What Makes an Air Show GREAT?

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For 362 days a year, the majority of air shows across North America operate on a scale that is representative of the non-profit status that most hold. They employ a miniscule staff. They take care to watch over every penny they spend. And they struggle to garner attention within local communities.

For three days each year, though, the shows undergo a metamorphosis, shedding all semblance of non-profit to take on the likeness of a sophisticated, highly complex enterprise, which nonetheless must adhere to an uncompromising degree of precision that would serve as the envy of most Fortune 500 companies.

With so many moving parts and with such a fleeting window of opportunity for on-the-job training, what are the differences between those shows that are able to distinguish themselves as best of class within the air show industry? What separates the “best of the best” from those that are merely good? In short, what exactly makes an air show great?

You know it when you see it, according to Jon Melby, a veteran air show pilot. “It’s like the day after Christmas,” he says. “As a kid, we hated the day after Christmas because the fun was over.  When I leave a great air show, I have that same feeling.”

OK, it’s a feeling. But what does it take to create that feeling? What does it take for a show to become truly great? The answer is as simple as it is daunting. The answer is: Everything.

That is, an air show can focus disproportionate attention on becoming best-of-class in spectator marketing, but if it fails to achieve the highest standard with parking or concessions, the quest for greatness will come up short. A show can be the ultimate stewards of its financial resources — padding its reserves for several years — but if there aren’t enough volunteers to keep the toilets clean, the financial reserves won’t last long. And a show might hit it big one year with a military jet team and a cast of civilian performers that captures the attention and imaginations of its community, but if performers aren’t afforded the hospitality to which they are accustomed at other shows, they will not be eager to return the following year and the opportunity for sustained success may be lost.

“By almost all accounts, our industry has a large number of good shows, but a comparably small number of truly great shows,” says ICAS President John Cudahy. “Achieving air show greatness requires that the air show management team master a large number of difficult functions and that they sustain a high level of performance in all of those areas over several years. Getting and keeping that balance is extraordinarily difficult.”

Perfection – or near perfection anyway – is difficult to come by, particularly when even the largest air shows cannot justify a roster of full-time employees that an event of comparable magnitude would require. Instead, shows employ a skeletal staff that might include no more than a very few full-time personnel. They lean disproportionately on the involvement of a core group of committed volunteers in the form of a board of directors to compose the framework of its managerial structure.

Organization

If you were looking for some of the most fertile ground in the United States for agriculture, Salinas, California might rise to the top of your list. However, in looking for a community stocked with the resources that an air show might need for success — a large population base on which to draw attendance or a robust business center from which to recruit sponsorships — you’d almost certainly head somewhere other than Salinas. Yet, Salinas plays host each year to one of North America’s finest air shows, the California International Air Show.

Ask Harry Wardwell, the show’s CEO, what sets Salinas apart and he points, first and foremost, to a committed volunteer board of directors that believes deeply in the value the show brings to the community. “It all starts with our board of directors,” he says. “These are real leaders in our community, each bringing a different skill set to the show. They’re diverse. They’re well-connected in the town. They support our committee structure and they go out and reach into our community for support across all areas of the show.”

Not even Wardwell is a full-time employee in Salinas. The show relies almost exclusively on the time and energy of 13 volunteer board members to oversee a structure of somewhere between 80 to 120 committees that, in turn, devote their attention to any and every detail imaginable. “Our volunteers must provide the highest levels of customer service; they have to have that friendly, customer-oriented mentality,” he says. “We have to have delicious food within our concession areas. Our parking must be first rate. The quality of our appearance from the cleanliness of our ramps to the chalets to the seating…there must be a consistency to the look and feel that crosses all areas of the operation.”

That’s a tall order for volunteers. Consider that Wardwell asks his board together to oversee the operations within 80 to 120 distinct areas of the show. Consider the degree of perfection demanded within each area to ensure the entire show adheres to the same high standard. Finally, consider that board members and committee chairs together manage the activities of a corps of volunteers numbering anywhere from 800 to 1,000 across the three days of the show.

