Apr 09, 2012 with Comments 0
Co-Founder and CEO
LuxeSF regularly profiles members of The Luxury Marketing Council. On this occasion, we chat with Brian Hall, who together with his wife Alex, founded Airship Ventures, the pioneering aviation company responsible for the airship (dirigible) that sails the California skies under the formal name “Eureka”. Hall explains how he and his wife got into the airship business, together with the thrill, challenges and rewards of seeing the business take flight
LuxeSF: Tell us about the ownership of the company and the background of the owners.
HALL: Airship Ventures is a private company that was started by my wife, Alexandra, and I
LuxeSF: How did the two of you arrive at this venture?
HALL: Alex had come from the science Museum field. When we first met she was the CEO and Executive Director of Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland, which recruited her from the UK. Prior to that she was at the UK’s National Space Centre, which she helped to found,
LuxeSF: How did the two of you arrive at the decision to embark on this venture?
HALL: We had been looking to start an aerospace-related company. There’s a sector called “New Space,” which I now think is more properly called “commercial space” or “private space” incorporating companies like Virgin Galactic, X-4, Armadillo Airspace, Space X. It’s an area of aerospace that’s about doing what formerly only governments were doing, namely space transport and this idea of commercializing space. We had looked at making investments in this area, but the goals were to find an aerospace investment that had ample opportunity. Of course there’s plenty of opportunity in space, but the problem is when you talk about space, it’s always “10 years from now or 20 years from now.”
Airships, as a technology had their heyday in the 1930s. At that time you might have compared airships to the space program. Or if you wanted to compare them on a commercial level, the Concorde is a more apt example. The Concorde was about getting somewhere fast and in style. The Concorde wasn’t more luxurious than the Queen Mary, but it got you there faster. Ditto for airships back in the ‘30s. You could take the Queen Mary and be in high style, but it would take several days to get to New York, or you could take the Hindenburg and be there in two days. So, it was about getting there in style and quickly.
Today, our Zeppelin is about the opposite of speed. Planes and cars are prevalent, technology can be overwhelming, we offer people the chance to slow down and appreciate the world around them in a way they never have before. The pace may be different than in the 1900s, but a Zeppelin still delivers the ultimate luxury—the relaxation of time!
LuxeSF: What was the pivotal moment when the two of you woke up and said, “We’re going to do this!”
HALL: We had been studying airships, doing our research and thought it might be interesting. I come from a software engineering background, so I was thinking, “What would happen if you applied all of the latest technologies to the airship sector. We have better materials now. We have advanced avionics. We have GPS.” Basically, technology has advanced quite significantly in the intervening 70+ years. What would happen if you brought today’s technology to the table? Well, you find out that creating anything new in aviation from scratch is not an inexpensive endeavor. Regulatory directives make aviation start-ups a time-consuming and expensive affair. So we scaled back and said, “What is available commercially off the shelf?” And that led us to investigating all of the various airships that one could purchase.
LuxeSF: Are there a variety of them?
HALL: There are. The one that we ended up with was the Zeppelin NT. We evaluated all the different ships and the Zeppelin NT was the most advanced craft that you could buy commercially.
LuxeSF: So, at what point were you committed to acquiring the ship?
HALL: Alex and I had taken a trip to New York, and she was in England renewing her visa. I took a side business trip to Germany and had the opportunity to fly on the German-based ship. After I flew it, that sealed our choice.
LuxeSF: What happened?
HALL: We looked at what it would take to have a Zeppelin operation. One of the advantages of the Zeppelin is that they are flying one in Germany for exactly the same purpose that we were considering for the U.S. In terms of raising money, and in terms of risk, we can point to the operation in Germany and say, “OK, they’ve been doing this for years. They’ve been doing it safely. They’re at the point where they’re profitable.” All these things reduced risk in what was already a risky endeavor.
LuxeSF: What finally convinced you to undertake the venture?
HALL: The experience. What’s appealing about this is that there are three things that tend to resonate with people. We’re here in Silicon Valley where it’s all about high technology. Well, this airship is a high-tech airship. It’s a fly-by-wire, carbon fiber, fantastic example of engineering. Then you have the historical element. You have this rich history that goes back into the late 1800s and the early 1900s… that whole romantic Golden Age of Aviation. And then there’s the experiential side. When you fly the airship it’s not like anything else. We’ve had people liken it to having your own personal cloud. I tell people “Imagine that you’re in your favorite easy chair and you’re being lifted into the sky.” The Germans frequently say that it gives you a bird’s-eye view.”
LuxeSF: At the point where you had to cut a check, what did you feel? Did you have fear? Did you have concerns?
