Air Show Sustainability: Keeping Air Shows Alive and Ensuring They Survive

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By Mark Grady and Mike Berriochoa 

The theme of this year’s ICAS convention is “License to Thrill” and that’s what we try to do with our shows every year, but that license is rendered null and void if our shows are no longer there to exercise it. In the past two years, at least 20 air shows — some well established with a great reputation for quality — have either postponed their event or gone out of business all together. Reasons cited ranged from air space to lack of financial support to volunteer burnout.

“Sustainability is one of the biggest issues facing our industry right now and the 2007 convention will be devoting a lot of time to helping shows learn new ways to help ensure their future over the long run” said ICAS president John Cudahy.

Keys to sustainability include sound financial management, quality entertainment, marketing, strong leadership and energized volunteers. And the five elements are so tightly intertwined that it is nearly impossible to be successful over the long run if even one of these elements goes lagging for any length of time.

Run Your Show like a Business
It’s a given that air shows run on money, so financial health is key. As Chuck Newcomb of C.K. Newcomb and Associates puts it, “You have to take in more than you spend. Everything else is derived from that simple concept.” Newcomb should know. He has produced the Cleveland Air Show for the past 32 years. Making it work requires realistic projections of sponsorship income, attendance, vendor income and all of the other income sources, balanced against accurate expense projections. Then make sure you don’t overspend. In short, run the show like a business.

“Running it like a business is paramount,” said Harry Wardwell, the executive director of the California International Air Show in Salinas, California, and former chairman of the ICAS Board of Directors. “We have to make sure we have strict budgets that are put in place and that everybody sticks to them.”

Alicia Aguilar of the Amigo Airsho in El Paso, Texas, agrees. The Amigo Airsho has been operating 26 years. “We’ve had our peaks and valleys, but by sticking hard and fast to the budget, we have been able to keep the show alive and make the show grow,” she said. A budget doesn’t have to be a straight jacket and should have some flexibility through a contingency fund, a rainy day fund, transfer of funds, or whatever else you care to call it, but — in the end — the bottom line is the bottom line. “You may not get to do everything you want each year, but if you manage the money properly, you will meet your objectives.” More important: your show will still be around next year to try again.

Another key to a show’s financial future is to establish a rainy day fund. “The philosophy that’s been established for the Cleveland show is that when there are surplus funds, the first thing is to set something aside to sustain the show during those years. And it’s not a matter of if, but when you either have bad weather, no jet team, or any of a variety of uncontrollable things that happen to an air show,” Newcomb said.

Mike McCabe of Air Support, says despite the fact many air shows are created and run to benefit non-profit organizations, that doesn’t change the need for a good business model. “You can’t confuse non-profit with being non-solvent,” he said. Put another way, “non-profit” is an IRS tax status; it should not be an operating philosophy or a financial goal.

And this is true especially for small shows which typically have a smaller profit margin and less flexibility in their budget. Tom Popp, along with his wife, Cheryl, are known for operating Blue Ash Airport Days, a relatively small air show in the Cincinnati area.

“I see too many air shows going out of business, saying it’s because they didn’t get a jet team,” Popp said. “They will say ‘We failed to get a jet team, so our city or county won’t fund us because we typically lose money when we don’t have a jet team.’ That tells me they haven’t run it as a business all those years. Depending on a single-source provider, your city or county, to fund your show is a mistake. It means you are not self-sufficient and — to me — that’s a business problem.”

Leadership Counts for a Lot
Another key to sustainability is air show leadership. A love of aviation is a good reason for people to join the board of directors, but it’s not enough. A cold axiom of board development is that board members should give, get, or get out.

Events need money and resources, which mean that you need a board that can deliver. “A board member needs business acumen, influence and the ability to attract money. If he or she doesn’t have these skills, then you’ve got the wrong person on your board,” Newcomb said.

Harry Wardwell of the Salinas Air Show says shows need the right people from the very beginning.  “Widespread community involvement of our board is the biggest reason for our sustainability,” Wardwell said. “Our show is a very important event in our community and we have a great team of volunteers and businesses who are able to give us the kind of support we need.”

The Salinas board is no different than most other boards in one respect. “Most of our board members don’t have an aviation background. The bulk of the organization is made of business leaders from different walks of life and professions. You need people on your board and as your committee chairs who can pick up the phone and call somebody to make things happen.”

But you can’t expect the same people to do this kind of work year after year over the long haul. It’s too big a job and most will benefit from taking time off. “You have to be recruiting constantly. We have some highly energized, fantastic board members but they work hard and can burn out. The key is to backfill, and recruit quality people who have fresh ideas and can think outside the box,” said Aguilar. This is even more important in small communities where the talent pool is shallower than in major metropolitan areas. Aguilar said her board has turnover every year, but said several board members take a few years off, then come back, energized and ready to work hard again.

And this recruiting effort must run continuously. Air show professionals should anticipate that a certain number of volunteers will leave the board or lose their enthusiasm EVERY YEAR. That means an ongoing effort to identify and recruit prospective new board members that never stops. Often, air show organizers only start looking for board members when a vacancy is created. This ensures that they are continually playing catch up on a problem that is very predictable and largely avoidable.

Volunteers Need Love, Too
Just as burnout is an issue for board members, it is also an issue for the volunteers who are out there for one, two, three days or more, often in the hot sun, setting up the show, picking up garbage, delivering ice, taking tickets and doing the other myriad activities that keep a show running. When the show is over, many will go away tired, resolved never to return.

Like board members, volunteer workers have to be recruited, but they also need care and feeding…literally, to keep them energized. Surprisingly, the Amigo AirSho charges its volunteers $10 to join. And they are happy to pay it. And what the show gets in return is priceless. “By charging our volunteers a membership fee, they automatically have ownership and they work hard to make sure the show is successful. We feed them, hold special volunteer parties, and do a number of fun things for them throughout the weekend which gets them jazzed up to do the work,” Aguilar said.