“The board builds the committee structure and reaches into the community for support across all areas of the show,” says Wardwell. “The board must be 100 percent committed to supporting the show.”

Volunteers

When Chuck Newcomb, executive director of the Cleveland National Air Show, climbs into a golf cart and makes his way around the show, he passes a sea of familiar faces among the volunteer crew who together are keeping watch over the event. They’re familiar faces to Newcomb, who has served as the show’s executive director for more than 30 years, but Newcomb concedes that he doesn’t necessarily know the names of every one of the show’s 1,000+ volunteers. He points to one gentleman on the tarmac who’s been coming to the show for more than a decade. No one calls him a week before the show to make sure he’ll be there. He just shows up Saturday morning at 6:00 a.m., ready for work and doesn’t leave until Monday afternoon, having provided an invaluable service to the show.

Such a spirit of volunteerism is the backbone of a great show; however, needing up to a thousand or more volunteers, a show cannot rely exclusively on relative strangers assembling en masse to perform the duties that are central to the success of the show. Great shows spread out into the community to find non-profit organizations that are capable of providing the collective human capital to fill hundreds of volunteer positions. These organizations aren’t merely showing up because they’re good sports; their organizations normally receive generous stipends that they use to fund their own activities.

Generating the pure numbers with regard to volunteers is not enough, according to Newcomb, who suggests it is equally important to know where and how to allocate this precious resource. “If I was starting my first air show, I wouldn’t know that I need someone manning a water park to deliver water here, here, and here,” he says. “That’s hard to learn and it varies a bit from venue to venue. You learn from being a little overwhelmed the first few times the gun goes off. Sometimes it feels like everyone’s’ running around with their hair on fire. If you break that down, that might be because everyone is overtaxed. If there were more human resources, it might be a less chaotic pace and might give the opportunity to be able to evaluate what you’re doing versus bailing water out of the boat for three days.”

That knowledge arrives with experience and it trickles downward through the volunteer structure, beginning with the staff and board and moving down from those in supervisory categories to those performing every manner of service at the show.

Christina Carey, director of the Fort Worth Alliance Air Show, says that volunteers need to want more than a free hot dog and a funnel cake that accompanies the experience. Volunteers need to feel vested in the experience. “We’ve been fortunate to have people who love air shows and love these types of events,” she says. “They want to show support toward the military men and women. That hits home for a lot of people and it’s their way to help out and give something back.”

Ed Downum, coordinator of the MCAS Miramar Air Show, has the luxury of being able to recruit “volunteers” from a military base, but, even then, he has to draw on the community for additional resources and it’s vital to allocate those resources across the areas of the show that need greater levels of attention. “I have about 100 people total with all of the departments on the base,” he says. “Those 100 people are involved for six months prior to the show. When we get to the air show itself, I have 2,500 volunteers – civilian and military off-duty – that support the food and beverage and information booths over the three days total that I use. I look for trustworthy, reliable people from year to year. I go to squadrons and units and get their spouses and off-duty Marines. If I run into a group that doesn’t show up with all their people, they’re not favored for use the following the year.”

That said, Wardwell suggests the excitement of the show tends to naturally attract the right type of volunteer. “They get to be around the best air show professionals in the world,” he says. “Air shows are exciting. People want to be a part of that. People work hard. Seeing it built, it happens quickly. It’s special. There’s a feeling of accomplishment to be part of it. By the end of the show, they’re dead tired. They’re cranky, but within a couple of days they’re talking about making next year better.”

White Glove VIP Service

While it is true that one common denominator of great shows is that they possess the unique ability to deliver excitement and fun to everyone who steps through the gates, great air shows recognize that not every client is created equal. Certain individuals require an extra degree of service. It goes without saying that sponsors fall squarely into this category, but so do performers.

