By S. Clayton Moore
Visitors to South Florida this winter may want to consider a new fixed base operation with a dash of Hollywood glamour. The new shining star at Boca Raton Airport (BCT), conveniently located between Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, is Avitat Boca Raton. The 2-year-old facility offers fuel, hangar space, light maintenance and first-rate customer service to pilots and passengers.
Oddly enough, the owner of the exquisitely designed facility isn’t an aviation conglomerate or old-school FBO operator. It’s Muvico, a Ft. Lauderdale-based movie theater chain, which operates boutique-style movie theaters across the East Coast.
“They’re beautiful,” said Rhonda Hughes, general manager of Avitat Boca Raton, praising the
theaters. “They’re right next door to us here in Boca Raton, and their décor is unbelievable. I’ve never seen theaters like them.”
About four years ago, Muvico started negotiating to purchase the land adjacent to its theater in Boca Raton—not with the intention of diversifying into airport businesses, but simply to alleviate the enormous pressure for Friday and Saturday night parking. The company soon found out that while it was allowed to purchase the land and share some of its parking spots, it did have to build an aviation-related business due to local land use regulations. Muvico hired Bob Walesch as general manager to build a world-class FBO on the property.
The sole existing FBO on the field, Boca Aviation, had long provided FBO services at Boca Raton Airport, and sued the airport authority over breach of contract. In 2003, the Federal Aviation Administration issued its final decision, directing the airport authority to develop its parcel in a manner that would offer competition on the airport. Avitat Boca Raton was cleared for takeoff.
As the FBO’s terminal building and hangars neared completion, Walesch began assembling a team of 25 professionals, starting with Hughes’ appointment as customer relations manager.
“It was a great opportunity to get into a business that was just being built,” Hughes said. “It was a very exciting career change, to help launch a brand new business.”
Hughes, who was elevated to the general manager position in 2005, is imminently qualified to tackle both the customer service angles and technical details involved in running the FBO. As a regional manager at Multi Service Corporation, a corporate aviation credit card company, she traveled extensively throughout the U.S. to meet with flight departments and FBOs. With several areas of focus, including business development and the integration of automated solutions for corporate customers, Hughes also managed clients at some of the world’s biggest sporting events, including the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby and the Masters Golf Tournament.
“I got to meet a lot of people and really built great relationships with many people in aviation,” Hughes said. “It’s a very exciting industry. I love aviation, and I love what I do here. I’d rather be downstairs working on the ramp and greeting customers, than just about anything else.”
Although Avitat Boca Raton was originally scheduled to open in August 2003, unforeseen delays
pushed the opening date back to November. That forced Hughes to scramble to connect with potential customers.
“The early days were about letting people know we were open,” Hughes recalled. “Our busy season runs from Thanksgiving through April. That’s when all the people from the Northeast come down to South Florida for the winter. Because we got bumped back to November, it was critical to get on the phone and get out advertising, so people knew Boca Raton had another option.”
Fortunately, Hughes has a magnificent FBO facility to promote. The facility’s cornerstone is a 17,000-square-foot terminal with three floors. It’s adorned with an impressive chandelier and copies of the famous Greek statue, the Winged Victory of Samothrace (the original can be seen at the Louvre in Paris). The building also features elegant private meeting facilities, wireless broadband access and other amenities.
“We have an unbelievable FBO building,” Hughes said. “It’s very unique. Muvico believes in the ‘wow factor,’ and that says it all. Pilots and passengers walk into our facility and tell us it’s the nicest FBO they’ve ever seen.”
In addition to the FBO building, the facility also has nearly 69,000 square feet of air-conditioned hangar space. Although they’re currently booked solid, the hangars include one 28,000-square-foot common storage hangar, two 29,000-square-foot tenant storage hangars that integrate more than 3,000 square feet of office space, and 18,000 square feet of additional hangar space for light maintenance operations, managed by Bill Moran, operations manager.
“We’d love to build more hangars but don’t have much space to do it,” Hughes said. “It’s an opportunity we may look at in the future.”
Avitat Boca Raton also manages a fuel farm that dispenses aviation gas as well as ExxonMobil aviation gas and jet fuel. The facility dispensed more than one million gallons of fuel in its first year of operations and anticipates selling more than two million gallons this year. It’s a reflection of the facility’s robust growth.
“For being open just a year, hitting over a million gallons was a huge home run for us,” Hughes said. “We knew we’d do better as time went on, because each season that passes, more people find out about us. Aviation is quite a small community, and people pass the word along. We’ve grown the business quite rapidly, but doubling our fuel sales as a brand new FBO is still quite a feat.”
