ConnectJets founder and owner Gabriella Somerville shares her vision for the business, passion for the Avanti and concerns for the charter industry
Gabriella Somerville established ConnectJets in 2009 and remains owner and sole director of the company. Her launch timing, on the face of it seemingly less than ideal given the economic turbulence of the era, was, she says, more by default than design. “I’d always planned to start a business of my own, preferably in aviation, but the circumstances at the time meant I had to bring the plan forwards.
“I’d sold my chalet in the Alps so I had the seed capital, which was appropriate to use, rather than investing it in the banks in 2008 and 2009. Most people would say the business aviation market was slightly distressed, but at the same time I saw great opportunities. So we took the bull by the horns and launched – it turned out to be the best timing possible!”
ConnectJets continues with its original aim, finding alternative solutions in the business jet market, originally looking at distressed fractional options, leasing and jet sharing, and other cost-effective proposals that would enable people to fly privately. Since then, the market has changed dramatically and Somerville’s initial vision has changed with it.
“You can never sit on your laurels in aviation. You have to keep an eye on the market, listen to your customers, adapt and continuously improve your product. We started out primarily working on charter and leasing products, which were very apt for the 2009-11 period. But then we moved into aircraft sales since we could see the market growing in certain sectors.
“So the business has diversified and broadened, but we always endeavour to create a turn-key solution for our clients. They tend to be inherently loyal. They may start off chartering from us and then we create the next step for them, through leasing, fractional or outright purchase. What we’ve tried to do is create a platform that satisfies every flight requirement with a tailored solution.”
Customer service is a key driver in maintaining client loyalty and it begins with a customer’s first ever charter. “The customer service element of a charter trip is your shop window to show what you can do and how well you can do it. It’s not always easy, because there are many permutations and you’re working with operators around the world, sometimes with different standards. So we use a preferred operator list and we’ve worked on a number of tours and assignments where detail is the absolute key.
“I think we’re more of a bespoke broker because we offer a tailored Savile Row service that’s focussed on the individual customer. And we work with partners to improve the customer experience further. Many years ago we worked with a sommelier for an inflight wine tasting so we could offer the best wines that fared well at altitude, based on the fact that customers had said the business jet inflight experience was a little dull. The sommelier continues to work with ConnectJets to ensure we provide the best wine to our clientele, along with an aviation nutritionist, who provides our health conscious clients with alternative solutions.” The service even extends to the ground. “We offer seamless service from the aircraft and off to their final destination.”
ConnectJets preferred operator list meets the standards it expects for its clients, while the company adds to the experience and ensures service levels. For the future, Somerville says she wants ConnectJets to move away from being solely a broker and expand its offering to jet management. At the moment, ConnectJets is a broker for aircraft charter sales, leasing and pre-owned sales, on top of which, it has an agency agreement to sell the Piaggio Avanti EVO in the UK and territories.
The company’s charter offering extends to helicopters, which Somerville reckons is part of the service its clients expect. “It’s no problem to work on the helicopter side and all of my rotary clients also use fixed wing. It’s a way of keeping the client in house and offering them a one-stop shop for all their needs. It’s another way of creating a seamless travel experience for the entirety of their journey.”
The company also advises on the best means of transport for a particular route, whether fixed wing, rotary or a combination. “Clients will ask if they should use a helicopter or fixed wing. Sometimes we prefer a fixed wing because we thing the destination might expose the client to issues in getting in because of weather, other times we’ll recommend a helicopter. I think they’re quite comfortable trusting us to give good advice and supply the most appropriate solution.
“It’s rare for us to arrange a helicopter outside the UK, although we’ve operated a couple in Africa. It tends to be clients who’ve flown in from the US, Middle East or Africa for polo, shooting or other sporting events in the calendar. The agility of the helicopter to land virtually anywhere, with permission, also makes it ideal for the corporate wanting to visit multiple points in the same day.”
Charter, ConnectJets style, is obviously a flexible, tailored service, made more so by the company’s genuine willingness to assemble bespoke packages. “A great example of this is the work we did with a group of clients who were collectively looking to travel to the Monaco Yacht Show. They were happy to fare-share with passengers they didn’t know, so we looked at putting together a couple of flights where people paid for their seats individually. Is there a huge demand for it? Not really. Private aviation is about the end user having autonomy for their flight, but there are occasions when these things work. It goes back to accommodating the client and if we can do it we will. If we can’t, we’ll say so.”
