July 18, 2014
By Steve Schapiro
How does a club increase membership? If you’re part of the Octopus Flying Club, you target members more than 800 miles away. That’s the main reason the club is extending its reach from Gaithersburg, Maryland, to Hollywood, Florida. Having a plane in Florida to fly to the Keys or the Bahamas in the winter isn’t a bad idea either. Club Treasurer and Chief Maintenance Officer George Cois explains the club’s unusual growth strategy.
Name: Octopus Flying Club
Location: Montgomery County Airpark (KGAI), Gaithersburg, MD & North Perry Airport (KHWO), Hollywood, FL
Year formed: 1962
Aircraft: 1978 Piper Warrior ($104/hr); 1976 Piper Arrow ($137/hr); 2003 Socata TB-200 Tobago XL GT ($124/hr);
1978 Piper Archer ($112/hr) – In Florida
Rates: Tach hours, wet.
Joining fee: $1,200 – regular members; $500 – students. Joining fee is refunded upon leaving.
Monthly dues: $95 per month
Membership: 36 regular members (Minimum 36, maximum 48); 7 student members (Minimum 0, Maximum 10)
How did the club get the name Octopus Flying Club?
I have heard two stories—one of the original members had a cleaning company called Octopus. The other story is there were eight original members.
Explain your club structure.
The number of members in the club is limited to a maximum of 16 members for each aircraft and a minimum of 12. Each member pays a $1,200 buy-in, which is refunded when they leave the club, and each member is an owner. Student members pay a $500 buy in. The insurance works where you are a named insured. It’s like having your own aircraft and your own insurance.
Each member has their own set of keys. Our Pipers are all keyed alike. We have a master key that fits all the doors and an ignition key that fits the ignition. Any member can go online and schedule an aircraft 24/7 and go out and fly. We try to promote cleaning the plane when you get back. This is not a rental aircraft; this is your own.
Tell me about your student membership.
I had a student who said he was thinking about joining the club and asked what happens if after three or four lessons he decides this isn’t for him? If the club was at its minimum membership, would he be bound to the club? The board talked about it and decided to restructure the club and we came up with non-equity memberships. Students could come in and be a student. They didn’t have any voting privileges and if they decided they wanted to leave the club, they could leave the club. So they weren’t counted toward the equity membership, which counted toward the minimum membership. And that also worked out very well.
Are students part of your recruitment philosophy?
We thought let’s make it appealing for a student to come to us. We’re cheaper than an FBO, even with the monthly dues; you’re flying on tach time and our rates are cheaper. We offer block time. If our students buy 10 hours at a time, they get a 10 percent discount. That brings the hourly rate down to $96 an hour for our Warrior. Everyone I’ve talked to is paying $140, and $130 for a C172 at an FBO.
We’ve always been a student-friendly club and we found that 95 percent of students, once they got their ticket, stayed in the club. We didn’t lose them.
Your club recently expanded by moving a plane to Florida. Why?
The main reason was a way to grow the club even bigger. We’ve been at Gaithersburg for 52 years and it seems like we haven’t been able to grow past that 45-member mark. We did back in the late ‘90s when the economy was booming, but prior to that and after that we would pick up one or two and we'd lose one or two.
We looked at expanding to Frederick or Manassas or maybe even Carolina. But the issue was we didn’t have somebody there that we could trust that could watch the club until we got members and we got to know them.
My son, almost two years ago, moved down to Pembroke Pines south of Fort Lauderdale. He looked to join a club and found there are a lot of partnerships, but no true clubs. We went over to Fort Lauderdale and looked at a Grumman that had a 10-person partnership. I looked at the airplane and was very disappointed at how it was maintained and they wanted a $6,500 buy-in.
We were driving back from there and I got an idea. The club’s Archer is paid for. We were going to sell it and we’re not going to get a lot of money for it because it’s high time. Why don’t we look at expanding the club to Florida? If it doesn’t work, we’ll sell the airplane.
