How Sydney Seaplanes chief Aaron Shaw created an $8 million scenic flights company that’s “made for Instagram”

In 2007, entrepreneur Aaron Shaw looked at the complicated structure of the scenic flight scene in Sydney, with its many different parts, and decided to consolidate the five operators into one business. 

Ten years on, that business, Sydney Seaplanes, is now turning over $8 million a year and the team is working on new approaches to expanding services for a growing cohort of tourists from emerging markets.

Shaw sat down with SmartCompany to talk about the amount of paperwork that goes into running an aviation business — and why it pays to not just “wing it” when you come up with new ideas. 

I’ve always worked in aviation for my whole career, on the commercial side as well as the operational side. So I’ve got quite a strong and broad knowledge of that sector, and most of that’s been with airlines, but also with small aircraft stuff as well.

I took an interest in the five companies that operated in Rose Bay [with seaplane flights] in the early 2000s, and just slowly got more and more into it as time went on. In the end, about 2007, we decided to buy out all the operators and make it one company, which is what we did. So me and the business partner that I have now did that in 2007, and that’s how I came to be involved in the business.

Now it’s a much bigger commitment of time, and money, and all the rest of it. 

Aviation is a really interesting and challenging sector, in a way. When you get a beautiful day like we have today and you have all the planes flying, you’ve got people at the bay and you really get the feeling that you’re providing one of Sydney’s best tourism and leisure experiences, and I think we really are.

So for me, it’s surprising, it’s challenging, but it’s also really rewarding when it all works like that.

I think aviation is a sector that leads in a lot of areas, around safety and the technical components of it, as well as around technology. We’re using a lot of technology to stay ahead in what we do and make sure we’re operating as best we can. I think a lot of aviation companies are like that, and I think it’s something I particularly enjoy about it as well.

There are plane obsessives in the industry. As far as the pilots that we employ, well those guys have worked in aviation most of their lives too, and they love planes and they love that challenge and freedom and exhilaration of flying. Seaplanes is another step ahead in that regard, in terms of the freedom of the places you can operate in and the beauty of the places you fly to everyday is amazing.

That’s a very compelling reason why people enjoy the roles they choose in this business. We like to have pilots that are really into seaplanes particularly, and want to do that and work in that type of aircraft as a career, and that’s been a challenge. I think in Australia, really up til now people have seen working in this business, in this sector as a stepping stone towards an airline career, or something like that.

But now we’re trying to develop the business to the extent where people want to stay there and want to make a career as a seaplane pilot, and we’re managing to get that kind of longevity of employees because with the business as it is, people want to stay here.

I think people would be surprised by the amount of compliance we have. Because we are seaplanes, we have to comply with maritime regulations, and in Sydney Harbour those are, you know, highly regulated. Then we have aviation regulations. So on one hand, the state’s roads and maritime services, and then we have CASA, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority. Then we have local council issues that we encounter from time to time, [and] we’ve got security issues around public transport

We’ve got an enormous amount of compliance that takes up quite a lot of time in the day-to-day running of the business, and I think that would surprise a lot of people

I’m far more across [regulations] than I ever wanted to be; I have spent quite a lot of time dealing with various government agencies, and to be honest, it’s been quite a lot better over the last years, particularly with state government agencies. I think the NSW Liberal government as it is now is seeing an enormous improvement in terms of what we had to deal with leading up to the election [of the Liberal Government in 2014].

In terms of policy, communication, people, as I say, the Labor government here, as it was was, in such disarray. That sort of thing hugely affected the way business, and particularly small business, was able to do things under an environment where really nothing got done because people were only interested in politics and not governance.

From our point of view, that’s been a massive improvement in terms of dealing with government at a state level.

We’re a tourist and leisure business, so about 75% of our customers are locals [and] in summer we have more tourists. What we’ve found from the international tourist side of things is there’s much more tourists coming in from emerging markets… places like India and China.

For us, it’s India particularly — we have a lot more Indian tourist groups coming through than we’ve ever encountered before. In May, for instance, we’ve got three days where on each we will have 300 Indian tourists through on scenic flights.

We can take about 30 people out at one time, so 300 is 10 short scenic flights across a day. Though on our busiest day we will take 280 to 300 passengers, including scenic flights and then flight and lunch packages up to Palm Beach and the Hawkesbury area. Those are our main products and our main services are those packages, and they’re very good for the local market too.

The growth [plan] for us is that we’ve built a new seaplane terminal … over the water in Rose Bay. For us, we’re quite focused on getting that to run as well as it possibly can, from the point of view of service delivery, the product offering, and the food and beverage offering.

That will flow through directly to profit hopefully. It’s a new part of the business for us, and we’ve only had it open for about six months. But it’s open everyday, so that’s a bigger opportunity for us, and we want to drive a lot more functions through there.

Those things may include seaplane flights as well, so it’s a combined offering and that’s a hugely unique thing to do. I mean, where else can you go to this amazing function venue and included in that can be seaplane flights for your guests?

That’s an area we see a massive amount of growth in as well — the offering of functions.

We’re also doing quite a lot of training for seaplane companies internationally. We’ve worked over the past couple of years in the Philippines, China, even in the US — we’ve done some consulting jobs in Miami and the Bahamas, which was a pretty cool job, probably the best job we’ve had. 

That’s an area that has grown as well that has almost grown from nothing — people have just approached us.

We’re a business that is made for Instagram and Facebook, so people can share their incredible photos. When very high profile celebrities come through that’s one thing, but we do encourage and work with a lot of influencers. 

When we have celebrities that fly with us and tweet and Instagram their photos to their massive audiences, then of course that’s a great thing for us.

It’s hard to quantify that on each particular case, because it’s something that might have flow on effects for years to come. But what it does do is generate awareness of our business — that you can go on a seaplane flight in Sydney, and these are the views you will have. And if someone’s got that in the back of their mind, they might be sitting at their desk in London but they might see that come through and think, well I’m going to be in Sydney in a year’s time, I could do that

That sort of thing comes through for years, I think. It’s the long game, for sure … and long term things are definitely beneficial for us.

I think state-wide, if you’re looking at Destination NSW, they do a pretty good job [at promoting] the state. We have events and one that stands out is Vivid Festival, and that’s just gone from strength to strength, and is a hugely popular thing now. It goes for a long time, it brings thousands of people into the city and it also creates a buzz and a vibe.

What’s really good about that is it’s not in our peak season — it’s bringing people in during May and June, where otherwise they would be quieter months. I think that’s something that would apply to every tourism operator in Sydney, they would be happy for business at that time of year.

When rolling with the punches, I think one has to be across the detail and know the detail of your business. 

That’s something that I’ve always tried to do, but that means you’re not always working on the business, you have to find the balance between working on it and working in it.

Finding that balance, and when you’re thinking about launching new products and services, do a lot of analysis on them. Do more analysis than you’d think you’d need to, and don’t be afraid to say, “No, I don’t think this is going to work”.

Our instinct is to have a go at something, but I think that we would have benefited from, on a couple of occasions when things haven’t worked, more detailed analysis of things before we launched something, rather than just sort of winging it.

You need to really have a proper look at it — and know when to walk away, absolutely.

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