AeroStar Training Services, LLC, was originally founded by two pilots as a small flight training school. Deidra Toye joined the team in 2009 as Chief Operating Officer. Several years later she became a silent investor and, in 2015, she acquired 100% of the company. Toye explained that decision and shared the story behind her journey from Office Manager to developing a love for aviation and building a multi-million dollar internationally recognized flight training and simulation academy.
“I was born in Tampa and raised in Osceola County,” she said. “My professional background includes hospitality and managing my parents non-emergency transport business. Immediately before I joined AeroStar I was at another flight school. I started there as an Office Manager and worked my way up. I had some great mentors that showed me all the different aspects of aviation – from the fun side to the technical side and the regulation side. I learned a lot and, along the way, became addicted to aviation. It’s such a fun and rewarding industry. We get to help so many pilots achieve their dreams.”
Toye continued, “My decision to invest and become primary owner was driven by several factors. For one, there was, and still is, a huge pilot shortage. From my travels around the world, I confirmed that this is true everywhere. There simply aren’t enough pilots to support demand. I wanted to be part of the solution. Also, the previous owners, who still flew for a major domestic airline were unable to keep up with the growing company. I felt safe and confident about investing my money into this business.”
Creating a Competitive Advantage
AeroStar Training Services started off doing Airbus and Boeing training. Over time, they expanded to cater to a greater slice of the aviation training market. Today, they’re able to take a pilot from not having any flying experience all the way through Airbus and Boeing type rating in one location. This makes AeroStar very unique. In fact, they’re the only school in the Americas capable of doing this. With flight training and simulation all under one roof, AeroStar attracts hopeful pilots from all around the world.
“We train international and domestic pilots,” Toye said. “Once they finish with us, they have a few different career paths to choose from. They can come on as instructors, they can go fly with regional airlines or they can pursue careers with the major airlines. It’s a huge process to go through training, earn the hours and then get recruited by the major airlines. We love being part of that process.”
Toye’s leadership and ability to make critical business decisions have been key to the company’s rapid growth. Challenges are met head on and AeroStar’s marketing strategy is crafted to work in tandem with company goals.
“One of our biggest challenges was a shortage of simulation flight time,” she said. “We started off using third parties airline simulators. As we got busier, it became increasingly more difficult to coordinate with them and to make sure our clients had enough simulation time. After looking at the data it was clear that, in order to keep growing, we needed to purchase our own simulators. We started with the Airbus A320 and then added the Boeing 737 Simulator. Once we had the simulators, the next challenge was trying to be competitive on pricing compared to some of our larger competitors. We overcame that by not reducing our pricing. Instead, we focused on quality and exceptional customer service. We provide a first-class experience and we make our students feel like family. You’re not just a number here. We take the time to get to know our students.”
Toye shared that a significant portion of revenue is invested into marketing. AeroStar’s strategy is a combination of traditional methods, forming relationships with colleges and airlines and meeting with prospective students.
“We market worldwide,” she said. “We utilize organic and paid SEO, AdWords, and our website, but we also do seminars and trade shows around the world. We’ll set up meetings with different schools and airlines and do open house events for local pilots and aviation enthusiasts. We even offer summer camps to get the younger generation interested in aviation. Our biggest return on investment is our customers becoming our advocates. The referrals from previous students have been great.”
AeroStar’s workforce consists of 20 full-time employees and approximately 30 sub-contractors. The sub-contractors are mostly airline captains who still fly for commercial airlines. Toye describes the culture as being very family-oriented and hands-on. Employees stay active and give back to the community in a variety of ways.
“We support Women in Aviation,” Toye said. “We’re members and we also do a number of sponsorships for them. We also work with the Civil Air Patrol and do scholarships for aviation high schools. We let the Girl Scouts and Girls in Aviation use our facilities. We also donate to the Children’s Home in St. Cloud and do back to school drives for the community.”
According to Toye, operating a flight school in Osceola County is advantageous for many reasons. The Central Florida area is quickly becoming one of the largest aviation hubs in the nation. Major international airports make it easy for foreign and domestic students to travel and incentive plans from Osceola County help to support additional growth. Home to several large universities, Central Florida also supplies a steady stream of talent and potential pilots. Toye just signed a contract with Everglades University to provide flight training for their students pursuing careers in aviation.
What It Means To Be a Florida Companies to Watch Honoree
“It means a lot,” Toye said. “We started off so small and never imagined we'd be as successful as we have been with producing so many pilots. We went from doing sales on a coffee table to running a multi-million dollar company. We’re always improving and making advancements to our training procedures. I think that has a lot to do with why we were selected. It’s nice to be rewarded for all the hard work from the last couple years. It’s also validation that we’re doing something right. It’s certainly something we’re excited to share with our employees.”
Toye continued, “It’s also something we couldn’t have done without the support from people like Casey Barnes, Vice President of Business Development at the Orlando Economic Partnership, Belinda Ortiz Kirkegard, with Kissimmee Economic Development and Terry Lloyd, who recently retired as Director of Aviation for Kissimmee Gateway Airport. They’ve always been there to support us.”
Looking ahead, Toye shared plans to build a 150 room lodge for housing student pilots. The lodge will be the centerpiece of a much large growth strategy geared towards creating a true all-in-one flight school. Students will have the ability to pay one price for training, lodging and meals. Additional upgrades include new simulators, a new fleet of airplanes and a restaurant open to the public.
Advice for Aspiring Entrepreneurs
“You have to learn from your failures,” Toye said. “There will be failures, but you have to take risks. Without risks, you're at a standstill. I’ve had many opportunities come out of taking risks and experiencing failures. The important thing is to not give up. If you can’t do it, it’s okay to ask for help. Don’t feel like you have to do it all by yourself. Put together a great team and take advantage of mentors. Use their expertise.”