Staying Well-Grounded: The Critical Role of Ground-Based Entertainment and Attractions

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While much of the effort in producing air shows is focused on the performers who dance through the sky, most air shows also now include ground-based entertainment, ranging from kid zones and carnival rides to major static displays and a wide variety of vendors. We posed this question to a broad cross-section of the ICAS membership: Just how important are the ground-based attractions to the overall success of an air show?

One major event that utilizes a wide array of non-flying entertainment is the Battle Creek Field of Flight Air Show and Balloon Festival. According to Executive Director Barbara Haluszka, the show uses everything from a midway with carnival rides to nightly concerts and fireworks during the event held over the Fourth of July holiday.

“I don’t think it takes away from the air show and balloon events at all. It enhances it,” Haluszka said. “When you’re trying to attract a family to the show, you have to try and entertain everybody. The kids will head to the midway and rides while mom and dad take in the air show.”

Haluszka added that there is another contribution the use of this entertainment provides to the event. “It helps us generate revenue. We get a percentage of what they bring in,” she said, adding that the concerts are a big draw when held at the same time as a night balloon launch. And, of course, the fireworks are always popular. “Everybody loves fireworks,” Haluszka said.

What happens on the ground is equally important to Brenda Kerfoot, General Manager of the Dayton Air Show.

“It is definitely one of our higher priorities,” Kerfoot said. “Our first goal is to make sure we have a strong quality air show because that’s our name and that’s what it’s about. But, we realize that, when you have a five hour show but your gates are open for nine hours, what are people going to do for that entire time? Our goal has always been to create the highest quality entertainment experience, and that really begins when they first walk through the gate.”

The Dayton Air Show has also used carnival rides during some shows and Kerfoot says she likes them. “I think it’s a wonderful compliment to a show if you can do it. We saw no down side to it,” she said. “We had the space to do it and it was very well received from the spectator’s standpoint.”

Kerfoot says she finds it difficult to locate companies that can provide just the premium rides — a carousel, a Ferris wheel and smaller rides for the children — without the other carnival activities, such as the games.

“The problem we found is that, if you’re in the prime season, most outfits can’t afford to break loose and do a la carte carnival pieces at your show. We would probably do this every year if we could find a company that this would work for,” she said.

Most event organizers use ground-based entertainment to help position the air show as a well-balanced, family entertainment event.

“You’re competing for the same entertainment dollar throughout the entire entertainment realm. What we’re trying to do is promote a family atmosphere,” David Schultz, an air show consultant and producer, said. “It’s not just the 18- to 25-year old guy who wants to see jets. The more you are able to bring in [other demographics] and diversify, I think is better for a show, as long as you market it that way.”

Schultz has helped produce shows that offer a car show in conjunction with the air show. “Most of the time, having a Corvette club or a classic car club can be a nice little addition to the show,” he says. “It depends on whether you want to do it with a dozen or two dozen vehicles or if you want to open it up, like we do in Millville, New Jersey, to thousands of classic cars. It depends on the market.”

The California International Air Show in Salinas also uses ground entertainment extensively.  “We add ground entertainment for several reasons,” says Karen Curtis. “First, by adding different ground acts, we want to bring out new members of the community that may not be interested in coming to an air show.” In the past, the Salinas show has used fireworks, jet cars, Robbie Knievel, the daredevil son of Evel Knievel, and monster trucks as secondary draws.

Ground activities can also be a lifesaver if the weather doesn’t cooperate for the show. “Because air shows are an outdoor event, you can’t guarantee your weather. So, if you have a day with inclement weather or a very low cloud cover, and performers can’t fly, you can still get your ground act out there,” Curtis says. “If you have a no refund policy for your show, we can still get entertainment out there. They’re still getting a little bit of a bang for their buck.”

Air shows staged at U.S. Air Force installations are governed by rules that specifically prevent the event from taking on a “carnival-like atmosphere.” This doesn’t prevent those shows from using non-flying activities to appeal to family audience. The Aviation Nation Air Show at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas uses secondary entertainment and educational activities to appeal to the youth, according to the show’s director, Bob Jones.

