Friday, May 14, 2010 | 3 a.m.
Southwest Airlines is one of the best conduits for Southern Nevada’s tourism industry by bringing millions of people to Las Vegas every year.
This week Southwest went from conduit to customer when it brought about 10,000 people to town for a party. That’s about the number of people it takes to really get the juices flowing of convention-service businesses in town.
The event was Southwest’s Spirit Party, and the airline on May 12 made the Fremont Street Experience its unofficial headquarters.
“It’s just a chance for us to have a little family reunion,” said Southwest CEO Gary Kelly, who you’ve probably seen in one of its TV commercials telling you to “Grab your bag … it’s on.”
In 2009, more than 7,000 Southwest employees grabbed their bags and came to Las Vegas for a Spirit Party. In the days leading up to this year’s party, Southwest was expecting a 20 percent to 25 percent increase in attendance over last year.
“I think that’s enough to move the dial (on tourism spending),” Kelly said.
Southwest employees have to spend their own money to get here for the party and once they arrive, have to shell out for their lodging. But the company has plenty of food and entertainment to keep the party going.
In fairness, not all of the 10,000 partygoers — more than a quarter of Southwest’s workforce — came from out of town. Las Vegas is Southwest’s biggest station, so many of the airline’s 2,621 locally based employees didn’t have to hop a plane to get to the party.
“Yes, it’s always well attended by our Las Vegas folks, and Las Vegas continues to be our largest operation,” Kelly said. “It’s a point of pride for use. We love being the hometown airline for you guys.”
Another great thing about the Spirit Party, besides 10,000 people spending money in downtown Las Vegas, is that Kelly gets in a party mood and is willing to talk beyond the news releases about what the company is doing in Las Vegas. Some highlights:
• The good news about the number of flights on Southwest’s Las Vegas schedule is that they’re increasing instead of declining. But the bad news is that the level is still below the maximum number it had in 2008. At the peak in 2008, Southwest had around 235 daily flights. Last August, there were about 228. As demand fell off, Southwest fell below 220. In the new schedule, which takes effect in the fall, there are 223. (Southwest counts its flights differently than McCarran statisticians, counting an operation that runs five or six times a week as a daily flight while McCarran breaks it down to five-sevenths or six-sevenths of a daily flight).
• Kelly considers the outlook for Las Vegas to be positive and the revenue environment to be healthy. But it’s all about supply and demand. Kelly said that if demand picks up, Southwest would add flights.
• Using history as a guide, Kelly thinks the proposed merger of United and Continental may provide some opportunities for Southwest — but not necessarily in Las Vegas. The legacy carriers have focused recently on international flying as opposed to domestic routes. As a result, Southwest has grown and the legacy carriers have shrunk their market share on domestic routes.
• Kelly said he wants Southwest to grow, but he’s not sure how that will happen. The airline has had two acquisitions, Morris Air at the end of 1993 and ATA Airlines toward the end of 2008, and it tried unsuccessfully to bid for Frontier Airlines in 2009. The Frontier bid was an effort to take control of the Denver market, where Southwest has expanded dramatically in two years. Southwest has grown significantly in St. Louis, where it is now that city’s busiest carrier.
• Southwest could grow by adding cities as it did in the past two years by flying into Minneapolis, Milwaukee, New York’s LaGuardia Airport and Boston’s Logan International. The airline will begin flying to Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport in Panama City, Fla., later this month. Kelly is always tight-lipped about where Southwest would go next and the rumor mill is constantly churning out theories. The most recent rumors involve Wichita, Kan.
• Southwest and Canada’s WestJet Airlines abruptly ended their code-share deal last month, which would have likely increased Las Vegas flights if the airlines were to use McCarran as a transfer point. Kelly said Southwest is working on a code-share deal with Volaris Airlines, a Mexican carrier, but it’s unclear where passengers would transfer. Volaris doesn’t serve Las Vegas. Kelly said Southwest has the capacity to add a second code-share partner, and he said the airline is evaluating opportunities that could deliver Southwest customers to destinations such as Hawaii and the Caribbean.
• Southwest is in the midst of some technological advances that would result in a next-generation frequent-flier program. Kelly didn’t give any details of how the souped-up Rapid Rewards program would be different. Before the end of the year, Southwest also is expected to roll out details of its in-flight Wi-Fi system.
It appears likely that Chicago-based United Airlines and Houston’s Continental Airlines are well down the merger path.
Based on current schedules and operations at McCarran, the merger probably wouldn’t result in any major capacity cuts in Las Vegas since the airlines serve eight different city pairs, none with a crossover.
