Helicopter service woos superrich

Marketing luxury services to the fabulously wealthy has its own unique set of rules and challenges.

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In a region where the elite are both so fabulously wealthy and endowed with royal lineage that calling them VIP is simply inaccurate, marketing luxury services has its own unique set of rules and challenges. Heavy doses of pageantry and royal star power were on hand on Sunday night at the corporate relaunch of Falcon Aviation Services, a helicopter and corporate operator in Abu Dhabi. The event was held at Falcon's base at Bateen Airport on the island of Abu Dhabi, where the operator offers services to whisk businessmen to Dubai in a helicopter for about Dh13,000 (US$3,540), or to Paris on a new Embraer Legacy 600 corporate jet for Dh330,000.

"We decided we had to improve the level of brand awareness," said Philip Markham, the general manager of Falcon. "We've been focusing predominantly on operations, negotiating aircraft deals and recruiting pilots, but what we haven't done is pay a lot of attention to the brand." The UAE is home to a large number of the very wealthy, and Falcon is one of many companies to have sprung up to cater to their every whim. According to the World Wealth Report, compiled by Merrill Lynch and Capgemini, there were 68,100 millionaires living in the Emirates as of last year. A popular marketing tool for reaching the rich in the Gulf is the glitzy, star-studded event full of VIPs, and even more important, guests called VVVIPs.

"The event will be attended by a number of Sheikhs and other dignitaries," promised an announcement for the Falcon relaunch, noting that the evening was "under the patronage" of some members of Abu Dhabi's royal family. With the promise of royalty attending, more than 40 photographers and journalists flocked to the airport and were bused to the event. With clipboards and mobile phones at the ready, event organisers of this carefully orchestrated event greeted the lines of sparkling white sport cars and four-wheel-drives, and duly shepherded guests down the red carpet lined with Falcon employees standing at attention, finally seating them in a helicopter hangar transformed for the evening into a large event hall. The evening flowed with flashy presentations of the new aircraft in the fleet, representing the first fruits of more than $500 million of investment.

Mr Markham said the event was primarily a way to create brand awareness in an increasingly crowded marketplace. After growing from a small start-up with three helicopters in 2006, Falcon is now big enough to seriously challenge the two big players, Abu Dhabi Aviation and Royal Jet. Falcon now has 11 helicopters from several manufacturers, and two corporate jets. More than its competitors, Falcon has diversified its services beyond charter flights or offshore oil and gas support, working as emergency medical response providers and even helicopter banner towing. The company is also working with the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), Abu Dhabi's largest developer of hotels and tourism projects, to build a helipad from which it can begin offering tours of the capital.

At the end of the evening, the curtains were drawn back on the event hall to reveal the Falcon fleet. Company officials escorted the royal guests, personally explaining to them the virtues of each jet and helicopter. As the VVVIPs were given a private tour of Falcon's Gulfstream G450, one member of the crowd gazed wistfully at the Dh165m aeroplane. "One day, I will fly on this," he promised himself.