Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Hopes high for Access Sun Valley card

Relaunched discount card aims to promote businesses, generate revenue for transportation

Express Staff Writer

Reservation specialist Lisa Edelman checks in guest Larry Howard, of Boise, to the Wood River Inn in Hailey on Friday. The hotel is participating in the Access Sun Valley card program, which offers discounts to cardholders. Money raised through card sales goes toward funding airline minimum revenue guarantees. Photo by Willy Cook

It was first as a consumer and later as a business owner that Doris Tunney became interested in the Access Sun Valley card.

Fly Sun Valley Alliance recently relaunched its discount card, which offers deals at local businesses and the new benefit of exclusive flight deals between Friedman Memorial Airport and Los Angeles and Seattle.

Tunney, owner of the Double Springs Ranch northeast of

Ketchum, knew of the original card, but it didn't pique her interest.

"I saw it in the paper last year but didn't pay too much attention to it," she said.

The new discounted air travel—$89 one-way to Los Angeles and $69 one-way to Seattle—is what made her take another look.

The alliance, a nonprofit group that seeks to support and improve air and ground access to the valley from key markets, also raises funds to support its initiatives and to contribute to minimum revenue guarantees. The Access Sun Valley card program is part of that fundraising effort while also giving a boost to local businesses.

More vendors, more buyers, more money for minimum revenue guarantees. That's the idea behind the new card, said Eric Seder, a local business owner and president of the alliance. The group's new push seeks to gain more participation among area consumers and businesses.

"This has been developed to support airport traffic and to support the community," Tunney said. "I wanted to contribute and participate."

She contributed by buying a card, and is participating by offering a discount on hay.

The Double Springs Ranch, an hour northeast of Ketchum near the Lost River Range, uses about 550 of its 640 acres as cropland for specialty horse hay.

Tunney said the thought of discontinued flight service worries her.

"The whole airport thing has got me rattled," she said. "There are a lot of people who are not vacationers who need to travel. It would put a burden on us to make other arrangements."

Jeff Knight, operations manager for the Wood River Inn in Hailey and the Tamarack Lodge in Ketchum, agrees that's it's in local businesses' interest to support the program.

"The biggest reason (we're participating) is to help with airlines coming into the valley," he said. "That's the lifeblood of the valley, as far as tourism goes."

Because the card was only relaunched this month and the valley's summer tourism season hasn't hit, he's not sure how much new business the card will generate.

"The second week of June, hopefully we'll see an impact," he said.

He'd also like to see the card gain wider appeal among consumers.

"Construction crews, different business people aren't aware of it," he said. "It's on us to educate (others).

"The more vendors participating, the more business coming in. The more business coming in, the more money for (flights)."

Relaunched card showing results

When the original card was launched last fall, only 31 were sold. Though 50 businesses signed up to participate, consumer response was lackluster.

"It really went nowhere," Seder said. "It was clear at that point the card was never going to make much of a difference in supporting our mission of minimum revenue guarantees. We said, 'What on earth are we going to do to make this card successful?'"

Carol Waller, hired in February as the alliance's director, suggested the card needed an extra benefit to draw potential buyers.

"There wasn't enough perceived value," she said. "It needed a hook."

That hook came in the form of the discounted flights through Alaska Airlines.

"It's been fantastic that they stepped up to partner with us in this way," she said.

Seder said the alliance also increased public relations efforts and redesigned the website.

"There has been a lot of support from businesses that are friendly to the cause, to what the Fly Sun Valley Alliance is doing for the future of our community," he said.

As of May 24, 75 businesses had signed up to participate, with 70 cards sold since the May 7 relaunch.

"Sales have been brisk," Waller said.

The goal is to have 100 participating businesses by mid August.

"I think we'll hit that a lot sooner," she said.

The alliance hopes to sell 500 cards by Oct. 1.

"It's such a solid win-win for the customer and the business community," Waller said. "Everybody seems very excited about it. It's a way to shop locally and feel good about it."

Without MRGs, would air service exist?

Seder and Waller made a presentation to the Ketchum City Council on May 16, providing an update on the relaunch. The alliance's startup revenue came from the cities of Ketchum and Sun Valley, which gave $10,000 each.

"We all really believe there's a lot of upside to this card," said Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall.

Nonstop flights on Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air create an estimated annual economic impact of $150 million, according to figures provided by the alliance.

Minimum revenue guarantees, the amounts of which are not publicly disclosed, can be hard to generate, Seder added.

"Even if the card is wildly successful, we'll still have to find another source of funding," he said.

Funds had previously come from the alliance's sale of transferable ski passes and contributions from Sun Valley Co.

"Sun Valley Co. has been actively involved and has been the major supporter of the program ... since the start of it," Waller said.

Other resort cities count on more public funding, whether from general funds, specific taxes or grants. Telluride Montrose Regional Air Organization, for example, receives nearly $1.8 million annually in public funds for air-service support programs. Steamboat Springs' Fly Steamboat program collects $1 million. Support programs in other resort areas, such as Aspen and Vail, get much less—but still more than Sun Valley's.

"We're absolutely at the bottom of any of our competing resorts," Seder said.

Last winter, the alliance and partner Sun Valley Co. didn't have to pay out any minimum-revenue-guarantee funds. They did, however, incur more than $100,000 in diversion bussing costs, according to the alliance.

Alaska/Horizon flights will resume May 27, a month earlier than last year. June is a slow travel season, so there will likely be many empty seats on those flights.

"That causes the minimum revenue guarantee to pay out a lot of money," Seder said.

A fuel escalation clause goes into effect this summer, which will increase the minimum revenue guarantee cap for that season.

"We have to have a stable funding source," Seder said. "The community is going to have to support the program to a significant degree if we hope to maintain and increase our air service."

Rebecca Meany:

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