Continental’s average 16.3 flights a day to and from Las Vegas take passengers to hub cities Houston, Cleveland and Newark, N.J., while United’s average 26.7 daily flights on mainline aircraft offer flights to Denver, San Francisco, Washington’s Dulles International, Chicago’s O’Hare International and Los Angeles International.
One possible caveat: The merged carrier could reduce its presence in Cleveland with United’s Chicago hub so close.
In a merger, anything can happen in the bid to cut capacity and save money, which was what occurred in the US Airways-America West merger. Over time, many of America West’s flights disappeared as the airline focused more on its hub cities in Phoenix, Philadelphia and Charlotte, N.C.
At McCarran, the blended United-Continental would realize savings in combining counter space and consolidating gates.
That’s what has happened so far with the Delta-Northwest merger as Las Vegas isn’t missing many flights as a result of those two carriers joining forces.
Southern Nevada is well known as a gambling and entertainment center, but a Las Vegas-based entrepreneur wants it to become known as a hub for eco-tourism and adventure travel.
James Hoke, president of TourGuy.com LLC, has launched a website at www.tourguy.com and the focus is on adventure travel in Las Vegas’ back country.
The company launched with 30 tours in Nevada, Utah, California and Arizona on all kinds of transportation — helicopters, airplanes, jeeps, motor coaches, horses, all-terrain vehicles, kayaks and rafts.
“When people think of Las Vegas, they always think of casinos,” Hoke said in a release announcing the launch of the site. “There is so much more to explore and discover using this city as an adventure and eco-tourism hub across four states.”
Among destinations are Hoover Dam, Lake Mead, Red Rock Canyon, Valley of Fire, Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks in Utah and Death Valley National Park in California and Nevada.
The company adheres to a “leave no trace” philosophy.
“We are very sensitive to the preservation of national parks and historic sites,” Hoke said. “It was one of our first commitments in selecting the highest quality tours at the lowest possible rates. We want people to enjoy themselves, but not at the detriment of the areas they visit.”
Henderson’s year-old M Resort has a television studio off its buffet, and last week began broadcasting a cooking show on Cox cable channel 96.
“Martini Time With Chef Tina Martini” airs three times a day, two days a week on Cox, thanks to an agreement signed by representatives of the resort and the cable company.
“Our goal with the show has been to provide a form of healthy entertainment — to educate and entertain the public,” M Resort Chairman and CEO Anthony Marnell III said in a news release. “Now, with the help of Cox, we are able to further that goal, reaching even more people.”
Cox reaches about 400,000 subscribers in Southern Nevada. Channel 96, created in 2004, broadcasts a variety of local-interest programming, including the State of the City addresses for Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Henderson, and community events such as the Martin Luther King Jr. and Hispanic Heritage parades. Most recently, Channel 96 aired the Clark County School District’s interviews in its superintendent search.
Martini’s show will be taped in front of a live audience with local celebrities to cook with the chef. Shows will focus on nutrition, fitness and healthy living while providing easy recipes and kitchen advice, tips and techniques.
Next week, the half-hour “Martini Time” show airs at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday; 6 p.m. Thursday; and 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturday. The show will be available on demand on Channel 1 and will stream live on www.cox96.net.
Tourism website VEGAS.com is offering a new discount program for customers who spend more than $200 through the site.
Customers who spend at that level or higher will receive a VEGAS Insider card that can be used for discounts and special offers at participating businesses. Among the deals offered last week were 20 percent off for spa services at Mandalay Bay and 15 percent off purchases at the Blue Man Group retail store.
Qualifying customers will have their cards mailed to them on packages purchased more than 30 days in advance and those purchasing less than 30 days in advance will get instructions on how to pick up their cards when they arrive.
VEGAS.com is owned by the Greenspun family, which also owns In Business Las Vegas.
To generate awareness of the role tourism has in California’s economy, the California Travel & Tourism Commission launched a program last week by supplying tourism-related businesses $2 bills.
The idea is for the businesses to give the $2 bills — which bear the likeness of “Tom,” the nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson — as change in any business transaction.
The commission’s head says the interactive public awareness campaign should get people thinking about the importance of tourism to the economy.
“Although tourism is one of the most important export industries in California with $87.7 billion in visitor expenditures, it is often overlooked as an economic engine,” said Caroline Beteta, the organization’s president and CEO. “Tourism is responsible for supporting 881,000 jobs in California and $5.3 billion local and state tax revenues.”
There’s a website, www.spendingtom.com, which helps track the path of $2 bills as they’re spent.
So if you see a $2 bill in circulation, remember that it could have come from a Californian who opted to support Nevada’s economy with the change he got in the Golden State.