Our first two 'Country Profiles' visited businesses in the South East and Yorkshire, so it seems appropriate that our next assignment should come from the the heart of England, where Simon Baker and David Lane run a Microlight business in Warwickshire.
In the heart of the Warwickshire countryside, just 3.5 miles South West of Stratford-upon-Avon on the B4632, lies a flat plain. At this point it sits at 500 ft above sea level and it's here you'll find the famous Long Marston airfield. There's been an airfield at Long Marston since WW2, although it has long been used as a base for recreational flying. So when World Champion Microlight flyer Simon Baker and his partner David Lane of Freedom Sports Aviation, began looking for a centrally based venue where they could develop their business in microlight flying, tuition, training, and sales, Long Marston turned out to be the ideal location.
Simon and David are particularly well qualified for this type of work. In addition to retaining the coveted World Championship Gold Medal title in Hungary last year. Simon has been the UK National Microlight Champion on four occasions, flown over Icelandic fjords and glaciers whilst filming a Channel 4 documentary. Made the highest safe landing ever, recorded whilst supporting an Everest expedition, and, was a member of Richard Nobles' record breaking Thrust Super Sonic Car team. David on the other hand is joint holder of the 'Round Britain Microlight Flying Record'. He was a member of the first team to record a non-stop circumnavigation of the British Isles in a high-speed powerboat. Recently he was the engineer onboard "Quickstep" a fast RIB that took the record for the fastest crossing ever recorded of the English Channel, and in-between he's climbed one or two large lumps of rock in the Alps.
Simon holds the position of Chief Instructor/Examiner and Senior BMAA Inspector, thus ensuring that all Freedom Sports Aircraft are checked and maintained to the highest standard. David has engineering qualifications and gives ground instruction; additionally they have QFI Jonathon Barr as their colleague and highly qualified microlight instructor. Courses on offer at Long Marston include, basic and beginners flying instruction, advanced flying courses, expedition advice and management, flying instructor courses, conversion courses for Flexwing or Fixed wing, aircraft sales, and accessory sales, plus engineering and maintenance, and qualifying examinations.
Simon, tell us about how Freedom Sports Aviation started.
I guess it all began when I came over from Australia for a holiday in the late 70s. I'd spent some time flying in Australia and decided to go over to Wales to see what was happening at the Welsh hang gliding school. I liked it, so I stayed on. That's when I began my instructor's career. Then I moved over to Breen Aviation at Enstone, which was the first Microlight Flying School in the country. It was while I was instructing there, l first began thinking about starting up my own school. I 'd got interested in competition flying and went on to win one or two titles. Through that I got a bit of attention and managed to gain some sponsorship from Pegasus Aviation. Which was useful, especially as Pegasus just happened to manufacture the type of aircraft I was flying. Having that kind of backing gave me the confidence to start up on my own.
I met up with David some years later on the Round Britain Microlight Flying Record attempt. We became good friends, but at the time David had his own career, when he wasn't piloting fast boats or flying micros, he managed to put in a bit of time as a Senior Officer in the Fire Service. It seemed the natural thing to do when he retired, for us to get together, and form a business partnership. The next thing was to look around for a base that would give us scope to develop in the way we wanted. And that's what brought Freedom Sports Aviation to Long Marston.
How has the business developed in the time you've run it?
We haven't been around long enough on this site to really exploit the full potential, but I think we're in the right type of business, in the right place at the right time. There's a growing interest in outdoor adventure pursuits, and lots of advantages from being located in this area. Two things we definitely plan to do, one is to improve the clubhouse and the facilities. Second we can see the possibilities of getting involved in the tourist end of things. I'm sure there are lots of people out there who would love to get a look at the beautiful Warwickshire countryside from where I see it. So we're going to be looking at Air Experience flights with the emphasis on the area. I mean, we've got loads of interesting historical places on our doorstep here and just imagine what the Evesham orchards look like from the air around blossom time, that's bound to get a few video's rolling
What are the particular problems or advantages you face as a rural business?
One of the problems that affect both David and me is, neither of us lives close to the airfield, so travelling is a bit of a bind. Much easier when you're in the air, no traffic to worry about. Apart from that I'd say most of it is positive. There aren't many airfields in Inner Cities anyway, especially recreational ones so we're always going to be based somewhere out in the country. Coming from Australia I need to have space around me, so it suits me just fine out here. If the wind's okay for flying then there's nothing like getting up in the air; whatever the weather's doing the British countryside always looks amazing, it changes all the time with the seasons and there's no better place to see this than from the air. One thing people always say when they go up for the first time is how green everything looks. I get great satisfaction out of my work, even if you're teaching a novice flyer, you still feel you're helping them to experience a special kind freedom that you'll never find any other way.
What are the biggest marketing challenges that are facing your business?
