The Right Leadership Stuff: Air Show Board Structure and Organization

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This is the second in a series of articles highlighting the four cornerstones of successful air shows…finances, leadership, entertainment and volunteers. All four are vital if an air show is to be sustained over the long run.  The article in the first quarter issue examined the financial side of air shows.  This article looks at leadership. 

Solid leadership is one of the keys to any successful organization, whether that organization is business or charitable. In the world of air shows, it usually starts with a hard working board of volunteer directors. There may be one or more paid staff, depending on the size of the show, but the directors hold the reins whether they are a working board or an advisory board. But how the directors are organized and how they are used varies from show to show. 

There is a cold, hard axiom among some charitable organizations that suggests, “Board members should give, get, or get out.” This concept emphasizes the importance of finding people to serve on boards that have money and resources or can open the doors to money and resources, so the organization can continue its mission.

While this concept may be successful for some organizations, it clearly is not the way things are done in the air show community. To the contrary, most air shows follow the familiar pattern of a volunteer board whose members assume a variety of leadership positions, and are backed up a large number of volunteers. It’s a simple and effective model, but — within that model — there are wide differences across the air show industry in how boards operate and what is expected of individual members.

There is no right or wrong, no good and bad, no best and worst way to structure an air show board. What works well for an air show in one community may not work as well for another. And whether it is a show just getting started or a show that has been around for several years, the basics are the same. The leadership team needs to be composed of quality people who are willing to work and able to maintain the vision and mission of the event.

It’s the traditional approach that has been a key to the long term success of the Amigo AirSho in El Paso, Texas. Their structure is familiar. There is a fifteen-member board with seven serving as executive officers; i.e., a president, four vice presidents, an advisory board member from Fort Bliss which owns the air field, and one from the El Paso Convention and Visitor Bureau. Each of the fifteen board members is assigned responsibility for a major area such as site preparation, transportation, ground operations, etc., and each has a committee working under them with their own goals and objectives.  These are big responsibilities considering the size of the Amigo AirSho, which is one of the largest in the country, and when board members accept their responsibilities they know they will receive a lot of support.

“We have a hard working board and, over time, have refined the role of each member. We invest a lot in their education, plus we hold an annual retreat and an executive retreat to make sure we are prepared as we move forward each year,” said Executive Director Terrie Todd.

Obviously, great care is taken to be sure a person’s experience and training matches well with the responsibility assigned to them. “Our vice-president of finance, for example, has to understand revenue sources, budgeting, and accounting, just as our operations people have to understand logistics, team management and scheduling,” she said. The treasurer doesn’t have to be a CPA or banker, so long as he or she understands sound fiscal procedures.

With a community the size of El Paso (563,662 by the last census, just within the city limits), there is a large base of talented people to draw from. But whether the community is large or small, people with talent and an interest in serving their community are in high demand. “We can’t always get the presidents or CEOs of businesses because they are already so busy, but we have been very successful in attracting mid-management people who are on their way up and want to make a difference in their community,” said Todd.

The El Paso show has one distinct requirement making it somewhat unusual in the air show industry. They place term limits on their board members. Few other shows follow such a policy.

“Our board members are allowed to serve three years, and then they must leave the board for at least one year. They can return after one year if they wish, but this keeps fresh ideas coming in and helps prevent burnout,” said Todd.

She is a perfect example. She served on the board fifteen years ago, but never lost her desire to be active. When the time was right, she was able to return and was hired as the Executive Director.

For the Florida International Air Show in Punta Gorda, the organizational structure is similar to that of the Amigo AirSho, but term limits don’t work for them. “We don’t have much turnover on our board and term limits would mean a loss of a lot of institutional memory and continuity that has built up,” said the event’s president, Bucky McQueen who has been with the show for 27 years. As a result, when openings on the board do occur, they specifically look for people who are willing to sign on for the long term. And because the show reflects the significant military presence in that part of Florida, they have a strong interest in finding people with military backgrounds.

Each year, Punta Gorda is one of the earliest air shows on the calendar. The city population is only about 17,000, but plays to a market area of about 1.6 million. An eleven-member board directs the show and there is no paid staff. Backing them up is a cadre of 800 volunteers. Each board member is expected to chair at least one of their 18 committees and often more.

“When we need to fill a vacancy, we start by identifying the skills we need, then we contact the Navy League or similar organization for recommendations. We seek the highest ranking retired squadron commander we can find,” said McQueen.