HALL: No. We were busy. Again, because we had seen this done in Germany, that de-risked it for us. So, what were the risk factors in bringing it to the United States? One was a regulatory issue, that there has to be the legal framework in which to fly an airship. Another was, “Well, now you’ve got this large airship – where are you going to put it?” That became, “Can we find a hangar?” That’s why we’re based at NASA Ames (Moffett Field), because of the historic airship hangars. Originally it was called Naval Air Station, Sunnyvale. Then it became Moffett Field after an admiral Moffett who was a large proponent of airships being used by the Navy. When the base started closing down it was turned over to NASA and became the NASA Ames facility.
LuxeSF: Let’s talk about aircraft specifications.
HALL: It’s 75 meters, which works out to 246 feet and change.
LuxeSF: And it carries 12 passengers plus two pilots?
HALL: It’s certified for up to 13. We like to joke that the toilet is the 13th seat. So we could fly with 13, but we’d have to remove the restroom. We typically fly in a 12-passenger configuration with a pilot and a flight attendant, so a total of 14 people, two of which are crew.
LuxeSF: Anything else unusual about the aircraft itself?
HALL: Well, the interior is very much like private flying… leather seating, two rows of six seats, and by definition that makes them all window seats and all aisle seats. There’s this really amazing wrap-around love seat and window in the rear of the ship.
LuxeSF: I tell people it’s like being in your living room.
HALL: It is. Flying today is not so much travel anymore, it’s transportation…getting from point A to B. All the fun has been taken out of the experience. You’re folded, mutilated, spindled, inspected, prodded, x-rayed, swabbed and interrogated. Flying on the airship harkens back to the glory days when air travel involved adventure and enjoyment. The joy of travel rather than mundane of transport.
LuxeSF: When you told the FAA, “We’re going to fly dirigibles”, what did they say?
HALL: Flying them had been happening for decades. The added dimensions here were that this particular ship had not operated in the United States, and we we’re going to be carrying commercial passengers.
LuxeSF: So, you had guidelines to follow?
HALL: Yes. The first was getting the aircraft itself. At the time that we were having these discussions that particular Zeppelin aircraft was not yet legal in the United States, so it had to be certified. It had operated in Europe, so we knew it likely would be.
LuxeSF: And you got it to the U.S. by bringing it on a ship, correct?
HALL: We chartered a cargo ship, and shipped it across the Atlantic.
HALL: Yes. A key difference between a Zeppelin and a blimp is a rigid internal frame. Even without helium, our airship retains its shape and this needed to be accommodated when she traveled to the United States.
LuxeSF: Let’s get the safety issues out of the way. Let’s assume you develop a tear in flight, is there any danger involved
HALL: If you’re talking about something like a hole, I like to use the swimming pool analogy where you stick a soda straw in it. You’ve got a leak, but how long would it take that pool to end up empty?
LuxeSF: A very long time.
HALL: In fact, the military had done tests where they riddled airships with small arms fire, and they would literally take over a day to lose buoyancy. The aperture is so small. In terms of safety or loss of life, leaks of that type are of no concern because you have plenty of time to take action.
LuxeSF: When you go to annual inspection, what are you looking for?
HALL: The annual inspection is an FAA requirement, but the things that we’re looking at are the internal framework. The envelope itself is inspected, as well as the engines and avionics. Everything is inspected. Anything that needs to be renewed is renewed at that point.
LuxeSF: Where are the pressure points on a dirigible? Where do you feel the pressure most?
HALL: That would be on the frame itself. On the traditional blimp, the envelope is the load-bearing structure, whereas on our ship the frame is the primary load-bearing structure.
LuxeSF: Future expansion plans?
HALL: Absolutely. As a business, a larger fleet gives us more capability. In 2011, we completed a coast-to-coast tour on behalf of a client. Traditionally, this sort of nation-wide endeavor would encompass conducting activities on the East and West Coasts with multiple airships, but we had one. Last year’s history-making cross-country tour validated our belief that it would be ideal to have a ship on each coast. We operated in Orlando, as well as the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale area. The beaches, the water, it was absolutely awesome. Then we took the airship up the Atlantic coast. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see the appeal of flights over Manhattan, up the Hudson River. From a passenger sightseeing perspective, the next, most sensible strategy would be to base a ship on the East Coast, which would operate in the Florida region during the wintertime and then be in the Manhattan, Chicago, Boston areas for the summertime.
LuxeSF: What made you choose San Francisco as your first hub?
HALL: It’s a location from which you can reasonably mount a year-round operation. But we’ve learned since we’ve been here that if we really want to optimize our operation on the West Coast, there are best times to be in each of the locations. The best time to be in Seattle is mid-to-late-summer. The best time to be in Southern California is the wintertime, January through April-May. But the sweet spot, the best time to be here in the San Francisco Bay Area is the fall. While we could be based here year-round, it still behooves us to be in each of these different regional areas at their peak time of the year if we’re trying to maximize our passenger operations,
LuxeSF: When you commenced flying in San Francisco, what surprises, if any, did you encounter in terms of consumer appeal and consumer acceptance?
