One of the remarkable features of the flight training industry is often the delta between what most nonaviation industries do to maintain their level of business and what we don't—or won't do.
In many communities the general aviation training airport is often a geographic island that is somewhat isolated from the center of urban activity. It is often surrounded by warehouse complexes and office/industrial parks that shutter it from mainstream exposure and daily sight. From a practical urban planning standpoint, I suppose that this makes sense to some degree. However, if your airport is not nestled away in this fashion, I'd consider you luckier than most.
Most other industries who serve the retail public will at least have the choice of locating themselves in a spot that offers the maximum amount of exposure to their community based on what they can afford. In flight training, we rarely have this choice. We really need the long strip of FAA-approved asphalt to do business. So most of us are where we are.
Geographic isolation aside, I find it interesting that many flight school owner/operators are also isolated from the business and social structure of their community as well. Most do not engage in any kind of community participation if it is off-airport. I'm left to wonder why many other small businesses, whose products and services are clearly understood by much of the population, and can often afford much more purchased exposure than flight schools, work so hard to keep their names and faces in front of their community while we in flight training often do not.
With these thoughts in mind, let's look at some of the ways that you can reach out to your community and get more exposure for not a lot of dollars invested:
Find as many opportunities as you can to speak about your business and what it does.
Rotary Club, Chambers of Commerce (your community often will have more than one), trade or professional groups, and especially professional groups that cater to minority or women-owned businesses are great opportunities to get your name out there. Make it a goal to find 10 groups to speak to, or even join. Have a prepared speech that covers what you do, the approximate costs of your programs, who can participate, and above all else--emphasize the fun aspect of aviation. Aviation is supposed to be fun. I will suggest not delegating this role out to a subordinate. The speech will mean more coming from you as an owner/operator. I am certain that you will be pleasantly surprised by the number of questions you get about aviation and your business. When you attend these functions, you might want to consider offering an introductory flight as a door prize.
Engage a local, regional, or national charity and participate in an event(s) with them.
Many businesses often will partner with a charity that closely reflects their target demographic and corporate values. While there are plenty of worthy charities inside of aviation that need your help, I want to also suggest picking at least one outside of aviation that will assist your school in getting positive and widespread off-airport recognition within your community. Tell them that you want to help, and tell them that you'd like to increase your exposure within the community. Charities understand that exposure is important to your business, and many will offer to help write a press release for the event or arrange for media exposure of the event(s). Moreover, this kind of participation by your staff can double as a team-building exercise for your business. Properly structured, it's a big win-win for all concerned.
Following the lead of what works for nonaviation businesses need not be expensive, horribly time consuming, or counter-productive to your goal of a quality product and sustainable profitability. They do require that you and your team engage in planning, organization, leadership, and the unwavering desire to make it happen. I suspect that you will be pleasantly surprised if you pitch some of these nonaviation business ideas to your team.
Given the depth and breadth of potential customers that you can reach (i.e. those who can come to flight training), growth of positive exposure in your community is one of the most important things you can foment as an owner/operator.
P. Jerry Lee is president and founder of aviation marketing and sales training firm Mach1 Consultants.