Buzz that is created among performers who have a positive experience at a show becomes a key factor in a show’s ability to attract world-class talent. “From the performer point of view, the most important aspect to show organization is how easy the management makes it for us to do our job,” says Paul Hornick, of the Aerostars. “If we can show up and have the car ready, hotel rooms nearby, easy access to fuel, oil, and smoke oil, and a concise briefing with good visuals of the show line and box, then that is usually a telling sign of how well the rest of the show will go.”

Yes, performers are paid for their efforts, but they are nonetheless clients of the air show, according to Miramar’s Downum. “We’re paying them, but they’re our talent. We have to treat them right,” he says. “We have to make sure when they arrive they get the right paper work and information to know what’s going on that weekend, where they’re staying, their transportation is assigned, how they’re getting fed. I won’t say ‘pampered,’ but I make sure my staff takes care of my performers to include my announcers. When they arrive, if they have any questions, we get answers back to them quickly.”

“When you get the reputation of being a ‘with-it’ air show, you will soon become the show that everyone wants to go to,” says Terri Hatcher, from the Little Rock Air Force Base Air Show. “If you’re not in a location where everyone wants to go – like Hawaii or San Diego – you have to double up on the hospitality. The air show community is very family-oriented. They all know one another. Devote one liaison per performer so that no stone is left unturned. Hospitality speaks volumes and no one likes to be ignored. No one likes to be forgotten.”

At North America’s very best shows, this commitment to enhancing the air show experience also extends to local politicians, sponsors and other VIPs. The food, the beverages, the bathrooms, the seating, the transportation and special parking. Make no mistake: the overall quality of the event will be judged, in part, on whether or not those with disproportionate ability to spread the word about their experience receive the white glove treatment that they expected to receive. Allocating resources to this type of VIP service might seem like an unaffordable luxury to the fledgling show or a show that is just scraping by financially, but our industry’s top events have discovered that it’s a requirement to get to the proverbial “next level.”

As far as Downum is concerned, there’s no such thing as providing too much service to sponsors and VIPs. “We have over 25 sponsors from $7,000 up to $100,000,” he says. “The worst thing you can do is have a sponsor come in and not get taken care of. If someone tells a sponsor, ‘You have to wait a minute’ and then he waits 30 minutes, that’s a total disaster. I make sure I have my staff assigned properly to take care of our business customers.”

Wardwell spares no effort when it comes to servicing sponsors. “We want to ‘wow’ them,” he says. “With sponsors, when the event is over, the air show hospitality and service is what they remember. It’s how they compare us against other events where they can invest their money. They really have to feel that the show was worthwhile.”

Wardwell likewise agrees that performers require special and ongoing attention. “On the performers’ side, as a small civilian show, we really have to impress the military,” he says. “We don’t have a huge metropolitan base or a big runway. It’s the hospitality that they remember and we make sure we take care of all of the details. With the civilian performers, it’s important there, too. We think it’s important that they think of Salinas as a great show compared with Chicago or Oshkosh or a bigger show. People talk about that in the industry.”

Financial Stewardship

While financial stability must be a defining characteristic of any truly great air show, it’s less clear how this kind of “financial stability” is actually achieved. Does a show become great and therefore ascend to a level of financial stability? Or, does a show become financially stable, which then provides it with the resources to become great?

“It’s a Catch 22,” says Newcomb. “It’s easier when you have the financial resources, but what do you do if you don’t? In Cleveland, when I first got involved, the air show was having real problems. At that time, a local airline was underwriting the show and it wasn’t terribly strong itself.” Nonetheless, even though the Cleveland show was struggling financially, it continued to distribute nearly all of its annual profits to philanthropic organizations. While this is a wonderful investment back in the community, Newcomb and others say that making such contributions should only occur when an air show already has healthy financial reserves in place.

