Marketing business aviation – Richard Thomas on how to grow sales


Richard Thomas has spent almost 20 years in private and business aviation marketing. During this time he has worked across all parts of the industry.

He has worked for, and represented, manufacturers (Bombardier Business Aviation, Hawker Beechcraft, Nextant), operators (Hangar8, CTC Private Jet, Jet Republic), charter (Air Partner), and fractional jet companies (NetJets Europe). After setting up his own specialist marketing agency Philtre – which focused on business aviation and luxury companies – he helped launch Stellar Labs, the online marketplace.

In these roles he has helped get an aircraft painted to celebrate a prince’s first birthday, built databases and opened a gallery aiming to sell aircraft in Claridges Hotel in London. Jet Republic only lasted 18 months but, before investors pulled out, the Luxury Marketing Council Europe and Wall Street Journal Europe gave it the Luxuria award for the best PR Campaign for a European luxury brand.

“Richard is a marketer who understands the business of business aviation,” says Shawn Vick, chairman of Global Jet Capital, who has worked with him in the past.

In an industry focused on sales, Thomas believes that many business aviation companies are missing opportunities to reach new customers.

Do you think business aviation is different to other industries?

Thomas: There are obviously some business aviation companies that are exceptional. But there are still many that are very traditional. For what is a global industry, there are a lot of companies that take a very US attitude. The message that works in the Midwest is not necessarily the same as one that works in Mexico or in Dubai. For example, in America, marketing communications need to be strong, sharp and loud to be heard above the fray. In Europe, they need to be subtler and focused on engendering trust over a longer time horizon.

As an industry, we are really behind the curve on new digital marketing techniques. There are lots of techniques that people are not using. I would say that very few companies – including OEMs – are effectively using micro-targeting. There are huge opportunities here for companies to identify prospects and send them tailored messages.

With JetRepublic – which failed to launch – we built a database with 200,000 potential individuals and corporates. Unfortunately, we never really got a chance to use it. Now, you could do even more targeted digital marketing and get an even higher return on investment.

Is there a simple change that a company wanting to reach prospects could do straight away?

Thomas: I think that a lot of companies could broaden their use of public relations. Most of the PR in this industry is focused on the trade press. This myopic focus is at the expense of other media, especially national business press. A lot of potential customers do not use the trade press.

Journalists like writing about business aviation and there is the opportunity to have a really broad microphone speaking to prospects. I believe that “if you talk about the market, the market will talk about you”. That means moving beyond product and company announcements to analysis of trends in the market and how they affect the customers. At Nextant, I wrote a white paper on remanufacturing that was published in Aviation Week. That paper generated 20,000 downloads – new contacts with whom we had started a new conversation.

In two years, we built the Nextant brand from early start-up to a globally recognised aircraft remanufacturer. We generated coverage in 1,700 articles in trade, national and luxury media from 40 countries. We were able to define the narrative and introduce the concept of “remanufacturing” into the lexicon of prospective customers. The Nextant 400XTi was named Barron’s Light Jet of the Year and Nextant won Aviation Week’s Laureate Award for “extraordinary achievements in the global aerospace arena”.

With the introduction of urban VTOL aircraft, companies like Lilium can take a similar approach to define this new market segment.

I also think there is room for other non-traditional marketing. At Hawker Beechcraft we created the world’s first private aviation gallery. It was an immersive, branded space in the centre of London. We genuinely had people walking by and enquiring about aircraft and charter (we used to send charter requests to Hawker Beechcraft operators).

Which is the best business aviation brand?

Thomas: I used to work there so I am somewhat biased, but NetJets has built a very strong brand, especially on the corporate side. Another company that impressed me was Marquis Jet (which was a separate company when I was at NetJets). Marquis nailed it on the sales and marketing front, and they did so in the US and Europe. They did amazing things, were ahead of their time and, as a result, changed the market. They created a new, simple and compelling value proposition (the private jet card concept) and targeted people that no one else was talking to. In so doing, they unlocked new markets and demand. They were not just a business aviation brand but an exciting lifestyle brand as well. To succeed, they combined great marketing with great closers (sales) – which is how marketing works best.

Now, and it is no surprise, because of Kenny Dichter, Wheels Up is doing the same thing, with a new concept and again capturing market share while unlocking new demand. It is without doubt the most exciting private aviation brand out there right now. I would even go so far as to say that the unique Wheels Up (and Wheels Down) approach is going to change the long-term culture of the industry. Wheels Up is already an impressive if not powerful brand in the US – especially for a company that is only four years old – and they are soon taking on Europe, where I see a lot of potential.

There are also exciting things going on in charter – particularly as influenced by digital platforms – and I include JetSmarter, Victor, PrivateFly and Stellar among the catalysts and pioneers in this arena.

Which is most important, good marketing or good sales?

Thomas: They obviously both work together and sales is clearly very important. But good marketing can make the job of salespeople easier. Sales people often see themselves as hunters but in marketing you can farm leads. My former boss at NetJets used to say, “The role of marketing is to hit the 300 yard drive – sometimes uphill and into the wind – and then also the approach shot to within ten feet. It is the role of sales to skilfully sink the putt to win.”

I took this philosophy with me when I joined Air Partner as director of marketing, where the focus was very much on sales. We had been selling a card programme for over a year but the sales people were finding it tough. We soon launched a very targeted direct marketing and email programme for ultra-high net worth individuals. The result was £10 million of card sales over the next 18 months.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in marketing today?

Thomas: Take time to learn digital marketing techniques – including demonstrating return on investment. I would also get international experience. It is a big world out there.