The reasons are simple. Such people have drive, understand teamwork, know how to manage people and can open a lot of doors when it comes to recruiting military participation in the show.

But having the background and desire aren’t enough for the Punta Gorda show. Every board member must serve a one-year probationary period before being fully accepted to the board. “This is done to be sure we like them and to be sure they like us. We don’t often lose people, but it has happened and the probationary period allows us to part ways more easily,” McQueen said.

The average tenure on the Punta Gorda board is fifteen years. “Because we are careful who we pick, we are able to work together as a team and get the job done,” McQueen said.

Government officials and elected officeholders are specifically prohibited from serving on their board. In part, this is because the air show has a formal agreement with the Charlotte County Airport Authority to use the airport and they don’t want any perception of a conflict of interest. They believe that putting government officials on the board could lead to a variety of conflicts that could compromise the show or an individual board member. Keeping the relationship between the show and the governmental entities clearly defined and formal avoids a lot of potential problems.

In sharp contrast to shows the size of those in Punta Gorda and El Paso is the small Central Oregon Air Show in Madras, Oregon. Madras, located about 40 miles north of Bend, holds a successful event put on by many of the same people who have been doing it year after year. Board members come and go, but the central core of directors remains basically unchanged from one year to the next. The event started as a one-day show, but has grown to include a Friday night dance with a couple of performers flying at dusk. Attendance is low by comparison to other parts of the country, but they have fun, generally operate in the black and have a loyal following in their community as well as among fly-in pilots who love the hospitality that the show has become famous for.

Like other shows, the Madras event has an organizational structure with eight board positions, but few get involved in the key task of fundraising. “Not everyone is comfortable hunting for money, so the responsibility for fund raising falls to two or three of us who have the experience,” said newly-elected president Brandon Wilcox. He owns an FBO in Bend and was the presenting sponsor last year. The rest of the workload is divided among the board members who have no problem stepping up to the plate to do their share of the work.

“We have job descriptions for each of our board members that include typical areas of responsibility such as air operations, ground operations, static displays, etc. We monitor the progress of each area on a monthly basis and everyone offers help if there are problems or obstacles that pop up,” Wilcox said.

One shortcoming of doing a show in a small town is the lack of enough good people to go around. Those who have the needed skills are often involved in other events and have no more time available. And when they do get involved in the air show, they get worked pretty hard.

“I’m concerned about the finances, but I’m just as concerned about burning out the board,” said Wilcox.  How does he avoid burnout?  “It’s tough, because we never have enough money to do everything we would like to do. This leads to frustration, but we do as much as we can to make the experience fun for everyone involved by sharing the load and by holding social events. We’re fortunate because we have a number of small communities surrounding Madras and we are able to tap into those talent pools to fill gaps when they exist,” he said.

Whatever they are doing in Madras seems to be working.  At a time when other shows in the region have folded their tents, Madras continues to grow.

While most air shows are run by stand-alone organizations, it is not uncommon for service clubs to sponsor shows. In Redding, California, for example, it’s the Exchange Club that puts the popular event together. Once a yearly show, it is now held every two years. Some shows are reluctant to switch to an every-other-year cycle, even if it makes good economic sense, for fear of losing continuity and institutional memory, not to mention losing talented workers. But the Redding event doesn’t seem to have those problems because the Exchange Club continues whether the show goes on or not and the members are always there to put the show together whenever it is held.

“We have a dedicated group of people in our club who enjoy putting the show together for the community,” said air show chairman Bill Wagner. Almost casual in his discussion of their organization, he speaks from the confidence that comes from knowing the club will get the job done and he doesn’t have a lot to worry about.

The club ran the show until 1997 before calling a halt, but rejuvenated it in 2000.  “Our solution to burnout was to switch to doing the show every other year. Our members like to do the show, but they have other interests as well and this seems to work the best for us,” he said.  But even the every-other-year cycle isn’t hard and fast. The club decided it didn’t make good financial sense to do the show in 2008, so they are taking another year off and will look at doing one in 2009.

Wagner acknowledges that a few key people have been with the club for fifteen years or more and have the experience to handle about anything that could come up. “We even have a few that we count on who aren’t members of the club. They just like to help with the show,” he said.

