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Bradley International Airport working to boost business travel

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About half of Bradley International Airport’s passengers — more than 3 million a year at last count — are business travelers, a number airport officials want to boost as they try to make the state’s flagship airfield a more powerful economic driver.

To help make that happen, Bradley hired a new business relations specialist, Sarah Spencer, who’s been working since February to connect with companies large and small.

Spencer’s main role is to promote domestic and international routes, parking services and amenities like the Escape Lounge, a quiet luxury area for frequent fliers that includes Wi-Fi, food and beverages.

But she also wants to discern what businesses need, whether that’s an airline route to Germany — a common request — or a flight to Seattle, a proposition the Airport Authority is exploring.

“The focus at Bradley is customer service and we want everybody’s experience to be the best, but we want to grow our business, and there’s growth happening here,” said Spencer, 55, who was formerly a longtime sales manager at Mystic Seaport. “If we don’t get [corporate] support and continued business, we can’t continue to grow.”

Some of Bradley’s newest international offerings include a direct Norwegian Airlines flight to Edinburgh, Scotland — the type of nonstop flight business travelers are increasingly asking for — and the ability to clear customs in Dublin, Ireland, while waiting for an Aer Lingus flight back to the U.S., which saves passengers time, according to Kevin Dillon, the Airport Authority’s executive director.

“What the business traveler wants to see is that they have the airline routes available that work for them,” Dillon said. “Second to that, they want their experience to be as convenient as possible. If you focus on those two things, you’ve gone a long way toward enhancing your passenger numbers.”

Competition for business travelers is intense with larger airport hubs nearby in Boston and New York City, Dillon said. And it’s not good enough to simply add new offerings — business travelers must be made aware of them as well, which is Spencer’s role.

“It’s really critical that all of us do everything we can to ensure that these services are used, because it’s highly competitive and every airport in the country is looking for [the business traveler] to retain and grow economic development,” said Oz Griebel, CEO of the MetroHartford Alliance, who thinks Bradley is the state’s most important economic asset.

Domestically, demand for direct seasonal flights to San Francisco, and a “frequent parker program” that rewards repeat travelers with points that can add up to free service, are also the types of routes and amenities Bradley wants its business clientele to know about, Dillon said.

In 2016, Bradley served 6.1 million passengers, Dillon noted, and about 50 percent were business people coming from companies like East Hartford jet-engine maker Pratt & Whitney and Bloomfield health insurer Cigna.

Cigna is a major Bradley user, said Brett Browchuk, who sits on the Airport Authority’s board but also has been with Cigna as senior vice president and head of service operations for the past 10 years.

In 2016, Cigna employees bought 4,300 tickets to Nashville, Denver, Philadelphia, Chicago and Phoenix. Another 4,800 employees traveled via Bradley to the U.K., Belgium, Asia and Spain, he said.

Browchuk said he’s an enthusiastic supporter of Bradley and eagerly touts its benefits, though he said Cigna would like to see more global flights added — namely to London and Europe, and even Asia and the Pacific Rim.

“International flights are just really important for Bradley,” Browchuk said. “Then it can really be known as an international airport.”

The airport also would benefit from having more than one daily flight to key domestic destinations like Pittsburgh or Houston, so that if a flight were cancelled, or delayed, there’d be another option, he said.

Renee Welsh, a senior director of facilities and services administration at Pratt & Whitney, which spent $17 million in 2016 on 32,000 trips through Bradley, agreed.

“What makes it really convenient — its relative size — also means we don’t get the nonstop flights or convenient flight times we desire,” Walsh said. “This ends up extending the travel day, and sometimes that added time can be mitigated by driving to Boston Logan or New York.”

On the flip side, Welsh said, “Bradley airport is convenient from a commuting perspective, and the services are above average — from parking to security and concessions.”

The different attributes that make Bradley more attractive to the business traveler also include more charging stations for electronic devices and the Transportation Security Administration’s precheck option allowing travelers to get through security more readily, Browchuk said.

“You don’t have to go to Boston or New York for this now,” he said.

Corporate liaison

Spencer said she’s not averse to making the occasional “cold call” to gauge the needs and concerns of corporate travelers.

It’s her job, she said, to ensure business people in the Hartford and Springfield, Mass., areas are aware of Bradley’s assets, but that they’re also comfortable sharing concerns about what could make the airport an even better option.

Spencer, of Norwich, came to Bradley about seven months ago, armed not only with her marketing experience at Mystic Seaport but her work years earlier as an industrial liaison officer at MIT.

Spencer is quick to say that her role at Bradley is not in marketing, per se, but rather “a combination of sales and community relations with a corporate focus.”

That cold-call she occasionally makes is “a conversation, not a pitch,” Spencer said. “I’m trying to educate them but I’m also wanting to know from them what their needs are. That might include their travel budgets. That helps us tailor what we offer or what new routes we might target, because the route isn’t going to succeed unless there’s demand.”

She’s learned, for instance, that while travelers can fly via Aer Lingus into Dublin, and then reach five major cities in Germany from there, some business travelers are interested in direct flights to Munich or Berlin.

Besides meeting corporate needs, Spencer always reminds firms of the “ease and comfort” of flying with Bradley.

“If a company tends to go to Boston or New York partly out of habit or familiarity to fly, give us a try,” she’ll tell them.

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