On a recent episode of Showtime’s ‘Billions’ business tycoon Michael Prince compares victory over his nemesis to the slaying of a dragon. But since there is no real dragon heart to pass around as reward, he instead gives everyone on his team the next best thing — a membership card to Wheels Up with $100K in flight credits.
Wheels Up is a private aviation company where members pay a $3K initiation fee, download an app on their phone and can then book flights on demand. The app also allows members to connect with each other to share flights and split costs — $100K only goes so far. But perhaps even Mr. Prince didn’t realize another benefit of membership: Wheels Up has been creating events for people to enjoy even when they are not up in one of their planes.
“If you’re a member 365 days a year, you’re only flying for a small fraction of that time,” says Lee Applebaum, Chief Marketing Officer at Wheels Up. “So how do we create meaningful value to that membership when your ‘wheels down?’ Our events give us an opportunity for people to say wow, I got to go to a dinner with Thomas Keller. I got to play golf at Pinehurst No. 2.”
This past June four NFL quarterbacks, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen teed off at ‘The Match’ charity golf tournament at the Wynn Las Vegas. In the VIP sections, along with the players and other sports stars who gathered to watch, were a group of Wheels Up members enjoying their special access. The company has always had strong ties with the sports world, with many star athletes acting as ‘ambassadors’ for the brand.
“Tom Brady and Serena Williams were early investors in Wheels Up and they have an interest in promoting the brand,” says Applebaum, “but it’s different than just an endorsement, they are also members. All of our ambassadors are members — and I mean paying members. I’m proud of this model. They flew with us first, felt good about the brand and said they’d like to find ways to do thing with us.”
With these many ambassador relationships, members may find their fellow guests as fascinating as the athletes they came to watch. “If you’re into motorsports you may get to engage with Hélio Castroneves, who’s won more Indy 500s than anybody,” says Applebaum. “At the Super Bowl you may be hanging out with Joe Montana. Kirk Herbstreit or Scott Van Pelt at another game. These are people who fly their families on Wheels Up and book their flights the same way. Everyone winds up sharing their travel experiences together.”
Wheels up was founded in 2013 by Kenny Dichter, and now serves over 12K members with a fleet of 1,500 private planes that they either own or manage. According to Applebaum the seeds for creating events has been there since the beginning. “In our mission statement we talk about connecting people to private aircraft and to one another. The community aspect is both emotional and practical. You have like-minded individuals who love traveling and have shared interests. Creating a community transcends the transactional nature of private flying.”
In addition to sports, Wheels Up has created events with Michelin-starred chefs like Thomas Keller and Nobu Matsuhisa, arranged Barton & Gray Cruises, wine events in Napa and experiences at Art Basel. The company also wants to expand into music and theater, as well as create bespoke experiences at everything from ski resorts to dude ranches. “As we become more accessible and have a more diverse membership, interests will change as well,” says Applebaum. “Sports has been our core, but culinary, wine and spirits and the performing arts are becoming increasingly important. We have theater lovers and we’ll figure how to connect them with their favorite stars. And with chefs, we don’t only want the big names. We can give exposure to the next generation of culinary talent and make sure that reflects the diversity of our brand.”
There’s been criticism in social media recently about celebrities and the environmental impact of their private jets, especially when being used for extremely short flights. Would the world be better off if they used Wheels Up instead? “Private flying is hardly green, but our company is greener,” says Applebaum. “One advantage we have is we can fit the right aircraft to the right amount of people. We have small to large planes, so we can be more fuel efficient. We also have carbon offset credits for every flight we book.”
Alongside their events, Wheels Up has been working with the non-profit Feeding America, donating over 80 million meals to those in need. Before he went on the air as a commentator for The Match in Las Vegas, Wheels Up arranged for Arizona Cardinal J.J. Watt to spend time at the charity’s Las Vegas food bank to help pack meals and bring local media attention to the cause.
So for the bottom line, are these events what it takes to stand out from the competition and keep members paying their annual dues? “We enjoy an 80% retention rate across all members, but it’s even higher for those that attend events,” says Applebaum. “We want to listen to our members and find things that are exciting to them. They may want to meet their favorite singer or go skiing with a gold medalist. Those are the creative things we are always thinking about.”