Unlike a lot of shows, Wagner said theirs has no formal organizational chart, and no job descriptions. They do have an Excel spread sheet which lists the traditional duties by category, such as concessions, grounds, sponsorships, and ticket sales, and club members sign up to do the work. “It sounds like a loose organization and to some extent it is, but performers tell us not to change anything because they love to come here. We have developed a good reputation and the show is successful because everyone is committed to supporting it,” he said.

Another show sponsored by an organization is the Wings over Houston show sponsored by the Commemorative Air Force. It is run by a sixteen-member board, thirteen of which are CAF members. Six of the members are from one CAF unit, while another six are from a second unit, with an additional person selected by the chair and four outside members.

“This structure gives us broad experience and capabilities that we need to be successful. If we have an opening, it’s up to me and the chapters to fill the slot,” said Bill Roach, the show’s executive director.

“When filling a slot, we look for specific capabilities that match the job and we make sure the individual will be able to participate and contribute the time necessary to do the job. We also look for people who have business contacts who can bring in money or other resources to sustain our event,” he said.

Roach does the bulk of the fundraising for the event with the help of an outside contract salesperson, often using leads provided by board members. But board members handle most everything else. Like other air shows, Wings over Houston board members have specific responsibilities. They are a working board with one or more committees under each one of them. They are also expected to serve on subcommittees, if necessary, to add their expertise where needed.

There are no term limits on the Wings over Houston board. Members can serve as long as they want, but there are attendance requirements and — if members are unable to attend the meetings on a regular basis — they are subject to replacement.

One of the most unusual air show organizational structures is in Columbia, Missouri, where the air show is one event among several during an annual celebration honoring military veterans and is always held over the Memorial Day weekend. As stated on their web site, one of their objectives is to, “Recognize, honor and thank all veterans of the Armed Services of the United States of America, past and present, who have served their country, both living and dead.” 

The event, led by Mary Posner, began in 1989 and celebrates its 20th year this year. It operates as a company and has a worldwide reputation led by just four people that include a president, vice president, a treasurer and one board member.

“These are the corporate officers required to meet Missouri State law. We run the event as a corporation with all of the financial requirements and regulations imposed by law,” Posner said.

Obviously, four people don’t pull off an event of this size without some help. And Posner says her small team is backed up by what she calls her executive committee of one hundred people who do most of the work.

No small undertaking, the event includes a major parade, a variety of other community celebration activities, and each of the executive committee members has a committee of up to 30 people working with them to make each event a success.

“The designated chairs are responsible for their area and work with the assistance of a deputy that we call a captain. The captain is the number two person on a committee and is expected to take over the committee if the chair leaves,” she said.

How are these people selected? “They choose themselves,” Posner said, noting there are usually several people standing in line for each chairmanship. But they have to work their way up. And if they decide they don’t want the job anymore but still want to be involved, there are plenty of other opportunities to serve. One of the benefits of a large organization with multiple events is that people who want to help can easily find a slot that is compatible with their skills and background. “We don’t look for people who are well connected in the community. We look for people who are capable of doing the work whether they are a lawyer or a letter carrier,” she said. And she noted they have some of each working on the event in a variety of leadership capacities.

Posner does the bulk of the fund-raising for the event which relieves the committee chairs of the financial burden. She said it is a year-around effort and they begin by developing a wish list of what to include in the following year’s activities. The list is then prioritized and she goes out and sells it to sponsors. If money isn’t there to support a particular event or activity on the list, then it doesn’t take place.

Another key aspect of the event’s success is that everyone involved has asked to join. “People donate their time because of their love for their country, their love of their community and a strong desire to make it a better place,” she said.  And she noted that no one, including herself, is paid a dime for their service. The only benefit that any of them receive is that a few are allowed to travel to the ICAS convention at the expense of the event, but even there they are expected to work. “We go there to learn and attend as many of the seminars as possible,” she said.

No matter which organizational model is used to operate an air show, there are two universal truths. The first is that whatever organizational structure a group chooses has to be right for the community and the people involved. Whether lose or tightly run, formal or informal, large board or small, whatever is successful is the right choice.

The second universal truth is that events must clearly articulate the skills they need on the board, and care must be taken to ensure the person selected to fill the slot has what author Tom Wolfe referred to as “The Right Stuff” to get the job done, because the long-term viability of any event rests squarely on their shoulders.

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Mike Berriochoa is an air show announcer, former member of the ICAS Board of Directors, longtime communications professional and award-winning broadcast journalized based in Pasco, Washington.