Lee Applbaum of Wheels Up Wants to Democratize Private Air Travel

Lee Applbaum has spent his career marketing tequila at Patrón, navigating the retail space at Target and more recently, embracing the chaos of the uncharted cannabis industry. After years of experience under his belt, he has set off to disrupt and redefine a new territory: aviation.

Last week, Applbaum began his role as CMO of Wheels Up, a private jet charter company with access to over 1,500 aircraft. 

“I’ve been blessed to work with brands that are both iconic and disruptive, and those are two words that I would absolutely use to describe Wheels Up,” he said.  “It has very quickly established itself as a real disrupter and an innovator in the space, and a brand that has a real swagger.” 

As CMO, he said he will democratize the industry through a much-needed digitization in the travel space. 

“What we do is technologically complicated, but the customer experience is deeply analog,” he said. “We’re in a digital world, and the transformation from an analog to a digital business is a key enabler for democratization. At Wheels Up, we’re about disruption in a market that has become somewhat predictable.” 

Before joining the company’s C-suite, Applbaum was both a customer and board member at Wheels Up. CEO Kenny Dichter, who founded the company in 2013, is confident that Applbaum will advance his company during an already pivotal time, which has been defined by a partnership with Delta and initiatives to diversify the historically exclusive industry. 

“I have known and respected Lee for many years. Anyone who has worked with him knows he is a marketing guru, a branding expert and a true master of his craft,” said Dichter.

Applbaum won an Adweek Brand Genius award in 2015 for his digital-first approach to marketing at Patrón. This latest digital-first plan includes developing the Wheels Up app and leveraging member-generated content on social media. Dichter wants to shape the aviation industry the way that Uber has shaped transportation. 

“We want to open up the industry and create a space the way that Uber and Amazon took an idea and wove it into the fabric of our society,” he said. “It should be as easy to get a private airplane as it is to order a Domino’s Pizza or an Airbnb.”

Applbaum’s new role is vastly different from his work as CMO at Parallel, where writing the rules of the cannabis industry was prioritized over developing a distinct brand. According to Applbaum, establishing brand loyalty allows Wheels Up to give trusted recommendations, from lodging to dining suggestions, that add to a customer’s overall traveling experience. 

“Brands very much matter in this space because the nature of our business requires trust,” he said. “This creates loyalty that goes beyond any product or transactional relationship.” 

Dichter predicts that young people will be spending a larger percentage of their disposable income on travel, which opens up a unique opportunity for companies like Wheels Up—which also wants to make travel more affordable. 

“We’re moving away from the economy of things, and into the economy of experiences,” he said. 

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