With an uncle who was a squadron leader in the Red Arrows and a dad who took her to air shows from the age of two, Gabriella Somerville, the founder and managing director of private aviation company ConnectJets, surely has jet fuel in her blood.
Over three decades, she has seen her career soar – from cabin crew to promotions and events manager – before she changed paths into private jet charters and sales. In 2015, she won an honorary global exemplary award for entrepreneurship from the EU Women Inventors & Innovators Network for her achievements in an industry crying out for more gender parity: worldwide, fewer than 5% of pilots are female.
Somerville speaks to THE STAND about her high-flying career, through take-off with Virgin Atlantic to the turbulence of the recession and landing on terra firma with ConnectJets.
My architect dad thought he was going to have a ‘Gabriel’. In preparation, he’d made me a little wooden aircraft, and from the age of two I was playing with planes and going to air shows. He never saw any stigma in taking me, and that fed through to when I started to make career choices.
My first job as cabin crew with British Island Airways felt like home. It took some 10 interviews before I eventually won a place there. Six months later, I applied for a job with Virgin Atlantic. The gentleman at the Virgin Atlantic interview said, ‘You’re not the lady who lives with the other stewardesses who had that wild party a few weeks ago at Payne Close?’ Disappointed, I came out and called my flatmates to inform them I was sure that I didn’t have the job, only to be informed 10 minutes later that I did, with his passing comment, ‘Remember to invite us next time!’
Having been a protégé of Sir Richard Branson at the age of 21, I learned first-hand the Herculean effort and tenacity required for such a start-up. Aviation is tough, as is the competition, and you have to remain versatile, innovative and at the top of your game through all seasons. It is imperative to listen to your clients, gauge where the market is and where it’s going, and inherently keep innovating until you get the right formula.
People thought I was quite mad when I founded ConnectJets in 2009, with my own capital, during one of the worst times in aviation history. But it presented opportunities. We were there to solve problems that had come about because of the economic downturn. With marketing budgets retracting and customers selling off their aircraft, I’d go in and offer solutions. Two years later, we’d turned over £4m with zero debt.
True leadership means you listen, empower and encourage. As an entrepreneur, it’s important that while we keep our eyes fixed ahead, we must not forget about our team, who might be lagging a few steps behind us. Richard Branson was good at keeping one eye ahead and one eye behind and engaging with his shop floor workers.
Leadership is challenging, especially for a leader of a small business, where there isn’t a corporate support network. As leaders, we will often fail at getting it right all the time. Be honest to yourself and the team. And admit mistakes – it makes us human, and we gain respect.
It’s important to be calm in a crisis. Draw yourself back, look at it collectively and take a couple of deep breaths. Create a roadmap or a strategy and involve the whole team in what you’re doing. You need their support and their belief that what you’re doing is right.
2019 promises to be interesting for business aviation. Over the last few years the fleet shuttle market has been a hive of activity, with the likes of Surf Air and Wheels Up providing a scheduled service along with the benefits of flying privately. This stimulus has created an opportunity for manufacturers to develop a new type of aircraft configuration that could change the future of the light jet sector. This new shuttle configuration will allow corporations with bases scattered around Europe to avoid the onerous commercial channels that can be very inefficient in parts of the UK.
We must continue to fight to save our local airfields and airports – there are currently 20 up for closure. These airfields are fundamental to us as a nation, and never more so than post-Brexit. In order to encourage corporations and manufacturers to invest in the UK, we must be able to provide a robust transport network that will serve all sectors efficiently. Large corporations and manufacturers need to transport their executives with expediency and simplicity, and that’s what private aviation does best.
Brexit is an unknown for most of us. I am quietly optimistic that new opportunities will arise, but only if we as an industry position ourselves and plan ahead for the best- and worst-case scenarios.
At the end of last year I was told I had total exhaustion in my body. It was rather opportune that I was kindly invited to SHA Wellness in Alicante last August. The wellness centre is extremely well equipped, with the most up-to-date specialist equipment to assess both mind and body. The body is an incredible piece of machinery that we need to manage and treat well, especially as an entrepreneur. SHA allowed me to understand how the mind and body work in unison, and how by understanding the mechanics we can improve our personal and professional performance. It’s why the spa and wellness industry is growing exponentially – especially among HNW and UHNW. ConnectJets is looking to work in partnership with SHA Wellness to investigate how we can help the body acclimatise at altitude and improve the feeling of well-being both during and after travellers’ flights.
Watch: Gabriella Somerville on women in aviation
Last year we developed our Altitude+ Programme to give our customers the ultimate personalised aviation experience. It includes the wellness elements that are so important in today’s world. We have nutritionists advising on what is good to eat at altitude, for example. We also have access to a sommelier who can suggest the best wines and champagnes at altitude, along with spa treatments that will allow our clients to disembark looking and feeling refreshed and energised.
There’s a growing demand for experiential and transformative travel – the path less trodden. Last year ConnectJets saw an increase in trips from Europe and Asia to the Antarctic and destinations like Tuvalu that are off the beaten track. Each trip is individually crafted by exploratory travel agents, and the transformational element is extremely important. Customers who may be experiencing extremely challenging times have found heading to the Antarctic therapeutic, as the expanse of openness allows their mind to become uncluttered and free. Our customers can live in a very stress-filled environment, with a majority of their thinking channelled into their business. Moving into a different arena can change their mindset and thinking – it’s powerful.
As entrepreneurs, most of us will experience the vortex of failure and the flight of success. Both can be fleeting; therefore, you have to learn to accept that both will come and go. It’s how you handle defeat and triumph on which you’ll ultimately be judged. There was a great sign at Frieze art fair this year in London. It read: ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on!’ It sums up one of my favourite quotes from Churchill: ‘Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.’
Gabriella Somerville was interviewed by Lysanne Currie, who writes about business and luxury travel for magazines including Robb Report, Luxury Plus, Glass Magazine and Meet The Leader.