I've always found people in general have fixed ideas about flying. They think it's really expensive, or very technical, or that it's extremely dangerous. Well none of that's true, but it is difficult getting that message across. For instance, you don't have to buy your own aircraft straight off - we've got a hanger full of them here. We have a scheme where you can have a trial "air experience" lesson for just £35, so you can find out the real facts for yourself. People don't realize this, but children cantake flying lessons, although they're not allowed to go solo until they're over 16.
Over the years I've flown people with all kinds of disabilities, young people older people and the vast majority of them love it and can't wait for the next flight. Microlight flying in this country, is governed by the same safety regulations as every other kind of flying. You couldn't imagine allowing kids or disabled people to go up in a micro if it wasn't an ultra safe sport. As for the technical bits, that's what David and me are for. We don't only spend our time training people; we also take care of the engineering problems. We pride ourselves on offering a fully comprehensive all-round service.
David, I know you're actually the marketing guru for Freedom Sports, what have been your successes or failures in marketing?
I don't know that we've had any particular failures, but as Simon just said there are the prejudices to overcome, as usual most of it comes down to communications. One of the areas we are looking at is making the sport more accessible to women. There have always been notable women aviators, not least in our own field there's Eve Jackson's flight to Australia and Christina Dodwell's flight across Africa. Microlight flying has often been seen as toys for the boys, but these days' women want to take on flying for its own sake. So we think there could be an untapped market out there, and we want to open up the opportunities.
One thing we've not done very well I suppose is to exploit Simon's World Champion Title. In the future, that's something I'd like to see get more recognition. So for anybody out there reading this, Simon is available for press interviews, television and radio, talk shows and the occasional Bar mitzvah. Coming back to the female aspect for a moment though, I should have said that Simon has one of the best navigators in the business sitting on his tail. That's Anita Holmes, who is joint World Champion titleholder with him. Tends to throw the one about "Can't find the way out of the garage" out the window doesn't it?
So how do you see the business developing?
We deliberately chose to base our business in a location where a proportion of the population has a high level of disposable income. We're selling a luxury item here; we know we have a good product and good services on offer. But let's face it, nobody is going to beat a path to our door, so we set out to offer best value and customer care in every part of the business. We also happen to be bang in the middle of Shakespeare country so we reckon there's an opportunity for us to tap into the tourist industry. We think "See Shakespeare country from the air" while you learn to fly, could have an appeal for the younger or maybe the more adventurous tourist.
It's not just Stratford and the river, but all the surrounding places like, Charlecote Park, Warwick Castle, Kenilworth Castle, the Edge Hill battle site, just to name a few. I think when people can fly over all the summer traffic jams and get a different perspective on all these places they'll be queuing round the airfield. On a different tack, we're also putting on information displays at the Royal Priors Shopping Centre, Leamington and air experience flights during the 'Royal Show' and 'Town and Country' shows this year. So we're certainly looking at busy times in the near future.
What help have you been able to obtain via government assistance or through local or EC initiatives?
Because we're new to the area we've only recently made contact with the local Chamber of Commerce and Tourist Boards, but now we're getting sound advice and we'll be having a look at any options that may be open to us. I can guarantee you anything we're entitled to we won't be long in following through. Although to be honest, from what I've heard, there' s a lot of talk about help, but not a lot of practical action. We'll have to see how we get on; we'll let you know if we have any success.
How do you perceive the general public regards the rural business community?
Apart from the bigger farmers, probably rather second rate. I doubt that people realise just how many thousands of people are employed in rural industries or how many small businesses there are. There should be a lot more practical help for rural businesses; it's common sense. The thing is if people can't get work near to where they live the countryside will die and all you'll get is places full of second or commuter homes.
I suppose some people see what Simon and me do as really a weekend hobby thing rather that a proper job. Well they're welcome to come over here anytime and see just how much hard work goes on. We're trying to develop something here, and if our long-term plans pan out, then we will have created something really exciting and worthwhile. Not that either of us minds the hard work, flying to me is one of the greatest experiences anybody can have, so I suppose to be able to earn a living doing something you love, that's got to be the ultimate bonus.
What tips or advice do you have for anyone who is thinking of setting up business in the countryside?
Well for me, if you're doing something you like doing, then you're going to do it well. But you need a hard business head - if some of the innovative things we've been talking about don't pay off they'll get dropped fast, and we'll go on to something else. I think one of the key things is to find out what people want, find out how much they'll pay, then if you can make a profit out of it make the service available.
As far as setting up a business here was concerned. I'd had a good look at the location, the demographic make-up of the population, what competition there might be, then made some careful assessments and calculations. On balance it seemed like the right decision, so that's why we're here. We've not been here all that long but we're both convinced now, for us, we've made the right move.
You can contact Simon Baker at Freedom Sports Aviation on:
Countrylovers.co.uk would like to thank Simon and David for taking time out to share their experiences with us, and for providing another view on the countryside - literally.
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