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Greg Stallkamp's company caters to customers traveling between Chicago and northern Michigan. The business is on track to turn a profit by the end of its first year.

Start me up: Greg Stallkamp ’11

Start me up: Greg Stallkamp ’10

With entrepreneurial know-how from Kellogg, Stallkamp launches his own air charter business, Lakeshore Express

By Deborah L. Cohen

7/27/2012 - Editor’s note: In this monthly series, the Kellogg School shines a spotlight on young Kellogg graduates who are bringing bold new entrepreneurial visions to life.

At a time when large airlines are struggling to survive, Greg Stallkamp ’10 has managed to get a new air charter operation off the ground.

Lakeshore Express Aviation, which offered its first round-trip flight to northern Michigan less than a year ago, is focused squarely on affluent travelers headed to the under-served region. Charging $185 and up for a one-way ticket, it brings people closer to well-heeled destinations such as Mackinac Island and Traverse City.

“It’s very much a demand-driven idea,” says Stallkamp, 34, who was raised in the Detroit suburbs and summered in the area. “I found a great deal of people who wanted to vacation in northern Michigan, wanted to go back as often as possible, but found the drive really onerous.”

He is attempting to differentiate Lakeshore with high-quality service, offering eight flights per week between Pellston Regional Airport and Midway. The airline leases a twin-engine SAAB 340B jet that seats 30 passengers, departing from a private terminal with its own crew. Think Canada’s Porter with a domestic twist.

“We offer amenities including free cocktails and snacks to no baggage fees to first-class leg room and free parking at the terminal,” says Stallkamp, noting that larger rivals sometimes charge more than $1,000 for flights to Traverse City from Chicago. “At the end of the day, what really resonates with the customer is the service itself.”

A niche in the charter space
To get the word out, Lakeshore is partnering with regional resorts and hotels, offering travelers to some of these destinations a discounted ticket.

“The question has always been, ‘How do they get there,’” says Annie Farrell, director of sales for Mackinac Island’s historic Grand Hotel. “We’re delighted that Lakeshore is serving the area.”

The carrier has not only been popular with tourists, but also residents of the northern Michigan region who use it to connect through Chicago to other destinations. Meanwhile, Stallkamp has carved out an additional niche in the charter space, serving specialty groups ranging from Fortune 500 companies to NCAA sports teams.

“We make a lot of money on that,” he says, adding that the airline — which was seeded with about $1 million from angel investors — is expected to be profitable by the end of its first full year.

Learning entrepreneurship at Kellogg
While at Kellogg, Stallkamp cut his entrepreneurial teeth on another startup, Holofitness.com. The online platform was designed to help fitness buffs track their workouts, but was “too nebulous” to gain traction in the marketplace, Stallkamp says.

“It was a great experience in understanding all the problems with any company that’s a startup,” recalls Stallkamp, who as a part-time student was a member of the Kellogg Entrepreneurs Organization.

Getting planes in the air has required patience and persistence, says Stallkamp, who came to the project with no airline experience but worked his Kellogg network to find contacts that could help bring him up to speed on regulatory issues and related industry information.

Now his airline is seeking its next round of capital to help support the leasing of a second plane, and plans to expand its routes. Stallkamp is confident he can make financial headway, despite a turbulent economy.

“Scheduled service is proving to be much more robust than we thought,” he says.

Read more in the Start Me Up series: