New Horry County Airport Director to help changes soar

New Horry County Airport Director to help changes soar

By Adva Saldinger
asaldinger@thesunnews.com Michael La Pier once commissioned a local band in Denver to write a song and perform it at Frontier Airlines headquarters to get the airline to start a direct flight to the Central Illinois Regional Airport, where he was the director.
La Pier, who took over as the Horry County Airport Director just more than a month ago, said that creative ideas such as that one have helped him get his foot in the door with airline executives and have often led to expanded air service. While he might not resort to his old tactics, La Pier said he will actively work to attract new flights to Myrtle Beach International Airport.
La Pier took over an airport that in the summer was the fastest-growing airport in the country and continues to post double-digit gains in passengers. The number of inbound passengers was up 31.9 percent in September, compared to the same month last year, according to a report released by the airport this week.

The airport is also in the early phases of a dramatic expansion that will add a terminal and bring the number of gates up to 13. Construction has started on the extension of Harrelson Boulevard and bids have come in for other phases of the project. Crews should break ground on the new terminal at the end of this year or the beginning of 2011.
“Part of the allure of this job was everything that’s happening,” La Pier said. “I think the biggest challenge so far has been trying to get up to speed as quickly as possible on everything that’s going on here. I’m still learning, but … I think I’ve done pretty well getting my feet planted.”
How he got here
As a child, La Pier wanted to be a pilot, but after less-than-perfect vision ruled that out, he was introduced to airport management, the only job he’s ever done.
La Pier was a student at Rockford College in Illinois when he got an internship at the local Chicago Rockford International Airport, which set him on his path to becoming an airport director.

He was hired at that airport after graduating and worked his way up, learning the ropes and the demands of the job along the way.
“The one thing you’ll know about this job is every day you turn the key in the door will be different,” La Pier said he learned at that first job.
He describes the job as a combination of a manager, a business developer, a marketer and an engineer.
“The job is diverse because it requires general knowledge of so many different skill sets,” he said.
After about six years, he landed a job as the airport director at the Bloomington-Normal Regional Airport, which is now called the Central Illinois Regional Airport.
The airport grew from one carrier to six carriers and became one of the busiest airports in the state during his 18-year tenure.
Michael Boyd, an aviation consultant with Boyd Group International Inc., has known La Pier for about 20 years, since they worked together on some expansions at Bloomington-Normal Airport.
“This guy is very innovative. Basically under his direction he built [the
airport] from 40,000 enplaned [passengers] to a quarter million,” Boyd said.
La Pier worked creatively to put his airport on the map to attract new flights and passengers, Boyd said. In addition to hiring the band to woo Frontier, he came up with an aggressive marketing campaign that included sending a market report wrapped in a Disney World-themed box delivered by a person dressed in a Tigger costume to Air Tran Airways headquarters when he was trying to lure the low-cost carrier to start a direct flight to Orlando from Illinois.
“Some of the efforts we undertook were pretty cutting-edge at the time,” La Pier said. “The campaign just established our foothold. It differentiated us.”
Those moves caught the airlines’ attention but ultimately the market analysis got the flights, La Pier said.
“He’ll never jive you. If he hands you a set of numbers those are real numbers,” Boyd said. “He can find opportunities where most of us mere mortals can’t see them.”
While it’s unlikely he’ll duplicate those campaigns here, he said he will work to bring more flights to Myrtle Beach, especially from the western part of the country.
Boyd said in the past airlines have asked if he knows La Pier only to add, “Will you tell him to back off. I’ll fly there.”
After 18 years it was time to move on and after a year as an airport consultant, La Pier took a job in St. George, Utah, where he helped raise the money and design a new airport. Two and a half years later he took the post of chief operating officer of the Sacramento County Airport System in California. That’s where he was working when he heard about the open job in Myrtle Beach.
“I decided I really like my own place. … I’d like to be No. 1 again,” La Pier said.
Settling in

La Pier’s first month on the job has been about learning the intricacies of the Myrtle Beach airport and a new place.
“It’s almost a 180-degree difference from any other airport that I’ve worked at,” La Pier said.
Only 30 percent of the traffic comes from the local community, in contrast with most airports, which serve more as a way for locals to travel places.
“That’s exciting, and there aren’t a lot of folks that can say they’ve been involved in that type of airport,” La Pier said, adding that he’s learning every day with the help of the airport staff.
Brad Dean, president and chief executive of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, said La Pier’s desire to learn has been noticed.
“Mike is very likable, a great listener and possesses a childlike enthusiasm to learn,” he said.
La Pier said he’s also settling in personally. La Pier has been married to his high school sweetheart, Pam, for 31 years, and they have two sons, Jordan, 24, and Ryan, 21.
La Pier and his wife have been getting to know the area and have been enjoying the beach, he said.
“We’re adjusting,” La Pier said. “There is culture shock obviously, [but] the pace of life and the culture here are pretty easy to adjust to.”
After bouncing to several different jobs in recent years, he said he is looking to settle. “My wife made me promise this is it for a while. It’s time to put some roots down again.”

The Grand Strand is also a great place for La Pier to work on his golf game, something he’s been doing since he was about 10 years old.
La Pier’s plans
La Pier is formulating a plan for the direction of the airport and has a lengthy list of tasks and goals for the coming year.
He plans to oversee the successful start of construction on the expansion and will work to prepare staff for the changes in advance of the project’s completion, La Pier said. He also wants to work on a strategic plan for how each of the county’s four airports will best serve people.
La Pier said the airport should be a stronger partner in economic development and tourism and that establishing the airport as part of the community is probably the issue he most wants to address.
“Making us a full partner in the community is a key to me,” he said. “The measure of success will be how the citizens in the community and the stakeholders feel about it. If they feel like a part of it and it’s a part of them, then we’ll have been successful.”
That vision came through at a meeting this week. He sat listening to a presentation and when it was over, he quietly but commandingly shared his thoughts on the proposal.

He said the airport should be an extension of the Myrtle Beach experience and should incorporate local ties and cater to the reasons people visit.
“When they get off an airplane and before they get on they should feel like they’re here,” he said.
Dean said the chamber and golf marketing group Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday will look for him to lead the effort to expand the number and destination of flights. La Pier said he plans to work with both groups to grow the airport and benefit the community.
Paul Puckli, La Pier’s long-time friend and business associate, said that La Pier is a hard worker who will do whatever it takes to get things done.
“He’s a doer. He’s a leader. He likes to make things happen to benefit a community and I think Myrtle Beach could not have done any better,” Puckli said.

Boyd said La Pier will be able to accomplish his goals because he is not only creative but is skilled at working with disparate communities.
“That’s his strength. He knows how to do that. He knows how to bring people together,” Boyd said, adding that he is also skilled at dealing with the Federal Aviation Administration and running an airport.
La Pier is goal focused and extremely loyal to his airport, he said.
“He will work fiercely for Myrtle Beach. He doesn’t care if he offends Charleston. This is business, it’s nothing personal. If he can take 20,000 passengers away from Charleston he’ll be delighted to do so,” Boyd said.

Contact ADVA SALDINGER at 626-0317.

© 2010 TheSunNews.com and wire service sources.

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