When we’re young and starting out in the working world, there’s a lot of uncertainty. What will make you money, versus what interests you; what you’re good at, versus what you should learn. All that ambiguity swirls around in the hearts and minds for most adults forging a career path. But for one college graduate, facing the unknown was just an opportunity to tap into his passion.
Meet Sean Burris, a young aviation enthusiast, China habitué, and entrepreneur--still on the road to discovery. Burris’ career-focused mindset began in college as a student at Northeastern University in Boston, studying International Relations, Marketing, and Entrepreneurship at D’Amore-McKim School of Business. Because Northeastern is a co-op school, he had the opportunity to work in his field while going to school.
“I was hunting for co-ops in Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand when I came across the role at DoubleTree in Shanghai through Northeastern’s co-op database. The travel industry has always appealed to me and hospitality is one area in which I am particularly interested.” Without knowing anything about China and craving an experience that would take him completely out of his element, Burris was hired for the Shanghai position and traveled abroad for the first time.
An intrepreneurial approach to aviation
Burris was always an airplane-lover. Passionate since childhood, he is fascinated by aircraft, aviation history, and first- and second-generation jet airliners. Couple that with an academic platform to leverage, you get a dually driven entrepreneur looking to make a difference in the field.
“My two subsequent co-ops were both in the aviation business and I found them especially rewarding as I was excited to go to work each day and deal with planes. I developed my interest and love for China while working at DoubleTree and combined that with my passion for aircraft during my placement at an aviation services firm in Shenzhen.”
Following the Spring of 2008, five major airline companies folded in the span of two months. He started reading up, honing in on inefficiencies, and saw a link between his experience and his passion. “Both hotels and airlines face intense competition, operate in the travel industry, distribute through similar channels, sell perishable commodities, and are service-oriented businesses.” There, he identified a way to combine the two and put together a plan to start a unique charter business.
Building a community
Burris joined forums that shared his unique interests, discovering that some people traveled to remote corners of the globe where first- and second-generation planes still flew. Discovering that a handful of such interesting aircraft were still in airworthy condition, and with VIP and charter operators in North America to boot, Burris sensed a business opportunity – and a chance to fulfill his dream of flying on these classics.
“I reached out to the aircraft owners and was able to hire their aircraft for pleasure flights
geared toward enthusiasts like me. I then marketed these tours to the like-minded individuals I met on the forums as not only a way to fly on a rare aircraft, but also to meet people with
the same unique interest.”
Continuing a vision, continuing an education
Sadly, fewer and fewer vintage aircraft are airworthy, so it’s been difficult for Burris to organize charters. He turned his attention back to education after graduating from Northeastern in 2018. Realizing that his co-op experiences abroad were valuable experiential learning opportunities, he was determined to learn more theory and academics around doing business in China.
“I ultimately decided to join a double-degree program offered jointly by London Business School and Fudan University. I could earn a degree from a top Chinese university, but also a leading school in Europe, which would be useful should I ever want to continue my career there.”
Head in the clouds, feet on the ground
Burris learned a lot from his time at Hilton, particularly from running programs tailored to VIP customers and members. “Working with Hilton, one of the key takeaways was about how valuable loyalty programs are to brands. With this insight, I now see so many opportunities for companies to use what they’ve learned about customers to market better and improve customer service – especially relevant in the era of big data.”
Next year, Burris intends to graduate and work at one of the top aviation businesses in China. “I am focusing on aviation-related companies, such as HNA Group and Swire, but will consider anything that can keep me here in China long-term.”
His advice to people starting out their careers, especially in hospitality, is:
“I encourage those who may feel a bit lost in this regard to keep looking and trying different things until something really stands out.”
Burris admits he was lucky enough to have established passions and goals early on in life, but feels that it does take more than that to find a dream, then execute. He had to look in organizations and groups in the workplace, at school, and in his community to make connections. And lastly, he supports breaking out of your norm to live or work in a different country.
“Opportunities for such career shifts can be found through overseas internship programs, inter-office transfers in larger firms, or by taking up a role in a government foreign service program.”
Burris is a shining example of how a little application (and decision-making) can make your dreams take flight.
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