Cherry Capital Airport – The Cherry on Top
As things return to normal, Cherry Capital Airport is a gateway to a fantastic tourism destination and an exciting business hub.
Cherry Capital Airport is the third-largest airport in the state of Michigan for passengers, named because the state is the world’s leading producer of Montmorency tart cherries. From there, northern lower Michigan has become known as a great agricultural tourism location.
“Our main driver of business is leisure tourism because we have so many outdoor recreational activities that many people can participate in, from the sleeping bear dunes, wineries, golf, our hiking, kayaking, and fishing,” says Kevin Klein, Executive Director of the airport. “It’s a great four-season destination.”
Cherry Capital Airport is served by four great airlines, Allegiant, America, Delta and United, providing 17 non-stop flights to cities across the United States. The airport facility itself has six gates that operate all those destinations.
“When you look at our terminal design, it’s a Frank Lloyd Wright northern Michigan resort-type feeling, complete with even a fireplace!” points out Klein.
Cherry Capital Airport’s runways serve the entire narrow-body fleet of all its airlines, with two runways, 7,015 feet and 5,378 feet long respectively. As well as great facilities, Cherry Capital Airport is also home to great tenants including a fixed-base operator AV Flight, that provides services for general aviation aircraft, minor maintenance, catering, rental cars and more. The airport is also home to 45 North aircraft charters, North Flight air ambulance service, and the United States Coast Guard, who operate search and rescue operations across the Great Lakes from here.
“We have Northwestern Michigan College who has an aviation program operating out of here to train pilots, and another flight school called Giving Wings Aviation,” Klein tells us. “We have the Cherry Country Café and Gifts gift shop that provides home-cooked soups and local cherry flavours, and we boast every major car rental service, all here at the facility.”
While the airport has much to offer, speaking with Klein it is clear he also has a great deal of enthusiasm for the region beyond it.
“It’s a great destination. Our peak months for passenger traffic are May, June, July August, September, and October, when we have temperatures from the upper 60s in May to the low 80s in July. We have a fantastic range of temperatures, but also being in an eastern time zone, on the western side, means we have the longest days,” he says. “You can start playing golf as the sun rises at 6 am and play until 10 pm at night. That puts us on the 45th parallel, the perfect parallel for fruit including grapes for award-winning wine, so we’re very thankful for that.”
Following a troubled pandemic, Cherry Capital Airport rose to set passenger records in 2021, and its latest challenges include growing demand as things return to normal and people want to come to Michigan to enjoy the outdoors and be in the company of friends and family while safely socially distancing.
“Having the aircraft availability and crews to fly them is our biggest challenge,” Klein points out.
While demand is healthy, Klein is also keen to be an advocate for Michigan and all it has to offer.
“Northern Michigan is a secret to a lot of people. Most people think of Michigan as Detroit, and the industrial areas around there, but do not know about our streams, rivers, and forest areas,” enthuses Klein. “We have a compelling marketing campaign called Pure Michigan, talking about all that Michigan has to offer. We employ different avenues to get the word out, primarily targeting our 17 non-stop destinations. We use digital marketing in those areas, as well as traditional marketing advertising in print, radio, and television. Our focus recently has been digital marketing social media campaigns, partnering with those communities.”
Cherry Capital has the added challenge that it must spread the word using the marketing budget of a small airport. Its marketing spend is usually within the region of $450,000 a year, for which Klein expects a three-to-one return, if not more.
The secret is receiving a lift from Michigan’s vibrant cultural life.
“We’ve had travel writers come in and participate, and we’re known in our region for festivals,” Klein says. “We have the National Cherry Festival that celebrates the cherry industry. We partner with most festivals and take that information out to these other communities to bring people in for our events. Then there is the Traverse City Film Festival Michael Moore puts on, the Great Lakes Equestrian Festival which is international now. We’ll take these events and promote them in those communities where they are of interest.”
Klein’s advocacy for the region has also had an impact on those who collaborate with him.
Cherry Capital Airport is proud of its collaborative efforts through regional partners including the many destination marketing organizations to the likes of Traverse City Tourism, Gaylord All Outdoors Visitors Bureau, Charlevoix, Petoskey and historic Mackinac Island Convention and Visitors Bureaus. Together with their premier resort and hotel properties we are able to celebrate all that our northern Michigan region has to offer guests coming from all over the globe ready to enjoy our award-winning recreation opportunities. From the Grand Traverse Resort, just minutes from the TVC runway to Gaylord’s Golf Mecca premier golf resort Treetops Resort guests will enjoy perfectly manicured golf links celebrating golf designers to the likes of Palmer, Nicklaus, Robert Trent Jones, and Donald Ross.
Adding the attraction of northern Michigan is the vibrant business economy that draws award-winning medical and healthcare professionals, technology, and manufacturing in addition to one of a kind world-class businesses like Hagerty Insurance which specialises in vintage auto and marine insurance and employs over 1,000 community members. Manufacturers like East Jordan Iron Works which exports its products internationally are also key ingredients to the success of the region’s economy.
“The airport is an asset necessary to continue to grow our business economy,” Klein noted.
“Without question, without Kevin’s leadership within the community, these initiatives Kevin spoke so passionately about would not have happened,” says Susan Wilcox Olson Media & Marketing Manager of TVC- Cherry Capital Airport.
The Welcoming Party
Of course, it takes a team of people with the right skills, qualities, and attitude to keep Cherry Capital going. The airlines recruit pilots and flight crews from the local college and flight school that offers a pipeline of talent.
“It has been a struggle to get talent in the industry. We are working closely with the American Association of Airport Executives to recruit talent,” Klein says. “Recently we’ve hired a new airport engineer that is a longstanding member of those organisations. We have also brought in a new CFO, and they provide training and accreditation for those businesses to promote our longevity at the airport.”
Cherry Capital itself offers a plethora of incentives to new staff.
“We really have something here for everyone, higher pay, flexible hours, we offer a flexible schedule. We meet people’s demands. We’ve been doing a lot of recruiting and training in that regard,” Klein explains. “Through Covid we partnered with Michigan Health and Human Services, offering testing inside the facility for passengers and employees, offer vaccinations in the terminal. That is part of our toolbox to show our people that they’re working in a healthy and safe environment and that lets our passengers see that as well.”
Looking to the future of Cherry Capital Airport, Klein is clearly optimistic. There are plans to get the airport to 10 or 15 gates within the next five years, with brand new air carrier ramps and taxiways, a new instrument landing system, for a new aircraft approach to the airport for low visibility weather.
“The future is really bright for us,” he says. “When we look at the airport, we had a record year and when I look at the airport industry and compare other airports to us many consultants are looking at our growth. We want to be a leisure destination airport. We are also very business focused and that continues to grow.