London showroom raises the bar in jet brokerage

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A long-time believer in face-to-face relationships, Steve Varsano has opened a corporate jet showroom behind ‘the best shop window on four continents’ 

An executive jet broker who has brokered more than 300 aircraft transactions in his 30-year career claims to have reinvented how pre-owned aircraft are bought and sold.

American Steve Varsano, who has lived in the UK for the last 2½ years, opened his corporate aviation version of a luxury car showroom in early January behind what he calls “the best 10 feet of window on four continents”.

He initially thought Berkeley Square, in well-heeled Mayfair, might be the best location. But a real estate agent persuaded him to look One Grosvenor Place, facing onto one of London’s most iconic locations at Hyde Park Corner, and he was so impressed he signed the papers within an hour.

Behind the glass frontage of The Jet Business is a full-size cabin mock-up of an Airbus Corporate Jet, equipped with white leather seating and contemporary fixtures and fittings.

“Anyone who has chartered aircraft in the Middle East or the CIS countries will come through London at some time and they have to go round the circle [Hyde Park Corner] to get to Mayfair and Knightsbridge. They’re sitting in the back of a chauffeur-driven car, waiting at the light and forced to look right into the window,” he says.

Varsano has been planning The Jet Business for five years and hails it as the first consumer brand in business jet trading. There is much more to the concept than an attractive location, however. For underpinning it is cutting-edge technology in the form of a customised iPad application that compares and contrasts 120 aircraft models to the buyer’s exact specification. How much do you want to spend? How many passengers do you wish to carry and what range do you need? What is your preference on aircraft age? How important are cabin dimensions?

As each parameter is defined and the range of potential acquisitions narrows, the information is displayed in high resolution on electronic floor-to-ceiling screens. Life-size or 1:2 scale overhead schematics show seating plans, window placements, galley position, baggage areas and so on. Cabin cross-sections of the jets can be compared graphically in actual size.

The Jet Business has no affiliation to any one manufacturer. It aims to provide visitors with independent and impartial advice, focusing on the upper end of the business jet sector including aircraft types from Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier, Cessna, Dassault, Embraer, Gulfstream and Hawker Beechcraft. New supersonic aircraft programmes could be included and Varsano plans to incorporate helicopter listings within the next three months.

The idea is for visitors to take themselves through the selection process on the iPad, thus learning their way into the app. “You pay more attention that way than just watching someone else do it,” Varsano says.

“It’s important for us to know where they are based and how many times a year they need the maximum range they’re telling you. If it’s less than four times a year, there may be a more appropriate solution. The number of passengers is also an interesting one, because average occupancy per flight is only 2.8 passengers. People sometimes buy because they can; they don’t always need the range or capacity.”

The Jet Business describes a visit to its showroom – by appointment only – as a “fully immersive and educational experience” for ultra-high net worth individuals, government officials, royalty and influential corporate executives either living in London or visiting from overseas.

Once the main specifications are entered, customers can drill down if they wish into more technical information on operating cost, fuel burn and flight data. “It’s not necessarily for a guy who’s going to buy today, but shows at a glance what would take the client three months to research by traditional means,” Varsano says.

He says there are two types of customer for jet aircraft. The first are those who have been flying or chartering and have some idea of what they want – but can still benefit from seeing all the data in one place. The second group “came into money and tell you they want a Gulfstream 550 because their mate has one and likes it”.

The Jet Business, aiming one suspects mainly at the first category, has taken 2,100sq metres on a 10-year lease at Grosvenor Place. The display wall forms one side of the main meeting space. The ACJ fuselage is a more informal setting, and behind this are a boardroom and a private meeting room. The company’s sales team operates in an adjoining area at individual desks modelled on corporate jet cockpits in carbon fibre, with the dashboards and seats upholstered in luxury leather.

The company expects 80% of transactions to be in pre-owned aircraft. It will not only act as exclusive broker for owners looking to sell their business jets, but also has real-time information at its fingertips about all aircraft currently in operation.

A commonly quoted statistic is that 2,700 jet aircraft are on the market at any time, but that’s not strictly true once a buyer starts to define his needs, Varsano says. “If you cut the line at 14 years old, the number is already half that. If you want a US-based aircraft of a particular type, you could quickly come down to 10. You’re looking for a forward galley? Now it’s five.”

The Jet Business pledges to call existing owners every 10 weeks as part of the process of cultivating an ongoing relationship with them. But if an enquiry is received, all relevant owners can expect a call even if they have not made it known that their aircraft is on the market.

Varsano expects his main clientele to come from Russia/CIS, the Middle East, Asia and Africa. He is not discouraged by the recession. “This business is global, and there’s always wealth being created somewhere. My last few customers as a ‘virtual business’ before opening the showroom included clients from Abu Dhabi, Nigeria, Mexico and Beijing,” he says.

A graduate of Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, Varsano started his aviation career as a lobbyist with the General Aviation Manufacturers Association in the 1970s before starting to trade business aircraft.

He quickly understood the value of face-to-face meetings. “It was all on the phone and by telex. You never met anyone despite having a multi-million dollar product to sell,” he says. “I always wanted to meet the client. It was a limited geographical market then, but now it’s the whole world.

“How would I get clients to come and see me? I knew I had to break the mould. I have set up a futuristic environment that resembles their home, office or plane. Here, we summarise quality information that is as current as possible. We’ve built the app so the client knows what’s in the market that very day.”

The technology is all very well, but another benefit of meeting the client in person is that it puts Varsano’s long career knowledge directly on the line. “If a broker is on the phone to a prospective client, he can stall them while he Googles for information. In a face-to-face situation you’re exposed and you have to have the know-how,” he says.

Personal contacts are crucial. “I want to make this an exclusive club that you can’t become a member of,” Varsano smiles. Just before the premises officially opened, he persuaded a foreign former prime minister – who reluctantly said he would spend “five minutes” – to visit and they ended up talking for two hours. He accepts it is difficult to market actively to such individuals but the early evidence is that its unusual business model will see the project go viral.

Varsano believes that business aviation and its clientele base can expand dramatically if customers – especially from the emerging markets – are provided with better tools to enable them to purchase or lease a jet and if they are exposed to all the options open to them. “Our industry loses 20% of potential sales. What we’ve done is not complicated, but brings information into one place,” he says.

If clients are unable to meet on The Jet Business’s home ground, the sales team will travel anywhere in the world to deploy the app in a mobile version. But the key is the London showroom. Although the main meeting areas are on full public view, the windows can be blacked out at the press of a key on the iPad, and there is a secret rear entrance for those requiring total privacy.

Five years ago, Varsano says he might have launched The Jet Business in New York. The US environment is “not as conducive as it was,” he says, but he plans to roll out the brand in North America as well as Asia and the Middle East.

He also promises a future version of the app that will further supplement the system’s current functionality. It is already possible to see what pre-owned aircraft are out there and how their interiors look. Within six months, Varsano hopes to be able to show clients swatches as a designer would, then allow them to move the seats around and formulate their own shapes, finish and stitching. The end results will be rendered in 3D on the display wall within an hour, short-circuiting a process that in the past has taken weeks.

One man’s vision looks like becoming a genuine game-changer.