HALL: Our business plan comprised three revenue streams, and that remains true to this day: 1) Passenger sightseeing operations. 2) Commercial sponsorship, and 3) A catch-all bucket we call “Special Missions” such as conducting science work for NASA. And with the U.S. Government investing in various airship projects, we’ve been doing pilot training and providing consulting services. All three of these work in concert.
LuxeSF: Are you in the black?
HALL: We are on a cash basis, yes. In terms of recovering the initial investment, that will take some time.
LuxeSF: But you’re optimistic that will happen.
HALL: Yes. We were talking about expansion. That’s one of the reasons to expand. We’ve got all of the infrastructure in place, we get more efficient and profitable as a business with the more airships we operate.
LuxeSF: Consumer appeal. Were you surprised? Did the city respond well to you?
HALL: Yes. In fact, the first time we went down to Los Angeles, they declared it Airship Day. Similarly, we received support from the cities of Mountain View and Sunnyvale. Generally it’s not that hard to get people interested and excited and lend their support for an airship. It’s something that captures the imagination.
LuxeSF: How are your occupancy factors right now? Are you flying 100% full?
HALL: Basically, we adapt our flight schedule to meet consumer preference. For the most part, individuals, not surprisingly, prefer to fly Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Corporate groups, again not surprisingly, prefer to come during the week. Most of the training and special mission work we do occurs during the week. So, we have most of our open-to-the-public passenger flights on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, charters on Wednesday and Thursday, and Mondays and Tuesdays are scheduled for non-public flight activity.
LuxeSF: Are you maxed out, or can you still take more passengers?
HALL: We could take more. There is always room for more!
LuxeSF: Take me five years out. What does Airship Ventures look like?
HALL: The right number, to really provide coverage for the whole U.S. is three airships…one for the East Coast, one for the West Coast, and one for the Midwest. In fact, we were very pleasantly surprised at how well the airship was received in the Midwest – not even Chicago, so much as places like Minneapolis. We were completely sold out at the Oshkosh Air Show in Wisconsin. That would satisfy a corporate sponsor who wants to have us at different major sporting events in multiple parts of the country at the same time. Beyond that, we hope to conduct our first operations in Canada next year, expanding on a successful Pacific Northwest Tour we undertook in 2010, which went to Portland and Seattle.
LuxeSF: If somebody says, “Oh, an airship. Why should I try it?” you would say?
HALL: This is something that you want to experience. It gives you a perspective that you won’t truly appreciate until after you’ve done it. It’s the ability to see things that you’ve never seen before. Take San Francisco, for example. If you’re coming in on a commercial flight, you’re too high. It’s over before you know it. If you’re driving down Highway 101, you’re too low. I like to ask people before they fly what they’re hoping to see, and then I check back with them after the flight. Before they fly, it’s “I’m going to see the Golden Gate Bridge; I’m going to see Coit Tower.” You ask them afterwards, and it may well be “I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was to watch a flock of birds and how they shift following the leader of the flock.” One time we flew over Watsonville when they were watering the artichoke fields, and seeing it at that angle at that time of day, the watering systems looked like gigantic white feathers dancing upon a field. You just don’t know what you’re going to see.
LuxeSF: What altitude do you normally cruise at?
HALL: We cruise between 1,000 and 1,500 feet.
LuxeSF: And cruising speed?
HALL: 30-35 knots. Our maximum speed is about double that, but the whole point is to be going slow enough that you can enjoy the scenery.
LuxeSF: The profile of the people who are getting on the airship right now…who are they?
HALL: You see a bit of everything. In Germany there is a very obvious pattern. It’s very much a retired demographic. More often than not the family has gifted a flight to Grandma or Grandpa and the family will stay behind enjoying coffee and cake while the grandparent is going off for a flight. We projected that our average customer age would be well below 40. And that’s precisely what has happened
LuxeSF: But you have a restriction on children?
HALL: If you’re buying individual tickets, the child has to be over three. That doesn’t apply in the case of a charter flight. It’s not so much a safety issue as an enjoyment issue for the rest of the passengers.
LuxeSF: So your demographic is all over the board?
HALL: We do have trends with the corporate charters – team building exercises, sales-rewards packages, etc.
LuxeSF: And what about leisure travelers?
HALL: What really thrills us is that when a family comes out to Airship Ventures, typically the entire family flies. The fact that we get to expose this to children, who then may become inspired themselves to pursue science or aviation, that’s a nice side benefit.
