Imagine you're touring flight schools for the first time. Aviation has been a passion for years, and now you’re ready to start training. You've spent some time (maybe a lot of time) on the web researching just what it takes to become a pilot, average prices, et cetera. You think you know enough to ask some intelligent questions, so you call two schools at your local airport and set up a time to go visit.
You're greeted at Flight School A by the owner, a nice guy who shakes your hand and starts walking you around. He shows you the gleaming lobby and introduces you to the receptionist. His pitch goes something like this: “Our school has been here for 14 years, and we're the oldest flight school in the city. This is our main classroom, and it holds 25 people. We use it for ground school and group events. We have nine flight instructors on staff, and their stations are over here.”
He then walks you outside to the flight line. “These are some of our training aircraft. We fly Cessna 172s, and they're all very well maintained. Four of our airplanes are IFR certified, with Garmin 430s or 530s, and two have autopilots. We're just starting to plan for the new ADS-B requirements, and we'll be fully compliant in all our aircraft by this time next year.”
He then walks you back into the office and talks to you about airplane rental and instruction rates, and tells you his school has several options to finance your training. He asks if you'd like to schedule your first lesson. “We offer a discounted discovery flight to help you see if flying is really for you,” he says. You tell him you're just kicking tires for now, but thank him for his time and tell him you'll call to book that flight when you’re ready. You leave the school thinking they’ll do a good job for you, are well equipped and seem like nice people.
Your second stop (Flight School B) starts the same way as the first, but the guy who shows you around isn’t a guy at all, but a nice young woman who also happens to be a flight instructor. Linda greets you with a big smile and invites you to sit down at her desk.
“Let’s talk a little before we get started with the tour,” she says. “So, how long have you wanted to learn to fly?” You tell her it’s been a lifelong dream and now you have both the time and money to get started. She laughs. “It’s funny you say that; I got started the same way. In fact, that’s one of the most often-heard stories around here. I have a student I'm working with now who is in his 60s and just now working on his pilot certificate. In fact, he soloed last week. We cut his shirt tail off in a grand ceremony. It’s hanging on the wall in the other room; I'll show you later on in the tour.”
She then directs the conversation to your goals. “Do you plan to fly for fun, for business, or professionally?” Well, you say, for now just for fun and maybe a little business, but who knows where it will lead. “Aviation is a great activity,” she says, “but I always warn people who come to us that it will change their lives forever. It's not like playing golf or fishing. It is a life-altering experience. Come on, let me show you around.”
This tour is different. Linda doesn’t mention the size of the classrooms or number of instructors. Instead, she focuses on the people. “Bob over there is a local restaurant owner. He plans to fly his family to their weekend cabin in the mountain. He says it's a four-hour drive, but can fly there in an hour. C'mon, I'll introduce you.” She interrupts Bob at the computer, and you talk briefly about your plans and his cabin. Bob warns you, “It's a lot of work but worth every drop of sweat.”
Your next stop is the wall of fame, decorated with shirt tails and photos of pilots who recently passed a milestone. Linda tells you the shirt-tail story and points out a couple of shirts with particularly creative art and messaging. She also talks about some of the people. “This guy wants to be an airline pilot someday. He's only 20 so he’s getting a good head start on things.” She points to another shirt. “This lady came to us a year ago and wanted to learn to fly so she'd feel safer while in her family's plane. And that guy is a local contractor and wants to be able to fly to jobs around the state.”
The school’s owner walks by and introduces himself. “Glad you came by. Be sure to let us know if you have any questions later. You’re in good hands with Linda here. She's one of our best ambassadors.”
You go outside and look at the airplanes, but Linda invites you to sit in the pilot’s seat. You’re impressed with the array of instruments. “Don't let the panel worry you,” she says. “You'll know what all those gizmos are and how to work them in a just a few lessons.” She briefly goes over the name and function of each of the instruments and gauges. “These planes go about 120 mph and can get you to the beach in about two hours. They really make weekend trips and longer vacations more doable. Plus, flying there is a lot more fun and less stressful than driving.”
After the tour, you and Linda start back toward her desk. You pass another CFI with a student walking out to the airplane. Linda introduces you to them and asks the instructor what they're planning to do in today's lesson. “Steep turns and ground reference maneuvers,” is the reply.
“Are you having fun?” she asks the student.
“Always!” he says, with a grin and a farewell wave.
Back in the office, Linda asks if you'd like to get details on costs and timeframes. You say yes, and she shows you in black and white what the hourly charges are and how many hours the average student takes to complete the course of training. Linda reminds you of the discovery flight and you tell her you'd like to schedule that right away. She invites you to the flight school’s monthly BBQ in the parking lot. “You'll meet a lot of great people,” she says. You tell her you'll be there.
On the way out, you're greeted with handshakes and a “glad you came by to see us today” from the owner. At no time did you feel pressured to make a decision, but you already have.
Notice that at Airport A, the focus was on the school: its features, experience, and airplanes. Useful information to be sure, but nothing to appeal to the emotional side of the decision maker. The nice people at Flight School A were selling features, not benefits. A certain percentage of the consuming public will find this approach preferable, but not many.
Flight School B did it a little differently. Linda understood that, for most consumers, buying is based as much on emotion as logic. She stressed the benefits of training, not just the features of her school. To Linda, making a personal connection and stressing the community aspect of flying were far more powerful than showing fancy this or that and talking GPS systems. All that can come later. Seeing others succeed and progress in their training, seeing one's self in the cockpit flying and learning about how an airplane can be used for fun and profit, are powerful motivators for prospective students.
Linda knew you could see the flight school’s facilities and aircraft; she didn't need to tell you what you were looking at. She knew that you picked up on the organization, cleanliness, and vibe of the place without being told. Her job was to create a mood, to build a brand in your mind, and to differentiate her school from all the others. Appeals to “feel good” emotions are great at doing just that.
So, which tour most closely resembles the tours you give to prospective customers? Which would appeal to you, your son, or your daughter the most? Which approach stands the best chance of converting tours into customers and spurring your school onto to more growth?
William Woodbury is a flight instructor and freelance writer in Southern California.