Stroopwafels, socks and koalas: How airports wooed airlines at the World Routes conference
The queue for stroopwafels from Amsterdam was often several people deep. Attendees bantered while waiting for juice from Denmark. Coffee from places as far afield as Colombia and as near as Melbourne flowed freely.
These were just some of the many culinary scenes at the World Routes conference last month. Several thousand airline and airport representatives, plus advisers and others, had descended on Adelaide, Australia to plan the next airline route map change. So had TPG, more than 10,000 miles from home office in New York.
In meeting zones around the Adelaide Showground, representatives from more than 750 airports pitched 180 airlines on why they should fly to their city. They talked numbers — both passengers and dollars — and worked every advantage they had to land new routes that could connect two far-flung cities. Or put a medium-size city on the global map.
Hawaiian Airlines talked about the "void" on its route map in the U.S. Midwest that it could soon fill with Boeing 787 Dreamliners. JetBlue Airways discussed its emphasis on expanding routes from its focus cities and not others, like Washington DC, where it lacks relevancy.
As central as route maps and demand opportunities were at World Routes, they were not the buzz in Adelaide. That, many would say, were the refreshments.
“We live and breathe stroopwafel,” said Renske Green-Lute, an airline marketeer with Amsterdam Schiphol (AMS) Airport, on its stand at Routes. This was the fourth year that the airport handed out the Dutch sweet at the conference, an undeniable hit with more than 1,168 stroopwafels distributed on the first day in Adelaide alone — more than half the nearly 2,000 people in attendance.
The stroopwafel, however, was unlikely to land slot-restricted Schiphol any new routes, said Green-Lute. No, the caramel treats were more about promoting the Dutch brand and supporting the airport’s numerous airlines.
“People know stroopwafel — that’s Amsterdam, that’s the airport,” she said.
Promoting a local or national brand is a common theme at World Routes. Not every airport brought food, but many used something other than just data and marketing pitches to promote their market. Las Vegas had showgirls in its efforts to promote McCarran airport (LAS). A live koala was on hand for the host, Adelaide Airport (ADL).
The event pays off for airports willing to travel the distance. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, which celebrated its centenary this week, began talking to Las Vegas at World Routes in 2013. Those talks led to the new service between Amsterdam and McCarran that began in June — six years into their relationship — said Las Vegas airport chief marketing officer Chris Jones.
The news, however, was not always good. At the conference it became clear that Hainan Airlines was reducing, if not suspending, flights between Beijing Capital (PEK) and Las Vegas in October. Asked about this change, Jones said the airport was "continuing dialog with the airline."
Related: Hainan Airlines appears set to end Las Vegas and Calgary flights
“Air service development is like running a marathon,” said Denver International Airport (DEN) vice-president of air service development Laura Jackson.
Denver uses Routes to build relationships with airlines that could fill the gaps in its route map. For example, when the airport lacked a connection to South America, it was able to leverage the conference to forge a relationship with Latin American giant Copa Airlines, which offers a broad set of South American destinations via its hub in Panama City (PTY). The Star Alliance carrier began flights to the Mile High City in 2017.
Not to mention, Denver offered what were arguably the most popular socks in Adelaide.
Not far from the booths for Denver and Las Vegas was Copenhagen Airport (CPH), whose stand featured the increasingly global Danish juice and coffee spot, Joe and the Juice. The juice helped bring an "informal atmosphere and vibe" to the pavilion, Copenhagen director for airline sales and route development Morten Mortensen said.
That casual vibe, in turn, supported Copenhagen Airport's aim to build relationships with airlines — if not immediately land new routes — and promote a homegrown Danish brand, he said.
Melbourne, just over an hour's flight from Adelaide, tapped its local coffee culture to promote itself. An airport spokesman, citing a similar aim to Copenhagen, said building their stand around an outlet of the local ST Ali coffee brand brought people in and helped them forge connections.
True to form, TPG saw executives from both major Australian carriers Qantas Airways and Virgin Australia — partners of American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, respectively — only steps away from the ST ALi coffee bar, chatting with representatives of Melbourne Airport throughout the conference.
Related: American, Qantas meeting to map out transpacific partnership
Melbourne is among several airports in Australia and New Zealand in the running for a new nonstop flight to North America on American. Already the second-busiest airport in Australia with 36.9 million passengers in 2018, government data shows, a new flight to the U.S. would be a nice complement to its existing nonstops to Honolulu (HNL), Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO).
The relaxed vibe of World Routes is what many like about the conference. While formal pitches were very much part of the event, airlines and airports chatted in and around the many pavilions, whether over juice or ooh-and-aahing over koalas. Even with the anecdotally lower turnout that many attributed to the relatively remote location — TPG spent more than 20 hours in the air in both directions, including flights on Qantas and Virgin Australia — attendees expressed satisfaction with the event in its 25th year.
Discussions were had, relationships forged and nurtured, and there was plenty of stroopwafel to go around.