When my son was here, he was vice president of the club and in charge of membership. So we labeled him vice president of operations in Florida and he is handling membership there.
What is the benefit of having a club in Florida?
With more members you have more buying power and we can actually bring costs down. We found Florida is much less expensive to maintain an aircraft than Maryland. We pay $135 for a tie down in Gaithersburg. The tie down in Florida is $68. Maintenance is cheaper because labor is cheaper there. We pay $95 an hour here; there our labor is $75 an hour.
In Maryland we need 12 members per aircraft to cover expenses. In Florida we can do that with only eight members. If we had two planes down there with a minimum of 24 members, 12 members per aircraft, we would probably net a profit of $1,500 a month. That money would help us replace our aging aircraft with newer aircraft and not cost the membership. So that was the financial reason behind it.
And we could go to Florida in the winter and use the plane to fly to the Bahamas. That was a bonus to us.
What are your goals for Florida?
Our goal is to acquire eight members in the first year. If we acquire the eight members it will cover the cost of the aircraft and we would consider the club successful. If we get at least 12 members we will look at getting another airplane and putting a second one in Florida.
How we are going to do it we don’t know. My son has posted on a user board and the response has been good. People are saying, “Finally a real club in Florida.” We are a real club—you pay your dues, you pay your hourly rate, and you can use the aircraft in Maryland or Florida.
Before moving the Archer down to Florida in June, we chose to redo the interior panels, carpet and the two front seats. The plane had its annual up here so the plane went down with a fresh annual, and basically with an almost entirely new interior.
Have any club members flown to Florida or the Bahamas or the Caribbean?
We have a past member who has an Arrow who has been making trips to the Bahamas. He is going to come to our club meeting in October and do a presentation on flying to the Bahamas.
A few months back one of our members was getting checked out in the Arrow and he needed to get his 25 hours of retractable time. So he and his instructor flew down to Key West and back.
When the earthquake hit Haiti, one of our members took our Arrow, flew down to Florida, picked up supplies and flew to Haiti. He put close to 40 hours on the plane that trip.
If there were another humanitarian need, would you have members fly down from Maryland to take the Archer and do missions?
Absolutely. From here to there in the Arrow is probably six hours, so you’re saving 12 hours of flight time [by using the Archer in Florida]. You’re looking at close to $1,500, where if you take a commercial flight it’s going to cost $300 roundtrip from Maryland to Florida.
Do you have members that have expressed interest or reserved the aircraft to do a Bahamas flight?
We have members who have expressed interest in going to Florida and flying to the Keys or the Bahamas. In reality we’ll wait to see what happens. We had a member who went down to Florida in May and asked if the plane was going to be there and unfortunately the plane didn’t get down there until June. So he would have used it.
Another member went down in February and he said he would have used the plane. So I envision members working their vacations around being able to fly down, jump in the plane and go to the Keys or the Bahamas for a day or two. I have yet to fly to the Bahamas and that is something I’m looking forward to doing.
Do you have any expectations of folks coming up from Florida to DC to use the airplanes?
We talked about that. If there are members in Florida that want to go to Oshkosh, it would be much cheaper for them to take a commercial flight to Washington and take one of our planes and fly to Oshkosh.
Next year, my son plans to reserve one of the planes up here, fly commercially to DC and then fly to Oshkosh. And he asked if I would be interested in flying to Sun ‘n’ Fun. I went once and saw the whole show in a day and a half. I go to Oshkosh every year, which is why I stopped going to Sun ‘n’ Fun. But now that we have a plane down there, I would fly down commercially and we’ll jump in the plane and fly together up to Sun ‘n’ Fun. It’s about an hour or an hour-and-a-half flight.
Any thoughts of expanding elsewhere?
As far as Florida goes, we’re learning. We’re not sure what to expect. We just know what the costs are going to be and what we’re hoping for. If it takes off there and it works, maybe we’ll look at another location. When one of our members moves to another location and says he can’t find any clubs there, maybe we’ll expand, again. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself, dreaming big here.
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