How Corey Rust Started A Profitable Flight Tours Business
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
If you have ever met me (which is pretty unlikely), then you probably learned relatively quickly that I’m really into airplanes. And by ‘really’ I mean borderline obsessed. My name is Corey Rust, and I own the Troutdale, Oregon based air tour business Envi Adventures.
What we do hasn’t changed the world, we haven’t developed some incredible time saving app, or a revolutionary device that helps anyone make a perfect piece of toast (still waiting). But we have created an experience that provides a 360º scenic view for people from all over the world in an area that we consider pretty special.
With millions of visitors each year, Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge is considered the most visited spot in the state of Oregon. Huge numbers like that means huge crowds, and with huge crowds comes unavoidable traffic on the roads.
I was convinced that we could tap into that massive crowd and create a solid business. While that quest has been slower than I unrealistically dreamed, we have continued to grow with more and more people flying with us year over year.
I remember our first BIG month when we made a ‘mind blowing’ amount of almost $7,000. I was astonished by that simply because people, that weren’t my mother, were actually paying me money for something that they wanted! That was an exciting realization. It was people that I didn’t know, from all over the world, who found me on the internet. That was pretty cool.
Now, our best month was over $30,000 in revenue, and that is only in our second year. For a dumb guy like me, it makes me happy to know that I’m providing a service that people from all over the world are interested in. Not only that, but we have been able to generate a brand that people are beginning to recognize and connect with on a different level. Personally, I think that’s the most exciting part.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Growing up in Troutdale and learning how to fly in Troutdale, I always loved to fly in the Gorge past all of the waterfalls. I’d hiked the trails by the waterfalls countless times and knew what it was like first hand, but the aerial perspective was always one I enjoyed. Since I loved it, surely everyone else would love it to– right?
My quest to start an aviation-themed business started about seven years before I actually did. Back in 2010, I was working full-time, going to school full-time, and engaged to be married. So to make things more stressful in my life, I also decided to start a shoe company.
I had so many people say to me that this wouldn’t work. Because I ignored that and made my best effort to make it work, I’ve proven every single one of those people wrong. For me, that’s success.
Now, before we go further, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with a flying business. Not a lot, but it’s a short back story, so keep reading.
I started the shoe business and called it Envi Footwear (Ah, see? The connection). I’m often asked where the name Envi Adventures comes from. At this point, you’re probably hoping for some deep, symbolic, soul searching reason, but frankly, it was the only thing that wasn’t trademarked.
Time went on, school got busier, I got married, work was work, but my ability to manage everything was starting to get ridiculous and something had to go. As I surveyed my life, I knew I couldn’t quit school, most definitely wasn’t going to quit the marriage, and quitting my job wouldn’t be the most fiscally responsible thing to do as tempting as it was. So away went Envi Footwear in late summer 2012. But my desire to have my own business was always on my mind.
Years went on, and the idea was still there bouncing around my otherwise empty head. I never invested too much thought into it other than the periodic ‘wouldn’t that be a cool business to have’ thought. Until August 2015.
My wife and I took a quick trip to Iceland. As most know, it’s a country with an economy built heavily on tourism. It’s often cold and gray, but unbelievably beautiful and rugged. I loved everything about it. So we flew 8 hours to this awesome little rock in the north Atlantic, and hopped in a car to drive to a waterfall called Seljalandsfoss where we hiked around a little bit. Next stop was another waterfall with a hike, then another waterfall and a hike, and so on. At that point, I thought ‘Let me get this straight; we flew 8 hours to hike by waterfalls with a bunch of other tourists? Something we try and time just right to avoid back home?’
Whilst driving along Route 36 back to Reykjavik, I remember spotting a small airplane flying above and thinking that this would be an excellent place to fly around.
At the time, I was employed at a place that I was less than excited about, and financially wasn’t hurting, but I also wasn’t blowing my nose with $100 bills. We were getting by. That being said, I knew I didn’t have the funds to go buy an airplane. I had enough room to spare financially to incorporate the business and to build a website. That’s about it. Hard to start an airplane business with just that.
