The city of Denver leans heavily on its international airport when building a brand in an increasingly global economy. From Cozumel and Calgary to London, Paris, Panama City, and Zurich, travelers departing from DIA will have direct access 26 international destinations by 2018.
In the wake of Amazon’s high-profile HQ2 bidding hype, there’s been plenty of talk about whether Denver would be a good fit for the world’s largest e-commerce location. In addition to a dense metropolitan population and tax incentives, Amazon is searching, too, for a city with quality transit options — beyond the usual trains, buses, and bike sharing.
“To be serious about attracting big business, we have to connect to destinations around the world, both conveniently and affordably,” says Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who has been working on linking Denver to international air hubs since he was on city council.
In December, United will begin its nonstop service to Cozumel; a few months later, in March, the airline will take travelers directly to London's Heathrow Airport. All photos by Daniel Tseng.
The world will have to wait until 2018 for Amazon’s final site selection announcement — but in the meantime city planners are at full throttle with plans to globalize Denver.
Building a Brand in a Global Economy
Denver International Airport is the state’s single largest economic generator. “I think we all know about the $26.3 billion fiscal impact the airport brings to the region annually,” says Eric Hiraga, executive director of the Denver Office of Economic Development.
In 2016, the city saw “a milestone year marking the first time Denver surpassed 30 million total visitors,” says Richard Scharf, president and CEO of Visit Denver.
Population-wise, Denver’s only the 19th largest metropolitan area in the U.S. — but it has the 6th busiest airport in the country. From Cozumel and Calgary to London, Paris, Panama City, and Zurich, travelers departing from DIA will have direct access 26 international destinations by 2018.
Aiport officials say more flights will not mean longer lines at security. All photos by Daniel Tseng.
When United Airlines began offering daily nonstop service from DIA to Tokyo’s Narita International Airport, the economic impact was $130 million dollars annually. “The Tokyo fights bring in 1,500 jobs,” Hiraga adds, referencing not just airport jobs, but ancillary jobs in Denver, too, mainly those related to hospitality.
Direct international flights are “great economic generators,” says Vicky Lea, director of aerospace and aviation for Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation.
Copa Airlines, for example, begins year-round nonstop service from Denver to Panama City in December, and the flights are projected to bring in $26 million dollars a year. Lufthansa’s nonstop flight to Munich — which took off in 2015 — has an annual impact of $80 million dollars, and resulted in a 50 percent increase in travel between Munich and Denver. “People could get to Denver from Munich before, but all of a sudden it’s easier with the direct flights,” explains Laura Jackson, VP of air service development at DIA.
There are plenty more international flights to come.
In December, United will begin its nonstop service to Cozumel; a few months later, in March, the airline will take travelers directly to London’s Heathrow Airport the same month WestJet Airilnes, a lost-cost Canadian carrier, launches its direct-to-Calgary flights.
“The big excitement for everybody is Paris, beginning in April on Norwegian Air,” says Lea, noting that Paris is “a new entrant to the Denver air market.”
Denver will have direct flights to Paris starting in April. All photos by Daniel Tseng.
And on June 4, Edelweiss Air -- a Swiss leisure airline owned by Swiss International Air Lines -- will kick off its seasonal nonstop service between Denver and Zurich, offering two flights weekly, June through September, boosting Denver’s annual economy by an estimated $21 million dollars.
How Denver Became a Global Hub
“These flights don’t just appear out of the air,” says Hiraga. “They’re multi-year efforts,” he adds.
Take Copa’s Denver-to-Panama flights: “I started meeting with them in 2008 to make a business case for Denver,” Jackson says.
The courting period for Edelweiss was shorter — about two to three years — but required similar outreach efforts.
“Airlines have a limited number of aircrafts in their fleets, and we’re competing with destinations worldwide,” says Jackson. “We want to show them that they can be the most profitable by putting that aircraft in Denver” — which, by the way, is a big commitment.
Geographically, Denver is situated in the center of the county, and that's appealing to international carriers looking for convenient connectivity to both coasts. All phots by Daniel Tseng.
Take a Boeing 787: “That’s several million dollars of assets that they’re investing in our market,” Jackson notes.
