Transforming Charter Into a Viable Alternative to Commercial Flight
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Holmes Report
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Transforming Charter Into a Viable Alternative to Commercial Flight

While some companies are investing in private aircraft as a solution to this problem, many companies do not have such resources. So, what is the alternative for harried executives without a jet of their own?

Paul Holmes

It’s been difficult in recent months to pick up a newspaper without reading about the myriad hassles associated with commercial airline service. From air rage and delays to cancellations and missed connections, business travelers can’t seem to get a break. While some companies are investing in private aircraft as a solution to this problem, many companies do not have such resources. So, what is the alternative for harried executives without a jet of their own? FlightTime, a global provider of air-charter services, hired Hill and Knowlton as agency of record to develop a communications strategy that would answer that question. Working closely with executives at FlightTime, the agency has developed sound reasons for why air charter is an increasingly viable alternative to commercial service and fractional ownership plans, which allow companies to share the costs of an aircraft. Work conducted in the spring and summer led up to the October launch of Freedom Plan, a membership program enabling corporations and individuals to enjoy the benefits of private aviation without making upfront capital investments.
 
OPPORTUNITIES/CHALLENGES
 
The biggest hurdle was the misperception among reporters and travelers that air-charter service is astronomically expensive and only for the most wealthy individuals. The team sought to change that view by emphasizing the productivity gains that businesspeople experience when flying chartered aircraft. Additionally, the agency provided cost comparisons to the media to show that groups of travelers can charter an aircraft for about the same price as several business fares, and that chartered aircraft can handle hefty itineraries that airlines cannot.
 
Secondly, the timing of the Freedom Plan announcement could not have been more fortuitous. Just as FlightTime was preparing to unveil Freedom Plan, coverage of fractional ownership plans began to increase. While ownership is Freedom Plan’s competition, the H&K team members used the news development as a positive. They read the articles on ownership and pitched Freedom Plan in the context of travel-related current events. They talked intelligently about ownership trends and argued why Freedom Plan is a more cost-effective alternative to commercial flights than ownership. Team members often said that reporters were extremely interested in the year’s business-travel trends and that they were glad to hear about FlightTime’s offerings.
 
RESEARCH
 
Attended focus groups and one-on-one interviews with travel planners and executives who travel. Many participants said they are frustrated with scheduled airline service. Most complaints focused on the excessive delays that cause travelers to miss meetings, wasted time in airport terminals, or the need to go through numerous transfers and indirect travel routes. 
 
Participants often said that these problems caused travelers to lose productivity, which in turn is a tremendous source of angst. In the so-called New Economy, professionals are expected to work at fast speeds and cannot afford down time.  Also researched articles on air rage, flight delays and customer dissatisfaction with the airlines. The H&K team used such language in a July 31 press release and other communications with the media to position air charter as the means to escape the hassles of commercial service. Many news organizations picked up on this language, such as The New York Times, USA Today, Christian Science Monitor, Travel Weekly, Business Travel Executive, and Forbes Global.
 
Read articles on fractional ownership plans. Such intelligence enabled the team to counsel FlightTime executives on the positioning of Freedom Plan, an alternative to such programs, and write an accurate, contextual release about Freedom Plan. The knowledge also helped the team to hold lively discussions about travel-related current events as they invited reporters to the Oct. 4 unveiling of Freedom Plan.  Forbes Global, Christian Science Monitor and other outlets reported the key messages.
 
Compared the cost of charter flights with commercial flights. Charter flights often cost about the same as commercial flights, especially in the case of large-group travel. Additionally, charter can accommodate hefty itineraries that commercial service cannot. The team provided statistics to reporters upon request. Forbes in November asked for several cost comparisons; the article is pending.
 
PLANNING AND OBJECTIVES
 
  • Promote air charter as a safe, cost-effective time-management tool for corporations
  • Educate the media and travel planners on the advantages of using FlightTime’s charter services instead of commercial flights
  • Help generate business leads through articles in the business and trade press
  • Position FlightTime’s Freedom Plan as the single best option for escaping the hassles of commercial service and upfront capital investments associated with ownership plans.
 
STRATEGIC APPROACH
 
The agency decided that the best way to reach its objectives was through aggressive media relations targeted at business press and writers at travel and meeting-planning trades, and through events that would give the media and travel planners a chance to experience charter firsthand. The strategy reflected the belief among team members that FlightTime, a small, 15-year-old company, could garner the attention of top-tier business press because it provides a valuable solution to readers of such publications. Specifically, the team developed intelligent, contextual pitches for business reporters. The team regularly used statistics to emphasize the increasing dissatisfaction consumers felt with scheduled service.
 
In addition, the team built upon each FlightTime announcement to demonstrate the company’s ability to reach untapped markets and develop a supply-side infrastructure to meet the increasing demand for charter.
 
