How does an luxury aviation brand get started?
My three takeaways from our conversation:
- A great CEO will do whatever it takes to be the face and soul of their brand.
- You need to tailor the media to the audience. (Word of mouth, influencer marketing and networking for aircraft owners and operators, Instagram for young women, for example)
- Small details and adaptations are SO important to an aviation brand! (Like the wings the Angels wear – they are necklaces, not pin-on wings like airline flight attendants!)
Watch or Listen Here:
Paula Williams: All right. Today we’re really happy to have Steffany Kisling on our podcast. And I did not know Steffany prior to two weeks ago when we met at the WAI convention and we were on a panel together. And her story was so fantastic, I thought it would be great to have her share what she knows with all of our folks in sales and marketing. So welcome Steffany.
Steffany Kisling: Yeah, it was such a pleasure. I felt so inspired by that event and just sitting up there with all these other women on [inaudible 00:00:38]. Yeah. It just really [inaudible 00:00:42] me in a very positive way to hear everybody’s story and realize that we’d all kind of gone through this trial and tribulations with starting our companies as women.
Paula Williams: Right. It’s so amazing to me because none of us, I don’t think, knew each other except maybe Denise. And so I’m so glad that she brought this group together because all of this probably feel like we were the only one like us on the planet until she gets us all on one stage together. So that’s pretty neat.
Steffany Kisling: Yeah. It was special.
Paula Williams: Right. So I know I sent you some questions that you probably prepared for it. But I wanted to ask you something in addition to that because your story that you told from the stage as far as how SkyAngels got started and how you were inspired to begin that, I wanted to back up and have you maybe share that again for people who weren’t able to see that.
Steffany Kisling: Absolutely. Getting into the industry, I wasn’t quite sure what business I was going to start initially, but after spending about three years as a cabin attendant in the industry, really researching the industry itself and trying to decide what niche is still available in this industry. I recognized through my experience as a cabin attendant that it was two fold of why I wanted to start SkyAngels. And the first one, which is probably the one that really touched on you as a woman in private aviation, I felt very isolated and I didn’t really feel like I had a community that was supporting me if I had issues with pilots or clients.
Paula Williams: What is the perfect client for SkyAngels? What is the perfect operation, or operator, or flight department, or aircraft owner?
Steffany Kisling: All of the above would be. When I first [inaudible 00:02:48] SkyAngels. So we have clients where we worked directly with the aircraft owner and they hire us directly. We also have our clients, which are the flight operators that manage a fleet of aircraft or either wealthy individuals and/or own their own fleet. And so what our clients really love about us or clients that work well for what it is that we offer, our clients were really trying to level up on their own inflight service brand themselves and they want consistency in that brand.
And I think so much of what we see in the industry today is that an operator will be selling to the paying client, “Oh, you’re going to have this great experience.” And that might be true. But then they fly with that operator again and the experience is completely different. So the promise of this service brand really gets diluted when you don’t have consistency with the performance of the flight hostess that’s onboard the aircraft. And so the clients that really love our brand are the clients who are really looking for a consistent inflight service brand for their clients. And when they promise a certain thing, they know that regardless of which SkyAngel is going to be on that aircraft, that their client will receive the same level of service that they received from a different one. Yeah, so operators that have a large fleet really just kind of love us.
Paula Williams: Right. Oh, that’s fantastic. So do they contract with you or do they actually hire people from your program?
Steffany Kisling: So they do both on … they offer both. And so they either contract with SkyAngels and pay us as a vendor to use our SkyAngels and/or they will say, “Hey, we’re actually looking for full time SkyAngels. Can you send some resumes our way?” And then they’ll hire them directly. What we’re seeing in the industry, which is why I had to do a pivot with my company, is that in the beginning when I launched the company, it was during the downtime of the economy and a lot of the flight operators were actually letting go of their full-time employees, but they still needed crew. And so it was a perfect time to actually launch a company or a staffing. And so we did exceptionally well in our first two years.
