Southwest Airlines knew about Charleston, but less about Greenville, so local officials did their thing: dinner downtown, the Liberty Bridge at night, the places that make Greenville look cosmopolitan. Southwest executives also got a helicopter tour of the mountains and Clemson.
It was a high-stakes game of aviation poker. Greenville's needs were obvious, but the pitch to Dallas-based Southwest was a sophisticated one that focused on why the Upstate would work for the airline.
The city was in need of low airfares to stem the flow of passengers to Charlotte and Atlanta. Charleston hoped to replace AirTran, a low-cost carrier that had left the city.
By the time he got involved, Greenville Mayor Knox White said it was clear that airline officials had developed a genuine relationship with recruiters, including the local airport board and Chamber of Commerce officials.
Meanwhile, Charleston officials were getting nervous about potentially competing with Greenville for the airline and called a meeting. The business partnership that was forged translated into the legislative involvement of state Rep. Dan Cooper of Anderson and House Speaker Bobby Harrell of Charleston.
The effort worked. Southwest said Tuesday it intends to serve Greenville and Charleston beginning next year.
Legislators had been in the midst of discussions over an incentive plan to lure a discount carrier to South Carolina, but the airline made its decision without any subsidies being offered. Fares, schedules and destinations, which will be announced later, won't hinge on the outcome of any pending legislative action, airline officials said.
Southwest's decision to fly to Greenville-Spartanburg International is a "real breakthrough" for recruiting business, White said, citing conversations with corporate headquarters that "dissolved" over air service concerns while other prospects never showed up because of the high cost of fares.
While neither White nor County Council Chairman Butch Kirven would discuss specific prospects, state Rep. Dan Cooper of Piedmont, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, told The Greenville News that "there were five projects within Greenville County, three within the city that were significantly tied" to Southwest's decision.
"In the past, we've missed some opportunities to lure new business and industry to the Upstate because of our lack of affordable air service," said Minor Shaw, vice chair of the airport commission. "Southwest will help us to change that."
"We select all of our routes very carefully," Southwest spokeswoman Beth Harbin said. "We don't go into a city temporarily. We go into a new market to stay over the long term, to become part of the community and to grow with the community."
Greenville is likely to end up with more flights than Charleston, with service beginning sooner, White said, adding he expects a Southwest "marketing effort like we've never seen before."
Airline officials have asked about events they could sponsor that are meaningful to the Upstate. They've made clear they'll seek a high profile in the community. And their concerns about Greenville's long-term support have been put to rest by letters of support from major corporate citizens.
White said he doubts the Greenville population soon will forget what had become a painfully expensive slate of airfares from GSP. One business prospect asked White how often he used the local airport, and White said the honest answer was: Not much any more.
Ed McCallum of McCallum Sweeney Consulting, a site selection firm, said business prospects conduct research without ever contacting officials.
Greenville likely has been crossed off the list without anyone knowing it was being considered.
Damian McKinney, a site expert with eRealty Companies Inc., said earlier that Greenville's "hotbed" of technology and collaboration was a revelation during recent negotiations to bring bus maker Proterra to town, but that the area's most enduring weakness has remained a lack of easy air travel.
Eliminating 40 percent to 70 percent of the cost of air travel is no small thing, McCallum said, pinpointing both corporate headquarters and advisory service firms such as engineering companies and financial business as prospects that are likely to look more seriously at Greenville now that company officials can shuttle in and out more easily.
"In choosing our state for their expansion, Southwest made an important business decision -- and that decision is that South Carolina is good for business," Harrell said.