Marketing in Everything You Do
We have long boasted that air shows are one of the best forms of family entertainment available in America.  They are clean, safe and wholesome events that inspire. And we work hard to keep it that way. It’s one of the keys to our marketing success. But even that concept won’t sustain us without a strong marketing effort and an eye on the product we are trying to promote. We have to market to sponsors and we have to market to the spectators.

“You need a product that is fresh every year. It’s one of the most important things to think about. Whether you have a jet team every year or not, you must have changing, quality entertainment if you are going to attract and keep sponsors and spectators,” said Newcomb. And that means thinking of new, innovative changes to keep the show fresh and exciting. It usually starts with performers.

Even when budgets are tight or small, a variety of good performers are available for a reasonable price, so you don’t have to bring the same performers back year after year. And new ones are always out there. For Aguilar, not everything has to be in the air. “We reinvent our show every year, both in the air and on the ground. We look for new and exciting things to offer our audience, and we market it as aggressively as we can,” she said. This includes promotions, sponsor involvement and keeping the show visible to the community. It’s not a hard and fast rule at Amigo, but rarely will they bring the same performer back two years in a row. “Some performers are extremely popular with our audience, but bringing them back year after year makes them less special. Better to wait one or two years and fans will be more excited to see them,” she said.

Most air show performers aren’t household names, which makes them difficult to market individually. A jet team is easier to market, but — if you begin to depend on jet teams — you will find yourselves behind the power curve the first time you try to do a show without one. The solution: Instead of marketing the performers, market the event. “We never center our marketing around the jet teams. It’s always about the event. We work hard to make the show fun and make it exciting and the performers are one part of it,” Aguilar said.

But marketing doesn’t stop at the front gate. You have to follow through when people come through the gate.  “You make the experience positive with a festival atmosphere of activities and treat people like guests. Give them a production on the ground as well as in the air and make sure your ground entertainment is as entertaining as what you put in the air. Your goal is for people to go away saying it was fun to be there,” Newcomb said.

And marketing has to change with the times. Long-time air show announcer Hugh Oldham sees marked changes in the audience that attends air shows. “We need to merge the air show with the trappings of a rock concert,” he said. “The spectator, the paying customer today has become accustomed to sensory overload. This is what audiences have come to expect. We’ve got to be very innovative and very cutting edge.” 

Sponsorships:  It’s the Money, Stupid!
As we all know, the days of paying show expenses from gate receipts are long past. To fill the gap, nearly all of us rely on sponsors, mostly from our local community.

But the concept of “sponsorship” as it is understood in the air show community really encompasses two different ideas. For many air shows, “sponsorship” means “philanthropic contribution.” Many air shows solicit sponsorships with the assumption that local businesses will want to lend their financial support – with few strings attached – to a local event that attracts so many people and does such good work for the community. Those types of “sponsorship” are increasingly rare and a real bonus to any show that can get them.

Much more common are sponsorships designed to function as an extension of an organization’s marketing plan. Corporations that sign on for these kinds of sponsorship expect a marketing return on their sponsorship investment. These types of sponsorship require event organizers to demonstrate the value of their event to the sponsor.

“Sponsors are driven by the benefit they derive. They like to be part of the event, but they use it to promote their own interests,” said Newcomb. He said air shows have to illustrate to sponsors the value of having their presence at the show and show them how they can make it a part of their portfolio to promote themselves.

Building a professional sponsor package to present to business owners and managers that articulates the benefits to them, making the sales calls and closing the deals, all take a lot of work. It’s a tedious and challenging process, but air shows must demonstrate that they can deliver the goods. “Nothing breeds success like success,” observes Newcomb. “A happy sponsor will be back and others will want to join.”

New Shows Beware
If sustainability is daunting for existing air shows, what about those just getting started. “The most critical factor for a show just starting up is to have an objective and informed assessment as to the viability of the event prior to starting it,” Newcomb said, adding that several factors need to be explored, including airspace, parking availability and location, the spectator area, funding, and human participation.

“If you get any of these wrong from the get-go, it’s just a matter of time before that deficiency is going to put you out of business,” he said. “I’ve heard people say, ‘A lot of shows, small and large, start and run for a year or two and then they’re out of business. Why is that?’ I would suggest it may very well be because they shouldn’t have been started to begin with. Passion does strange things.”

Jim Breen, President of Air Show Network, believes some new air show organizers run into problems by believing the results touted by other event organizers.

“I think they believe the attendance numbers that a lot of people bounce around the industry,” Breen said. “They hear inflated attendance numbers, multiply that by ten dollars a person, and think there’s plenty of money here to make this work. A lot of events, particularly some military events, substantially overstate what their attendance numbers are. Some people new to the industry believe those numbers and — when you start going down that line — it’s not a good start.”

Chuck Newcomb agrees that air show numbers are frequently inflated. “Regrettably, the biggest lie in the world is ‘what was the attendance’,” he said, adding that a realistic assessment can prevent a big disappointment.  “Do the math,” Newcomb said. “Take how big the parking areas are and figure about 200 square feet per car and 2.8 people per car. I don’t care what you are told, that’s all that can be there.”

Starting and sustaining air shows is a big challenge and that challenge is getting bigger each year.  You can’t fix the problems on Monday morning after the show is over. ICAS is responding to that challenge by providing air shows and performers with the tools necessary to succeed. See you at the convention.

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ICAS
The International Council of Air Shows (ICAS) is a trade association dedicated to building and sustaining a vibrant air show industry to support its membership. To achieve this goal, ICAS demands its members operate their air show business at only the highest levels of safety, professionalism, and integrity.