And then as the economy started to get better and we started seeing flight operators and clients hiring crew back full-time, that’s when we realized that we needed to pivot away from being exclusively a staffing company and the training that we’re offering in-house, we now needed to offer it on a larger scale and bring it to the public. And so that’s what we did. And so we still have SkyAngels SKYacademy, which is our training academy. And then SkyAngels SKYcrew, which is our staffing and placement company. So yeah, they do both. That was a long winded answer to your question.
Paula Williams: No, that’s a very clever pivot and that’s actually a really cool thing for our folks to hear. And the second thing is, how would you know the perfect candidate for SkyAngels? So that’s the other side of your marketing, I suppose.
Steffany Kisling: Yeah, that’s a huge part. We’re in fact we are the only training academy in the industry that has students prior to accepting them into our program and that has really, really spoken to our brand. Now has it also minimized profits? Yes. But I think one of the decisions I had to make early on in launching this company was I had to remain true to what it was that we were selling, which was high end service. And some people know how to do that better than others. So there’s a large mass of people that want to be in private aviation as a flight attendant, but they’re not necessarily capable of this career. And what I mean by that is maybe they don’t have the right skill set or the right personality because so much of what we do is a personality driven job. And if you don’t have it … I mean you can train in the aviation side, but you can’t train the service side. What we’re looking for in our candidates is true passion and commitment to taking care of the clients.
Steffany Kisling: So when we’re choosing candidates, we’re really looking for a certain personality, which is why we put ’em through this two point vetting process and the first part is an online application. And I don’t want to necessarily share our secrets, but we get a lot of what we need to know about the candidate through that written application. And if they meet a certain criteria through that written application, then they’re invited to do a virtual face to face like we’re doing right now. And then at that point we’re really just looking to see how they carry themselves, and how they articulate themselves, and how well that they … Yeah, I guess that’s it. How well they articulate themselves and how well that they carry themselves. And then from there we make our selection. And so far we’ve been wildly successful at that.
That doesn’t that once we accept ’em, they still have to prove themselves through our training academy. So not everybody graduates just ’cause they’ve been accepted into the program. At that point, we’re really making sure that we vetted appropriately so that when they go out there that they’re still representing our brand because that’s just so important to our overall success, is making sure that we’re staying true to our brand and that we’re keeping it in a nice, strong brand.
Paula Williams: Fantastic. That’s really smart to be tough, and selective, and exclusive. That’s not a bad thing.
Steffany Kisling: I let them know. And I told them, “Look, I’m launching it and this is what it is, and I would love your support.” And I had the most amazing support from clients, which allowed me to put brand new trained SkyAngels on their flights, the client recognizing that they were new, but in support of me in this endeavor of this. When I first launched SkyAngels, it was a staffing company exclusively. So the actual training besides it being internal training came later.
Paula Williams: Wow, okay. That’s cool. So it started basically with your Rolodex that you’d been building over those three years.
Steffany Kisling: Exactly.
Paula Williams: Very smart. That was very smart. And if you didn’t know it was smart at the time, you know it now. Right?
Steffany Kisling: Well, I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing necessarily. Unfortunately when I was thinking about starting a company, the whole marketing side didn’t even come into play. I was just like, “Oh, I’m going to start this company.” And I didn’t think, “Well, okay, once you start it, how are you going to market it?” So it wasn’t an accidental chance of fate that I had also been developing this Rolodex of people within the industry.
Paula Williams: Fantastic. Okay. So now you’re a larger company and you have a really fantastic presence on Facebook, and YouTube, and your Instagram is probably one of the best that I’ve seen in the industry, which is really cool. But how did you decide where to invest time and money in advertising and what decisions did you make to be successful to the point that you were at now?
Steffany Kisling: Oh my gosh. Well, I think part of my story when we were at WAI was, “How am I going to pay rent next month?” Right? And so my whole, “oO my gosh, I need to figure out how to market this company.” Came when I realized that I had only $3,000 left in my bank account and I had this brand new training facility that I had first spent two months renovating this space by myself, trying to save money and just trying to make my money stretch as long as possible, and then going, “Okay. It’s ready. I built it. Why aren’t they coming?”
Paula Williams: Right?
