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It feels like a club, but is run like a businessIt feels like a club, but is run like a business

When the San Carlos Flight Center opened on March 1, 2012, owner Dan Dyer’s only goal was to offer a type of training he believed was lacking in the area. Make a good product first, he thought, and profitability will come later. Based on numbers, things are going well so far. San Carlos has 150 members and 12 airplanes on the flight line, and the center is growing at 5 percent a month.

Dyer had been a member at a local flying club, a place that was supposed to be social and encourage people to be part of the aviation community. Instead, he said that he found it was a nonprofit club that was being run and acting like a for-profit business. With the San Carlos Flight Center, Dyer flipped that model on its head. He runs a for-profit business as a club with flight training that encourages social interaction.

Going from one airplane and no members to 12 airplanes and 150 members in fewer than 18 months isn’t by chance. Dyer said they have a defined strategy that includes a specific marketing plan and brand awareness, a service-based model, and a commitment to a social atmosphere.

The marketing plan and brand awareness is natural given Dyer’s background in software marketing. He says the employees understand the identity and think critically about how everything fits in to that identity. “We know who we are,” he says. San Carlos has a dedicated marketing staff that is responsible for conveying the company’s tagline—safety, community, adventure.

The marketing plan includes everything from a strong Web and email newsletter presence to a robust aerial tour business and FAA safety seminars on site once or twice a week. All of this is designed to get people to actually find the school and come in. “If we can get people to find our office, we win,” he says.

If the marketing plan gets them in the door, the service-based model keeps them there. All the staff go through regular training because the social atmosphere relies on a high-touch operation. Dyer said all the other clubs in the area aren’t necessarily social, so San Carlos differentiates itself by celebrating milestones and giving club-like service. There’s even a strictly social flying club that’s separate and equal to the school operation. The club has fly-outs and other activities.

All of this isn’t cheap. In addition to instructors and customer service representatives, Dyer added flightline staff to ensure the airplanes are clean, stocked, and ready to go for the next student or renter. To succeed, San Carlos will be required to rely on a large number of members over the long term. Dyer said the Flight Center is still an experiment, but the initial results are encouraging.

Name: San Carlos Flight Center
Year founded: 2012
Owner: Dan Dyer
Where: San Carlos Airport (SQL), California
Fleet: 12
CFIs: 25
Competition: 11 other schools within 20 miles
Key fact: 5 percent growth per month

Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly is senior content producer for AOPA Media.

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