“Thankfully, in our case, the air show was very successful,” says Newcomb, “but for three to four years, it was scary because there were no reserves.” Now, per its bylaws, the Cleveland show must carry reserves that may not drop below 75 percent of a year’s operating budget. “That has served us well because stuff happens. Weather happens. Jet teams don’t come and that will cost you 30 percent. In the non-profit world, it’s hard to immediately come up with the reserves, but somehow you have to find a way.”

Like a lot of shows, the Dayton Air Show doesn’t have an abundance of benefactors pumping money into the event. Terry Grievous, the show’s executive director, says that is why it is important to run the enterprise like a business, not like a non-profit. “We have to work hard on our expense and revenue side to make the event work every year,” he says. “The way we are structured, we can do everything right, but at the end of the day the thing that’s most important to our board is our ability to show that we were successful financially. About four years ago, we really figured it out. The one thing that really stands out to me is the revenue side, the sponsor side, the seating and chalets. Mastering the financial side was a big turning point. When you have money to do things, you can make the show a better event.”

Marketing and Public Relations

There is a prism through which one can look that would suggest that virtually everything that goes on at an air show is, in fact, an exercise in marketing: from the selection of performers to the location of the show to the overall on-site experience. For air shows, when someone speaks of marketing (and public relations), they’re principally talking about publicity, and for good reason. It is true that without a great lineup of performers and without an overall quality customer experience on-site that compels spectators to return year after year, the long-term success of a show is unlikely. But without a marketing and public relations effort that reaches into the community and makes use of all available media to promote the event, creating a great show is impossible.

Wardwell doesn’t miss even the smallest promotional opportunity, launching his marketing effort with a press release from the ICAS Convention in December when the jet teams are announced. From there, Wardwell divides the effort up among various marketing committees to ensure that each and every avenue for publicity is covered. “We build a website and set up our plan for the year right from the start,” he says. “Another team focuses on media partnerships, which involves three to four newspapers, 10 to 12 radio stations, and three to four television stations. We have a great marketing director (again, a volunteer). We set up the in-kind trades that drive ticket sales and meticulously follow the media plan.”

Of all the assets that air shows possess, perhaps the strongest is the pageantry and media excitement that surround the event itself.  Great shows make disproportionate use of this asset to squeeze every last drop of publicity power out of it. A block of free tickets is distributed to a radio station that provides a week’s worth of free publicity in the form of a ticket give-away contests. A television station becomes a media sponsor on-site and, in turn, produces and airs television commercials at no cost for two months prior to the show. A chain of movie theatres displays on-screen advertisements for the air show in exchange for flyer distribution at the show. A media ride is reserved for a local anchorman who provides you with the Holy Grail when it comes to publicity, a 6:00 p.m. Friday spot on the local news. A Facebook fan page begins in January, starting a viral marketing campaign that extends right up to show day.

The advent of online ticketing sales has been accompanied by an opportunity to capture more and better information about spectators, which great shows use to launch low-cost email marketing campaigns while building marketing intelligence about their audience. This, in turn, sheds light on still more new opportunities. By quantifying where spectators buy their groceries, shows gain leverage to convince a grocery chain of the merits of distributing air show coupons at their registers. By learning that their spectators arrive in large numbers from a community three hours away, shows gain the interest of media outlets outside their local communities for media trades. And after figuring out that 1,500 spectators have ties to local soccer leagues, an entirely new marketing campaign focused on soccer moms and dads is born.

While marketing may represent the single largest budget line item for a great show, great shows never complain about this expenditure, instead finding ways to stretch their marketing and public relations investment for maximum impact.

Sponsorship

When everything else at an air show is operating like a well-oiled machine — when the show has developed itself as a staple in the community, when spectators arrive in large numbers, when the show receives extensive media coverage throughout the local community, when performers view the show as can’t-miss on their schedules — shows then have more leverage when heading out to local and regional businesses to sell them of the merits of participating in the event as sponsors.

