Katie Conaway sits in a booth in a giant convention hall in Berlin, Germany.
Over and over throughout the day, she meets with European tour operators and travel writers. Every person that stops to see her at this International Trade Bourse (ITB) is met with her bright smile and an enthusiastic sales pitch about Pittsburgh.
Maybe that seems like a hard sell to you. After all, who in Germany wants to come to Pittsburgh? Do they even know about us?
“We knew Pittsburgh was featured on a couple of itineraries by some tour operators, but the level of their excitement about Pittsburgh was so encouraging,” said Conaway, domestic and international group sales director for VisitPittsburgh. “Everyone was so open about ways to increase our presence in the market. The trip provided a clear blueprint on how we could work with operators better in Europe.”
VisitPittsburgh is spearheading the Pittsburgh Regional Travel Cooperative, which is working to increase international travel — both leisure and business — to Pittsburgh and southwestern Pennsylvania through tour operators and other travel groups.
In November, members of the PRTC will attend the World Travel Market trade show in London, which draws more than 50,000 people. While in Europe, they’ll stop in France and Belgium as well.
The PRTC also includes other regional organizations: Butler County Visitors and Convention Bureau, Visit Washington County, Allegheny Conference on Community Development, Pittsburgh Technology Council and the Idea Foundry. Pittsburgh International Airport is also a partner to promote the airport and its airlines in international markets.
Jackie Antonucci, sales director for the Butler County Visitors and Convention Bureau, said the region has lots to offer European tourists.
“Together as a region, we present a solid case,” she said. “When we show the tour operators the bridges, bike trails, the rivers … I’m not surprised by their enthusiasm at all. This city is gorgeous.”
It’s been a busy international season at PIT. On Aug. 3 and 11, China Eastern sent two charters from Shanghai to Pittsburgh, making it the first ever non-stop service between the city and China. On July 25, British Airways announced that it will launch nonstop service from London Heathrow to Pittsburgh on April 2, 2019.
“By joining together and showing what we can do as a market — beyond the data that the airlines already have — we can increase our international air service,” said Christina Cassotis, CEO of Pittsburgh International Airport. “It takes time, but look at what we’ve done already. Pittsburgh has so much to offer and we have to let the world know it.”
This follows a successful 2017, in which WOW Air launched daily service from Reykjavik, Iceland, to Pittsburgh, and Condor Airlines began seasonal service from Frankfurt, Germany. Prior to WOW’s service, the only European nonstop at the airport was seasonal service to Paris provided by Delta Air Lines, which announced recently the service will end this fall after 10 years.
Adding a new international flight is a multi-layered process that includes contact with tour operators, through sales missions or by meeting at international trade shows. These meetings lead to Familiarization Tours of Pittsburgh to help the operators build attractive itineraries for their customers.
Before attending ITB in Berlin, which had more than 100,000 visitors, Conaway coordinated a sales trip in Paris knowing that WOW Air has easy connections to Pittsburgh through Iceland. Like Antonucci, she was very happy with the reception.
Tour operators told the Pittsburgh delegation that Europeans, especially repeat customers, want to trade tourist attractions for genuine American destinations. They’ve grown tired of the New Yorks and Orlandos.
And with its history, culture, food scene, love of sports and strong sense of place, Pittsburgh defines Americana.
Current self-guided tours take Europeans to places like New York, Philadelphia or Washington, D.C., where — after six-hour flights — they’ll have long waits getting through U.S. Customs. International passengers arriving in Pittsburgh can be through the same process, in a rental car and starting their holidays less than an hour after landing.
“That convenience can be a game-changer,” Conaway said. “When tour operators hear that, their heads snap up and they have a big smile on their face.”
PIT can now boast nonstop flights to three European destinations and the initial steps of service to China via seasonal charters.
“We have had some success,” Cassotis said. “Pittsburgh deserves more international service for its businesses and for leisure travelers. To do that, we all need to continue working together.”