To engage another level of customer you have to change the message, says Gabriella Somerville, Founder and Managing Director of ConnectJets. She says business aviation is for the aspirational consumer as well as the traditional user. “We have to change perception too,” she insists. Jo Murray finds out more
Somerville has most definitely earned her stripes in the aviation world. It is this long, hard-won experience that gives her the clout to state categorically that business aviation has to step out and change its image, to be put to work in this new world economy based on productivity, transparency and efficiency. We need to change our stuffy image and revise our marketing strategy to reach out to a much wider and diverse audience, of which a huge part remains untapped. We are missing a number of opportunities, especially in the VLJ market.
Somerville herself has 14 year’s commercial aviation experience on her CV. This time was spent at Virgin Atlantic working closely with Sir Richard Branson and then at British Airways. Then came a stint at Bombardier for two years, looking after SkyJet customers and aircraft sales customers. When VistaJet took over the SkyJet operation in 2008, Somerville became Vice President Sales at Vistajet’s Farnborough operation.
Amongst all this airline and business aviation work there was a stint in the events world which delivered to her new insights into promotional and entrepreneurial activity. So what prompted, Somerville to launch ConnectJets in the Summer of 2009 at the depths of recession?
“ConnectJets was born out of many things. “Having been in the industry for several years, I looked at the business as a whole and considered ways to improve the value curve for a client,” she responds. “I looked at ways in which we could style new products and solutions and ultimately provide the client with an entire portfolio of options, offering multiple aircraft types and products.”
In essence, Somerville wanted to put the client back in at the centre of a deal rather than having them experience the bombardment of sales messages from numerous business aviation solutions providers. “This maximises their buying power. We wanted to be there for the consumer – providing the relevant due diligence to supply a solution in-line with their requirement,” she adds. “Facilitating this is the sign of a perfect marriage between broker and consumer, whether it’s an aircraft sale, leasing, jet membership, private charter, or empty-leg.”
As for the timing of the company’s launch, Somerville simply states that ConnectJets’ business plan mirrored the climate in which it was launched. And having learned from the Branson School of Economics – maintain cash-flow, maximise opportunities, differentiate yourself from the competition and keep small – Somerville was only too aware that success would follow strict financial control and niche product-building for a specific consumer base.
Of course, starting from a very low cost base in tough economic times has its advantages over managing billowing businesses with inflated overheads and high expectations. “We came into the market with the prime opportunity to be fresh and innovative,” she says. “Now I believe the timing was perfect.”
Somerville says there has definitely been evolution in the market itself since it fell off a cliff in 2008. “We have to create and keep creating solutions in line with the clients’ requirements which are always changing,” she says, adding that the business model has also adapted. “For example, clients exist alongside their iPhones, iPads and Blackberries. It is all about speed and doing business in a smart and efficient way. We are now not only looking at business aviation as a luxury item but also as a smart and efficient business tool. This is why we need to change our message to attract a wide and untapped audience.”
All of this is built into the branding and imagery with which ConnectJets involves itself. There is no point promoting business aviation as a productive business tool and then associating it with just one target segment with out-of-reach brands that alienate the business consumer. “If we can create an arena for the non-customer, then we’re winning.” Typically, these unexplored or non customers have not been targeted or thought of as potential customers by any players in the industry, I believe there is an ocean of latent demand waiting to be tapped into.
She continues: “As an industry, I think we need to be looking at how we can change our message to engage the virgin consumer. The business aviation market is still evolving and no longer is it just for the higher echelons of society; it is also about the corporate and the SME.”
Of course private aviation is also taking notice – perhaps for the first time – of what airlines with their premium services are offering; certainly the airlines are aware of what is on offer from the business aviation sector as prices increasingly collide. “We have to take a holistic view of aviation. Business aviation is on a very different platform from commercial aviation but they are linked and it is imperative that we understand what the consumer is looking for and where we can work in synch with the commercial sector,” she says.
That is all well and good – and it may well be the case that ConnectJets builds a part of its client portfolio partly out of premium airline clients – but that does not distract Somerville from profiling every one of ConnectJets’ clients down to the tiniest detail in a very non-airline manner. “We are building a bespoke tailored service – it is not just about functionality,” she says. “It is about the journey from before they take off to when they land, the cuisine, the ambience, the wine, their reading material and their well-being; we need to be fine hoteliers at altitude”.
This means that private charter delivered through ConnectJets has to meet audit criteria set by ConnectJets. Experience, AOC checking, insurance verification and a safety demonstration all assist in ensuring ConnectJets delivers its promise. “In fact we have a strict service level agreement that we ask the operator to adhere to,” she says.
Beyond this, Somerville has also undertaken flying pattern analysis for clients in order to maximise clients’ buying power. Jet cards are also on the agenda and a new product in this area is being developed by Somerville and her team. “Again, we are looking at ways in which we can bring value to the client, above and beyond that which is currently on the market,” she says. Then there are aircraft sales which are definitely on the incline and leasing opportunities – these present less risk and offer attractive price positions for the consumer, she says.”
Somerville predicts steady market growth going forward because there are very clear factors that drive customers towards private aviation. “Pandemics, terrorism, security scanning machines, not to mention the pure economics of time, all these factors will encourage the consumer to move over to business aviation,” she says. “Operators in Europe, the Middle East and Asia are growing considerably along with ever expanding fleets, which provide the client with greater choice and a competitive edge on price”
She concludes: “There has never been a more perfect time for the consumer to engage. Prices are lower and there are plenty of opportunities. The market is opening to a new clientele and the corporate world is coming back. Steady growth is not a bad thing – it is a far healthier climate for the business aviation sector to grow in.” Without doubt, business aviation will be a product of the future; it is up to us to shape that future.