Yet, for all its luxurious amenities, one of the FBO’s biggest perks isn’t even on the field; it’s right next door. Across Avitat Boca Raton’s 500-spot parking lot is the Muvico Palace 20 & The Premier Theaters, which provides moviegoers and the occasional errant pilot with a night out they’ll never forget.
“We give free movie passes and sometimes dinner-plus-movie certificates to our top customers,” Hughes said. “The theater has six grand balcony theaters upstairs, as well as regular movie seating downstairs, a full restaurant and even child care. It really is a true theatrical experience.”
While the free passes appeal to many of the FBO’s customers who are residents of Boca Raton, it’s an even better surprise for pilots who often have to kill long hours, waiting for customers to arrive.
“If a pilot is waiting here, he can just pop next door for a movie,” Hughes said. “He doesn’t have to learn the Boca Raton area or take out a crew car. He can go have lunch or catch an afternoon matinee. It’s easy, and it’s fun. If they have to hang out here, they have a beautiful, comfortable space for it. We want everyone, pilots and passengers alike, to feel as if they’re guests in our home.”
The facility attracts celebrities from time to time. Among the luminaries who have flown through Avitat Boca Raton are former President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush, comic stars Danny Devito and Jon Lovitz, and tennis pros participating in the nearby Chris Evert Pro-Celebrity Tennis Classic. Recently, a film crew from the Walt Disney Studio showed up at Avitat Boca Raton, to shoot a short sequence for its upcoming remake of “The Prince and the Pauper.”
“One of the scenes will show an actor getting out of a limousine and onto a Legacy aircraft,” Hughes said. “Our facility was chosen to be in the movie.”
The FBO’s customers are diverse, falling equally between owner-operators with homes in the Boca Raton area and corporate customers doing business in South Florida.
“Our base customers fly down frequently—sometimes every weekend through the season,” Hughes explained. “We also have a lot of corporate aircraft that fly in, whose pilots were previously using Fort Lauderdale or Palm Beach airports. A company using business aircraft can fly in, have their meeting right here in our conference room, complete with catering, and then depart directly after their meeting.”
The FBO has already hosted the NBAA regional forum and Airport Journal’s Business Aircraft & Jet Preview. Through these events and regular operations, the FBO’s reputation has increased by leaps and bounds. In 2006, Avitat Boca Raton was listed as number 10 in Aviation International News’ survey of FBOs and number 11 in Professional Pilot’s PRASE Survey.
“I love being recognized in those publications, because we don’t go out and lobby for votes,” Hughes said. “A lot of FBOs make phone calls, place more advertising and so forth. That praise means a lot more if you don’t ask for it, and you get it anyway. These people are what make or break your business. When people think enough of you that they trust you’re going to take care of them and their partners, friends or family, they will speak well of you to others.”
Things aren’t always as smooth as the staff would like. In October 2005, Hurricane Wilma slammed the airport, causing more than $12 million worth of damage to the airport. But the airport community quickly came together to put its home back together again.
“We lost all of our hangar roofs in 2005,” Hughes remembered. “We had aircraft in the hangars, but luckily, we didn’t suffer any aircraft damage—just a lot of structural injury to the buildings. Everybody was out the next day picking up debris on the runways, so it would be safe for people to land. We worked 16-hour days, but we had our roofs back up and our tenants inside within one week.”
With hurricane season behind them, Avitat Boca Raton’s busy staff of 30 is looking ahead to 2007. It’s going to be a busy spring for the burgeoning FBO, as it fields aircraft coming in for the Super Bowl in Miami on February 4, the Allianz Championship PGA Golf Tournament from February 5-11 and the President’s Day weekend, a huge draw for South Florida tourism.
With its location, Avitat Boca Raton is becoming a real hot spot for visitors traveling to destinations all across the region.
“Boca Raton Airport is centrally located between Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, but it’s not a commercial airport,” Hughes said. “You don’t have to deal with the delays of the commercial airlines or customs. If people are coming anywhere near here, it makes much more sense to come to Boca Raton.”
All of these events give Hughes the opportunity to reconnect with friends she’s made over her long aviation career.
“I love the people in this industry,” she said. “When we have conventions, they feel like family reunions, because you build so many relationships in this business that last forever. I can’t imagine being in any other business.”
For more information, visit [http://www.avitatboca.com] or call 561-955-9556.