In our latest installment of SBC’s monthly small business feature, we meet Claudio Bellotto and Josh Allen of Reno Tahoe Helicopters, a helicopter touring and flight training company located in South Lake Tahoe, California. In a recent interview with business writer Susan Caminiti, Bellotto and Allen talk about getting the company off the ground, expanding into new areas, and why flying is “man’s oldest dream.”
SC: Claudio, you were a pilot in the Italian army and a cruise ship captain before starting your company in 2005. How did you make the transition to helicopters and why?
CB: I always wanted to fly helicopters, but in Italy the number of positions for pilots is extremely limited. After 20 years at sea all around the world, I was financially able to come to Seattle to get my helicopter license. And then I worked for 18 months in Fresno, California as a flight instructor. While I was there I did some research and found out that no one had ever attempted to offer helicopter tours out of South Lake Tahoe. So I moved there and I started the company in 2005.
SC: Josh, when did you come on board?
JA: I joined in July 2012 because I was obsessed with helicopters. When I moved out to Tahoe I met Claudio because I started training at his flight school. I’ve wanted to do this for years. At the same time I was going to college for aviation administration and I had some of the computer and marketing skills Claudio was looking for as he started to think about expanding the business. So it was sort of a natural fit for me to join the business.
SC: How has the company changed and expanded since you started it?
CB: I’m always looking for ways to expand the reach of the business. And because of the help we got from our personal Small Business Banker, Jason Kalisz at Bank of America, and the line of credit he arranged for us, we were able to expand into the north shore of Lake Tahoe and offer tours from there in addition to where we operate in South Lake Tahoe. Jason and Bank of America went the extra mile for us and it helped solidify our position in this whole area. We also have our flight school in Minden, Nevada. So we cover the entire area. We captured pretty much the entire market.
CB: We have five helicopters and six pilots and are in the process of looking for another larger helicopter as well because we want to expand our operations into filming. There is a lot of potential in filming skiing and snowboarding and the companies we would be dealing with prefer a different kind of helicopter that we don’t have right now. It costs anywhere from $1.5 million to around $2 million for this kind of helicopter so we will be working with Bank of America to finance this as well.
SC: Who are your customers?
JA: We have a range of prices and tours that really fit lots of different kind of customers. For instance, in South Lake Tahoe we have 10-minute tours that start at $70. I like to think of this as bringing helicopters to the masses. Then we have more affluent clients who book our hour-long sunset tour and that costs $325 per person. We operate seven days a week, weather permitting.
SC: Do you have competition?
JA: We don’t have any competition in what we do now with the touring. As we expand our services, that’s when we’ll encounter competition. This area near Lake Tahoe is huge for the action sports market. It’s known as the mecca of snow sports. When it comes to aerial filming and aerial cinematography the challenge is to be able to provide exactly the type of helicopter the client is looking for. Once we acquire what’s needed for this kind of heli-skiing and filming we’ll probably cut out a lot of competition that comes from far away.
JA: People come to Tahoe on vacation and they say let’s get married. The heli-wedding is in the helicopter with a minister. It’s for a couple that wants something different and beyond just the kind of street-side chapels that are so common in Nevada, which is right next door. There’s not much room for witnesses or family, so one of our ambitions is to have an off-airport area on top of a mountain to sort of ferry the wedding party up to and have a mountaintop wedding. That’s mired in regulations, so we’re still working on it. We do about 10 heli-weddings a year.
SC: Claudio, you’ve been flying for a long time. What do you love about this business?
CB: Flying in a helicopter is a life changing experience and there is nothing that you can compare it to. It’s not like an airplane flight. The setting is different and the view is comparable to what it would be like if you were flying in a bubble. Even after all these years the thrill is always the same. You fly very low and slow and the view is unbelievable. It’s man’s oldest dream.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.