Professionalism as Both Obstacle and Opportunity

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As a fairly new air show pilot, Spencer Suderman thought he had it made when an energy drink company agreed to fully sponsor him for ten shows in his Pitts biplane. “I’m not the best pilot; I’m not flying the best plane. But as long as you don’t fly in a straight line and don’t hit the ground, it’s all good. After that, it’s all about generating impressions and selling the product,” explained Suderman. However, after two shows, the company dropped its sponsorship because it couldn’t place its energy drink in retail stores. “Maybe I should have done more due diligence on the company, but I was so excited about being a fully sponsored pilot. Why does it have to be so hard?”

Hard indeed. At least for a short time, Suderman had reached the holy grail of being a fully sponsored air show pilot, but it didn’t come without repeatedly knocking on doors and relentlessly pitching small and large companies alike. ING, the investment firm that sponsors the NYC Marathon for several million dollars, was one of many to turn him away. According to Suderman, they said, “We’ve evaluated your industry and we think it’s immature as a marketing venue.” After placing calls to several agencies, it appears that ING is not alone in its perspective on the air show industry.

Bob Tiernan, President of Cameo Marketing, was one of the first marketing professionals to become involved in using air shows as a national marketing tool. He worked with Sean Tucker, the Red Barons and several other leading acts. Today he works with NASCAR, NHRA, and the PGA; he is no longer involved with air shows. “These huge media, high power marketing types are looking for both horizontal and vertical integration so you have two silos of problems. One is based on the basic architecture of the industry: who do I call? Who has credible numbers? And the second is the marketing and external issues.”

Credibility plays a tremendous role with people sitting in the top marketing offices because all major properties have valid methods for determining attendance or viewership. “When you put that [exaggerated] attendance number up there, you risk losing credibility because they don’t trust it. They know better,” according to Dirk Hebert, President, Latitude 31. “The problem is people in the industry won’t like the answers because egos get in the way.”

Volunteers vs. Professionals

When you examine the major properties, whether it’s a sports or entertainment venue, nearly all are operated by professional staffs and agencies. By comparison, air shows are most often run by volunteers or a small paid staff supplemented with a robust volunteer program. Air show announcer Rob Reider believes that the industry needs more skilled professionals. “We have people who pretend they are air bosses and they are not. We have people who are air traffic controllers in the military who don’t understand show business. We have people who ask performers to fly twice a day just to make it a full day show.” And, just as the lack of experienced professionals can sometimes cause problems in the operations areas of the air show business, they have also left prospective sponsors with the impression that air shows are a risky choice.

Air show performer Michael Goulian believes the industry’s lack of professionalism damages the industry with every missed detail, “There’s a lack of follow through for most shows. Shows or performers should have someone to answer the phone, answer emails and do it well.”  Hebert agrees and tells the story of one air show that asked for the same paperwork six times by six different people. “That’s a complete turn off for a sponsor or the agency representing that sponsor.”

Sponsors – particularly those that are involved in many different kinds of events – expect a certain level of professionalism, experience and familiarity with standard marketing/sponsorship terminology. When they don’t get it, the other positive attributes of the event become less important. “We didn’t find too many shows to be proficient at efficiently sharing their media and public relations plans with us,” said Julie Malkin, an account executive with Carlson Marketing, the agency that spearheaded Saab’s air show sponsorship program in 2006 and 2007. “Most of the shows we worked with did not have true marketing departments and did very little to facilitate promotional benefits.”

Fan vs. Spectator

Spectator: (n) a person who is present at and views a spectacle, display or the like; member of an audience.

A prospective sponsor would be hard pressed to find another venue with such a positive, demographically attractive group of people. That’s part of the problem, according to Tiernan, “I think there is a diverse, vast spectator base, but a much smaller fan base as compared to other properties such as the NFL or NASCAR.” That is, Tiernan believes that the demographic profile of casual spectators is outstanding, but he also believes there is little evidence to suggest that this translates to a large and identifiable group of passionate, knowledgeable fans.

