KENNEWICK - Businesses are successful when they are realistic about challenges they face and optimistic about what can be achieved. This balance is something the Tri-Cities is good at, said the CEO and chairman of Alaska Airlines.

"There is a lot going right in the Tri-Cities," Bill Ayer told about 650 people at the Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau's 42nd annual meeting Monday at Kennewick's Three Rivers Convention Center.

But as well as the Tri-Cities is doing on many fronts, the region faces many challenges, just as Alaska Airlines does, he said. The national economy is not improving quickly.

Alaska Airlines is a case study about how to succeed in tough economic times, said Ron Foraker, Tri-Cities Airport director.

The company has provided air service to the Tri-Cities for 30 years and has six daily flights to Seattle, he said.

Ayer helped open Horizon Air, part of Alaska Air Group, at the Tri-Cities Airport in 1982. Since then, Ayer said, the area has been one of the best markets for Horizon.

Alaska Airlines is the seventh-largest airline in the United States but only has about 3 percent of the domestic seats, Ayer said.

Ayer shared some of his lessons learned from transforming Alaska Airlines in the past decade, after revenue plummeted after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Those lessons include having the right leaders, a sense of urgency, focusing on one or two big ideas, having a way to measure how those goals are accomplished, determining what can be controlled in the long term, focusing on customers, making tough calls without worrying about what is popular and developing strategic partnerships, he said.

In 2002, Alaska Airlines made a fundamental shift in its structure and the company is continuing to make changes, he said.

For example, on Wednesday the company will start using biofuels on flights between Seattle and Washington, D.C., and Seattle to Portland to demonstrate that biofuel is technically viable and in demand, Ayer said. About 75 flights using biofuel are planned in those markets during a three-week period.

Ayer said Alaska Airlines operates on four basic principles: not buying what it can't afford, not borrowing money it can't pay back, not doing deals it doesn't understand and knowing if something doesn't seem right, it isn't.

And those principles work with businesses of all sizes and with government, said Kris Watkins, the bureau's president and CEO.

The Tri-Cities has seen an 8.5 percent growth in hotel occupancy, compared to the rest of the state, which has seen about 4 percent to 5 percent growth, Watkins said.

And that rate has continued for the past three years, she said.

Hotels doing well mean that retail, attractions and professional services in the Tri-Cities are doing well, Watkins said.

Although some declines in government travel are expected with the end of Hanford stimulus dollars, Watkins said the region is well-equipped for the future.

With 704 members, the Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau has the second highest membership in the state after Seattle, she said.

And in 2011, the bureau helped book about 130 sports tournaments and conventions, bringing about $32 million to the local economy, Watkins said.


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