Air travelers are flowing into and out of Spokane International Airport at a record pace as the economy remains strong and new nonstop flights give commuters more options to visit and depart the Lilac City.
The airport set travel records in 2017, which had about 10 percent more travelers than 2016, airport spokesman Todd Woodard said. The current numbers from 2018 indicate that it will smash the 2017 record by about 13 percent.
“I think it’s really about consumer confidence in the economy,” Woodard said. “We also have new flights and new offerings. When they see nonstop service, it makes them more inclined to travel.”
On Wednesday, the airport had 7,163 passengers arriving and departing. That’s roughly 900 more travelers than in 2017 and about 1,700 more than in 2016.
Whatever the reason for the increased numbers, it’s been good for the five local hotels, said Matt Jensen, the corporate director of sales and marketing for Davenport Hotels.
“We have different markets. We have the convention market, corporate travel and the leisure market,” Jensen said. “This year in our hotels we’ve seen a 12 percent lift in that leisure-travel business. That’s interesting how that is lining up with the numbers coming out of the airport.”
Like Woodard, Jensen believed that the boost in leisure travel relates to consumer confidence.
“When that happens you tend to see more leisure travel. People take more vacations and come to see our beautiful city,” he said. “They are going to restaurants, our wineries, our craft brew houses and off-Broadway shows.”
Another factor that increases hotels stays comes when local universities, like Gonzaga and Eastern Washington, have high enrollments, he said.
“It’s amazing the amount of traffic you get from the university parent weekends at Gonzaga or for sporting events,” he said.
While they may not be well known, a couple of sporting events draw huge numbers to Spokane. They don’t include Hoopfest or Bloomsday, said Eric Sawyer, CEO of Spokane Sports Commission.
One of those events, the Pacific Northwest Volleyball Qualifier, attracts more than 700 girls club volleyball teams to Spokane over two weekends in March.
“It’s our single-largest travel event on an annual basis,” Sawyer said. “There are more room nights generated from that than from Hoopfest and Bloomsday. And with more direct flights out of the California market, the more chance we will get more teams to come because it’s easier to get here.”
In just the past year, the airport has added direct flights to San Jose, California; San Francisco; San Diego; Chicago; Dallas and Sacramento, California. New carrier Frontier Airlines has added flights to Denver and Las Vegas, Woodard said.
Earlier this month, the Spokane airport opened 1,400 new long-term parking stalls, which boosted the overall total parking spots to about 9,000, Woodard said.
“Everywhere you go, you are not going to find very many empty seats” on the airplanes, Woodard said. “It’s not just about outbound, it’s the inbound people, too. It’s more commerce for the entire region.”
TJ Hake, the interim CEO of Visit Spokane, said his organization, which markets Spokane as a convention destination, won’t have final tourism numbers until early next year.
“What I can say about the airport is that we are booking more business than we ever have before for Visit Spokane,” Hake said. “Last year was a record year for conventions and meeting bookings. We are on pace to beat that this year. The infrastructure the airport is putting into place is definitely helping us.”
The healthy economy is also boosting the confidence in those who book conventions, he said.
“When the economy is healthy, those conventions are booking further out. They are able to make decisions to book events two or three years in advance,” he said. “When the economy is tight, they don’t make those advance decisions. We are booking conventions now for 2023 all the way to 2025. That is a good sign.”
As for leisure travelers, a booming economy makes personal decisions a bit easier, he said.
“Expendable income allows them to take vacations they might not be able to do, or visit family they might not be able to do when the economy is on the downturn,” Hake said.
Sawyer, the sports event marketer, said Spokane is already getting interest from those seeking to book the planned 185,000-square foot “sportsplex” on 5 acres of land just east of the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena. It would house a 200-meter hydraulic banked indoor track, the same type used in the Olympics. The track would be just one of 10 in the country.
“That’s going to be a game changer,” Sawyer said. “Then we will see a real jump in sports-related travel. We will see a lot more rooms booked for sports events.”
His organization is already trying to book the sportsplex even though developers have yet to break ground.
“The challenge is selling a venue that isn’t open yet,” he said. “There is a lot of interest from governing bodies. Some are willing to commit and take the risk. But, a lot of them say, ‘Let’s wait until you are open.’ But, we’ll have a lot more events to talk about.”