Volunteer Recruitment and Management as an Air Show Sustainability Tool

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Sustainability has become a major issue for the air show industry, not just in North America, but around the world. Over the past two years, more than 25 air shows have shut down or been put on hold, many with a track record of ten years or more. Financial woes, lack of local leadership willing to invest the time and energy, volunteer burnout and stale entertainment are the major reasons given. Throughout this year, Air Shows Magazine is examining these issues in depth. This article, focusing on volunteers, is the fourth in a four-part series providing ideas to help overcome some of the hurdles that show organizers are facing.

Anyone who has ever produced an air show knows one hard fact above all others: You can’t put on an air show without volunteers. They are the core of every event. There may be exceptions to this reality, but not many. Even most military installations, where officers and enlistees alike are often “voluntold” to support the event, must still rely on some number of true volunteers to fill all of the gaps. “I haven’t seen a show that can run without them,” said event consultant Marvona Welsh. And their importance can’t be understated. “They aren’t employees who are paid to do what you ask. They come with what is inside their hearts and must be respected and treated accordingly,” she said.

Given the importance of this segment of our industry, questions often arise regarding the best way to recruit, manage and take care of these often unsung heroes who give of their time, their talents and their skills for the good of the show.

Recruiting Your Volunteer Team 

Attracting quality volunteers to work at an air show can be vexing. Many of the jobs are hard and the rewards are few. And, once they have had a taste of it, many of them don’t return. But there are ways to deal with this problem. More often than not, recruiting of volunteers is done by word-of-mouth with volunteers and committee heads talking to friends and family, cajoling and coercing them into air show servitude. Some who sign up like it and stay for the long haul. Others wonder why they ever got involved and, after their first show, never come back.

So where do you go to find skilled, hard working, dependable people with a bent toward community service? “I’ll often go to other events in our community and set up an air show booth to attract volunteers,” said Welsh. She also targets aviation organizations such as local chapters of the Experimental Aircraft Association, Civil Air Patrol and the 99s. And she also turns to college campuses that have classes or courses in the hospitality industry. Articles in local newspapers announcing recruiting drives also work well for her. Most volunteers aren’t aviation-oriented. They just have a passion for doing something good in their community, from selling ads in the air show program to picking up garbage when the show is over.

Shows in small communities generally have the toughest time recruiting enough good volunteers to meet their needs because the pool of available and dependable people is so small to start with. Recruiting is usually done by word of mouth and any warm body willing to work is welcomed. And the smaller the show, the less distinction there is between functions. The organizational lines tend to blur. People do what is needed regardless of their primary function. If the logistics committee needs help setting up parking barricades, someone in air operations may be asked to pitch in. And by the end of the day, this spirit of cooperation gets the job done.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the large show with the formal structure, complete with application forms. “I distribute application forms to a variety of organizations, then screen the responses. This way I can invite those that I think are the most likely to contribute what we need,” said Welsh.

While some organizers disdain the formality of an application or a job description, Welsh likes them because they not only yield useful information to the show organizers, they also can be used to make clear the expectations of volunteers. “Some people think they can show up, work a couple of hours and get a free T-shirt. The job descriptions spell out in advance what they will be required to do and how much time they will be required to commit,” she said.

Descriptions also clear up any confusion about the job.  For example, at one of her events an individual volunteered to be a designated driver thinking he would be driving pilots around to the various social events. He was surprised to learn when he read the job description that the job required him to drive around those who had too much to drink at the social functions.

At the Amigo Airsho in El Paso, Texas, they take this approach one step further. “We have Team Airsho where volunteers apply to join our event and pay $10.00 to be a member,” said Amigo Airsho Executive Director Terrie Todd. And that includes the president and directors. As odd as it may seem to ask volunteers to pay for the privilege of donating their time, she said it works amazingly well. “We work them hard, but by being a dues-paying member of the show, they feel a sense of ownership and commitment and respond accordingly,” Todd said.

The Amigo Airsho, like many other large events, has a volunteer coordinator whose primary task is the recruitment, organization, care and feeding of the volunteers. The volunteers are divided into teams based on the needs of the show and the background of the volunteers. Teams meet regularly, but there is a difference in how Amigo’s meetings are held. “Our meetings aren’t called meetings.  We call them parties no matter what the purpose and we celebrate at every one with food and fun,” Todd said.

There is another twist to the Amigo approach. On air show weekend, they hold individual events to support the air show rather than having an air show that needs individual areas of support. This is an important difference. “For example, our parking team doesn’t park air show cars. Instead, they hold a parking event at the air show. The same is true for the rest of our organization. That way, they have no doubt what they are doing and they do it very well,” Todd said.

In sharp contrast is the way that other shows follow the old NASA model of the 1960s that made sure everyone in the organization, from the janitor to the flight director, knew they were involved in putting a man on the moon no matter their individual task.  “Everybody is part of our mission to put on the best show no matter what their job is,” said Kevin Walsh who runs the Thunder over Michigan show near Detroit. With this model, Walsh said everyone in his organization feels that their job is as important as any other job, and that — without them — the show would fail.