As in so many other areas of air show management, success in developing and retaining sponsorships begins by attracting the right people to serve as board members or as committee volunteers. Shows should look for people who have deep connections within the community—the “sticky” people who seem to know everyone, who can help a show to get its foot in the door of local businesses. It is these types of introductions that make sponsorship acquisition and retention most efficient and most successful.

Shows further help themselves when they can anticipate the questions that would-be sponsors will have about audience demographics. After all, these companies might have an interest in taking advantage of the excitement of the air show alone, but at some point they have to justify the expense as a smart investment in marketing. While sponsorship packages don’t have to be slick or expensive, they should be well thought out and filled with facts and statistics about what makes the show a smart marketing investment and what types of sponsorship packages and opportunities exist.

It’s also important to remember that successful sponsorship is a sustained effort. “Everything’s important, but the two most important components of our show are marketing and sponsorship,” says Wardwell. “I spend 60 to 70 percent of my time making sure those two areas are working well. If you don’t do those two things well, you will fail.”

To that end, great air shows recognize, first of all, that it is far more difficult to acquire a new sponsor than it is to renew a current sponsor. It goes back to white-glove service and making sure that a show completely understands the sponsor’s needs, expectations, and desires on-site at the show. Stay in touch with the sponsor afterward and be pro-active about getting feedback about their experience. What could the show do differently or better to make the event more valuable for the sponsor in the future? This type of active listening and responsiveness is critical.

Sponsorships can take years to cultivate, hours upon hours of time of relationship-building and negotiation. But these relationships can disappear in an instant, even when a show does everything else perfectly. When a show fails to massage the relationship, when it fails to deliver value to the sponsor, the relationship will disappear and, with it, the opportunity to build upon your base of sponsors, take it to the next level, and build the financial reserves that are a staple of the show. Great shows recognize that it all works together.

Announcers

Given the mammoth volunteer engagement that can number more than a thousand at an air show, it probably seems unfair that one person – the announcer – stands in a position to single-handedly prevent a show from achieving greatness. Part story-teller, part conduit to flight operations and safety, and part advertising pitchman, a talented announcer doesn’t simply deliver news and information; he or she becomes a part of the event.

“Having a strong, entertaining announcer and a good sound system can make up for a lot of other shortcomings,” says Wardwell. “We use one professional air show announcer and then a local weatherman who is an aerobatic pilot.”

According to Melby, an announcer has the ability to take his performance and turn it into a “masterpiece of aviation” in the eyes of the spectators. “They are, in their own right, performers who can make or break an otherwise mediocre show,” he says. I’ve performed at very low budget air shows that got the crowd involved, educated them, and made them feel like they were watching the best air show on the planet. Hire great announcers, set up their area so they are as comfortable as possible, and treat them like they are the absolute stars of the show.”

Safety

A great air show must be safe. Period.

No corners can be cut with regard to safety, according to Little Rock’s Hatcher. “Safety starts with the air bosses,” she says. “They have worked with all of the performers at air shows including the demo teams. They know how to schedule the performers in order to make a show safe and entertaining.”

As is drilled into event organizers’ and performers’ heads on a constant basis, preparation and coordination is vital. According to Hatcher, “You have to have key emergency responders in the middle of the planning of the show: fire, medical, and safety. You have to have an emergency response plan and you have to practice it. A good air show will coordinate with all hazmat agencies, ambulances, fire departments, police forces, and hospitals within a certain radius of your show and you need to have an exercise creating an emergency scenario. This is where you will find all discrepancies in your plan before your show. You should also ask around about performers. Ask other air show organizers and people in the industry.”

Variety of Acts, Rhythm of the Show

“Every show desires the military jet team and tries to build a show around them,” says Hornick. “If they can get a jet team, great, but many cannot and then it’s even more important to find the right combination of interesting and varied acts. The shows that fill in the voids with solo after solo are doing themselves, the industry, and the spectators a disservice by not balancing a few solos with perhaps a comedy act, formation team, wing walker, or one of the new themed acts.”

