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As Canada celebrated its 150th anniversary this summer, an innovative West Coast helicopter company memorialized the event with a striking livery on the newest member of its fleet — and became the focus of patriotic aviation lovers across the country. But the attention grabbed by the Bell 206 LongRanger with its stylized maple leaf livery and “Canada 150” emblazoned on the side was not just luck — it was a carefully considered marketing plan from one of the most social media-savvy helicopter companies in North America.
Established just six years ago by entrepreneur Andrew Westlund, Sky Helicopters has quickly forged a reputation as a leading provider of flightseeing tours in the Vancouver area. Hand in hand with this, it has amassed a significant following of its social media accounts, which help promote the Sky Helicopters brand through picture-perfect photos over jaw-droppingly beautiful locations in a fun, but compelling way.
The company is one of about 15 businesses that are part of the Westlund Group of companies, but it’s one that’s close to Westlund’s heart. Born and raised in Squamish, a small town about halfway along the “Sea-to-Sky” highway that runs from Vancouver to Whistler, he had always been captivated by the aircraft that flew overhead.
“That whole corridor is helicopter land,” he told Vertical. “So, when I got out of high school, that was my goal — to be a helicopter pilot.”
Westlund planned to work towards that goal after entering the industry as a maintenance engineer. However, soon after finishing his maintenance training, his career took a different path entirely as he decided to enter the ministry, and he began studying to become a pastor. Twenty years later, after a few more twists and turns in his career, he decided to fulfill his rotary-wing dream.
He gained his private pilot licence with the idea of using a Robinson R44 to travel to and from his cottage by the lake. He then found the aircraft could play a useful role in augmenting his other businesses, helping transport VIPs between Vancouver and the group’s base in neighboring Surrey, and providing a boost to the overall brand.
“What I’m trying to do is build a brand around this group of companies, and when there’s the helicopter company in the middle of it, it’s such a step up,” said Westlund. “We’re the same as Seattle and a lot of cities with water: our main hub is surrounded by water and therefore bridges, and a lot of people live out in the valley. Speakers and customers don’t typically come out to the valley because of the traffic, so we say, ‘We’ll send a helicopter to pick you up, and you’ll be back in your office in less than an hour.’ Our whole thought was, ‘Let’s just make a cool image; let’s make money on transporting thought leaders — and also tourism.’ ”
While Westlund used the high-level image of helicopters to appeal to VIP customers and partners, he aimed to democratize that same image to grow the company’s aerial tourism business as a Bell 206 JetRanger, and then another R44, joined the fleet.
“We wanted to bring helicopters into the population,” he said. “In a lot of my companies, I say ‘It’s work, but let’s have fun.’ We just took that same sort of attitude to the public. We showed up smiling, and it made a difference.”
The Power of Social Media
The company’s first couple of holiday seasons saw George Lacny, the group’s marketing manager, man a kiosk in local malls where they sold five-minute “takeoff and land” helicopter flights as stocking stuffers. Westlund also took inspiration from the media coverage of a social media giveaway by NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal.
“[O’ Neal] said, ‘The first person to high five me on this corner and this corner gets front row seats to tonight’s game,’ ” Westlund recalled. “It was so unique. He had a ton of people come up and it actually made the news that night. So we started working with that.”
Instead of courtside seats, five-minute flights were offered through social media to the first people who showed up at certain locations around the region.
“We’d fly the media while we were doing these things, and they were always writing stories about it,” said Lacny. “It was a way of getting our brand out there in an advertorial kind of way.”
The success of these early ventures quickly persuaded the company about the potential power of social media, and it began taking its presence on Facebook and Instagram extremely seriously — encouraging customers to take photos of themselves and the helicopter in the beautiful locations they visited.
“Social media has helped to essentially grow our business,” said Lacny. “So many people are looking for experiences, and they go to social media to find those. You need to be placed there, up front, and show people that helicopters aren’t just about flying, they’re about creating an incredible experience that they are going to carry away with them for a lifetime. That’s what they look for.”
The company now has over 15,000 followers on Instagram, and a similar number of likes on Facebook.
“Most folks are reaching out to us through social media — they want the immediate, they want fast, and social media is the way they do that,” said Lacny. “Facebook and Instagram — that’s where we’re collecting a lot of our new customers.”
