The New Age of Guerilla Marketing: How Enterprising Air Show Event Organizers Create Marketing Opportunities


When the Canadian Forces Snowbirds first contacted the Duluth Air and Aviation Expo with the proposition of performing at its show if the dates could be changed to a weekday in late May, Ryan Kern, the show manager, was not about to miss such an opportunity. While changing the dates of the show to May was a non-starter, Kern’s mind immediately began cycling through the various ways the show might leverage the Snowbirds’ willingness to perform in May as a tool to promote its show in July.

“I think everyone in our community knows there’s an air show here; they’ve just never been to one,” said Kern. “How do you give them a taste of what it’s like?” The answer took the form of Duluth’s inaugural “Air Show Spectacular,” a one-day, one-act, mid-week performance by the Snowbirds on Duluth’s Lake Superior waterfront, entirely free to the general public.

The Duluth show took a calculated risk…wagering a large amount of its marketing resources that by whetting the appetite of the community with a small taste of an air show in May, they could disproportionately lift paid attendance at the “real” two-day show in July. “The Air Show Spectacular turned into this massive event,” said Kern. “The show was a whole 28 minutes long, but 60,000 to 70,000 people came to watch. Almost every media outlet in the entire state got involved.”

More importantly, with Duluth abuzz about air shows after the Snowbirds’ May appearance, the momentum carried over to July. “The effect on the July show was absolutely huge,” said Kern. “Our Saturday was the largest attendance we’ve ever had…and that was with bad weather. But we sold so many advanced tickets in May because of the Air Show Spectacular. People were just eating them up.”

While few event organizers are going to wake up one day and have the Snowbirds fall into their laps, the experience in Duluth nonetheless is illustrative of a new age of marketing strategy in the air show industry. This new type of marketing strategy emphasizes creative and cost-efficient use of a show’s available resources — its “assets” — in new ways to get increased marketing exposure. Those assets can translate to traditional radio, television, and newspaper advertising. But some of the assets can be used as the foundation for integrated sponsorships that bring exposure in innovative formats, which are limited only by the time and imagination a show can invest in the process.

What Are an Air Show’s “Assets?”

“Assets” vary by show and geographic market, but include opportunities or media that can be jointly leveraged by the show and/or its sponsors—the overall cachet of the show in your community, the ability to run contests with performers, relationships with local companies and governmental agencies, exposure to your spectators, and, of course, the desire of local media outlets to attach themselves in some manner to the show. Identifying assets involves examining these relationships and how they can be inter-connected. In short, what does an event organizer possess that someone else might find of value?

From a pure exposure point of view, Kim Dell of the Cleveland Air Show floods her local air waves with radio advertising each year, but does so with only a small cash outlay, leveraging any and all assets of the show to maximize effect. In 2008, for instance, Dell actually purchased $12,000 in radio advertising, but — using cross promotional and sponsorship opportunities — parlayed that small ad buy into marketing exposure with a total value of $566,000, involving 50 radio stations.

“Radio and TV stations always are dealing with excess inventory, inventory that is of great value to us,” said Dell. “You just need to take a bit of time to do some research in order to determine where the opportunities are. You’re talking about win-win situations, so you’re more than likely going to have a receptive audience with the radio and TV stations.”

That “win-win” situation is predicated on the event organizer knowing what assets it has to trade. Radio and TV stations—and to a lesser degree, newspapers—always are eager to run contests. Rides with performers, VIP tickets, and inverted ribbon cut pole-holding opportunities are the easiest to leverage, according to Dell, but there are hundreds of opportunities in and around a show that can be traded with media and other types of companies to acquire high-impact exposure at virtually no cost. “It’s just a matter of knowing what your assets are,” said Dell, “knowing what you have to trade and knowing what you want in return.”

Thinking in a 360-Degree World

According to Bryan Lilley of the Ocean City (Maryland) Air Show, an event organizer has to think beyond traditional media and existing relationships to identify some of its best assets. Lilley made trades for more than 1,000 radio spots with Clear Channel radio stations in his area, but he is particularly proud of the relationships he has cultivated with the Ocean City Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Maryland Office of Tourism. Both have provided wide distribution of promotional materials to prospective spectators across the region at no cost to the show.

“The office of tourism controls the [highway] welcome centers and they’ll place materials out there throughout the year,” said Little. “But they also have e-mail lists of 100,000 people that they hit on a regular basis, so they really help us to reach people in the western part of Maryland, as well as in central Pennsylvania, which is where we get the largest portion of our audience.” Lilley is a proponent of this type of guerilla marketing, looking for opportunities in non-traditional formats at little or no cost. It was this interest in non-traditional marketing tactics that prompted him to contact representatives from the state lottery about a scratch-off game with an air show theme that will use tickets to VIP areas at his show and rides with performers among its prizes.

Once a show begins thinking in such guerilla marketing terms, it’s almost like the opportunities for free publicity appear out of thin air. For his part, Kern appears to have mastered this strategy in Duluth, leveraging one asset of the show to gain another, which he’ll trade for something else that, in turn, he’ll trade for something entirely different, dripping a trail of marketing exposure along the way.

“We start by signing up our media partners: the radio and TV stations, the local transit authority, and the billboards,” said Kern. “Then, I find ways to leverage those relationships to promote something other than the air show. So, I go to my performers — Greg Poe for instance — and I say, ‘I don’t want you to just fly the show; I want you to allocate me a certain number of VIP rides to use in a promotion. I take that to the largest casino chain around and have them promote the heck out of a contest to win a gut-wrenching, thrill ride with Greg Poe as part of the Duluth Air Show. Now, the casino is running promotions to promote the heck out of Greg Poe because someone from the million plus people who see the promotion on the casino’s in-house TV advertising is  going to win the thrill ride with Greg.”