While DIA takes the lead on pitching Denver to international carriers, the organization is aided by outreach from Denver’s business sector and travel industry, supported by Visit Denver and the Colorado Tourism Office. “It’s a team effort, and we are excited to have so many new options for travelers,” says Jayne Buck, VP of tourism at Visit Denver.
According to Jackson, “There are a number of reasons airlines are picking Denver.”
“We’ve noticed that Denver is an exciting and developing destination in itself, which helped our decision,” says Andreas Meier, Edelweiss Air’s head of corporate communications.
Geographically, Denver is situated in the center of the county, and that’s appealing to international carriers looking for convenient connectivity to both coasts. As Meier puts it, “We don’t just look at cities, but consider our existing broader destination portfolio.”
Edelweiss Air strongly considered the “large variety of connecting options, thanks to our partner airline United, with their excellent hub at DIA,” adds Meier.
Another selling point it longevity. DIA cares about nurturing the partnerships it forges with airlines like, say, Icelandair, which made its maiden nonstop Denver-to-Reykjavik voyage in May of 2012, and has seen a 120 percent increase in flights over five years.
After being canceled in 2008 due to low demand, Lufthansa re-launched its Denver-Munich route in 2015, with service five times weekly. The flight has been so successful this go-around that Lufthansa has since switched to daily nonstop service.
“That’s the kind of thing we like to see,” says Jackson. “We like to get new airlines here, but we also like to make sure that once they’re here, they continue to grow.”
A final draw, Lea notes, is that DIA hasn’t yet reached its full potential.
DIA is the largest airport in the country by landmass. “It’s a very well-planned, well-structured airport,” says Lea. And unlike other big U.S. airports, DIA still has the capacity to grow: the airport currently utilizes six runways, but has the property to expand to twelve.
Consumers, of course, may be concerned that more international will mean longer lines for airport security screening.
“There’s really nothing to worry about,” says Jackson, adding, “We have new international gate capacity, and we’re looking at expanding that to keep up with the growth.”
Last year 2.6 million people came to Denver for conventions and business travel. All photos by Daniel Tseng.
Last year 2.6 million people came to Denver for conventions and business travel, and they had easy access to downtown Denver thanks to our city’s ongoing efforts to link transportation hubs via, for example, a convenient new rail connection between the airport and Denver Union Station.
Business travelers bolster Denver’s economy — but not nearly as much as a corporate headquarter might. And when city officials are working to attract new companies to Denver, international connectivity it a big asset.
“As we’ve worked on recent and past deals with companies such as Western Union and Panasonic, part of our pitch is to show how easy it is to get to 180 destinations directly from Denver,” adds Hiraga.
Tourism is Changing in Colorado
It used to be that people flew into Denver in the winter to ski in the mountains. “Now,” says Lea, “People come here to experience Denver.”
In 2005, voters approved an increase of tourism marketing dollars, and since then Denver has seen tourism grow nearly three times the pace of the national average, 62 percent for Denver, compared to 22 percent nationally.
Denver’s rise as a tourism destination has continued into 2016, as the city welcomed 31.5 million total visitors, including 14.2 million day visitors and 17.3 million overnight visitors.
Overnight visitors surpassed 2015 totals by nearly one million, a 6 percent year-over-year increase — and they also spent 5 percent more than they did in 2015, establishing a new tourism revenue record for Denver of $5.3 billion. International tourists, by contrast, currently spend over $1.5 billion in Colorado annually, according to Andrea Blankenship, director of international tourism for the Colorado Tourism Office.
Tourists purchase over $1 billion dollars worth of food and drinks, and their purchases at retail stores hit $660 million in 2016. All photos by Daniel Tseng.
Over $1.5 billion is spent on lodging, and another $1.5 billion is shelled out for gas, car rentals, and other local transportation purchases. Tourists purchase over $1 billion dollars worth of food and drinks, and their purchases at retail stores hit $660 million in 2016.
Like it or not, Denver’s turning into an internationally known city — a place where people from across the globe want to come to work and play. “In the competitive global arena, you really can’t be successful as a tourism destination unless someone can easily get to you,” says Buck.