New Horizons

[Published in the Nov. 2021–Jan. 2022 issue of Boulevard]

The pandemic took a toll on tourism across the country, and the Hampton Roads area was no different. According to the Virginia Beach Visitors Bureau, 2020 hotel occupancy in July, a critical time for the service industry, dropped to 27%, down 60% from the prior year. The community has experienced difficult times, however with the pandemic slowly waning, opportunities arise offering new horizons for the local economy. 

Breeze Airways, the project of David Neeleman, founder of numerous airline companies including Jet Blue and West Air, presents one new opportunity. The company will offer transnational flights across the United States, with Norfolk primed to become its next airline hub. On August 18, Breeze announced that the company had accumulated over $300 million in startup capital, which is the most by an American startup within three months. With heavy funding, and tickets starting at $39 one way, Breeze embraces a brand of affordable flights compared to other major airlines. 

In July 2021, Breeze launched its first flights from Norfolk International Airport (NIA), with Charleston and Tampa as the flagship destinations. Today, Breeze’s East Coast hub has added Providence, New Orleans, Hartford, Pittsburgh and Columbus as possible destinations for customers. Since the first flight from NIA, the company has sold roughly 100,000 tickets in total that have gone through Norfolk.

“We do believe that these seven new routes are only the beginning, and Breeze has several other cities under consideration that will be added in the future,” said Sarah Hughes, director of marketing and communication of Visit Norfolk.

According to Visit Norfolk, hotels in the area began to hit 80% occupancy in April, a drastic increase from the year prior. With restrictions loosening, businesses in the Hampton Roads area anticipate new faces visiting from out of state. In addition, Norfolk, a city with a large influx of tourists, now hosts a strategic hub for an airline that connects it with the rest of the Eastern seaboard. As an up-and-coming city, the presence of this airline has the potential to attract a brand-new crowd of tourists.

“I believe that the traveling public is looking for destinations that are safe, have excellent hotel choices, a great culinary scene and a variety of attractions and events,” said Kurt Krause, president of Visit Norfolk. “The city delivers on all of those characteristics in addition to the proximity to water, our history, diverse population and the largest naval base in the world. Breeze Air, with their direct flights, has opened up six new markets, and all are now with direct flights.”

With over 8,000 jobs in the city falling under the tourism industry, Breeze’s operation offers a new source of employment. According to the governor’s office, the company created 166 new jobs in Norfolk as a result of the move. Doug Smith, president of the Hampton Roads Alliance, is optimistic of the economic benefits, voicing it in a press release on behalf of Ralph Northam. Along with a $400,000 grant from the commonwealth to assist the city in establishing the hub, Breeze will also receive benefits from the Major Business Facility Job Tax Credit for new, full-time jobs created.

“As a result, our region will be better equipped to recruit other businesses to establish operations in Hampton Roads and, just as importantly, attract the talented workforce required to meet the needs of these businesses,” said Smith.

Local tourism agencies greatly anticipate Breeze expanding their destinations from Norfolk International, as the central location and hospitable vacation scene will find these organizations with a great influx of business.

“To have the support of a new air carrier benefits the visitor economy tremendously,” said Krause. “Norfolk was once a must-see destination, with partners like Breeze Air, Norfolk is a necessity destination.”

With the inclusion of Breeze in the region, an influx of jobs and visitors will likely follow. The pandemic dealt a great deal of damage to an area that prides itself in a great tourism culture. Yet, out of the chaos arose an opportunity that might not only replenish the economy of Hampton Roads but rejuvenate it with a growing connection with the rest of the country.

~Alex Marjanovich

See more in the Nov. 2021–Jan. 2022 issue of Boulevard.