Creativity can also be used in recruitment. “Our trash collection team, for example, is known as the FOD Squad and they have developed such a strong reputation that we have more volunteers for that duty than we can handle because they really are a team and they are having fun,” Welsh said.  She also has a group she describes as real go-getters which she calls her Special Forces group which can tackle about any task handed to them.

The Abbotsford, British Columbia air show has an enviable record of having put on an event for 40 years. What started as a small air show has grown to become Canada’s national air show and, over the years, has built up a group of volunteers who come back year after year because they enjoy being part of something big and important to the community, to the region and to the nation. But that doesn’t relieve them of the need to recruit new people to the organization. “We recruit primarily through groups that are already involved with us. We like to rely on the people who know what we are looking for,” said show director Ron Price.

And this approach works well for them. “At the end of our show, our people feel they have seen and done something very special. It can be a long day for some of our volunteers and, by the end of the show, many of them can be dusty and tired, but they still have the spirit and want to return the following year.  Everybody pitches in to help,” Price said.

Putting Them to Work 

No matter how volunteers are recruited, they have to be assigned to functions they are willing to perform and have the skills to do the job. “We build our teams based on skill sets, just like a sports team,” Walsh said. “You have to put people in the position that fits them best.” But he said that’s not a hard and fast rule. “We often find people who want to do something outside their skill set. A medical technician, for example, may want to work on parking or tickets, and we will give them the opportunity.”

For a lot of shows, the burden of recruiting is placed entirely on individual committee chairs or directors. “Every chairperson knows ten or fifteen people who will volunteer and they, in turn, know others. If a chairperson gets in a jam and needs more people, we start soliciting from our sponsors and other companies who are involved with us,” said Barb Haluszka, director of the Battle Creek Balloon Championships and Air Show in Battle Creek, Michigan.

In Cape Girardeau, Missouri, recruiting volunteers for the Cape Girardeau Regional Air Festival was difficult because the show was always held over the 4th of July. “Our solution to this problem was simply to move the show to a different weekend when more people were available. It cut down on the revolving door that we were seeing in our volunteers and increased overall participation,” said airport manager and air show director Bruce Loy.

Many shows are turning to the internet to assist their recruiting efforts by posting volunteer applications and job descriptions which can be easily accessed by anyone interested in serving. Media partners also carry recruitment messages on their web sites and provide links to the show web site.

While the organizational structure can be as formal or as informal as show organizers like, Welsh recommends reviewing the organizational structure and committee positions after every show to make sure all the needs are being met. If something new arises during the show, it may require a new committee or a change in function of an existing committee to deal with it, but the annual review right after the show addresses the issue before it is lost in memory.

Communications is Vital 

There is no substitute for frequent communications when it comes to keeping volunteers involved. And the folks at Abbotsford believe the importance of frequent communications can’t be underestimated. “Volunteers own the program. They are the first to meet the public, are constantly interacting with our spectators, and absolutely need to know what is going on before anyone else does,” said Price.

But communications can take on many forms, from the informal to the formal. Some small shows, for example, gaggle their volunteers a day or two before the event, divide them into teams and get on with the work. It gets the job done, but they don’t always know what’s happening. Larger shows use e-mail to communicate with their volunteers year-around. “We make sure we inform our volunteers of everything new before we announce it to the community. It helps them feel that they are part of the program,” said Brett Krause, director of the Prairie Air Show in Peoria, Illinois.

Some shows hold volunteer meetings once a month to provide updates, while others will assemble their volunteers six months or ninety days in advance of their event to share the schedule and make work assignments. Some shows even have manuals for their volunteers to explain appropriate conduct, with rules on drinking, driving, operations and how to handle emergencies. Meetings become more frequent as the show draws closer and more specific information is shared.

“I like to walk our volunteers around the field prior to the show to point out where everything is, such as VIP parking, restrooms, first aid and lost and found. We also go over the rules about who gets in free and who has to pay. Show days are a lot less hectic when you go over things like this ahead of time,” said Welsh.

Some shows rely on the executive director or president to maintain communication with the volunteer corps while others turn that responsibility over to a volunteer coordinator or to the individual committee chairs. In the case of the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum in Reading, Pennsylvania, they draw their volunteers largely from their membership base and communicate through the museum’s monthly news letter.

“We publish air show information in our newsletter beginning in January. We hold our first volunteer meeting in March and ask our committee chairs to describe each activity so members can decide where they want to work,” said museum president Russ Strine. Following the meeting, they pass out sign-up sheets and work schedules. “Our members are willing to support the show for the good of the museum. We are our own charity and they want the event to succeed,” Strine said.

Successful show organizers also understand that communications is a two way street. “You have to be open to new and fresh ideas. New volunteers want to feel like they are making a difference and may have some good ideas to improve the way a show is run,” said Todd.

