Reach for the sky

You just never know where you’ll find your next customer.

For Utica-based Velvet Ice Cream Co. Inc., one came from high above the earth.

Well, not literally.

But a Delta Air Lines traveler from Arizona saw Velvet featured in the airline’s Sky magazine and went home to visit Velvet virtually. After looking at the Web site, she decided she just had to try the company’s sugar-free varieties — all four of them, in fact.

”One of the girls came in and says, ‘Mike we’ve got this lady from Arizona, and she wants us to ship some ice cream. What do I do?”’ says Mike Dager, president and CEO of Velvet. ”I said, ‘No. 1, take the order!”’

Velvet’s feature in Sky magazine resulted from the work of Lee Esposito, principal of Lee Esposito Associates, a Columbus-based publicity firm.

It’s not the first time Esposito’s taken Velvet to the skies; in 2000, the company’s Ye Olde Mill, where visitors can see ice cream being made and learn about its history, was featured in the in-flight magazines of Midway and America West.

The magazines suit Velvet’s wishes to garner more national publicity.

”Let’s face it, at 35,000 feet we have a captive audience,” Esposito points out.

”In-flights are read, first of all, and what I liked about in-flights is they are designed to be kept. They are taken off the plane.”

Here are some of the tactics he used to get the company featured:

* Have a plan.

”There was a method to the madness,” Esposito says of choosing Sky, ”and that was a prestigious in-flight magazine, with an airline where Columbus was on the route, where there was a section in the in-flight that did work for the client, and targeting certain months.”

Esposito also knew the magazine generally published toll-free phone numbers and Web sites in some of its features, and Velvet had both.

The article ran as Esposito hoped, in a summer month — June, which also happened to be National Dairy Month. He also would have been happy with July, National Ice Cream Month.

* Don’t give up.

Esposito spent nearly six months staying in contact with the editor of Sky’s section called ”The Best,” where he wanted the article placed.

It’s a good thing, too. Initially, the information he mailed to Associate Editor Nancy Oakley was misplaced.

”He called back about the time I was preparing the June issue and suddenly a light bulb went off. He said, ‘You can actually go to visit the place,”’ remembers Oakley, who works for Greensboro, N.C.-based Pace Communications Inc., which publishes Sky and other in-flight magazines.

The idea fit two criteria of ”The Best” features: Velvet was a travel destination — not far, in fact, from Delta’s hub in Cincinnati — and an ice cream cone would be just the right vertical artwork that Oakley looks for in her ”The Best” section, which suggests items to readers such as art museums to visit or hotel rooms to stay in.

”For this particular instance, I have to credit Lee Esposito,” Oakley says. ”He was just persistent, but not in an annoying way at all, and timing had a lot to do with it.”

The resulting two-sentence piece, written by Sky, included Velvet’s phone number and Web site after its blurb about the company:

”Chocolate, strawberry, butter pecan, black walnut and burgundy cherry are among the 500-odd flavors that Ohio’s Velvet Ice Cream Company has manufactured over the years. You can watch the process, sample the wares and check out an ice-cream museum at Velvet’s headquarters, a restored 19th-century mill in Utica, in — where else? — The Licking Valley.”

Esposito also issued a press release regarding the Arizona customer Velvet gained from the Sky publicity.

* Be flexible.

Esposito offered Sky magazine a product photograph to use with the text, but Oakley says because the magazine enlarges photos and uses them as silhouettes, she often has better luck sending the products directly to a photographer.

The designer wanted something colorful, so the first thought was to use sherbet. Dager nixed the idea, pointing out that sherbet crystallizes as it gets warm. Ice cream would stand up better to the photography studio lighting. In the end, Velvet shipped Mint Chocolate Chip, Butter Pecan and Cashew, and Raspberry Fudge Cordial flavors to the studio in New York City.

The company used the same packing and overnight delivery methods to send the Arizona customer her order.

Having such publicity gives a push to Velvet’s efforts to expand nationally, Dager says.

A wholesaler, it sells and distributes its product to retail outlets such as Bob Evans and Consolidated Stores, and to grocery stores including Kroger, Big Bear and Giant Eagle. Velvet also has food service clients such as hospitals, schools and restaurants, reaching 13 states.

Dager continues to hear comments from people who have seen the article.

Shortly after it ran, he got an excited phone call from a Newark Uniglobe travel agent who had seen it on her way to Florida for a national convention.

”We’ve been getting calls from friends, family, business associates, suppliers that are traveling,” Dager says. ”It’s just amazing what the little press release like that will do for you.” How to reach: Lee Esposito, Lee Esposito Associates, 421-2701 or [email protected] or; Mike Dager, Velvet Ice Cream Co. Inc., (740) 892-3921 or; Nancy Oakley, Sky magazine, [email protected]

Joan Slattery Wall ([email protected]) is senior editor of SBN Magazine in Columbus.