Akron-Canton's Savvy Strategy

Last Updated Sep 1, 2009 11:18 AM EDT

There's no question that you have an uphill battle when the first question you have to ask is, "Do you want to go to Cleveland?" But that's effectively what the Akron-Canton Airport (CAK) has been asking for a long time. And they've been incredibly successful at attracting airlines to an airport that could be considered non-traditional at best.

Cleveland's airport is about 13 miles southwest of the city center, and it's a relatively uncrowded place. Continental maintains a small hub there and Southwest flies to a few cities as well. It probably is safe to say that it receives more service than it should be able to support on its own.

CAK lies 50 miles south of Cleveland's core, in the middle of the "metropolis" that combines the Akron MSA and the Canton MSA into a mega group of approximately 1.1 million people. For many of those people, Cleveland and Columbus with their plentiful service aren't very far away. So where does that leave CAK?

The size of the MSA puts it around the same size as Rochester, New York or Grand Rapids, Michigan, but those cities aren't surrounded by airports with plentiful service from low fare carriers. CAK, on the other hand, is, but it's been successful anyway.

I spoke with Kristie Van Auken, SVP, Chief Marketing & Communications Officers for the Akron-Canton Airport (CAK) at NBTA and learned much about what the airport has done.

Right now, there are around 40 flights at the airport. Some are from the usual suspects. Delta Connection flies to Atlanta and Detroit. United Express will get you to Chicago/O'Hare. US Airways Express will fly you to Charlotte, Philadelphia, and Washington/National.

But the biggest airline at the airport is actually AirTran. The airline flies to four cities in Florida, Atlanta, Boston, and New York/LaGuardia. Frontier also flies from Denver. That may seem like a surprising amount of service, but CAK has really worked hard to get to this point.

First and foremost, CAK is cheap. The cost per enplanement is only $3. So one side of the equation is good, but what about revenues? Well CAK has been incredibly aggressive at reaching out to the community to make sure that they're top of mind when people are looking for their flights.

CAK has a very good website with easily accessible information. They position the airport as a good alternative to Cleveland. While the airport is further away for much of the Cleveland area, the experience is a much easier one.

There is a business lounge in the airport that's completely free and open to anyone. There is free wifi throughout the airport, and there is a play area for kids. They have massage chairs throughout the small terminal, and parking is close by.

But CAK realizes that simply having the amenities doesn't help if nobody knows about them. They have been very aggressive when it comes to using new media to advance their cause.

They have two blogs that they use to communicate with customers. They have more than 1,600 followers on Twitter as well as more than 3,700 fans on Facebook.

They've been really proactive with Facebook by offering a $25 voucher on AirTran for anyone who becomes a fan of the airport on the application. This gives them a built-in group of people with whom they can communicate, and they are good at keeping the page updated frequently with information.

All this means CAK has been able to keep airlines around. And the airport is proving to be quite loyal. I talked to Kristie about which airlines were on her wish list, and she was actually quite content with the group she has. When I made a couple of suggestions, she said she wasn't sure if that was the right fit for the airport. She's was very careful to make sure that she wouldn't bring someone else in at the expense of an existing carrier. She doesn't want to see anyone leave, though of course, the right additional service is welcome.

I asked why they spent so much money to come to NBTA, and she said they've been doing it for years. It's a great way for them to connect with their airline partners.