Steffany Kisling: Yeah. It was just crazy. Other pilots and everybody, because the training facility was in this hangar, and they’re like, “So what’s your first class?” And then four months after, the room being ready, I was like, “Oh, it’s weird. I’m still kind of working on some things.” And I was actually just kind of unaware of the next steps because I felt like I did have a strong network within the community of aviation, and so I was confused as to why they were just flowing through the doors. And so what I ended up doing, I was on Instagram shockingly enough and I was just scrolling and somebody had liked a picture of mine and I just clicked on it because it caught my eye. I scrolled through her Instagram, and I clicked on her website, and I found out that she was this marketing person, and she put me through this whole spiel of marketing [inaudible 00:12:57] by her. [inaudible 00:12:59] I’m going to use her. And I know that she’s good because she just sold me on using her as my marketing person.
I called her and I said, “I have exactly $3,000 left to make this work.” And her costs at the time was $1,000 a month. And I said, “You have exactly three months to make this work. If not, I have to close the doors. I don’t know what else to do.” And she took it on and three months into it, we were already making money and we were now on this projectory of where we are today because I finally got smart and realized how important marketing was to growing a company. [inaudible 00:13:54] with the name, and making sure you have the right name, and that you have the right design, and that you are really putting the right image out there, which is also marketing. But I didn’t think of publicly marketing and I didn’t really understand or value the importance until that moment.
Paula Williams: Right. Well, you got some really interesting things on your Instagram like recipes and things that I would not have thought to put on for flight attendants, but you know what? You guys prepare food. And the people anyway that you are attracting to the learning environment are young women and demographically they’re on Instagram. Right? So how smart is that?
Steffany Kisling: Yeah, so most all of our marketing is done on Instagram and Facebook for our students. And then again with the private jet traveler, really it’s word of mouth. We really don’t directly market to the private jet traveler or even operators per se. Again, that has just grown through references and word of mouth in the industry by us standing behind our service brand.
Paula Williams: Fantastic. Great. So you also do some public speaking like the panel discussion and how has that helped your business and do you plan to do more of that?
Steffany Kisling: Yes. I’m glad that you asked because my goal for 2019 is actually to get more involved with public speaking and it’s a huge fear of mine also. So this isn’t something that’s a very … it’s going to be a very challenging goal for me, but one that I’m really inspired to do because I love inspiring people and I love sharing my story so that hopefully it will inspire them. And so in the past I’ve done some public speaking at some of the aviation events and looking back I go, “Oh gosh, that wasn’t that great.” But people again related to it, and I think that that’s really important as far as speaking to your clients or speaking to prospects, is how well they relate to you, not only to your story, but also what it is that you’re offering them.
Paula Williams: Right. That makes perfect sense. So you’re planning to do podcasts as well as live appearances, things like that?
Steffany Kisling: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s really interesting how when you just kind of put it out there in the universe of what your goals are for yourself and your company, how things start to coming to fruition. And this year alone, I’ve done a few podcasts and I just have people reaching out going, “Wow, I love your brand. Saying, “I really want to share this with people.” And so more speaking engagements are coming on … are being offered to me. And then also I’ve taken it a step further to make sure that my message is articulated well to my audience and I hired a coach who teaches TedX speakers, and so I’ll be working directly with this woman to really make sure that my message is one that speaks to my audience.
Paula Williams: Very smart and I’ve noticed several really cool little details about your brand that show up everywhere on your Facebook, on your website, the necklace that you wore on the panel discussion, the necklace you have on now, really cool things about your brand. Are those things that you’ve collaborated with someone on? Did you come up with those? How did you put those elements together and tune your brand?
Steffany Kisling: Well, really, I mean I’m a sole entrepreneur. I’m a [inaudible 00:17:48] owner. And so a lot of SkyAngels has come from my brain. But yes, I guess, I just knew that I really wanted something that caught the eye of people. And in fact, actually maybe my grandpa … my grandpa is a business owner and was wildly successful in his businesses, not in service at all, but he would often share things with me and he’d always say, “Steffany, do you have little wings that you’re passing out to your clients?” And stuff like that. And I was like, “No, I don’t.” And he was like, “Well, how about your girls wearing wings?” And I was like, “No, ’cause that’s kind of commercial aviation and that’s not really us.” And then I was like, “Hey, why can’t we just wear our wing and have that be a representation to our clients that they’re flying with the SkyAngel.”
