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Volume 22 No. 11
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Wheels Up looks to leverage its ties to high-end clients with luxury marketers

Before Kenny Dichter founded Wheels Up in 2013, he thought about how he could leverage the private aviation company as a brand. And before he had 5,000 members subscribing to its members-only service, he thought about it. Five and a half years later, Wheels Up has 100 planes and finished 2018 with close to $350 million in revenue, so Dichter decided it was time for the company to launch a properties division.

Dichter is looking to leverage the opulent brand he has developed as a sponsorship property. The average net worth of those 5,000 Wheels Up members: around $20 million each. They pay upward of $17,500 apiece for the service, with flight time starting at an additional $4,695 an hour. The membership rolls include Bill Belichick and more than 10 other NFL coaches, along with sports celebrities like J.J. Watt and Rickie Fowler.

Sound like an audience luxury marketers would covet?

“I’ve been thinking about this since day one,” said Dichter, who built Wheels Up after founding Marquis Jets, which he later sold to Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary NetJets. “We needed to build scale first.”

Since his first plane went, um, wheels up, Dichter has maintained that the wheels-down experience — treating his subscribers to high-end experiential events, where they rub shoulders with the likes of Belichick — is as important as anything that happens aloft. The company annually stages one of the top parties on Super Bowl Saturday. This year, it was complemented in Atlanta with a pop-up version of Harlem’s 123-year-old Rao’s, a restaurant with a reputation based as much on how impossible it is to get a reservation as on the quality and authenticity of its Southern Italian cuisine.

Wheels Up CEO Kenny Dichter (left) with the team behind Triple Crown winner Justify: jockey Mike Smith, WinStar Farm CEO Elliott Walden and trainer Bob Baffert at a Wheels Up event at Rao’s in New York City last year.
Photo: getty images

Anyone who treats his customers that well isn’t going to go all-NASCAR when it comes to treating his company like a property. “If it makes sense, we’ll put it [products] on a plane, but we won’t be selling naming rights to our aircraft,” Dichter said with a laugh. “Every partnership we do will have to enhance our membership.”

Wheels Up has had a number of one-off sponsors for its sumptuous hospitality events at the Masters and Super Bowl, where it may fly as many as 100 clients in and out. Now it’s looking for longer-term sponsors willing to pay upward of seven figures to access Wheels Up’s experiential events and its well-heeled subscriber base.

“It’s a $10 million to $20 million opportunity from the outset,” Dichter said.

Heading the new properties unit as chief partnership officer is Jim Pyne, former IMG national sales chief and Tampa Bay Buccaneers chief partnership officer.

“We’re a premium luxury brand looking to partner with other premium luxury brands,” Pyne said. “We’ve already had members inquiring about sponsoring with us, so …”

Pyne sees opportunities with high-end autos, spirits, watches, jewelry and financial services. He suspects there’s also a large B2B opportunity, and while he’d never guarantee business back, “ours is a really connected network of individuals,” he said.

Pyne said private aviation and sports sponsorships have some commonalities and some differences. “The sales cycle is longer in sponsorships,” he said, “but in both cases, you need to get in front of people, build relationships and sell off of that.”

Having realized one long-held notion, Dichter’s remaining dreams include “making booking a private plane as easy as taking an Uber,” going public and reaching $1 billion in revenue by 2022. Don’t bet on any of those ideas not taking off.

 

Terry Lefton can be reached at tlefton@sportsbusinessjournal.com.