But not everyone agrees. “We get people on our website saying they are going to see us at a specific show, but it’s hard to develop a fan base if they can’t meet the performer,” says Karin Goulian who runs the marketing and sponsorship program for Goulian Aerosports. “With NASCAR, you buy a pit pass so you can get close to the car or the driver. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could do that at an air show? And it’s another opportunity to make money.”

After spending five years and more than one billion dollars, the Red Bull Air Races are the epitome of an incredible user experience both for fans and sponsors. In this case, fans are created by humanizing the pilots through all forms of media and broadcasting the races live onto large screens. The fans can see the anguish on a racer’s face when he hits a fabric pylon or the jubilance when he flies the fastest lap. But casual spectators are converted into passionate fans when they attend one of their famous “Paddock Walks.”

For one hour, the Red Bull pilot and his crew chief answer questions and sign autographs while an announcer provides a steady flow of information. Typically, the Brietling Jet team is there along with the Red Bull helicopter for added entertainment. It’s a high energy, fun environment that attracts between 3,000 and 12,000 people at a race.

Sport vs. Spectacle

Some say air shows will always have an identity crisis because it’s neither a competitive sport nor an activity that most people can envision themselves doing.

“Relatively few people can imagine what it’s like to fly an airplane. People’s sense of aviation is an aluminum tube where the airline captain is an unknown guy rather than a larger than life figure,” says Reider. “We’ve lost the romance of flying while NASCAR has captured the romance of driving fast.”

James Lavallee, National Sales Director for Discovery Communications, started his marketing career with the X Games when it only had four sponsors. Seven years later, the Games boasted 17 sponsors and turned companies away. “No one looked at the sporting aspect of those kinds of games, but suddenly kids could say ‘I could be Tony Hawk,’” said Lavallee. “Aviation is not something everyone can do and it’s an expensive sport.”

“It’s a parade.  It’s a circus.  It’s fun.  That’s its biggest problem and I don’t know if there’s any one person or organization who can fix it,” said Tiernan.

For those who insist that massive crowds of demographically attractive spectators should translate to significant national sponsorship programs, the “problem” may be more about perception. “I see air shows primarily as local events and most of the air shows do a pretty good job of local sponsorship so they are reasonably successful,” says Tiernan.

If the air show industry is truly committed to developing national-level sponsorship programs, some argue that industry professionals will have to assume responsibility for developing infrastructure and systems that will support the demands of these national sponsors.  “Are they willing to own the problem?” Tiernan asks, only somewhat rhetorically.

“Look, we’re not NASCAR. Why can’t we be the best of what we are,” said Michael Goulian, “If you’re going to make a chalet, make it a great chalet. It can have a white picket fence instead of jersey barrier between barrels.”

Lavallee, who is a true air show enthusiast and has seen the Blue Angels twelve times, agrees that air shows and performers need to step up and change up what they offer the crowds, “Do something different and unexpected. From air show to air show, it’s the same show with a different background, unlike a sporting event where the outcome is unknown.”

Perhaps, air shows will never be considered a sport. The industry may never have more fans than spectators. But air shows allow people to dream big.

“Do what you love. Do it to the best of your ability. Take chances in life to get what you want. That’s the message that air shows and air show pilots deliver so well,” said Goulian. “To do what we’re doing and succeed at it, we had to have a dream and aggressively pursue that dream. Any of us could have made more money flying a Gulf Stream with normal hours and less risk. But that doesn’t motivate us. What motivates us is that we want to do something that we were born to do.”

And that passion IS marketable, both locally and nationally. The challenge and the opportunity is to structure our business and our individual air shows in such a way that we are better able to work with sponsors to share this with the millions of fans and spectators who already find air shows so compelling.

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Deb Mitchell
Deb Mitchell is a former broadcast journalist who ran the NAS Oceana Air Show in Virginia Beach, Virginia for several years and helped create the Air Show Buzz website.