But Kern doesn’t stop there. By the time the deals are completed, there is a cartwheel of leveraged assets sprinkled throughout the community in movie theatres, grocery stores, on radio stations, and at local casinos. And he hasn’t spent a dime in the process. It does take time and some creative thinking, he said, but that is the only limiting factor.

Kern started another “cartwheel” with the premise of wanting to “wrap” a local transit bus with an air show advertisement. Rather than pay $5,000 to the bus company, he asked them, “’What if I can get the wrap donated,’” he said, “’Can I put the ad on for no cost?’ So, then I go to the company that manufactures the wrap and they want $3,000, but I say, ‘What if I can get a photo of the bus, promoting your company, on screens at movie theatres? Then I go to the movie theatre and give them a thrill ride on a B-24 bomber, which they promote as a contest in their theatres along with a photo of the wrapped bus, which also is promoting our show. In the process, they give us 100 free movie passes, some of which we give to a local radio station as part of another contest promoting the air show. Then we use some of the additional movie passes to promote an Internet contest of our own. We had four separate promotions without spending a dollar.”

Integrated Sponsorships

Allowing sponsors to become true partners in the promotion of the show is what works for Kern and it is an experience that Lilley has seen work in Ocean City, as well. Lilley suggested that the most valuable sponsorships for both companies and shows are those that integrate most directly with the show. “There’s a lot more value to businesses if they can see the impact, if their investment in a sponsorship actually makes them part of the show,” he said. “Identify the most unique assets that you can offer that no one else can offer, what we call ‘integrated sponsorships,’ and leverage the heck out of them.”

As an example, Lilley wasn’t eager to pay for the production costs of street banners along Ocean City’s three-mile boardwalk, but he certainly was eager to have such fabulous exposure for the show. Then he figured the production costs would be a drop in the bucket for the right sponsor, particularly since the banners aren’t available to corporations. “We can get the banner space at no cost for three months, but the sponsor can’t buy that space themselves at any price,” he said. “So, we include the sponsor’s logo on our air show promotion banners and they get three months of advertising that they can’t buy themselves. Now, how much more valuable is that to the sponsor than being one of 15 logos at the bottom of a poster?”

How to launch such conversations with sponsors can be a challenge for event organizers, according to Dell. She conducts every such conversation to determine what she can get for free through integrated sponsorships. “Go at it with no money first, something like, ‘Hi, would you like to give some tickets away in a contest?’” she said. “The cachet of the air show gets your foot in the door.”

The Internet — Completing the Circle

A robust, easy-to-use website is a necessary common denominator for this style of non-traditional air show marketing. The right kind of website not only provides the natural call to action in all outbound marketing, but also provides the opportunity to sell tickets in advance of the show.

“Far and away, the website is your most important tool. It streamlines other things we used to do,” said Dell. “For example, we don’t print posters anymore. At a fraction of the cost, you can get that information out their on your website.”

Likewise, as event organizers take inventory of their assets, leveraging the social networking and blogging functions of the so-called “Web 2.0” should be an important component of the discussion. Roger Bishop of the Indianapolis Air Show took that plunge this year by channeling the enthusiasm of existing air show enthusiasts. “We figured these were people who were aficionados, but never go out to see the show,” he said. “I made 40 pairs of tickets available to people who blogged about our show and I encouraged them to blog about their air show experience. Once they blogged about the show, it spread like wildfire.” 

While shows should be pro-active in perpetuating blogging and social networking on sites such as Facebook, My Space, Youtube, and Air Show Buzz, this activity presupposes that a show has clear goals about what it wants people to do when they arrive back at their own air show site. While a site should be filled with content about your show and should be updated regularly to encourage people to return, too many shows emphasize content over what should be the primary purpose of any air show site: selling tickets! 

“Some websites are too interested in telling everyone everything about the show, making it too difficult or confusing to buy a ticket,” said John Haak of Click ‘n Print Tickets. “Buying a ticket is the number one thing people want to do. Some shows want to boast about the performers they’ve lined up for the show, rather than sell tickets. Don’t use the space to tell too much about acts; use the space to tell them how to buy a ticket. Make them an offer they can’t refuse and sell the ticket now. I shouldn’t have to click twice before I learn how to buy a ticket. It should be right there in a prominent position on your home page.”

While some air shows remain dubious about selling advanced tickets on the internet, Bishop isn’t on that list. “Five years ago, the bulk of ticket sales were done at a retailer who was your partner and you’d get most of the ticket sales long in advance,” he said. “This year, the bulk occurred online within a couple days of the event. It’s a little scary. It’s like having a wedding and not getting any RSVPs until the last week.”

Incentive pricing is another tool that not enough shows utilize, according to Haak. “When people say advanced tickets don’t work, I ask them what kind of incentive they offered,” he said. “Don’t give the show away, but there are few air shows that are charging too much. Most of them are undervaluing the show. Drop prices for those who sign up early and increase the price for those who buy on site. Give them five bucks to sign up early, so you can get the data and market to them next year.” The data, Haak insists, is what can drive serious enhancements to a show’s marketing efforts. “Get the data,” he said. “Get the data. Get the data. Get the data.”

One example of how acquiring data opens new marketing opportunities is through a new “stocking-stuffer” program that Haak introduced to his partners in 2007. “Normally, December is our worst month,” he said. “Last year, it was the second best month. For one client, we sold more stocking-stuffer tickets in December than they had sold regular tickets back in June. All of the sudden, my worst month became my second best month because everyone’s buying something in December. And it all was made possible because we had the data from the previous sales.”

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Jim Cudahy
Jim Cudahy runs Stanardsville, Virginia-based Marcomm 7, a strategic planning and marketing consulting agency.