At Miramar, Downum says that every minute of the show is choreographed so that there is no down time for the spectators. “One thing that we boast about is that we provide the spectator with opportunities to see things in the air and on the ground the entire time they’re there. Our gate opens at 8:00 a.m. and they can start looking at displays, military and civilian exhibitors. The flying starts at 9:00 a.m. and then runs back to back, about two minutes apart, from the time one act finishes to the next one starts until the Blues land at the end of the day.”

And within the lineup needs to be a variety of acts that showcases all of what spectators come to see. “We include a lot of variety from sail planes to war birds to hang gliders and helicopters, jets on the civilian side and then we run into the military performers in the afternoon when the blue sky opens up and lets them fly with the 15,000 foot ceiling,” says Downum. “We have the quiet stuff in the morning, working toward the Blues at the end. We have the night show, which is a Saturday night twilight show. We do an hour of daylight flying and then go into the twilight with the Golden Knights jumping. Overall, it’s a pretty unique experience that sets us apart from other shows.”

Seating, Cleanliness, Spectator Service

When spectators step out of their cars in the parking lot in Fort Worth, the show takes great effort and pride in ensuring that everything spectators sees from that moment forward – signs guiding them to the gates, signage and materials at the gates, and then everything within the gates – has a look and feel of cleanliness, consistency, and pride.

“We focus on a level of detail from the moment people arrive to the moment they leave our gates,” says Carey. “We’ve gone to the ICAS Academy and followed the advice of others. The consistent look, establishing a tight crowd line—literally a straight line, we’re big on straight lines—white tents…we pay careful attention to every detail.”

Such attention to detail also means providing spectators with choices. “We offer a variety of crowd-line seating from common lawn locations to chalets with nice restrooms and catered food. We try to accommodate everyone,” says Carey.

Dayton’s Grievous likewise says that great shows must focus on the customer in intricate detail, particularly with regard to ticketing options. “On site, we have a lot of different packages,” he says. “We have umbrella tables; we have general admission, lawn seats, and a variety of choices that includes your food, parking, and admission in one package. We try to offer things the customer wants.”

“We’ve built on what we know people want,” says Downum, “from general bleachers all the way up to $200-a-day corporate hospitality. We have a broad spectrum of seating options and we know they’ll buy them, but we don’t spend money on it unless it’s something the public wants.”

People expect quality, continues Downum, and the time it takes to deliver a quality experience is not that much more difficult than something of the mediocre variety. “It doesn’t cost us anything to have a quality food and beverage out there,” he says. “Our biggest expenses on site other than performer fees are in set up of bleachers and box seats and hospitality chalets. We’re able to be successful because we have a good product to offer the public. Once we get them here, we need to make sure the porta-potties are serviced properly, the trash is picked up. We have Marines out there constantly checking and servicing those things.” You can’t turn around at Miramar without seeing a trash can or a porta-potty, according to Downum. “If they’re not running and available and clean, that can ruin the day. We don’t have to worry about that because of the military, but if they start failing I hear about them and we get bad press on that.”

Newcomb says such details are vital and they vary from location to location. “Gate controls, the simple task of looking at the venue, everyone’s shaped differently, and knowing where all the holes are, and managing those, that’s extremely important,” he says. “If you go to any given airport, it’s a task to isolate the air show and be able to manage every human that goes in and out of that air show. It doesn’t take a very big gap to make a difference.”

Parking

Because air shows are long events, spectators tend to arrive in staggered fashion, which can give event organizers a false sense of comfort with regard to parking and traffic control. Then, the day concludes with a jet-team performance or, at night, with a wall of fire or fireworks display, and, all of a sudden, 60,000 people pile into their cars at once. Without proper planning and controls in place, a traffic snarl ensues and, right there, all the effort expended to ensure every other aspect of the show was carried out perfectly goes out the window. The memory of the spectators is not of the thrills of the day, but of the two hours it took just to get out of the parking lot. Indeed, biennial ICAS surveys regularly confirm that parking/traffic is the single biggest gripe that spectators have with air shows.

