George Brazil Home Services captures an airspace of its own.

George Brazil estimates that, during a one-hour flight over Phoenix expressways, during rush-hour traffic, his thermal airship is exposed to more than 100,000 people. Photo credit: Bob Miodonski

WhenGeorge Brazilcame up with the idea of using a thermal airship to promote his plumbing, electrical and HVAC businesses in the sky above Phoenix, one question occurred to Operations ManagerDaryl Bingham.

“Why isn’t anyone else doing this?” he recalls. “We do a lot of marketing in this nation. Billions of dollars are spent on advertising. So, that was a big question.

“In the end, the answer was, ‘Let’s find out.’ We’ve been on an adventure ever since.”

The adventure began about six years ago when Brazil first thought of buying a hot-air balloon to advertiseGeorge Brazil Home Services. Collectively, the company was spending nearly $3 million annually on TV, radio, direct marketing, Yellow Pages, website, print media and other advertising, and he wanted to do something different to make a bigger impact.

His concept evolved over time to a thermal airship, whose engine and propeller make it easier to steer than a balloon. The airship marketing campaign finally launched last fall.

With the expense, red tape and certifications involved, Brazil has another answer to why no one else in the plumbing industry is using an airship as a marketing vehicle.

“Owning an airship is not for the faint of heart,” he says. “But a faint heart never won a war; that’s how I look at it. We’ve spent a half-million dollars on our airship.”

Pilot Bob Romaneschi (right) and his son Erin prepare the airship for inflation. Thermal airships use propane to create the hot air needed to inflate the balloon and make it airborne. Photo credit: Bob Miodonski

George Brazil Home Services

Although that amount is $150,000 more than he and Bingham expected the airship to cost during its first year of flight, the company can afford it, Brazil says. George Brazil Home Services is on track to do $40 million in combined revenue for its plumbing, electrical and HVAC businesses in 2012 in the Phoenix area.

The operations employ 65 service techs and run 150 service and installation trucks. Three years ago, Brazil sold the HVAC side of the business to a separate company that still operates it under the George Brazil Home Services brand.

Brazil started his plumbing company in 1955 in Santa Ana, Calif.Mike Diamondowns and operates all the George Brazil locations in Southern California today.

The Phoenix branch opened in 1990. Brazil moved to Arizona from California a dozen years ago.

“This is his ‘retirement’ project,” says Bingham, who has worked for Brazil for 15 years. He came to the company with an IT degree and worked on a number of technology and special projects. Along with his other duties, Bingham oversees the company’s marketing budget.

George Brazil Home Services has experienced double-digit growth patterns for the last three years, Bingham says. Business has been growing steadily since the airship marketing campaign started last fall.

An aerial view of Phoenix from the gondola of the George Brazil Home Services airship. As of mid-March, the airship had logged 110 hours since its launch last fall. Photo credit: Bob Miodonski

Airship idea takes off

Describing himself as the quintessential entrepreneur, Brazil says he enjoys problem solving. So, he started thinking about what it would take to get more people’s attention.

 “I went through all the things we do in advertising and realized what nobody in this industry has done is to use an airship or blimp because the cost is too pricy,” Brazil says.

He rejected the idea of a hot-air balloon because winds determine its flight patterns. He took rides in balloons, whose landings he described as “a controlled crash, missing a cactus over here or a tree over there.”

Brazil asked Phoenix-based balloon pilotBob Romaneschiif he could suggest a vehicle with an engine on it and that led to the thermal airship. Not before, however, Brazil traveled to the balloon races in Albuquerque, N.M.; to Leon, Mexico, where thermal airships are used for marketing purposes; and eventually to Germany where the airships are manufactured by Gefa-Flug.

Unlike blimps that are filled with helium, thermal airships use propane to create hot air that takes them airborne. In his travels, Brazil discovered thermal airships are used much more frequently in Mexico and in Europe for marketing than they are in the United States.

So much so that Brazil and Bingham are aware of only one other thermal airship that flies over the United States, and it’s owned by Greenpeace. Due to the small number of airships, Brazil had to get his certified by the British Civil Aviation Authority because the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has yet to formulate regulations for them.

The certification requires that an inspector travel from Great Britain - at Brazil’s expense - to perform maintenance and safety inspections. George Brazil Home Services could not buy the airship outright but had to form a separate company that leases the airship back to the contracting business.

Brazil and Bingham also had to hire a pilot and a three-man ground crew. The airship can fly as long as two hours, depending on winds, temperature and its load. The airship’s gondola can seat up to three passengers along with the pilot.