Some shows debrief their volunteers, formally or informally, during as well as following the show to get feedback to improve the event. “We have a swamp in the evenings during the show where volunteers can gather to decompress, tell stories, laugh, cry, and share ideas. We make note of their recommendations and do what we can to implement them,” Haluszka said.

The Prairie Air Show, like many others, does a formal debrief after the event. “We hold our first one right after the show, away from the field, to get their ideas and their input.  Then we hold another one several months later to get them excited about doing it again next year,” Krause said.

Care and Feeding 

Volunteers must be made to feel special and that their contributions are appreciated and this includes meeting their basic needs. Many shows provide hats and T-shirts to distinguish their volunteers from spectators, while others don’t feel the need. Some shows can’t afford to feed their volunteers, while others can only afford to feed their volunteers hamburgers and hot dogs during the weekend of the event. Most large shows are well enough financed that they provide food and beverages for their volunteers not only while they are working at the show, but at every meeting throughout the year.

“You have to feed your volunteers and provide them water throughout the day of the event or most are going to leave the field and won’t come back,” Welsh believes. This can be in the form of a separate area where they can go to get food and drink or it can be coupons to use at the food concessions. Some shows use local caterers who will do it for free or at a reduced rate. Many shows feed their volunteers in their VIP areas, so they can mingle with the show sponsors and get better food than they otherwise might get if they were fed in a separate area.

The show in Tucumcari, New Mexico, is a small show, but it’s the biggest event that the Rotary Club does and they go all out. “We do a big shrimp boil for our performers and volunteers and their families prior to the show. It’s quite a mix of people that can include former astronauts to local business leaders and it’s about the only time our volunteers get to meet our performers,” said Bob McClelland who is in charge of the show.

For some shows, it’s a hangar dance the night before that brings everyone together. At Abbotsford, it’s a volunteer barbeque. “We feed them and provide refreshments and even line up rides for them with our club members,” said Price. He notes that many of their volunteers never get a chance to fly in a light plane otherwise and said some have never flown at all.

Training is also a necessary component of caring for volunteers. They must know what is expected of them and be shown how to do their jobs in some cases.

There is No Substitute for Saying Thank You 

For some shows, a simple “thank you” from the president of the event is all they can afford and often, that’s enough. It can take the form of a one-on-one pat on the back, or a hand shake. Some shows prepare certificates of appreciation which they give to each volunteer. Often, this is done at a post-show barbeque, a “survivor party” or other event where everyone can decompress, swap stories and shake off the stress. But no matter how it is done, volunteers need to know their efforts were appreciated. “People may volunteer for a couple of years, but — if they don’t hear that they are appreciated — they will drop out,” Welsh said.

At the Amigo Airsho, they hold a traditional post-show party where sponsors are invited, but this event is held to recognize the volunteers. “This is a tribute to our volunteers for what they do for the community. We recognize a “top gun” from each of our organizations, hand out a President’s Award to someone who goes above and beyond, and give certificates to every volunteer,” Todd said. She emphasized the importance of this type of recognition, noting that volunteers all get paid the same. “You can’t thank them enough. Whether they are the president or a parking attendant, people want to be appreciated,” Todd said. She noted that volunteers need to be thanked at least seven times to really feel appreciated.

While some shows bestow a Volunteer of the Year award on a hard working individual, others shy away from it, due to the potential for hurt feelings. “You will make one person happy, but you run the risk of making a lot of hard working people very unhappy,” Welsh said.

Bret Krause of the Prairie Air Show echoed her comments. “We used to do a volunteer of the year award, but we found out we were losing people who were disappointed they weren’t nominated or chosen. They felt they had gone the extra mile and weren’t recognized, so they didn’t come back,” he said.

Other great ideas to thank volunteers include recognizing birthdays, giving out trinkets gathered from the ICAS convention to volunteers who can name all the performers, or have drawings for rides with performers and display aircraft, and recognizing exemplary efforts in newsletters.

The Bottom Line 

While there are variations of recruitment and management of volunteers from show to show, there are some universal truths that all subscribe to.

The first truth is the need to say thank you. It can’t be said enough. This can be done in a variety of ways, from the simple hand shake to a formal certificate. It can include a video of photographs taken of the event and shared at gatherings or give copies to each volunteer. In the words of Kevin Walsh, “Make them feel like they are VIPs.”

A second truth is the need to make sure volunteers have a positive experience. Expect them to work, but don’t leave them in the hot sun for twelve hours. Face it: Some air show jobs stink and it’s not fair to stick someone with that kind of job all day.

A third truth is to allow volunteers to take ownership of their job. Tell them what to do, make sure they have the resources they need, then get out of their way. Don’t try to tell them how to do it. Just explain what needs to be done.

A fourth truth is that food and water go a long way toward keeping volunteers happy and keeping them coming back. How much you are able to do depends largely on your budget and your level of sponsorship support, but even a token effort is better than none.

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Mike Berriochoa
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.