And then also when our SkyAngels are out and about, since they all graduate from different months, but they would be able to recognize each other in the [inaudible 00:18:47] and on the road. And so the wing was really a significant addition to the company just as far as brand recognition without it just splashing SkyAngels are wearing a SkyAngels logo on our shirts and stuff like that, which I did not feel would actually suit a very luxury industry that well.
Paula Williams: The brand. Exactly. Your market. And if you’re just listening to this and you’re not watching the video, Steffany has this beautiful necklaces. Looks like it’s a gold colored wing and it’s hanging vertically rather than horizontally, is very stylish, and very beautiful, and very high end. So much nicer than the polo shirt with the logo. So that is a really great way to show your brand, I think.
Steffany Kisling: Thank you.
Paula Williams: All right. And a lot of female business owners feel like they like to stay under the radar. In fact, I know some women business owners who will hire a man to kind of be their sales guy or their front for their business. I think that’s going away a little bit, but any advice for other women business owners to help them develop the confidence to be the one that’s out there being the salesperson and chief?
Steffany Kisling: I mean, I think it’s so important to stand behind your brand and also be the [inaudible 00:20:14] of your brand. I think in many ways being a woman business owner in private aviation has been a hindrance where I didn’t feel like I was being taken seriously by the other male CEOs that I would meet with. Right? But I think the most important thing as a woman just to recognize is that as women we need to use our femininity and our masculinity and not be afraid of that. And I think that maybe the women that you’re talking about that would hire a man as their fronts, were really afraid to be the female presence in a room of men.
And I think one thing that I’ve been able to do really well is just relate to men really well and not really come off as a threat or even necessarily come off as a woman, but still be able to be feminine in my approach. And I think through that you gain a lot of respect because you’re not trying to be somebody that you’re not. You are a female, so be proud of being a female, but then also know how to show up as a feminine, but also as a powerhouse too. And really [inaudible 00:21:29] gain that respect from the men that are also sitting at the table with you.
Paula Williams: Right. So you kind of think of them as colleagues or clients who don’t necessarily think of them as men or women or anything else. They’re just different people. Right?
Steffany Kisling: Right. Yeah. I think as a woman it’s more rare, I think it just makes you really stand out in a positive way and not to really shy away from that if you’re a female business owner. But to really have ownership in that instance.
Paula Williams: Right. Exactly. Use what you’ve got. Cool. All right. So here’s a couple of questions that we ask everyone. When did you first develop or discover a passion for aviation?
Steffany Kisling: Well, I actually had no idea I had a passion for aviation until the very first moment that I stepped on a tarmac and was surrounded by private jets. Even going through the training, I didn’t get into private aviation because I was passionate about it at all. I got in because I wanted to create a business and the best way I thought to actually have a profitable business is to be surrounded by, again, the world’s top well. And so a friend was the one who introduced private aviation to me. I didn’t even know it existed. And so, again, when I just walked onto the tarmac and I smelled the jet fuel, which I think sounds really, really weird, but I was just hooked immediately. And what’s really wonderful about aviation and private aviation, in particular, is I really feel like it’s a passion driven industry. And those who are in the industry, now that I’m a CEO and a business owner, I still like flying as a SkyAngel on board the aircraft. And I think you see that a lot in this industry and I really like that about this industry as well.
Paula Williams: Fantastic. So do you have a favorite plane?
Steffany Kisling: I do have a favorite plane. Pilots are going to hate me because they don’t agree with me, but I think the Global is absolutely the most beautiful aircraft. And the reason I love that aircraft versus the Gulf Stream, which is kind of like the Bentley of aviation. Everybody wants one and the pilots just love the electronics on it, but the Global is such a smooth, beautiful ride for the guest. And I think that’s where actually tailoring the experience too and so it’s quieter in the cabin. It’s roomier. The galley is set up more conducive to actually doing an inflight service for your guests. And so as a cabinet attendant in SkyAngel, yeah, you can’t compare with actually a gold string galley at all. And then as far as just noise, I just think that the Global rides so much smoother and quieter than the Gulf Stream. There are a lot of pilots out there that hate me and think that I’m ridiculous for saying that.
