How You Handle Parking Has a Lot to do with How Your Fans Like the Show

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Ask most air show fans what they are thinking about when they are walking back to their cars after the show and it probably won’t be the entertainment they saw. Instead, they will likely tell you that they dread fighting the traffic as they begin their drive home…and with good reason. At big shows and small, ICAS spectator surveys consistently show that parking and traffic are the things most in need of improvement. Just the anticipation of traffic problems is enough to keep some people from coming out to the show.

Unlike stadiums or arenas where traffic flow and parking are part of their overall design, there is no airport in the country designed to accommodate the crunch of thousands of vehicles arriving within a few hours, then trying to squeeze their way back out within a 30-45 minute window after the show ends. While there are no simple answers to any complex problem, there are guidelines that we all can follow to improve our chances of success.

“To ensure that this part of your show goes as smoothly as possible requires teamwork, planning and preparation,” says Lieutenant Colonel Pete Horne who has been parking cars at the Air National Guard base in North Kingstown, Rhode Island for the past 14 years. “Teamwork includes bringing together the people who actually park the cars as well as the various law enforcement agencies who will be at work on the roads and highways coming into and out of the show. Planning means getting everyone together well in advance of the show to develop a strategy and work out the details, while communication means everything from frequent contact with these agencies prior to the show to constant contact between the parking teams when fans are arriving and departing,” he said. 

One Key to Success: Entry/Exit Points

While parking and traffic issues may never completely go away, improving the air show fan experience starts with having enough gates into the show to minimize the lines, and even more gates out to maximize the flow of traffic off the field. Indeed, most veterans agree that increasing the number of entrance and egress points is the single most important thing an air show event organizer can do to ease parking and traffic problems. “My advice is to use as many gates as you can to get people into and out of the show. Enormous lines will buy you a lot of bad will with your fans. They remember those things more than they remember the show,” says air show consultant Mike McCabe.

Multiple gates are used effectively at Sun n’ Fun in Florida. Over the past 30 years, show organizers have redesigned their parking system at least three times, making numerous improvements to get cars off the roads coming into the airport and into parking as quickly as possible. “One thing we did that really helped was to eliminate as many intersections as possible because they force people to make choices and that slows traffic,” said one of Sun n’ Fun’s parking bosses, Steve Thomas. Almost all of Sun n’ Fun’s traffic is general admission and spectators come through three main gates.

Multiple gates aren’t always possible, however. At the California International Air Show in Salinas, they have only one entrance, but they are able to maximize traffic flow by establishing four inbound lanes which allows them to quickly and smoothly handle the 4,000 cars coming in each day. Going out, they have an exit for each of the parking lots which takes the traffic in different directions to avoid choke points. “This works well for us because we have plenty of signs throughout our parking lots showing fans where to exit,” said Steve Naslund, Director of Ground Operations for the Salinas show.

Charging for parking is another potential choke point that needs to be well thought out and carefully executed to avoid traffic backing up. The Abbotsford International Air Show in Abbotsford, British Columbia has been charging a carload price at its gates for decades without major traffic snarls. “We use two main entrance gates, but we have multiple lanes per gate. We encourage purchasing tickets on line. There is no price break for advance tickets, but the major advantage to fans is that they get to enter through a separate gate which means they get on the field faster,” said Ron Price, President of the Abbotsford event. But whether you charge for parking or collect for admission as the cars come in, it only works if you have enough people staffing the gates to avoid congestion.

The Art and Science of Parking Management

Once the cars come through the gate, they have to know where to go and the available space has to be used efficiently to get fans in quickly and as close to the show as possible. The mantra at the California International Air Show in Salinas is “Rack ‘em, pack ‘em and stack ‘em.” But this only works if the parking areas are well laid out for the most efficient use of the available space.

Chuck Newcomb has been producing the Cleveland National Air Show for decades and he has parking down to a science. “I know that each car takes up about 300 square feet. We park them in two rows, nose to tail, with about three feet between them. This means I can park about 145 to 150 cars per acre,” he said.

This is good science, but it requires the lots to be adequately marked and the parking well organized so cars don’t take more space than they need and are not crammed into a lot haphazardly. The Cleveland event uses cones and colored stakes to mark the parking lots and to build the rows. Some shows use herbicides to spray lines onto grass fields. Others put down chalk lines. Still others use stakes and run ropes down the middle of the rows.

But the actual parking spaces are only one part of the equation. Getting the right volunteers to assist with parking can be even more important.