The move into aircraft management is major, but Somerville sees it as a natural extension of the business. “What typically happens is a customer uses us for charter and may eventually go on to purchase an aircraft. They say to me, ‘Gabriella, I’ve known you for eight years and I’d rather place my aircraft with you than somebody I don’t know.’ But I have to let go of that relationship and introduce them to an operator, although we normally manage the new relationship to a degree because they like us to have a hand in it.
“With a managed fleet we’d also have complete autonomy over every element of the service on every trip. At the moment we’re subject to operators and as much due diligence as we do, sometimes we are let down. However, I think service levels in the European market are much higher than they were ten years ago. It’s when you go into emerging or less mature markets that you have to be very careful about who you choose to operate your aircraft.”
Over ConnectJets’ relatively brief history Somerville has seen dramatic change. Now, she says, she has concerns. “It’s a very competitive market and I worry that we’ve almost exhausted price as the primary reason for somebody to book an aircraft. I think it should be about service levels still at a competitive price, but not one that jeopardises the sustainability of an operator or broker. As a company we carry out the required due diligence on each operator we engage with, it’s paramount in a market that is still relatively young in certain parts of the world.
“I still have concerns that we’re backing too much on price amongst the brokers, that it’s become a price war. Some of the brokers are charging almost zero commission in order to win a client – which subsequently creates a false economy and will not serve the customer or the industry in the long term. Competition is good, but we need to work on a level playing field, as they do in the yachting industry. As an industry I think we need to be careful how we promote business aviation – we are all here to create sustainable businesses and see growth in our sector. If we continue to heckle the operator to reduce their pricing, I fear we will see corners being cut and a number of smaller companies going out of business. We need to be careful to promote business aviation as a safe option, along with all its benefits, without focussing on price.
“During my 30 years in aviation I’ve seen both commercial and business operators take a mighty fall when they’ve endeavoured to gain market share by cutting their prices – this is not sustainable, aircraft are expensive to fly and manage – fact. I think as brokers we have a responsibility to educate the client and duly advise what a fair and reasonable price is in the current market. They will thank us for it in the long term because they’ll continue to have choice from both the small and large operators.”
These are bold comments, and expressing the opinion and living up to it could well be difficult. Has Somerville ever refused to place a charter client with an operator because the offered price was too low? She thinks for less than three seconds before recalling: “There have been two occasions where, in my opinion, I believed the operator could not be making adequate margins for the prescribed trip to cover the DOCs and variables. Ultimately, one of those operators went under; I was glad I’d made that decision and so was my client.”
Piaggio’s Avanti is undoubtedly a head-turner from the outside and Somerville says it offers surprising space on the inside, but is ConnectJets selling any? “Yes, we are! We completed the sale of an Avanti EVO to a UK customer in May and I believe we’ll close the sale on another one, if not two, by the end of the year. The turboprop market is growing, I think because of the economics, plus the Avanti EVO has many great attributes.
“It’s perfect for flying into small airfields. Its light weight means it doesn’t attract the onerous operating requirements of aircraft within the same category since it falls under part-NCC requirements for private owners. Potential buyers look at its operating capabilities and direct operating costs and see it’s a smart choice. But above all, its an extremely comfortable ride, with a very broad cabin, 5ft 9in tall and 6ft wide – it’s a midsize jet cabin in a light jet category and at a light jet price – the perfect European aircraft.
“When we took the dealership over, the Piaggio Aerospace name wasn’t well known in the UK, so we created a targeted PR campaign and permeated the market, and it has worked. I call it ‘seed time and harvest’, you sow hard for a good 18 months and then you start to see the harvest with increased interest and recognition. Piaggio Aerospace has also hosted a wonderful PR campaign and this has helped tremendously, we work hand in hand.
“Over the last six months we’ve received several calls about the aircraft, and demand and interest continue to grow. The industry stats tell us that turboprops are among the fastest growing segment in the market – the turboprop is seeing a revival.”
Although she says ‘never say never’, Somerville seems not to have aspirations to add other types to her dealership portfolio. On the other hand, she says she has eyes looking firmly abroad, since it’s time for ConnectJets to expand. “We’ve been asked many times through the years if we’d set up a brokerage in another country. We’ve survived as a small, bespoke agency for nine years and I’ve always kept the brand to the UK, but now we’re exploring some opportunities that have come to us. It could mean a small expansion and an international presence in a couple of places. It would give us additional exposure to those markets, with a local ConnectJets representative on the ground. I will be travelling to those countries in the next two or three months to explore the possibilities.” She hopes to announce something in that timescale.