In ideal ground conditions, it takes the crew an hour to inflate the airship and 45 minutes to deflate and pack the 460-lb. envelope into a large canvas sack. A pre-flight check list includes igniting the burner and checking the propeller and engine.

“Finding the right crew was important,” Bingham says. “We don’t want to manage the airship ourselves. We’re already busy managing a plumbing and electrical business.”

The airship takes off from seven launch spots strategically located around Phoenix. These sites are ballparks, small airports or private fields where the contracting business has negotiated agreements with land owners.

The sites are near major expressways over which the airship flies during rush-hour traffic where it is seen by the most eyeballs and when Phoenix daytime temperatures are cooler. Similar to billboards, the contractor’s research estimates that during a one hour flight, the airship is exposed to more than 100,000 people. Even so, the temperatures between late May and mid-September get too hot even in the early morning and late afternoon for the airship to operate.

“The airship’s biggest enemy is the heat,” Bingham says. “We have difficulty flying if the temperature outside is higher than 80°. Cooler temperatures mean we need less propane. In hot weather we need to burn more propane and there’s more stress on the airship’s envelope.”

The airship flies over sporting events such as Arizona Cardinals’ football games, NASCAR races and even the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament this past March in Tempe, Ariz.

“We budget how many flights the airship makes per time period,” Bingham says. “Those costs may vary per week depending on what other marketing dollars are being spent on TV or elsewhere.”

The 27-ft.-tall man

Since the whole point of the campaign is to convey the George Brazil Home Services marketing message, the airship flies no higher than 1,000 ft. and no faster than 20 mph. The airship is 141 ft. long and 45 ft. in diameter.

To be seen easily from the ground, the familiar “George Brazil man,” who adorns the sides of the company’s trucks, is 27 ft. tall. The letters and numbers are 8 ft. high.

The company considered using a different 800-number on the airship so it could track its marketing effectiveness more easily. It stuck with 1-800-CALL GEORGE, figuring that a new number could hurt its branding efforts, Bingham says. When customers call the 800-number, they’re asked how they got it and the responses naming the airship are tallied.

Brazil paid an additional $7,000 to equip the airship with two small lights for night flights. He is considering illuminating the interior of the envelope so that his marketing message can be seen at night.

A 1-ton Dodge pickup truck tows a 26-ft. trailer that carries high-definition company graphics and is outfitted with a TV and a bathroom. A minibus tows a “chase” trailer that carries the ground crew and picks up passengers.

The minibus can seat 14 people and accommodate wheelchairs. The contractor has invited local children’s charities and the families of fallen soldiers and police officers free rides in the airship. This program just started with members of Big Brothers Big Sisters participating.

Number crunching

By the time this article is published, Brazil’s airship likely will be grounded for the season. At about the same time, the contractor will commission an independent, third-party study to try to measure the effectiveness of the airship marketing campaign.

“The success of the airship is difficult to track, not unlike billboards or TV,” Bingham says.

Once the research is done, the company will do some serious number crunching to decide how much longer to continue the airship campaign, he adds. Bingham figures it will last at least another season or perhaps longer. As of mid-March, the airship already had logged 110 hours.

“The airship has a shelf life in that two items depreciate real fast, and they’re almost the same amount of hours,” Brazil says. “The envelope has to be replaced at 350 hours and the motor at 400 hours.”

Those two items are hard costs: $150,000 for the envelope and $15,000 for the engine. You can multiply the latter expense by two because Brazil already bought an extra engine (and propeller) as backup.

Other numbers have proven more variable. The inspector has traveled from Great Britain three times at a cost of $5,000 to $7,000 per visit. Another unexpected expense comes from paying the pilot and crew on certain days when the airship stays grounded.

“What we didn’t know was how frequently we could fly. It’s unpredictable,” Bingham says. “The weather looks perfect, but we get to the field where we want to launch from and there’s a big surface wind or gusty conditions. We still have a fee to pay. The price of an aborted flight is about a third of the cost of an executed flight.”

This article started with a question about why no one else in the industry is using an airship, and it ends with another question. Brazil says he’s uncertain about how long the marketing campaign will last: “It’s unique, it’s expensive and would we do it again? I don’t think I know enough to say.”

Bingham, however, sees value in the airship experience.

 “We’ve broken records for several months as far as new growth goes,” he says. “Can we tie that growth from a direct perspective to the airship? No, but from an indirect perspective, it certainly has not hurt our business.

“If you’re looking at branding and trying to dramatically increase your market penetration, this was George’s strategy to say we need another tool to do this. If we really want to get penetration, we have to reach different people.”