Paula Williams: What’s interesting is my husband John’s been a pilot since he was a kid and he agrees with you. He walked onto a Global at one of the shows and he’s just like, “This is so much like home.” I mean it’s this feeling of peace that comes over you when you have that much space around you in an airplane in the sky, that is, it can’t be matched by the Gulf Streams and the other skinny tubes.
Steffany Kisling: I know. I know. It’s so nice.
Paula Williams: [inaudible 00:25:01]
Steffany Kisling: [inaudible 00:25:01]
Paula Williams: There’s a airplane for everybody. Right? All right. Okay. Favorite book or movie?
Steffany Kisling: So I’m going to go with favorite book on this one. I would say it’s my most inspiring book when I read it or when I’m feeling like I need some inspiration. And it’s ‘Think and Grow Rich’ by Napoleon Hill. And it’s a really old book written in the early 1900s, but it was a book that I read religiously when I was starting SkyAngels. And one of the stories in the book is about a gentleman who did not give up on wanting to work at a auto manufacturer and just the drive and commitment that he made towards getting to that position. And then once he was able to land that job, how through his hard work he was able to work himself all the way up to the very top of that auto industry.
And I just love his story of perseverance and realizing that even if you didn’t know anything, that if you put in enough time, and commitment, and passion, and tenacity behind what it is that you wanted, you can attain your goals. And so I was inspired by that because I didn’t go to school as a business major. I didn’t know aviation. I was just this girl doing cabin attendants stuff. Who is going to take me serious and how was I going to start a business? And so, yeah, it’s just a story of the underdogs and really creating the life that you want through knowing what you want and not giving up on that.
Paula Williams: Right. That’s interesting because I read that, I think it was in junior high for the first time and it was this quaint old book and I kind of didn’t think much of it and then I kept coming back to it. As the years passed, you bring different things to the book or the book brings different things to you and you’re remembering, “Oh yeah. I remember that story of that guy who was so determined to work at the …” And I think it was, he was determined to work with a particular person. I’m going to have to look that up now. And said, “This is the guy that I want to work for and I’m going to do whatever it takes to be his deputy or his second in command and learn everything in-
Steffany Kisling: [inaudible 00:27:29]. He would start and just by working in the shop. He slowly made his way up so that he was recognized by this guy that he wanted. So he was okay with starting at the bottom knowing that his goal was up here and I just realized like, “Yeah, that’s okay that I’m starting as the cabin attendants. This is my goal and this is where I’m planning to be.” And so yeah, it’s not necessarily about who you know or what you know, but what you’re actually willing to do to get there. And-
Paula Williams: That’s good.
Steffany Kisling: [inaudible 00:28:04] is hard work.
Paula Williams: Right. And even the smallest, simplest jobs if you do them well, that’s your autograph, that is your brand.
Steffany Kisling: Absolutely.
Paula Williams: Fantastic. Well, thank you so much for joining us. I think this was a really great and hopefully very helpful interview for our listeners. And if you have a comment or a question or anything else about a SkyAngels, how can people get a hold of you if they need Angels?
Steffany Kisling: If they need Angels!
Paula Williams: Right.
Steffany Kisling: The best way to get a hold of us, we actually have a phone number that you can call or text since our world lives on text messaging now, the number is (310) 421-8153. You can also check out our website at flyskyangels.com. And as Paula mentioned, we have a large presence on Instagram. And if you want to check out the life of a SkyAngel, just go into Instagram and Hashtag #skyangelslife and you’ll see all of our SkyAngels living their best life and living out their dreams. That’s really exciting and inspiring for those of you who aren’t sure that your dreams are attainable, they absolutely are. All of these [inaudible 00:29:27] really hard for it. But you can also check us out on Instagram and our Instagram tag is fly_skyangels.