But as the persistent, annoying individual that I am, I wasn’t going to let that halt my idea from happening.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I think it goes without saying that in order to have a scenic flight business, you need some sort of method of providing said flight. Humbly knowing that I couldn’t purchase, finance, or lease an airplane, I had to figure out another way.
Meanwhile, I decided to play pretend like I had an airplane, and I had the proper authority to operate the flights. Even though realistically, I wasn’t nearly close to being at that point. So I simply opened a Gmail ([email protected]), threw together a logo, made a very basic website without any booking functions and hardly any information, and opened an Instagram account.
More than a year before the first flight with paying customers took off, I posted a picture on the newly opened Envi Adventures Instagram. It was a crappy picture of Mount Hood that I took from a viewpoint on a hike. It wasn’t even remotely aviation related, but it got the ball rolling.
I continued to seldomly post on Instagram while I continued my search for an airplane. The Catch 22 was that I needed an airplane before I could get operating authority from the Federal Aviation Administration. I also needed to get that before I could get the appropriate insurance, and permission from the airport to operate. Everything, unsurprisingly, was contingent on finding that airplane.
The airplane search struggle continued.
I frequented Craigslist searching for airplanes that were for sale, I went to other airplane websites with planes for sale trying to convince the seller to lease it instead of sell it. No luck.
I perused the FAA’s public database of airplanes for weeks. I narrowed down searches by airplane type, location, even engine type. I had spreadsheets saved all over the place with this information. Now, the FAA doesn’t give email addresses or phone numbers of the owners of the airplanes. Rightfully so, because they’d have people like me bugging them to fly their airplane. But in today’s modern world, there was a loophole...social media.
I went down the list name by name searching for these people on LinkedIn. Any of them that I found, I’d send them a message asking if I could essentially have their airplane. Believe it or not, few were interested in the idea. This went on for what seemed like forever.
In between searches, I started to contact flight schools to maybe contract out their airplanes. Had a few meetings that went nowhere, was told the idea had been tried before (like 30 years ago) and it didn’t work so I should just forget about it and give up, and had a lot of unreturned phone calls. No bother, I pressed on.
After several weeks, I finally received a response. Like an actual, respectful, considerate response from someone. It read something like, ”Dear Corey, thank you for your offer, and your email about my airplane. Unfortunately, the FAA is a little slow to update their database and that airplane was destroyed in a storm up in Canada. I have another airplane now that I fly periodically. Best of luck in your search.”
I kept making phone calls, then three weeks after that first email, I received another one from the destroyed airplane owner. It read “Dear Corey, after thinking about it, my work schedule isn’t going to allow me to fly as much as I’d like. If you’d like to use my airplane for your tours, I’m sure we could work something out.”
What?!? Finally, I found an airplane! So we talked about my idea, my plans, and for some reason he was convinced. Surely there was divine intervention. He flew it to Troutdale, handed me the keys, and off he went. The airplane was far from perfect to most, but it worked, and to me, it was absolutely perfect.
Now the real process of getting approval began. It took months to get it, but I got it, then I got the insurance, and the airport's permission. With a website updated and tours loaded into our reservation system, I kept pushing it on social media and I waited.
Then sometime in December of 2016, I get an email from Viator (now TripAdvisor Experiences) saying someone bought a tour. Surely it was spam? It wasn’t!
Not only did someone buy a tour, but they were from England. I couldn’t believe it. My first reservation was from England of all places. A testament to the power of the internet.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Before our first official flight, I relied very heavily on Instagram to market the business– still do. At first, I’d go up in the plane and take pictures from my phone and pretend like they were really good.
Then I made connections with ‘Influencers’ by offering them free flights in exchange for photos and that made me realize what good pictures actually looked like. As a very visual business, it was the best platform to show off where we fly, and what we do. It worked great.
Our first flight was actually with people who found us on Instagram. He wanted to propose to his girlfriend, so we made it happen. The weather was crap, but it was a special day for them, and hopefully still is.
We were in the thick of winter, so I pushed the official start date to April 1st. This gave me some time to do some pre-launch marketing. As the social media accounts grew, I started to get in touch with local media to come out and do a story.
A couple took the bait and then things started to grow a bit faster. The phone wasn’t ringing off the hook or anything, but we started to see organic growth and reservations started to come in a little more regularly.
