How does a luxury aviation company stand out from its competition? One way it to focus on its traditional family values.
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This article was excerpted from OPEN Book: Branding, which provides tips and advice for building a Booming brand. Follow the evolution of Cardmember brands featured in our new web series. Project RE:Brand, in which small businesses undergo brand makeovers by design experts.
Air East Airways is the living definition of a family business. This aviation company was founded in 1982 by Mike Tarascio, who’s now Air East Airway’s president; his wife, Maureen, is operations manager. And then there are their four children: Anthony is the company’s chief IT officer, Greg is maintenance manager, Lauren acts as bookkeeper, and Nick is the CEO. “We’re of Italian extraction, and it’s a very close-rooted business in the classic Italian style,” says Nick, “even down to the fact that my dad still lives in the house he was born in, which is just half an hour away from Republic Airport in Farmingdale, New York, where the business is based.”
Today, Air East Airways is a solid $5 million-a-year company with 12 full-time staff. Its services include pilot training, aircraft rental, storage and maintenance – “everything aviation,” according to its website. It boasts a fleet of six planes and an AStar helicopter, and two luxurious Learjets are available for charter at its sister company Ventura Air. According to Nick Tarascio, Air East Airways grew in a very organic, and, again, quintessentially Italian style. “My dad was always a bit of a thrill seeker,” he says. “He used to drag-race cars, and he had an auto shop. Then he got into selling computers, back when they cost around $15,000 apiece. His partner in that venture had a four-seater Piper Warrior airplane, and my dad went up with him and totally fell in love with the whole deal. So they decided that he’d take over the plane, while the partner would take over the computers. So he gets his pilot’s license, decides he’ll teach others to fly, buys more planes, gets a building to house and fix them.” He grins. “He had a lot of luck in growing the business. The 1980s saw a boom in aviation, and there was a ton of interest. Dad was never one for strategy; there was no plan to this, just a natural progression. But he made a lot of right decisions along the way.” The siblings all followed their own natural progressions into the business. “Some of us tried other careers first,” says Tarascio. “But, as for me, I always knew this was what I wanted to do. I was building aircraft engines in the basement with my dad when I was eight, and was doing aircraft sales at 13, though I couldn’t meet the clients at that stage because I was too young.” He shrugs. “It kind of scares me to say that I’ve had 22 years’ experience in aviation when I’m still only 29 years old.”
Ventura’s charter clientele consists largely of business owners who hire the planes or the helicopter to transport them to crucial meetings, or possibly, even more crucial vacations. “We have seasonal peaks,” says Tarascio. “Lots of trips to Florida in winter or the islands in summer. The AStar makes a lot of trips from New York to the Hamptons, beating the gridlock. These guys have very high standards and don’t want to sit in traffic for three hours or more. People generally fly with us for time-sensitive reasons. And they want a certain kind of ambience.”
The question of what that “ambience” should be has been preoccupying Nick Tarascio of late. As CEO, he feels that the business should have an overarching vision, something that its lack of long-term strategy has previously encumbered. “I felt we needed to ask ourselves who we are and why we’re doing this,” he says. “We have different offerings, under different names, and the overall messaging has tended to get lost. I’ve had people who’ve been using the airport for 25 years telling me they had no idea we were even here. I also felt that, seeing tons of aviation businesses run out of money or get seriously overleveraged in the economic downturn, whatever we came up with had to be real smart and real different.”
The Tarascio family turned to the brand creation/design agency Pandiscio Inc., courtesy of American Express OPEN’s Project RE:Brand, in an effort to develop a new brand identity for their company. “Like us, they have a lot of passion for what they do, and they’re incredibly committed,” says Tarascio – and, as the self-appointed “vision guy,” he set out to define what they wanted the rebrand to convey. “Most importantly for me, I wanted our customers to feel that they could trust us and our family dynamic, that this was a warm environment for them to step into,” he says. “When people think of planes these days, they tend to think of security threats, long lines, terrorist attacks. You don’t feel much in the way of service when you take a standard airplane flight anymore; it’s a very anonymous and mechanistic experience. We’re doing this out of passion, and we want to inspire other people, get them to feel that too.”
The team at Pandiscio took Nick Tarascio at his word, and came up with the idea of bringing together both the Ventura Air and Air East businesses under one umbrella name – rechristening it AirMaureen, in homage to the matriarch behind the company. Tarascio was a little taken aback at first – “I was like, you’ve got to be kidding me, but it took me about 15 seconds to come around to it.” (His mother, he admits, took a little longer: “She was like, don’t put this on me!”) But she soon saw its potential in connecting with customers on an emotional level. “In the past, we’ve entertained the notion of emulating the big jet companies,” he says. “But we have come to realize that it’s not who we are. We are family and we are boutique: small, warm, successful, safe, smart. It’s like going to the really cool out-of-the-way family restaurant where the food’s better than any you ever had before, and it’s all based on word-of-mouth, rather than a hard sell.”
Furthermore, says Tarascio, the AirMaureen concept offers great PR potential “it’s about women and business ownership and empowerment, a really respected niche.” Add to that a sturdy brand identity that translates pertinently to everything from livery to customer touchpoints, and you have a way to leverage the company’s compelling backstory into its public-facing image. “Most people, even our regulars, don’t know that my mom ran the company for 18 years out of a walk-in closet in the family home, while raising four kids,” he says. “That’s something we can communicate, a sense of who we are as people and the level of commitment we have.” He smiles. “That’s why we think it’s a concept that’s definitely worth exploring. It’s enabled us to ask the big questions.”
In fact, adds Tarascio, Project RE:Brand has encouraged the clan to recalibrate the company’s focus entirely by bringing those family values, on which it was founded and maintained, right to the front and center. “It’s certainly been the catalyst for the biggest change we’ll ever go through,” he says. “All this time we’d accepted things as kind of good enough; we were so concerned with just getting through each day. Thanks to this project, we could stop, pull back a bit, look at this thing from 30,000 feet, and get some perspective.” He glows with a proprietary – and filial – pride. “Whatever happens, I know that in a year from now, we’ll be in a totally different space than we are today.” And that will be a journey well worth traveling.