TravelCorporate Travel Gets Back To Business

By all accounts, regional air travel is doing well. Business travelers are having face-to-face meetings and attending conventions, and more are choosing to fly to vacation destinations now that the pandemic is in the rearview mirror.

Last year was the busiest year on record at Fargo’s Hector International Airport, breaking the one million total passenger mark. In 2023, passenger enplanements were 516,071, an increase of nearly 13.3% compared to the 2022 passenger enplanements of 455,512. The airport’s statistics are shared on its website , which states the total number of passengers for the year was 1,032,497, up 14% from 2022’s total.

Construction of the terminal expansion is planned to begin this spring and will take three to four years to complete. The project will add four new gates to accommodate more departures and arrivals and a wider range of airlines. Plans are also in the works to add a four-story parking structure and elevated walkway as a separate construction project.

Williston Basin International Airport (XWA) saw significant growth through 2023, marking a prosperous year throughout northwestern North Dakota. In December 2023 alone, the airport achieved an impressive 61.6% increase in total revenue passengers compared to December 2022. Anthony Dudas, airport director at XWA, said the outstanding growth can be attributed to various factors, including the introduction of larger aircraft by both Delta and United, as well as Sun Country’s seasonal service directly to Las Vegas. The industries in that region have also seen continued growth throughout 2023.

“Looking at the entire year, XWA recorded a commendable 23.2% increase in total passengers and a parallel rise of 23.6% in available seats compared to 2022. Despite these impressive figures, XWA fell short of the 2019 passenger numbers by 7.9% and available seats by 4.8%. This deviation can be attributed to the ongoing challenges posed by the pilot shortage, which continues to affect the aviation industry,” he said.

“The strong growth demonstrated by XWA in 2023 reflects the resilience and adaptability of the region in overcoming obstacles such as the pilot shortage and adverse weather conditions. The strategic decisions to introduce larger aircraft and expand services to meet traveler demand have undoubtedly contributed to the airport’s positive trajectory,” Dudas said.

Grand Forks International Airport boardings were up 5.3% over 2022 numbers, at 92,187, according to data from the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission , which tracks statistics from the state’s five commercial airports and three regional airports. Bismarck’s airport saw a 6% increase in boardings in 2023, and Minot saw a boost of 6.8%, with 146,769 boardings.

South Dakota’s major airports have also seen an increase in travelers. The number of passengers flying in and out of Sioux Falls Regional Airport has increased by 9% over 2022, totaling 1,338,514.

In 2022, more than 330,000 passengers used Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP), resulting in $153 million in direct spending and $188 million in economic impact.

Megan Johnson, marketing, communications and air service manager at RAP, said the airport is a leader in accessibility and inclusion and has implemented programs to assist passengers with hidden disabilities by adopting the Sunflower program. It also provides therapy dogs through the RAPaws program and has installed Mamava nursing mother’s pods.

“In 2023, we achieved a remarkable milestone for air travel – the number of passengers boarding flights reached an all-time high of 352,388. This figure is significantly higher than 2022’s number – 338,458 – and even surpasses our previous record of 351,096 in 2019. Despite the impact of COVID-19, we have bounced back quicker than most markets and have consistently observed a surge in travel demand to the Black Hills. As a result, we have seen larger aircraft landing in Rapid City than ever before, which has prompted us to expand our gate area to accommodate mainline jets,” Johnson said.

An economic impact study of Rapid City Regional Airport commissioned by the airport and the city shows RAP supports an estimated 2,877 jobs in Pennington County, South Dakota, and generates $456 million in economic activity. That economic activity creates a fiscal impact of $2.2 million. RAP is the second busiest airport in South Dakota and ranked as the 149th busiest airport in the country by the Bureau of Transportation. Travelers were surveyed for the study and 52% reported using the airport for leisure, with 48% reporting using RAP for business.

The growing airport was granted $10.9 million from the bipartisan infrastructure law grant in February 2023, which will be used for phase one of a $52 million airport renovation and expansion project. Renovations will be completed over the next 10 years, with phase one focused on the expansion of the main terminal, baggage drop off and relocation of the TSA checkpoint.

Last year was busier at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, too, when the number of passengers surpassed 34.7 million, up 11 percent compared to 2022. Numbers are not yet up to pre-pandemic levels, which were over 39 million.

As business travel increases, so do industry events and conferences. Attending trade shows and exhibitions is one of the main purposes of work-related trips. Amazon, FedEx and Apple led the list of the biggest U.S. spenders on business travel, according to a report by Statista. Amazon booked $483 million in business travel in 2022, Apple spent $210 million and FedEx spent $188 million.

Matt Barthel, communications director with Experience Sioux Falls, said the number of visitors to Sioux Falls in 2022 was down slightly from 2021, but the area saw an overall jump in visitors during the pandemic due to people wanting to escape COVID travel restrictions in other states. A new hotel with convention space, Canopy by Hilton, is opening later this year downtown and promises to be an attractive destination for meeting planners.

Convention and visitors bureaus market their cities and states by featuring attractions and recreational activities to help draw visitors and event planners. Barthel said the Sioux Falls Sourced campaign just wrapped its second year, in which event planners can sign up to win a box full of local products.

“We send out 10 boxes each quarter to planners. This has been a great way to connect with new planners and also re-engage planners we have had discussions with in the past. We likely will be re-launching this campaign for a third year within the coming weeks,” he said.

The Alerus Center in Grand Forks has seen an increase in meetings year-over-year since 2021. Derek Hoffert, assistant general manager/director, global partnerships, said from 2021-2022, the facility had an increase of 12%, and from 2022-2023 an even larger jump of 21% more meetings.

“We also see trends in our booking cycles as even-numbered years tend to see higher convention books than odd-numbered years due to the rotation cycle around the state most of our industry clients follow,” he said.

The Alerus Center’s most recent annual report shows it hosted 18 consumer trade shows in 2022 with a total of 26,902 attendees, five more than in 2021, with an increase of 8,000 more attendees. The conference center also hosted 138 meetings and 65 banquets in 2022.

Small and medium-sized companies are prioritizing business travel and many companies are evolving their products to cater more to the needs of small and medium businesses, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Higher hotel rates in major convention destinations like Chicago and Dallas are driving large conferences and events into secondary markets, including Milwaukee and Albuquerque.

Business travel is expected to grow in 2024, but at a slower pace. Slowing economic growth will curb domestic business travel’s recovery, with a full comeback in volume not expected until 2026, the travel association stated.

Article courtesy of Grand Folks Herald.