“You can have a great event, market it well, have good entertainment at a good price, but if the traffic control isn’t in order, people will get very upset,” said Grievous. “The coming part is easy. For most shows, that works pretty smoothly. But to keep bringing people in over a three- or four-hour period, and then everyone leaves at once, that is a challenge. Dayton’s a small town. We’re not accustomed to dealing with large crowds like they are in a big city. It has nothing to do with the show in terms of the experience, but, afterward, getting home, it can be an afterthought.”

It can be an afterthought, but it must not be. Here, every situation is different based on the parking-lot structure, the local roads and highways, and the capabilities and willingness of local law enforcement to participate in the process. Get experts’ advice on how many cars can be parked in different areas. Create a process to move different lots. Find out what’s involved to use both sides of a road for outgoing traffic for an hour. And manage spectators’ expectations beforehand. Let them know that static displays and concessions will be available for a period of time after the show. Make performers available for autographs so that people stick around, enjoy the show for a little longer, and the crowds are a bit more staggered hitting the lots and shuttle buses.

“I have four different gates, which is good, but it’s still a challenge to get 30,000 to 40,000 cars off your base and home,” says Downum. “There is no perfect solution at any show, but you have to do whatever you can to keep it as painless as possible.”

Great shows treat parking and traffic as their biggest challenge and, in so doing, take an item that could be the demise of a show and turn it into a hidden strength. No spectator walks away from an air show saying “Wow, they sure handled traffic flow and parking well,” but plenty have cursed the traffic and vowed never to return when their day has been ruined by traffic.

Can a Show that’s “Just Good” Become Great?

Yes and no. It all begins with the right organizational structure and a committed pool of volunteers to carry out the otherwise impossible amount of details. Those shows wishing to ascend to greatness would be wise to identify a great show – or perhaps one that thrives in areas where theirs falters – and make the investment of time to visit that show and pick the brains of the show management to see their enterprise in person and get their first-hand advice.

If a show doesn’t know what it does well and what it does not, ask performers, ask announcers, ask sponsors, and ask spectators through surveys. Great shows never stop learning and see such learning as part of the continuum that yields self improvement. As an example: organizers of the Thunder in the Valley Air Show in Columbus, Georgia, sent a detailed survey to anybody and everybody associated with their event, asking them for feedback on what they can do better in the future. They will use that information to make improvements to their next event in 2011.

“I can tell you that I’m a lot smarter today than I was in 1976 when I operated my first air show,” says Newcomb. “If I look back, it’s almost embarrassing what I didn’t know.”

But there are some locations that simply never will allow event organizers to achieve greatness. “It all starts with an evaluation of the venue and the location before you take the next step to conclude you’re going to produce an air show there,” says Newcomb. “Do you have a chance for success with the air space available for you to do what you want to do? Is the facility compatible with the number of people you want to attract and do you have all the things you need? Do you have the financial underwriting? If you can say ‘yes’ to all of those things, you have a shot. If you can’t, you may have an event that never should have been started.”

Bonus: Must an Air Show be Big to be Great?

The air shows most commonly mentioned as “great” are often our industry’s largest events. But, must an air show be big to be great?

No.

“Big” often translates to larger and more extensive resources…the kinds of resources that are required to conduct a great show on an ongoing and reliable basis. Strong organization, outstanding volunteers, memorable hospitality, financial strength and stability, comprehensive and effective marketing, a well-structured sponsorship program, quality performers and announcers, a tightly choreographed and entertaining presentation of air show acts, strong logistical support, and a hassle-free parking and traffic plan. If it is difficult for any air show to achieve the delicate balance of getting all of these moving parts moving in the same direction in near perfect harmony, it is at least a bit more difficult for a small show to accomplish the same task.

But it does happen. From Vidalia, Georgia to Redding, California, there are shows that actually aspire to be both small and great. The standard of measure doesn’t change; just the proportions.

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