Most shows have discovered that youth groups make the most reliable source of parking volunteers. They can better stand the heat, the long hours and the dust that goes with the job. And teenage volunteers are often available in the kind of large numbers needed to staff an air show parking operation. Obviously, they need good adult supervision, but youth groups are always looking for fund raisers and parking cars at air shows is a good way for them to make money. A good rule of thumb is 3-4 adults for 20 students. The adults not only supervise; they provide authoritative backup for kids when spectators choose to ignore the directions they are being given.

Once the groups (children or adults) are on board, they will need some level of training. Since they are on the front line and the first people encountered by spectators, they need to know what is happening and be able to provide specific directions and accurate information.

For Sun n’ Fun, this means teaming newcomers with experienced people. Most shows have meetings with the parking team in advance to discuss expectations and to educate those who will be parking cars for the first time. Experienced shows also want their entire parking team at the show at least one full hour before the gates open and deploy them as needed. When traffic peaks, the entire team is on the field. Before and after the peak, parking team members can schedule breaks to get food and water. Some shows keep a supply of water at each lot for those who are parking cars. They also provide portable restrooms at each lot for the convenience of the parking crew.

Some spectators like to get to the airport early and shows need to be prepared when they arrive. It’s axiomatic that those who arrive first usually get the best parking closest to the field. This is not only a perk for early arrivals, but filling the lot from the point closest to the field is also a major safety consideration. Other air show veterans point out that it is counterproductive to reward late comers with choice parking spots.

Another key to smooth parking is to make sure the volunteers who are parking the lots are visible. “Think through your parking plan as if you are a driver showing up to the show for the first time. You want to enter, park, get to where you’re going, then find your car when the show is over,” Newcomb says.

To be visible, parking volunteers should be both plentiful and stand out from the crowd. At the Cleveland show, each person parking cars wears a reflective vest and carries an orange flag. “These are inexpensive yet effective tools that help drivers keep moving in the right direction. I want spectators to see someone with a flag pointing them in the right direction all along the pathway from the gate to their parking spot,” Newcomb said.

The Blessings and Challenges of Shuttle Busses

Many airports don’t have enough parking for spectators, requiring the use of remote parking locations with bus service to the show site. Some shows charge for bus transportation. Others offer it free as an incentive not to park on the airport. Others provide free transportation as an incentive to purchase tickets in advance. Some communities are even able to use light rail service to the show. Others are able to use school buses while some hire a bus company to provide the service. Some shows collect tickets at these remote locations so spectators who ride the busses are brought right to the show and breeze through the admission gates. At some military shows, passengers can be screened before they board the bus, allowing them to avoid screening lines when they arrive at the show site.

The Rhode Island National Guard Open House even puts greeters on their buses. “People getting onto our busses are welcomed aboard, receive a short briefing and are told what they can and can’t bring into the show. This gives them the opportunity to take items back to their cars before leaving,” said Horne. At each bus stop, they also have large signs listing what spectators can and can’t bring with them.

At the KC Aviation Expo in Kansas City, there is no on-field parking available at all. Kansas City depends entirely on remote parking. The show organizers move up to 35,000 people per show day using 80 busses. They run from 8:30 in the morning until the last spectator leaves the airport in the evening. “The bus ride in and out is included in the price of a ticket and the tickets are sold on line which speeds the process,” said Safety Director Ray Olsen. “It’s smooth and efficient and we can get every spectator back to their car in less than an hour after the show.”

Busses can be a god-send for shows if there is adequate planning. This includes having enough busses to avoid long lines at either end, and having busses that meet requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, better known as ADA. “Not all of our busses are ADA compliant, so we make sure we have volunteers standing by to steer wheelchairs and other special needs spectators to the right busses,” Olsen said.

The Abbotsford show is fortunate in that it has enough room to be able to park most of its fans on the field, but — for late arrivals — that means a long walk to the show, which can be a problem for some. “We have people movers that can haul 25 people at a time. We use a dozen of them providing transportation in both directions and our fans really appreciate the lift,” said Ron Price.

Planning for Success, Contingencies

There is no substitute for sound planning when it comes to parking because problems arise and if you don’t have a plan in place to deal with issues they can quickly become nightmares. “What if a motorist gets in line not intending to go to the show and doesn’t know how to get out?  You have to be aware of the potential and have a plan thought out because it happens all the time,” Newcomb said. Or what happens if someone with a VIP pass comes in the wrong gate?  Are your people prepared to deal with this scenario?