In Portland, the tourist season is mid-March to mid-October. Knowing this, I knew I needed to push it heavily on whatever medium I could. We were active on all of the social media channels but I lacked a lot of quality content.
I made contact with and was contacted by several photographers and videographers who promised the world for a free flight, but only delivered lackluster results. As annoying as that was, I used their content to promote the brand. Eventually, I found someone who was serious about doing a good job and being forthright with his intentions. To this day, I consider him the ‘In House” photographer.
But in spite of the quality content, the one element essential to our growth would be our interactions with people. If customers showed up for a flight and we had nasty attitudes or demeanors, we’d be done. It’s an obvious piece of advice, but if you want to survive, you absolutely have to be good at customer service. And I think we are good at it. We do everything possible to make the experience from start to finish the best it could be by personalizing each tour. One way we do that is the pilots don’t read from a script and I don’t tell them where or what to point out. They say what they want to say making it a very interactive experience between pilot and guest. If they want them to shut up so they can just enjoy the view, that’s fine too. Each flight experience is different group to group and that makes it special.
But regardless of everything you do to make it unique, stuff happens, and sometimes it sucks. Like when you have eight flights on a Saturday and something on the airplane needs to be fixed. What do you do when you only have one airplane? How do you deal with all of those customers? Rather than coming up with some ridiculous excuse why we were needing to cancel all of the flights on a perfect 80º day, I contacted each of them individually and explained the situation immediately. Were they bummed, of course. Was I more bummed? I think so. I hate cancelling flights, but not a single one requested a refund, and they all rescheduled. They knew it was out of my hands, and that to be safe stuff needs to get fixed. Had I just cancelled it and not spoken with them, the situation would have been worse, I’m certain.
As the first year in business went on, we kept getting reservations through our website, which was great, but I knew I needed additional streams. I kept looking for partnerships and affiliations that would make sense.
There are a lot of travel websites out there that you can partner with. Some work for us really well, others don’t. Mostly because of our location. I think the best partnership we have is with Airbnb Experiences.This huge platform of world travellers has opened up new doorways in 2018 that were otherwise shut in 2017. Remember how excited I was when I got a reservation from England? That was a highlight.
With Airbnb, we started to get visitors from every single continent (excluding Antarctica of course). The obvious places were dotted on the map from countries like Canada, Ireland, Germany, but when I got a reservation from Egypt, or South Africa, or Kuwait, I was blown away and extremely humbled.
As you look for affiliates, even though some probably won’t perform well for you, sign up anyway, because you never know. Plus, it expands your reach and helps in website rankings. Also, provide solid content. Nobody likes minimal effort from a business. It just screams lazy.
While things got busier and busier in the first year, some adjustments were needed to reflect what we were and who were. In addition, from the start I liked to pretend I was bigger than I was, and that is still true to this day. I figure if I act bigger and busier, then people are more interested in checking us out. Does it work? I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s hurt us. Of the changes we made, we did some rebranding, cleaned up the website again, and made our airplane look consistent with our brand. This was a game changer. Not only were people immediately able to recognize what airplane they would fly in, but from the ground it was identifiable, which was important too.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
It’s well known that aviation is an expensive industry. The unexpected will happen and it can either make or break you as a business. Knowing that and already being a penny pincher, I made very calculated decisions before spending any money on what I considered non-essentials like little marketing materials such as banners for event (we didn’t go to any), personal business cards (I already had company business cards), or stupid branded ballpoint pens. I didn’t buy that stuff so that there would be a little extra funds available for the essentials i.e. maintenance, fuel, etc.
If you fail, embrace it. If you succeed, be humble about it.
Now, if you’re into all that promotional stuff, then by all means, go for it. For me, they just didn’t serve much purpose at the time. They do now, but when I was first starting out, I didn’t know how things would go and I didn’t want to blow money on stuff I didn’t absolutely need.
By the end of the first year (2017), we had money left over. I don’t know how, exactly, but we did. In 2017, there was a profit margin of 8.59%. Not great, but I didn’t lose money. But, something of more value was that I had a better idea of what my costs were and would be for 2018. Knowing that, I increased my prices which not made for greater profits, but also allowed me more freedom to have sales that would actually be profitable while still being very attractive.
