Beware the “Chicken Little Syndrome”

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As the value of the U.S. dollar sinks to new lows on the world currency market, av gas prices approach $6.00 per gallon and the economy teeters on the brink of recession, it’s certainly understandable – even useful — for an otherwise optimistic air show professional to become concerned about the short-term impact that the struggling economy will have on the business of air shows. Financial instability can cause prospective sponsors to reconsider their commitment to your event and spectators to spend less at your event or, worse, simply stay at home.

And our business has had some recent setbacks. Several shows have cancelled. A few have gone out of business entirely. Several well-known performers have this year booked a fraction of the business that they booked in previous years. And we’ve recently lost two sponsored air show acts. It’s important that we not minimize those setbacks or fail to see the possible long-term implications of these problems.

But good sense and past experience suggest that none of us over-react to the economic difficulties likely to face North America during the summer of 2008. “This, too, shall pass,” was the sage advice of Abraham Lincoln during a critical juncture in the Civil War. We would all do well to heed those words now.

More specifically…

Be wary of “analysis by anecdote.” As thoughtful professionals, we are perhaps too quick to see four or five unrelated problems within the industry and detect similarities or trends that don’t exist. Air shows go out of business. Performers lose their sponsorships or fall out favor with event organizers. Businesses succumb to poor management, new competition and unrealistic revenue projections all of the time and with increased frequency during difficult economic times. Although it’s certainly wise to pay attention and take whatever lessons you can from these developments, it’s not useful to begin by assuming that they are indicative of a common, larger problem without data that specifically suggests that they are.

r         Remember that – in most cases – we don’t know the whole story. When a show cancels or a performer decides to retire or a big sponsorship is not renewed, there is seldom a one-dimensional explanation to this new development. It’s much more likely that the organization experiencing problems is wrestling with a large number of unique circumstances. Of course, none of those problems are helped by the struggling economy, but most of these difficulties are specific to the individuals or organizations having them.

 

r         For many businesses, this will be a difficult year. In this environment, bad news tends to travel more quickly than good news. The cancellation of a longstanding air show or the unexpected retirement of a corporately-funded air show team are dramatic and newsworthy developments in our business. Record attendance or better-than-expected revenue projections? Not so much. That doesn’t mean that there’s more bad news than good. It only means that you may not be hearing all of the good news.

The truth is that there are plenty of positive developments already this year. More than one performer has called ICAS headquarters to say that 2008 air show audiences are looking larger than those in 2007. Quantifiably, there will be more corporately-sponsored air show acts in 2008 than in any year other than 2007. There are multiple projects in the early stages of development that will focus on air shows, from major motion pictures to new television shows to exciting new web-based entertainment and social networking sites. Attendance at the 2007 ICAS Convention was very strong and ICAS member retention rates have not changed significantly in the last ten years. This is not to suggest that the air show business will have its best year ever in 2008; but nor is the bottom falling out.

r         Personally, my biggest concern about the doom and gloom hyperbole is the possibility that it will cause some organizations to ascribe the problems or challenges they are facing to circumstances beyond their control. Our industry’s biggest challenges – and most promising opportunities – are not those things that are done TO us, but those things that are completely within our control to change on our own. From sponsorship and financial management to safety and marketing to leadership development and improving the entertainment value of the events we organize, there is much room for improvement in our industry. It would truly be a pity if current economic challenges caused us to focus so much on issues beyond our control that we stopped making forward progress on those issues that we can control.

The sky is not falling. The air show apocalypse has not arrived. Our industry is almost certainly going through a period of transition and consolidation as air shows and air show performers adjust to changes that have occurred in our business during the last fifteen years. Air show organizations that focus their efforts on sustainability over the long-term will survive, perhaps even prosper.

So don’t sell your airplane or put out the “Going out of business” signs just yet. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the imminent death of the air show industry have been greatly exaggerated.

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John Cudahy
John Cudahy, ICAS President. | John Cudahy first joined ICAS as the organization's president in June of 1997. He has worked his entire 36-year professional career in association management, including more than two decades as the chief executive officer of ICAS. A graduate of the University of Virginia, Cudahy holds a private pilot certificate and is married with two adult children.