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Professionally Speaking

Reputation, quality, service: How flight schools can overcome tough times

Recently my wife Gail and I ate with AOPA Southeast Regional Representative Bob Minter and his wife, Karin. We have all known each other since the 1970s, and we had a wonderful time catching up.

Yes, I will tie this to flight training, but first let me tell you where we ate. The Minters live in Sevierville, Tennessee; we Hoods live about 100 miles east, in Erwin, Tennessee. We met at The Whistle Stop Café, located between our residences.

The Whistle Stop Café is way out in the boonies in Afton, Tennessee, a town that almost doesn't exist. Just finding it is an adventure. Bob used his GPS and arrived first. I used directions and a map and arrived later, but still before the designated time.

The Whistle Stop Café is a small place in an old mill. No signs give directions, and when you find it you have no way of knowing that it is a restaurant at all, much less the restaurant you seek. On the second pass, Gail and I finally noticed a single sign by the front door. It was maybe 18 inches long, four inches high.

Inside we found a smallish restaurant with, let us say, "early quaint" décor. Had it not been highly recommended, we would have had serious doubts about the Whistle Stop Café. Inside, however, it was full of customers.

The food was excellent, the service terrific, and the staff friendly. It was the perfect place to eat, laugh, and catch up on old times. We arrived at 6:30 p.m. and didn't leave until 9. Nobody rushed us, and all the while they kept asking us if we needed anything.

Now, we will tie The Whistle Stop Café to flight training. CFIs have given me many reasons why their flight schools are having tough times, but most revolve around three things:

  1. The economy is weak. Yes, it is, but the Whistle Stop Café thrives in that same weak economy.
  2. The flight school owners don't promote/advertise enough. As near as I can tell, the Whistle Stop Café doesn't promote/advertise at all.
  3. The flight school is in a bad location; we get no traffic and nobody knows where we are. Hey, pull up a map program and look for Afton. It's a lovely little town in a beautiful area, but one of the last places anyone would consider to build a restaurant. So, how does the Whistle Stop Café do such a booming business (you must have a reservation)? In three ways--reputation, quality, and service.

Consider that I had never heard of the place until someone told me about it. Others I asked shared the opinion that it was a great place, and well worth the drive. Now that I have been there I am spreading the word.

The food quality is indeed excellent, but perhaps the friendly--even downright fun--service is even more important.

All three of these--reputation, quality, and service--will work for a flight school. What's more, it will also work for an individual CFI at any school, or an independent CFI. Just build your own reputation for quality, then deliver that quality, and do it with enthusiastic attention and service. You will make more money--no matter where you are--and have more fun.

Ralph Hood, an aviation speaker and writer, has been flying since 1971 and has more than 3,000 hours of flight time. He is a multiengine commercial pilot with an instrument rating. Visit his Web site.

By Ralph Hood

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