In July and August, the agency piggybacked on stories about the problems of commercial airline service and positioned FlightTime as the alternative.  The “remedy for the travel headache” release, issued at NBTA, was created using language from the focus groups. The team emphasized how charter users can remain productive while en route to their destination: Sitting comfortably, they can work and hold meetings in private; they can also avoid noisy passengers, air rage, crowded aircraft and other woes associated with commercial service. The agency also issued a release on FlightTime’s growth plans during the travel conference. The two releases demonstrated that the company has a solution for today’s travelers while positioning itself for future growth. The strategy generated weeks of coverage that hit upon these points.
 
In late August, the team met with FlightTime executives to discuss the communications strategy behind the Oct. 4 unveiling of Freedom Plan. Since the July flight at NBTA had been a success, the group collectively decided that reporters would best understand Freedom Plan if they could experience a private flight firsthand and get extensive interviews with FlightTime executives. The agency also advised the client not to limit its marketing messages to so-called “charter aware” audiences who are using charter and leaning toward ownership. Instead, H&K advised FlightTime to position Freedom Plan as the company’s latest product, intended for any corporation or individual seeking a convenient way to fly. We crafted the following message points: Freedom Plan provides a way to enjoy private aviation without making a long-term investment in an aircraft; plan members pay fixed hourly rates, have guaranteed access to aircraft if reservations are made 12 hours in advance of the flight, and fly in aircraft that go through intense safety audits.
 
EXECUTION
 
Between the months of March and November, the agency pitched several announcements, targeting business press and aviation, travel and meeting-planning trades as appropriate. Communications announced: FlightTime’s first Global Programs customer, Procter & Gamble Company; partnerships with Saber and Amadeus; FlightTime’s “remedy for the travel headache;” the company’s global growth; Freedom Plan announcement; creation of the FlightTime Alliance for charter operators; and arrival of a new CEO: Michael Foliot. In addition, staff pursued editorial calendar opportunities.
 
In June, agency staff conducted an extensive media outreach targeting business and trade journalists who were attending NBTA in July. Staff invited the media to attend a cocktail reception and take a flight on a Gulfstream IV to experience charter for themselves and talk to travel planners about their companies’ travel needs. (Please see Opportunities). Reporters represented The New York Times, Business Travel Executive and Business Travel News.
 
In September, the agency team, now doubled in size, invited top-tier business reporters to the October unveiling of Freedom Plan, which was to take place aboard a Gulfstream IV departing from and returning to Teterboro Airport. Preparing for this event took incredible teamwork. Five people contributed ideas for the invitation (see enclosed) and they shared countless discussions on how best to sell the event when they got reporters on the phone. Furthermore, the agency conducted a mock interview for the sales executive who developed Freedom Plan, as he was nervous about talking to the media. At the unveiling, he delivered a commanding speech about the program, and consistently referred to the message points. The media, in turn, reported on these benefits. Representatives of Christian Science Monitor, CNNfn, Forbes Global, Business Week and CBS attended.
 
RESULTS
 
H&K’s work has built significant awareness about FlightTime. Members of the sales team show articles to prospective customers, and they say such coverage bolsters their credibility and helps to close deals. Because the company’s sales strategy was revamped in Q4 to focus on Freedom Plan, it is difficult to quantify the effect of PR on 2000 sales figures. However, the aggressive PR push behind Freedom Plan generated widespread interest: PGA golfers Doug Tewell and Mike Weir signed up for the plan, and they now have marketing and promotional partnerships with FlightTime. Tewell has written a letter to his colleagues about the benefits of Freedom Plan, using language the agency helped to create. As a result, a third PGA golfer is considering Freedom Plan. An international sports-marketing company is also interested in having FlightTime sponsor an event targeting a corporate market. CBS, represented at the October unveiling, has also said it will use FlightTime for some of Dan Rather’s travel needs. President’s Strategies & News, a publication for executives at mid-sized fast-growth companies, interviewed Chairman McBride in November and has asked her to sit on a national advisory board. This provides ample opportunities to meet with new potential clients and direct coverage of business-travel issues. As for the NBTA flight, 19 travel planners from major corporations attended, 11 of whom requested additional meetings with FlightTime or said they planned on using the company’s services.
 
Furthermore, the agency and the client regularly receive phone calls and e-mails from prospective customers who say they have seen editorial coverage or press releases. Those inquiries represent the needs of hundreds of travelers.  Of the 57 “top-tier” U.S and European publications identified by FlightTime, the agency garnered coverage in 29 of them, or 51 percent, thus exceeding FlightTime’s goal of 35 percent. Top-tier coverage included stories in USA Today, Travel Weekly, CNBC, International Herald Tribune and Forbes. Print coverage alone totaled more than 23 million in the U.S. and 11 million in Europe; four broadcast placements and 57 Web site hits were also secured. Coverage routinely referred to the benefits of using FlightTime: no flight delays or cancellations, ability to remain productive, comfortable seats, a relaxed feeling upon arrival, and no upfront capital investments.
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