As The Crow Flys

May 21, 2007
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When Harold Goehring first launched campground and resorts brokerage Resorts International N.A. Inc. 35 years ago, his greatest concern was transportation.

“Imagine driving six hours to meet a buyer, just to hear ‘It’s not what we’re looking for,’ then drive six hours back,” he explained. “Or if it’s a western state like Arizona or New Mexico, you could fly into Las Vegas, rent a car, and then drive four or five hours.”

With the aide of his Piper Navajo Chieftain twin-engine aircraft and the latest film equipment, Goehring’s Grand Rapids-based firm will market dozens of properties this year, including 40 new listings scheduled to be filmed this summer. The company films the majority of the properties and then distributes the footage, narrated by the current owners, to investors worldwide. Roughly 85 percent of the deals are brokered, and purchase agreements are drafted before the buyer has seen the property in person.

Filming the campgrounds, RV parks and other resort property proved much more cost effective than physically showing properties to every prospective buyer. But the costs and complexity of cross-country travel were still too much.

“The only way we could make the business work was by having a plane,” Goehring said. “To depend on the commercial airlines would take up too much wasted time.”

As a licensed commercial pilot, Goehring has the ability to travel practically anywhere in the continental U.S. at a moment’s notice. Whereas driving from one property to another would take him the better part of a day, he can fly that distance in a matter of hours. This summer he will cross from coast to coast in a series of two-week trips, covering a park a day while on the road. His daughter, Melissa, and son, Christopher, both enrolled in flight training programs, are set to take over the family business in the coming years.

“The plane is kind of my car,” Goehring said. “I fly a lot more than I drive.”

According to The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, 4 million of the roughly 31 million hours flown nationwide in private planes last year was for business purposes. It is not known what percentage of that is businesspeople flying themselves to work sites, meetings and other corporate functions.

Rex Vanderlinde, president of Executive Air Transport in Muskegon, which operates a flight school in partnership with Baker College of Muskegon, said that for a long time now, business travelers have made up a significant percentage of his school’s students.

“Some of them talk about how the airlines are a little difficult. Others just want to enhance their small business,” Vanderlinde said. “You see the business owner that wants to expand his market, to hit more customers in a shorter amount of time. If you’re traveling somewhere like Dayton, Ohio, that can be a hard drive. But if you learn to fly, you’re down there in no time.”

Charles Ketchum, principal of West Michigan Benefits, earned his private pilot certificate last summer, and realized its full benefit when visiting a client in the Upper Peninsula. It took an associate eight hours to drive there from Grand Rapids; Ketchum drove to the Muskegon County Airport, rented a Piper Warrior from Executive Air and was onsite in 90 minutes.

For many destinations, flying commercial airlines is cheaper than flying a rental plane, and dramatically less expensive than owning or co-owning a private aircraft. Goehring estimates it would cost him 50 percent less to fly commercial airlines, but the loss of flexibility would cripple his business. Executive Air Transport rents planes for $80 to $200 per hour flown.

For part-time fliers like Ketchum, it’s a matter of convenience. “You spend the extra dollars and get there that much faster. You can drive to Detroit and spend all day on the road, or you can rent a little plane and be home for dinner.”

Plus, business is not limited to areas near the 500 commercial airports nationwide that service regular, commuter or charter airlines. There are incredibly few businesses, however, not located within 10 miles of the 5,200 general aviation airports in the U.S. where small private planes can land.

This is a necessity for Resorts International N.A., which services clients in deep rural areas. Goehring said he is generally able to land within a 5- to 20-minute drive of his destination. It is useful for West Michigan Benefits, which manages group insurance for clients in Ohio, Indiana, the Upper Peninsula and eastern Michigan.

To date, Ketchum has not been able to use his flying skills as much as he would like. A private pilot license can be earned for only a few thousand dollars, 40 hours of flight training and some basic testing. There are some strict limitations on the lower-tier certifications, however, including the private license and the less common recreational license. Pilots with these qualifications are not permitted to fly in adverse weather conditions or low visibility.

“It’s hard to schedule an appointment around that,” Ketchum said. “I’ve been grounded a couple of times.”

This summer, Ketchum intends to complete a second round of training to qualify him in the use of Instrument Landing Systems. With this technology at his disposal, he should only be limited in the type of aircraft he can fly.

“It’s very convenient and not that expensive, once you go through the expense of getting the license,” Ketchum said of flying. “It’s fun and satisfying on many levels, which is why I was interested in it in the first place.”

States With Most Private Licenses (2005)

California  31,062

Florida  16,528

Texas  16,484

Illinois  8,164

Ohio  8,113

Michigan  7,920

Washington  7,856

Source: Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association

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