In 2018, margins nearly quadrupled to 32.16%. Our flight count went from 250 to 570, and the number of passengers we flew went from 589 in 2017 to 1319 in 2018. Needless to say, it’s growing, it’s not losing money, and people still love it.
The future is exciting with new tour options, new partnerships, and potentially new aircraft, including helicopters. I’m excited about how this brand has grown and I know it wouldn’t have been possible without the help of a lot of people. We have also moved into our own dedicated terminal and will be hiring a full time pilot beginning this spring!
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
For the most part, I try to accept as many offers to collaborate or partner that I reasonably can. I’ve discovered that partnering with other small/startup businesses and brands is beyond vital. Not only is it great to work with like minded people who share a common goal to succeed, but it expands your businesses reach and exposure.
Sometimes stuff happens completely out of your control. In our case, September 2017 proved to be one of those situations when a wildfire started in the Columbia River Gorge and the FAA shut down the airspace. What does that mean? We were grounded for about 3 weeks. 80% of our flights are in the Gorge, so that was a big hit. Had that not happened, September would have been our best month of 2017. Nevertheless, it worked out for all in the end and we survived.
But, it was a good lesson to be prepared for the unexpected be it a wildfire, terrible weather, a broken airplane, or whatever...and there’s a lot of whatever’s in business.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We love using FareHarbor, which is our reservation system. This company has built a platform specifically for tour operators and it allows us to scale accordingly with great support. In addition, we use PicThrive to sell photos and videos using our 360º camera.
With so many tools out there, I’m learning about new ones all of the time. Some I have no use for, but others just make it so much easier to grow our brand and expand our business.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I know people love to use Stephen Covey or Richard Branson as influences in their business or success, and I find great value in their lessons and writings. But as weird as this may seem, I find great inspiration from comedians.
I wouldn’t know this first hand, because I’m not funny, but the career of a comedian is full of rejection and struggle. From the beginning, they’re heckled on stage. They have what they think is a great set, but when they get on stage and bomb, they’re forced to rethink that. Comedians have a long road to success and the ones that are persistent and just keep at it, find that success.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
A year ago, comedian Larry David provided a list of “10 Rules of Success”. I recommend the read. I think you’ll find that most, if not all, of these items will apply to you.
All in all, keep your head up and don’t listen to the cynics. They’re usually just jealous or grumpy.
If you think you’ll start a business and be a smashing financial success right off the bat because you think you’re idea is amazing, more likely than not you won’t be. If you are, then awesome. Send me an email and tell me how you did it. But for people like me who didn’t have any outside investment at all, and every effort has been bootstrapped from the beginning, it’s been a very slow, often frustrating climb.
I can’t say what success is for you. I know for me, success came at the end of the first year. I had so many people say to me that this wouldn’t work. Because I ignored that and made my best effort to make it work, I’ve proven every single one of those people wrong. For me, that’s success. I’m not financially richer, but I set out to do something and I did. Maybe it’s a little snooty or prideful, but who is anyone to say you can’t do something? If you want to do it, then do it.
I knew what I wanted to accomplish, so I heard a lot of “no” answers, but that was just an unfinished sentence of “no, not me.” So I went to the next person. I learned what being resourceful meant, even if that meant being a little (or a lot) annoying to some.
If you fail, embrace it. If you succeed, be humble about it.
All in all, keep your head up and don’t listen to the cynics. They’re usually just jealous or grumpy.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
While I’m not officially hiring for any positions outside of qualified pilot positions, I am always looking for help with marketing and sales. I know a little bit about digital advertising i.e. Google Ads, Facebook Ads, but I have so many other things that I’m focusing on that the advertising efforts on those platforms often gets neglected. Ideally, a college student looking for marketing experience would be perfect for that slot.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Website: www.enviadventures.com
- Facebook: @enviadventures
- Instagram: @enviadventures
- Twitter: @enviadventures
- Email: [email protected]
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Envi Adventures has provided an update on their business!
Over 3 years ago, we followed up with Envi Adventures to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
About 2 months ago, we followed up with Envi Adventures to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
About 2 years ago, we followed up with Envi Adventures to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
About 1 year ago, we followed up with Envi Adventures to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
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