meeting of the Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority (RTA). “I don’t ever remember having a positive January.”
Higher average fares may have played a role as well as lower fuel costs. Yet the season as a whole is up over last year. According to Scott Truex, executive director of the RTA, more than 2,200 more inbound seats had sold than last year, as of mid-March. Every month, the air program has performed ahead of last year. And the direct flight from Houston, which had the most room for catch-up, had sold 750 more one-way seats than last year.
While load factors for that flight—or the percentage of overall capacity filled—will finish the season about 5 percent short of the RTA’s 70 percent goal, Truex says that’s still a good performance. There were more seats available from Houston overall. “Even with the additional planes we put in, it’s doing pretty well,” he said.
TA board member Ken Stone was also on hand at the meeting to share results of a $99 companion fare promotion designed to incentivize travel to the valley. The TA exceeded its goal of selling 300 airline tickets, using a total budget of $59,913 to sell 328 tickets.
Initial data shows the promotion generated 1,575 visitor days, with average stays 4.8 days. Stone also calculated the program generated $556,477 in revenue. The number is likely higher, too, since some participants may have been second homeowners or may have booked hotels on their own rather than using Crested Butte Vacations. Their spending on things such as lodging, ski school or other activities wouldn’t be tracked.
“What we’re going to do next on this program… is to go back and survey,” Stone said. “We’re offering the incentive of winning an airline ticket back here so we can go deeper. Were they first-time visitors? Did they book on VRBO?”
Based on current data, Stone said, 22 percent of the promotion participants had been to Crested Butte before and 78 percent were first-time visitors. Twelve percent flew in on United Airlines and the rest flew American Airlines.
Thirty percent came via direct flights from Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston and Chicago, with Dallas-Ft. Worth as the number one market. Perhaps most surprising, Stone said, was the number two market, which came in via connecting flights: 24 percent of promotion participants originated from Florida.
A second promotion, Lift Ticket to Fly, is ongoing and also performing well. Participants receive a free lift ticket when they book a flight through the promotion, and so far 268 lift tickets have been given away.
Interim TA director John Norton told the RTA board he’s pleased with how the programs have been performing, as well as the ability to track the return on investment. “It’s not that often you can track a program this well, and so I think we’ll go into next winter with maybe $100,000 set aside and a plan behind it. If we hear from Scott [Truex] that we have some problem flights, we’ll be able to implement pretty quickly and ride to the rescue,” Norton said.
Stone said the TA is also exploring a similar promotion for Western Colorado State University next January, when the RTA historically needs to fill seats on airplanes. Students would fly free when parents book a flight to check out the university.
County commissioner Paula Swenson liked the sound of that. “Hopefully, we get a four-year tourist out of that,” she said.
Stone expected to have more data plus a report on the Lift Ticket to Fly promotion at the RTA’s May board meeting. At the same meeting, Truex plans to have an update on next year’s winter air service, which is likely to be similar to this year although some exploration is being done to potentially serve a West Coast market. In the meantime, summer flights have already gone on sale.
According to Truex, the RTA has a contract with United Airlines to provide 38 round-trips between Houston and Gunnison-Crested Butte—a significant jump over last summer, when there were 15. “We made a decision last fall to expand service quite a bit because we’re in the second year of a three-year grant,” Truex explained, “We wanted to push limits a bit.”
It made the most sense, he added, to expand the flight while the grant lessened the financial risk to the RTA and the RTA board would have one more grant year to fine-tune and adjust the service. The Houston flights begin in June and run through September 6, with four flights per week during the peak season and two flights per week during the remainder of the summer.
As of mid-March, 10.7 percent of seats had sold and the RTA is partnering with the TA to promote those flights. “There is some concern this summer about softness because we don’t know how the price of oil is going to affect Houston,” Truex told the RTA board. Yet he expects the flight to perform well. “The first year was very conservative because we wanted it to be full-on success. In the second year we’re pushing the limits a bit,” he said.