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Talk to the experts

TLC Aviation and Sea Grapes International are the go-to company for private aviation and yachting services in St Maarten. Hazel King talks to Sheldon Palm, owner and director of operations at TLC Aviation, and Earl Wyatt, director at Sea Grapes International, about the secret to their success and where they’re heading next

 

The TLC team – (L-R) Clement Richardson, Steven Kong and Sheldon Palm

 

How were the two companies established?
Sheldon: I was working at another company as senior operations officer where I met Steven Kong and Clements Richardson [the other business partners in TLC] and we were always incredibly busy trying to handle both commercial and private flights. This was the time before the internet, so I was using separate computers for all the different airlines, as well as listening to the private jet calls on the radio, answering the phone and receiving faxes. We thought that the handling of commercial and private jets needed to be separated, which was not an option at this company, so we decided to set up our own company to handle private aviation on the island. That was 12 years ago. Corporate aviation really needed a complete overhaul and we wanted to raise the bar where customer service was concerned. We joined with Earl, who has many years of experience in the marina environment, to provide a seamless service between private jets and yachts. Most private aviation users coming into St Maarten – between 60% and 75% – will want to transfer onto a yacht, whether private or charter, and we provide a synergy between the two.

Earl: You cannot treat private aviation and yacht customers in the same way as you would a commercial airline passenger transferring to a cruise ship – they require a VIP service all the way. The bigger the yacht gets, the bigger the expectations are, and when you’re able to offer a total, seamless travel service, it makes things a lot easier for all those concerned, from the client to the crew.

What services do you offer?
Sheldon: TLC Aviation offers pretty much everything that is within the legal limits! For example, we can sort our villa rentals. We had a family of 57 who had a family reunion on the island and they required seven villas, so we sorted that for them. This requires a lot of logistics and planning, but we handled that efficiently for them. We also sorted the logistics of a party for a Russian businessman in St Barths. We organize charter bookings, flight bookings, boat bookings, car rentals, ramp service, fuel, island tours, everything our clients could need.

Earl: Sea Grapes International provides yacht support services, clearances, transport, fueling, agency crew services, as well as promoting a VIP service for clients coming on commercial flights. We coordinate services on the other islands too, to make sure that the client receives a consistent level of service from start to finish. In St Maarten, we don’t produce anything but we can give good service.

 

TLC Aviation has invested in luxury vehicles to provide the best transportation service for its customers

 

How do you ensure you offer the best service?
Sheldon: We are like FBI profilers, we know our clients well and if they are new to us, we can ask the captains or other people arranging their transport what specifics we need to know, such as do they like us to take their bags, so we have all the information behind the scenes and the customer only sees the polished service. We absorb the stress so the client can relax.

I think the reason we stand out from our competitors is because we’re not part of a chain, so we can provide a bespoke service. To give great service you don’t need someone to come and give you a manual of standard operating procedures – you build that character in your business. I don’t think you can create a standard operating procedure where VIPs are concerned because they all demand different things. The service needs to be personal for each individual client. That is where we differ – we have different profiles for different clients and for all of them we meet their requirements to a T.

How has TLC Aviation grown in the past 12 years?
Sheldon: We have been growing from the time we started. We started off with a goal of handling 600 airplanes a year, and last year we did 1,600 – the total market is about 3,000 airplanes for St Maarten, so we’re handling roughly 50% of jets. Our clients like the efficiency – we can get the paperwork done within 10-15 minutes of landing or departure – and Professional Pilot magazine has even given TLC a professional service level of 9.5. Obviously we will keep working hard to try and achieve a perfect 10!

How can business aviation be improved on St Maarten?
Sheldon: The airport still needs to work on its business aviation provision. While we can continue to grow our business in terms of traffic, the jets are getting bigger and we can retain less of it here because of the lack of parking. During the peak season [Thanksgiving-April] we have to turn away a lot of business because of lack of ramp space – if aircraft are made to circle for an hour they may run out of fuel and have to find somewhere else to land. It may then be difficult to attract them back to St Maarten for future flights.

We have been trying to make the airport realize that if they create more parking and remove the bottleneck, we won’t have to turn away traffic. We manage to handle most requests, but there are some people who are disappointed so it is a very serious challenge. Parking will be increased with the FBO development – the airport has spoken about moving the employee parking to in front of the airport building to make space for larger private jets, which is much needed.

 

A design rendering of the new FBO at Princess Juliana International Airport 

 

Can you tell us more about the FBO development?
Sheldon: Plans for the new FBO at Princess Juliana International Airport are well underway and will allow us to increase our services and hire more staff because we’ll have more space. We currently have 960ft2 office space – the new FBO will provide 3,200ft2, so we could have a tennis court in there and still have room! We are designing something that will stand out and put us on the same level as some of the best FBOs in Europe and the USA. We hope that the new FBO will be operational by the end of 2016.

How do you plan to grow the business?
Sheldon: I see opportunities in the summer months. We have broken record numbers for June, July and August – between August 5-8, 2015, we surpassed aircraft handling numbers for the entire month of August last year, which equates to 42 flights in five days; we usually handle 40 aircraft for the whole of August. The Latin American market is becoming more vibrant; they’re traveling and growing, and I believe that is the next step. We haven’t done anything to capture the Latin America market yet where general aviation is concerned and those markets are coming to life, so I hope they will be the next growth area for us. We hope to be at LABACE in 2016.

We have been asked to open up FBOs in other locations – right now we’re only selling fuel. We have flirted with the idea of doing St Kitts as we see it as an extension of St Maarten, but we want to make sure we have finished what we want to achieve here before we look at developing elsewhere.

August 26, 2015

 

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