It’s the most exclusive way to fly — and money can’t buy it.
Willa Air’s only plane, a Challenger 850, can seat barely a dozen people. The upstart airline offers deluxe amenities including a private departure lounge in LA with champagne breakfasts and IV drips to boost vitamin intake or relieve hangovers.
But the airline didn’t sell seats on its inaugural flight, from LA to Palm Springs, in April — timed to the Coachella music festival. Instead, anyone who wanted to feel like a million bucks at 30,000 feet could apply for a seat. Money didn’t matter. Influence did.
The handful of social-media influencers who turned clout into a coveted seat included film director Bryce Hirschberg (Insta followers: 554,000 and counting), “The Challenge” co-star Morgan Willet (305K followers) and singer Trevi Moran (1.4m followers).
Aron Levin, Willa Air’s chief marketing officer, claimed that 2,000 “creators” applied for a place.
“We were overwhelmed by the number of people who wanted to be part of this,” he told The Post, adding that even though the flight to and from Coachella was brief, the vibe was instant. “None of them knew each other but coming back the dynamic was like they were 12 best friends.”
Private air travel is just one of the many over-the-top perks social-media influencers can indulge in, as a whole new industry has cropped up to support the so-called Creator Economy. One study from LinkTree identified that 200 million people worldwide are trying to bankroll their lives on the back of their social media posts — that’s more than the entire population of Mexico. Some 61% of them managed to earn money last year that way, per an MBO Partners study.
Willa Air’s future schedule is in flux, but Levin has plans to shuttle Insta-celebs to the front row of New York Fashion Week. The airline is really an offshoot established to help bolster the core function of Levin’s creator-aimed business, Willa. That firm essentially acts as a high-end version of a payday cash-advance joint: immediately paying freelancers money they’re due from sponsors, in exchange for a 2.9% cut of the gross.
After a creator cashes out with Willa, the firm chases any invoices on their behalf, pocketing that percentage as its handling fee.
“Money is fun, finance is boring — that’s our approach to marketing,” Levin said.
Levin said that his startup airline stunt was driven by the need to grab headlines in a crowded world.
“Coachella is the Influencer Olympics, and 6,000 creators go there for work, so we wanted to be front and center, but there’s a lot of brands competing for attention,” he said.
Though creating and operating the airline cost him around $50,000, Levin expects future flights might even end up making money —destinations have already contacted him about hosting visits, and several liquor brands have offered to sponsor the next trip.
Then again, Levin could just partner with Curacity for freebie accommodation. This
tech firm helps influencers score gratis rooms at fancy hotels in exchange for raving posts on their platforms.
“Luxury hotels have $25 billion of unsold rooms a year, and we help them turn that unused, wasteful thing into marketing,” Mike Keriakos, co-founder and CEO, told The Post.
Curacity’s hotel partners upload offerings of empty rooms onto its platform, where
vetted influencers — only 1 in 10 of those who apply is accepted, according to Keriakos — can book rooms. Curacity charges the creators 20 cents on the dollar as a processing fee, so a room on sale to the public for $500 will cost $100 per night. Half that money lands in Curacity’s coffers, while the other half is reinvested in boosting and amplifying posts on clients’ behalf.
“The old way to get a room was to carpet-bomb 25 hotels and say, ‘I’m coming to Miami and I’m fabulous, can you give me a free room?’” he explained. “But we exist to allow the process to scale in an honest way.”
It’s ruthless, too. If a creator’s stay fails to drive ROI three times, they’re banished from Curacity’s roster.
Mackenzie Dudzik, a 27-year-old travel and lifestyle influencer (Instagram followers: 120,000) from LA, is a power user who’s booked everything from a five-star hotel on Kauai to a staycation at the trendy Hollywood Roosevelt via Curacity.
“You used to do an email pitch with your media kit, and sample content. That was a lot harder and more time-consuming, and you’d only get two or three replies for every 10 emails,” she told The Post. Hotels don’t try to control the content of posts, either. “You get a few brand notes, but it’s incredibly flexible and there’s no pre-approval process.”
As Instagram demands, Dudzik’s cheeky persona is decidedly G-rated. But if your content’s a little more adult, Katherine Studley’s here to help. The number cruncher calls herself the Only Consultant — she’s an accountant focused on keeping the XXX world IRS compliant. Bored by her gigs at conventional CPA firms, the Buffalo, NY, native took notice when a pal — who had turned to OnlyFans early in the pandemic to boost her income — asked for advice on becoming a first-time 1099er.
Now Studley has worked with more than 200 creators, charging a consulting fee of $150 per hour.
“For a time, on my LinkedIn, I wasn’t sure how it would go over, so I didn’t
Studley helps with everything from book-keeping to LLC formation and tax prep.
“Think of a 19-year-old girl, used to working at the mall, who’s made $560,000 on OnlyFans, and doesn’t know what to do with it,” she said. “Or a girl who called me last week. She’s 21, and she made $140,000 in May alone. It was totally bonkers.”
A homemade porn star can deduct health insurance premiums and even an assistant’s salary from their taxes, Studley noted. Her client Cassidy Cauley writes off lingerie worn in content, as well as photo editing software, the cost of hiring photographers and a percentage of her rent for a home office. Niche creators have other options, too.
“Plus-sized models who eat on camera?” Studley said. “That food consumed is treated as supplies, not a meal expense.”
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