HALL: The flights start at $375 for our 45-minute tour. Then we offer one-hour tours, 90-minute tours, and two hour tours, all the way up to a flight where you go between San Francisco and Los Angles along the coast. It’s the entire day, and I’d liken it to the ultimate drive down Highway 1. With charters, we’ve had people celebrate a milestone birthday or anniversary, some with their own private chef or bartender. You can get quite creative! We’ve had a number of weddings onboard. We like to joke that a wedding onboard gives you that ability to plausibly prune that guest list. .
LuxeSF: Other special occasions… Obviously, Valentine’s Day, Christmas, New Year… What else stands out?
HALL: Fireworks flights. We’ve done that at New Year. We did that once over the Queen Mary in Long Beach. We took the airship up and orbited the Queen Mary. So we were looking through the fireworks. It was amazing. We did that this past July 4th over Navy Pier in Chicago.
LuxeSF: How do you know if you’ve got a happy customer?
HALL: Oh, you know it. It’s not an overstatement to say everyone who gets off of the airship is grinning. And there are those who are beaming, a full ear-to-ear grin. They’re still high from the experience.
LuxeSF: What has been the biggest challenge?
HALL: One of the challenges is finding the right people. What are the right people to crew an airship? We’ve learned that it’s not just hiring people with appropriate technical expertise, it’s more about hiring people who are used to responsibility because we’re dealing with aviation, which again comes with a high degree of responsibility. These are people that have to be comfortable with that level of responsibility and decision-making that may be asked of them. There’s also a customer interaction issue. Every single person in the company is going to have contact with customers at some point. You can’t have someone who is technically proficient but surly. A flight on the airship is fulfilling a dream for our customers. Every interaction has to support that dream.
LuxeSF: What is the culture of the organization right now?
HALL: We now believe that the skills can be taught, but the right mindset has to be innate. And if you spend much time around here, you’ll find that there aren’t any boring people in the airship business. They all have stories and personalities. They, too, share the dream. It’s not just a job!
LuxeSF: What are your business needs right now? More passengers? More people? New cities?
HALL: We have the people side figured out. We are now documenting all of our systems, procedures and operations. They need to be repeatable, so that at the point where we have a second airship, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Now we’re at the point where we can easily and quickly provision a second ship to the highest levels of quality and performance. Currently, we’re focusing on developing our sponsorship and special missions inquiries. We recently announced the successful completion of our contract with Farmers and are eager to work with new branders. Ditto on special missions, we never tire of working with scientists and engineers to determine how our technology can advance theirs.
LuxeSF: Are you getting repeat customers?
Hall: We try to incorporate a lot of up-selling and cross marketing. For instance, if we have a charter group then we always mention the other routes that we fly. If you’re on a 45 minute flight, we always mention the long-distance routes. And we remind passengers that they can come back and celebrate birthdays.
LuxeSF: And they are coming back?
HALL: Yes. They tell their friends. In fact, we have one guest, who has flown on six charters, and he continues to bring us business. Remember, that this is part of the benefit of being in California. We offer so many different experiences. You can have a 30-minute night flight over the Queen Mary and see all the beautiful lights of Los Angeles, which is completely different from a flight along the coastline where you’re seeing the beaches. Quite frequently you will see marine mammals, which is different from a Hollywood tour where every 90 seconds you’re seeing an icon of some sort, the Kodak Theater, the Hollywood sign.
LuxeSF: What’s your primary marketing thrust right now? How are you getting the word out?
HALL: Over the years, we’ve learned that the experience sells the ship, so we focus on publicity efforts that convey the experience. Still, our best marketing is the word of mouth of our guests. When a trusted friend tells you that it was like nothing they’d ever done in their life, then that says much more than you could ever say in an ad or read in a newspaper. That being said, seeing the ship also drives inquiries. We have a banner on the side of the ship which says, “Come Fly with Us.” Getting the public to understand “you can fly,” is one of our challenges. Airships in the United States, for decades, have been associated with advertising, the proverbial advertising blimps. We have done market research where we ask people if they have seen the airship, and that number was very high. And then of those people, how many knew that that they could fly on the airship? That number dropped considerably. That confirmed a fear that we held. You could ask them on the street if they knew they could fly, and they’d say, “No! Can I?” Another interesting effect we’d seen is that in areas in which blimps had been operating for years, like Southern California where one of the Goodyear Blimps is based, there is this tremendous pent-up demand of people who would like to fly but haven’t been able to. We found the same in Florida, another Goodyear location.
LuxeSF: That’s a good point. People think it’s an ad vehicle, that it’s for commercial purposes only and that it’s not available to them?
HALL: That is our single largest marketing challenge – just getting the word out that this is something you can do for yourself. You don’t have to know someone on the inside. You can just go online and make it happen for yourself.
Filed Under: Luxe Member Profiles