“We’ve also got the kid’s zone,” Jones said. “The attention span for some kids is that they watch a couple of different airplanes and that’s it. If you have something for them, including [flight] simulators, it’s something the parents can take them to and stay [at the show].”

Jones added that – during their 2007 show – Aviation Nation experimented with an educational twist on the day before the show.

“This year, on Friday, we brought in NASA, the Thunderbirds and some aerospace industry folks. They went into a hangar and put on an education-type seminar and we invited the local Clark County schools to attend,” he said.

Jones estimated 625 students attended the seminars. They rotated the students through the educational presentations and simulators. They also invited the schools and the media to the air show rehearsal on Friday.

Dale Drumright, Air Force Association Air Show Coordinator for Air Power over Hampton Roads at Langley Air Force Base, also utilizes ground entertainment within Air Force rules.

“We need to keep the children entertained, too,” Drumright said. “So, we keep the children’s entertainment, which is the blow-up slides and bounce houses, where it’s easy access to the public, but off to the side. It’s there, but not a central focal point.”

That event also features a night air show on the evening before the main event, where other forms of entertainment are highlights.

“On Friday night, we have an after dark air show and we have a concert and fireworks. I think that attracts more people on Friday night than just a regular flying event would,” Drumright added.

The Wings and Wheels Air Show at St. Lucie County Airport in Florida used a very popular activity for the kids to their benefit. It is a mini boot camp for kids called Camp Victory.

“It’s run by drill instructors, with the screaming and lining them up in formation, and the kids all go through an obstacle course,” said Colonel Alan Weierman of the Valley Forge Military Academy, the sponsor of the show. “It’s all kid-friendly. There’s nothing they could get hurt on. The instructors are trained to watch them. When they get through it, they get a little dog tag sticker that says, ‘I survived boot camp.’ We had kids come back ten or fifteen times.”

A change in airport management means the show will not be held this year, but Colonel Weierman, who operates Camp Victory with the help of the academy and the Road to Victory Military Museum in Stuart, Florida, took the show on the road. “We took our mini boot camp over to St. Petersburg (St. Petersburg Airfest). The folks were so pleased. It was a big hit,” Colonel Weierman said.

One air show service provider has taken the children entertainment aspect and geared it specifically to an aviation theme for air shows. John McDonald of Plane Things and Special Event Fun, which provides merchandise, novelty concessions and ground entertainment for air shows, has created a kid zone called Adventures in Aviation.

“In addition to inflatable, bounce activities and other physically-centered activities for children, we also have an educational theme throughout the zone, including placards and interactive displays for children and their parents to learn more about aviation and space,” McDonald said. “By providing entertainment on the ground that children enjoy, it keeps the average air show patron on the grounds a lot longer.”

While ground entertainment may seem to focus on specific events, vendors like Sandy Anderson of Armed Forces Store, say merchandise also enhances the experience the public gets from the air show. And sales from merchandise sales can help pay the air show bills.

“People like to shop and everybody likes to look around to see what everybody’s got. They like variety,” Anderson said, who runs an operation with her husband that specializes in merchandise saluting the military jet teams.

Anderson said the key to making sure merchandisers enhance the show is in the quality of the presentation. “When you walk out on the flight line, things should look neat, clean, organized, upscale and not just like a flea market,” she said.

Christopher Axelrod of National Concession, one of the largest master concessionaire companies in the air show industry, agrees with Anderson’s assessment on the importance of quality in the services of food and merchandise.

“Our idea is that the real estate at an airport, although it looks very large, is precious. A vendor has to have the capability to be attractive and to truly generate sales from the real estate they’re occupying,” Axelrod said.

While the air show is the main focus, according to the producers, what happens on the ground is vitally important to giving the event an overall image. The ground activities and services can be used to market the show to people who otherwise wouldn’t attend the event.

“We want everyone to come out and we want to introduce them to air shows and get that hook in,” Karen Curtis said. “It’s not just about air shows, it’s about the general aviation industry as a whole.  Let’s get these people up and flying and on our side.”

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A former traffic report pilot, Mark Grady is now an aviation writer and speaker living in North Carolina. In addition to the articles he has written for ICAS, Grady has also written for Southern Aviator and Weekend Flyer.