About 75 percent of Sky Helicopters’ work is now in aerial tourism. It offers a range of tours, from 15-minute flights over downtown Vancouver, to backcountry tours of the numerous mountains, lakes and rivers surrounding the city, and flights to wineries in the British Columbia interior. It even has engagement and proposal packages.
The company works closely with Tourism Vancouver, and sees two general client bases for its aerial tours: international tourists, and locals who are looking to experience the B.C. backcountry in an entirely new way.
“About 80 percent of the flights that we do are the ones that include a mountaintop landing, or landing in the backcountry on our private helipad, then going for a hike to the base of a waterfall and up to a lookout point,” said Lacny. “That’s what everybody is asking for: they want to do these experiential tours.”
The remainder of the company’s work is mostly in VIP transport, but it also flies for some film and television productions. Westlund said he doesn’t have much interest in chasing utility contracts. “We like our little niche, we like serving our customers, and we’re not going to hang it all out there on a few contracts that will come and go,” he said. “The other thing is a lot of these contracts are being taken over by drones. We’re happy and we’re growing; we’ve grown every year.”
More than just a hangar
Sky Helicopters operates from a purpose-built 10,000-square-foot hangar at Pitt Meadows Regional Airport.
The immaculate hangar has become a destination in its own right. This is not by chance — it was designed to double as an event and meeting space. It even includes a stage on one side, with a high-end sound system built into it, and has hosted weddings, corporate events, and even the Prime Minister.
The company has a staff of 10, including five pilots. Bryce Westlund, Andrew’s son, serves as the company’s chief pilot. He said the West Coast weather was probably the biggest challenge the pilots face.
“When you’re working with other guys in the industry, they can understand the challenges of weather,” he said. “But when you’re working with a couple from maybe California or Australia, they may not understand the degree of weather, and then they also don’t know the challenges of flying in the mountains and the risks involved with bad weather in the mountains.”
Bryce said all Sky Helicopters’ pilots are born and raised on the West Coast, so understand the local conditions and the challenges of mountain flying.
The company has a close relationship with Abbotsford, B.C.-based Chinook Helicopters (which completes the maintenance on Sky’s fleet), and sources its new pilots from the best of Chinook’s latest class of student pilots. Bryce said Sky Helicopters is looking for more from a pilot than just the ability to fly the aircraft.
“In tourism, it’s having character and personality,” he said. “We’re very brand aware, and so a pilot that wants to put on a helmet and work in the bush, not talk to anybody and just fly, that’s great, and lot of the industry is that — but for us, it is a little different.”
The company has a fleet of six aircraft: three Robinson R44s, two Bell 206B-3 JetRangers, and one Bell 206L LongRanger.
“Mainly we fly the R44, but we are looking into larger aircraft,” said operations manager Allan Fraser. “We just acquired the LongRanger this past summer, so we were pretty excited to see how that fits into our fleet and into our business model — and so far, so good. We’re loving it.”
Bryce said the company was seeing more of a demand for its larger machines. “Instead of flying two or three R44s up to the mountain for one group of tourists, we can fit that in one LongRanger,” he said. “We will always have R44s — they’re great charter machines, they’re great for photography, [and] we’re always finding a use for the R44 because of its cost — but I do see us upsizing the fleet pretty quickly.”
The LongRanger’s patriotic “Canada 150” livery was designed by Devon Regier, creative director of Vinyl Labs (another company in the Westlund Group). Besides looking good, the livery served to promote another Sky Helicopters contest, in which the company gave away $15,000 in $100 gift cards over the summer.
“The Government of Canada has really done a great job of marketing ‘Canada 150’ around the world,” said Lacny. “If people around the world are familiar with [the Canada 150 brand], why wouldn’t we want that on our helicopter? Our agency created this really cool-looking wrap for it, we submitted it to the Government of Canada, and they said it was normally a two-week period before they would vet it and agree to it, and we got an email the next day saying, ‘Yes, please do it.’ Now it’s just a showcase; it flies around and people just love it. It’s like we’re flying Canada.”
Establishing such an intimate connection with people is something that appears to be at the core of the company’s drive — and its success.
“When all is said and done, I hope we come across as friendly to our customers; and I hope we come across as somewhat innovators, because we haven’t chased contracts and raced to zero with pricing,” said Andrew Westlund. “We just believe in the brand of helicopters. I don’t know if there’s anything cooler out there.”