Off the charts
The calendar may read July, but Romelle Speral already is dreaming of Cancun in February -- or maybe March -- if she can hold out. "Summertimes seem to prompt that feeling," the Fargo woman said. "Feeling that soft sand on your feet. Watching the...
The calendar may read July, but Romelle Speral already is dreaming of Cancun in February -- or maybe March -- if she can hold out.
"Summertimes seem to prompt that feeling," the Fargo woman said. "Feeling that soft sand on your feet. Watching the beautiful sunsets. The winters are so long here. It's just a wonderful way of breaking up winter for us."
Speral is one of thousands who take charter flights to flee this land of blizzards and wind chill for sun and fun or bright lights and high rolling.
Fargo's Hector International Airport has reported a record number of charter boardings for 2003 and there are still a few gambling and football junkets to go.
The airport has had 5,310 charter boardings through June, said Airport Authority Executive Director Shawn Dobberstein.
That's up from 5,095 in 2002, 4,605 in 2001 and 4,899 in 2000, he said.
"It's great business for us," Dobberstein said.
The airlines collect $4.50 from each ticket in various fees and taxes, he said, with $4.43 per ticket going back to Hector International.
In addition, the boardings also count toward receiving federal airport subsidies -- roughly $5 a passenger, Dobberstein said.
"That's great cash" for airport improvements, he said.
Most of the charter flights out of Fargo are run by Twin Cities-based TransGlobal Vacations in conjunction with Ryan International Airlines.
"It's a pretty good market. In fact, we're increasing our service from Fargo in the winter of 2004 to both Vegas and Cancun," said Gina Esch, marketing manager for TransGlobal.
The schedule posted on the Hector International Web site ( www.fargo
airport.com) says TransGlobal and Ryan International supplied 23 Las Vegas charter flights and six international charters (most to Mexican resorts) so far in 2003.
In 2004, TransGlobal may add two flights to Vegas and another international flight to keep up with the demand, Esch said.
While local ticket prices must stay competitive with the Twin Cities, people do like the convenience of nonstop flights from Fargo, she said.
"With the improvements being made at the airport" and in marketing, "it's really been a great opportunity for TransGlobal," Esch said.
The chief travel time for charters out of Hector is January through April.
"I think it's people want to get away from the cold. We're in the Midwest. At least I want to get away from the cold," Esch said.
A few other airlines and casinos run charter operations out of Hector, including Sun Country, Casino Express Airlines and Miami Air.
Casino Express heads exclusively to Elko, Nev.
The subsidiary of McClaskey Holdings LLC shuttles customers to several McClaskey hotels, including Red Lion Inn and Casino, Gold Country Inn and Casino, High Desert Inn, Holiday Inn Express and Thunderbird Hotel.
The charter airline rotates planes among 120 cities, and provides transportation for sports teams and other casinos, said Jan Fasselin, director of marketing and sales for McClaskey.
Plans are in the works to add Canada and Mexico to the mix. That will mean dropping some cities, but not Fargo.
"We like the people from Fargo," Fasselin said.
Mild winter weather and an Old West ambiance are Elko's draws, he said.
"You go down to Vegas and you get roller coasters and sinking pirate ships. You go down to Laughlin and get baked. It's a bargain to fly into our casinos. Some of these packages are $99 for two days with hotel. You just can't beat that," he said.
By late spring, charter flights drop considerably as the region's residents head back to the fields or take their recreation on area lakes. Summer and fall charters from Fargo consist of a few gambling junkets to Nevada or football teams and fans moving around the country.
Still, charters are available year-round at the much-larger Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.
Risk vs. reward
Charters can be run by the airline, by a local travel agency, or by both together. But they can be a daunting proposition for a small business. Larger planes often carry 170-210 people and need to be full or close to it to turn a profit, local travel experts say.
"Last year I bought one plane, but it's quite a risk, said Nancy Jurgens-Aughinbaugh, owner of Kvamme Travel and Cruises in Moorhead.
"Most of the time we have part of the plane pre-sold as a group. Then the rest of it becomes open to the public. If you buy the whole plane, it gets into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, which is huge for a small business," she said.
For 2004, she has two charters to Mexico planned, one to Ixtapa and the other to Cancun.
"I think it's great. You leave Fargo and four hours later you're in Mexico. You can't get any better than that," Jurgens-Aughinbaugh said. "Two hours later you're in Vegas. I think that's great."
Carlson Wagonlit Travel & Key Travel of Moorhead doesn't roll the dice, said owner and president Jill Baldwin. They stick with trips available through TransGlobal.
"The ones to Cancun are always big sellouts," Baldwin said.
Hector draws customers from 100 miles around, she said, mainly because of convenience and unpredictability of winter weather.
"There's always that dead of winter. Do you really want to drive down there (to the Cities) risking snowstorms?" she asked.
Marie Lucas, the former general manager of Key Travel, now a Carlson Wagonlit associate, said the business has grown considerably since Key Travel started chartering planes in 1997.
"We didn't even have a group. We just bought the plane. We took the risk," Lucas said. "We took the risk and they've (charter firms) found it's definitely a good-selling product."
Travelers get hooked on the format, she said. And the companies often work their schedules around school vacation.
"I've done a couple of them," Lucas said. "In 2000 to the Dominican Republic, and March of 2002 to Cancun. It was awesome. I'd definitely go back to Cancun. I've been there three times."
The charters are often filled with a mixed group, Jurgens-Aughinbaugh said.
"It's every walk of life," she said. "Every combination of person you can imagine. From the person who's saved all their lives for that one special trip, to the person who goes on four, six, 10 vacations a year."
Speral is planning to make another trip south of the border with her husband this year. They've visited ruins, snorkeled in an ecological water park. Now, she thinks it's time for parasailing.
"Every time that we've been down there, things have just gone really smoothly. They take really good care of us there," she said. "We think about Cancun the minute we get home. ... It's fun to venture out a bit and try a few things."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583