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Business Observer Friday, Mar. 3, 2017 1 year ago

Air men

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Entering an entrenched market can be complicated. One company senses the time is right for an opening.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

To Chris Schoensee, sometimes the best customer service perks are the simplest — like a birthday basket with a bottle of rum.

That's what awaited a client recently when he debarked from a private charter flight from Schoensee's Paragon Charter, a new sister business to his other company, Fort Myers-based Paragon Flight Training.

Schoensee heard the customer, in route to Page Field in Fort Myers from a daytrip business meeting in Jacksonville, was celebrating a birthday. Schoensee found out the flier's favorite drink is rum, so while the plane was airborne, Paragon staff bought a basket with rum and other goodies. “He was totally surprised,” says Schoensee. “It was just a little thing, a $60 basket, but it meant the world to him.”

That kind of Ritz-Carlton-esque “surprise and delight” customer service is paramount at Paragon Charter for the business to successfully attack a major obstacle — taking away private charter flight business from the bevy of competitors 40 miles south, in Naples. “I think when people hear private charter, they think Naples,” says Schoensee. “But Fort Myers is a gold mine for this, an untapped resource. We are excited about the opportunities here.”

If Paragon Charter is as successful as Paragon Flight School, which Schoensee launched in 2006, then it certainly will have tapped the right resources. From a background in robotics, Schoensee founded the flight school out of a tiny Metro Parkway office. Within a year he had a client base, doubled the office size and hangar space.

Today the flight-training company owns nine planes and leases four more. The company has invested about $1.5 million in aircraft during the past decade. It also operates a 4,000-square-foot office and ground simulator training facility on Metro Parkway.

Revenue for the flight school is up 22% year over year so far in 2017, says Schoensee. That comes after several other years of heady growth. He declines to disclose specific sales figures.

The company has 25 employees, including chief pilot Jeffrey Wolf, a former Comair pilot who joined the business in 2009. “A lot of people do this as a hobby, but don't run it like a business,” Wolf says. “But we run this like a business.”

Paragon Charter seeks to combine that business sense with elite, concierge-style customer service. It offers 14 destinations, including Atlanta, Miami and Tallahassee. Once there, Paragon will help set up a car rental, hotel and dinner reservations, even assist with planning a family excursion.

Paragon Charter flights are flown and serviced by Paragon employees. Ownership and control like that is a big differentiating point for Schoensee because many competing charter services, he says, are brokers who commoditize the service. Control of the planes, says Schoensee, also helps the crews prepare and arrive on time. The charter service currently has three planes: an eight-passenger Pilatus
PC-12; a three-passenger Cessna TTX/Cirrus SR22; and a five-passenger Cessna 206.

The other way Schoensee intends to compete is on price. While he doesn't want Paragon to be an off-brand, it's also not NetJets-expensive. Rates are based on the total plane and a variety of other factors. Key West, one of the more popular routes, runs about $1,300 round trip for up to five passengers. Flight time is an hour or less from Page Field.

Schoensee says word of mouth has been the best way to grow the business over the years, and he now seeks to amplify that strategy. He recently hired Fort Myers-based Spiro & Associates for a marketing campaign, and he also hired someone to be the dedicated face of the charter service in the community.

Part of her job includes going to business groups, lunches and meetings to carry the Paragon Charter flag. That's another way the company hopes to set itself apart from competitors. Says Schoensee: “I don't think any other charter service does that.”

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