A few issues to consider:

Larger than expected crowds.  Do you have overflow parking? How will increased volume impact your traffic? Luke Air Force Base had significantly larger crowds at its show this year. “At the gates, we expected larger crowds than we had in 2007, but our screeners were quickly overwhelmed by the larger number of fans. We doubled the number of screeners the next day and that still didn’t meet the demand,” said Air Show Director Dave Edwards. At one point, he said, they considered switching to random screening to speed the process, but when they discovered two people carrying pistols they decided to stick with screening every spectator before they boarded the busses.

At the Florida International Air Show in Punta Gorda this spring, contingency planning saved event organizers and spectators additional problems. This year’s show saw the biggest crowd in the event’s 29-year history. Fortunately, show organizers anticipated this problem and had four busses on standby to transport people from the overflow lot onto the field.

Rain. Prolonged periods of rain in the days leading up to your show can render some parking lots unusable. If that happens, what is your fall back position? And if you are likely to need material like dirt, wood chips or bales of hay to fill in puddles, you will have to stage them in advance because you’ll never get them there during the show.

Tow trucks. Where there are large numbers of vehicles, there will always be problems and where there are problems there should be tow trucks….not to penalize fans, but to help them. Cars are sometimes parked in the wrong spots creating a safety or access issue. Batteries go dead. Or people get locked out of their cars. At Sun n’ Fun, their tow truck has to give jump starts to a dozen cars a day. At Abbotsford, if a fan parks in the wrong spot, the tow truck operator will simply move the vehicle to a more convenient location. At the Salinas show, when a fan has a car problem, a volunteer immediately places an orange cone on the car to help the tow truck driver find it quickly.

Even One Person Can Make a Difference

When it comes to parking cars, always expect the unexpected. If it can be imagined, it can be managed.  The trick is to learn from your experience as well as the experience of others. Most people don’t come to an air show with the intent of causing problems. But some of them end up causing problems anyway. Few are ever catastrophic. Many can test the patience of even the most seasoned parking volunteer. And whether it is a driver coming to the show or a volunteer parking cars, even one person can have an impact.

Chuck Newcomb remembers producing an air show in Florida some years ago where traffic at one of the gates was backed up for two miles. When he went to investigate, he discovered an overly friendly volunteer who liked to talk with each of the fans as they came to her gate, completely oblivious to the problem she was causing. Once she was replaced, traffic started moving again.

Bonus: Some Additional Parking and Traffic Tips

  1. Most air show veterans agree that traffic problems are usually parking problems. When the process of getting cars through your gate and into parking spots is not efficient, traffic starts to back up and there can be a domino effect all the way back onto the interstate or freeway.
  2. On the streets and highways surrounding your show grounds, let experienced law enforcement professionals direct traffic.
  3. Think outside the box. If it occurs to you, as an example, that many of your parking and traffic problems would be solved if only there were an additional gate onto the airport, consider working with airport officials to add that gate. Even if it costs a couple of thousand dollars and remains padlocked for 362 days of the year, it may make the difference between traffic success and traffic nightmare.
  4. Provide the media with detailed information on parking and traffic. Enlist your local newspapers, television stations and radio stations in spreading word on how your system will work and what spectators can do to avoid traffic.
  5. Consider some type of pre- or post-air show event to stagger traffic. A pancake breakfast before the show or a concert after the show, perhaps.
  6. Remember that your cooler policy impacts your parking lot. If you prohibit coolers on show grounds, be sure to have adequate signing in your parking areas so that your spectators don’t have to learn the hard way when they walk from their car to the gate and then have to walk all the way back to their car.
  7. Rule of Thumb #1:  The amount of time you spend and expertise you commit to developing and executing your parking and traffic plan should be inversely proportional to the number of times your show (with its existing team) has executed that plan. That is, a new show should plan on spending many, many hours on developing and improving your parking and traffic plan. An established show with an experienced crew can likely spend much less time.
  8. Rule of Thumb #2: You should not expect your able-bodied spectators to walk more than 15 minutes from their vehicles to the air show viewing location. Any more than that and you should expect to provide some kind of vehicular shuttle system.
  9. Rule of Thumb #3: More entrances and exits will improve traffic flow. And all of those entrances and exits need to be staffed with volunteers to keep traffic moving.
  10. Eliminate traffic and parking related decision making by your spectators. If your parking plan has options and intersections, your spectators will each be forced to pause as they may a decision. Those collective pauses will dramatically slow down your traffic. Eliminate decisions and insist that everybody follow your prescribed route onto and off of the airport.
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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.