The fight for the business traveler

It takes a certain confidence - and branding - for a commercial airline that seats 100 business-class travelers to tell the public that flying in its 767 is similar to taking a private jet.

It takes a certain confidence - and branding - for a commercial airline that seats 100 business-class travelers to tell the public that flying in its 767 is similar to taking a private jet.

Both established and new airlines are developing services and crafting their PR strategies with this specific audience in mind. 

But that's the crux of the messaging for Silverjet, a British business-class-only airline that launched earlier this year.

Silverjet currently flies just one route - from London Luton Airport to Newark, NJ, Liberty International Airport, but it still hopes to alter the business travel market.

The company aims "to provide a private jet experience for the commercial traveler" by offering personalized service, including allowing travelers to arrive just 30 minutes before departure at a private terminal and lounge, says Lawrence Hunt, founder and CEO. But Hunt knows that offering a solid product isn't enough to establish a new brand and has embarked on an extensive PR push.

The company's vertical PR strategy is a focused campaign that targets entertainment, music, media, tech companies, and niche financial markets, Hunt says.

In particular, small to medium-sized companies are Silverjet's primary market because they often can't afford mainstream business class fares, but still need employees to be relaxed and ready to work when they arrive at their destinations, he explains.

In addition, niche industries - like fashion, music, and technology - and smaller businesses are more likely to be early adopters and receptive to the concept, says Nicole Walsh, head of communications at Silverjet. The airline also relies on word of mouth, and Walsh says customer feedback has been hugely positive.

Even so, the focus of the company's PR efforts has centered on building relationships with top-tier press like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

"It's very much about getting the key media on board and letting them experience the Silverjet product," Walsh explains. "And now that that's filtered through, we hope to launch more press trips."

Still, Silverjet, which is positioning itself as a low-fare business travel option, faces two major challenges for building its brand in the US, notes Aaron Kwittken, CEO of Kwittken & Co., which handles the airline's PR strategy in the US. First, despite the success of companies like JetBlue and Southwest, low-cost airlines are still a relatively new trend, and Americans are skeptical.

"I feel as though they associate low-cost with failure or instability - whereas in the rest of world, low-cost has been highly utilized and very successful," he says.

But Kwittken believes the PR challenges Silverjet faces can be overcome in three ways: seating people on the plane to experience the product, building buzz, and establishing credibility.

But not all the coverage has been favorable. Last month, engine-related delays sent its efficiency rating into a tailspin. But Kwittken insists Silverjet's solid reputation and responsiveness to customers during delays kept the incident from hurting its image. "It certainly hasn't been an issue in managing the brand of the company," he says.

More PR efforts are on their way, as Silverjet plans to add another daily route at the end of July, in addition to another destination, says Walsh. And in the next several years, it hopes to have 10 aircraft that fly about five routes. She adds that 30 destinations are under consideration for route expansions.

Legacy not left behind

So is there room for both niche and legacy airlines to thrive in the quest for the business traveler? Probably.

"The international business class market I don't think has ever been stronger," says Mark Bergsrud, SVP of marketing programs and distribution at Continental.

"We very much do cater to the business traveler and design our products and services to meet the needs of the business traveler," he adds. "Those customers are willing to pay a little bit more for travel than the leisure traveler." But the airline is careful not to exclude leisure travelers from its outreach efforts, Bergsrud notes.

Continental - already a popular choice for business travelers in Houston and New York - is focusing many of its marketing efforts on New York's competitive market, he says. "We'll take business from anywhere, but we spend a lot of efforts talking to business travelers in the New York market," Bergsrud explains. The outreach focuses on Continental's large international and domestic route network in the New York area. The message is, "If you want to go somewhere, it's likely we're the best choice to get there," he says.

Targeting New York could put Continental in direct competition with Silverjet, but even so, legacy carriers maintain the advantage of their extensive global networks.

John Lampl, Americas VP of corporate communications for British Airways (BA), says it positions itself as a full-service airline that offers the long-haul business traveler a choice of four cabins and options to connect to cities worldwide.  

"It's a huge difference - it's really apples and oranges," Lampl says. BA is considering launching an all-business-class - perhaps combined with premium economy - airline that flies from New York to cities in the European Union, he adds.

BA is also leveraging its signature style that reflects its British heritage.

"We like to say when somebody is going to the UK, the minute they get on the airplane they've arrived," says Lampl. "It's the total experience we're selling."

That outlook is ultimately the driving force behind Silverjet.

"It's much more than just the airline - Silverjet is a whole experience," says Jane Sinclair, Silverjet's PR manager. "There is much more than just a flight from A to B."

Ways to appeal to business travelers

Focus on comfort

Companies want their employees to arrive at their destinations ready for a day's work. Ensuring a relaxing journey is crucial for long-haul and trans-Atlantic flights.

Allow productivity

Give travelers every opportunity to do business on the road, like making wi-fi easily accessible in the lounges and offering cabins that are conducive to working.

Consider their time

Touting a good on-time record will attract business travelers trying to make meetings and scheduled events.

Make them feel special

Business travelers are willing to spend a lot of extra money to ensure quality service - make sure they feel it was worth the extra cost.

Give them value

Even large companies are looking to save on travel budgets and will be tempted by the carrier that gives them the most for their dollar.

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