Prove It! Substantiating your Air Show’s Economic Impact on the Surrounding Community

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Pilots don’t fly blind. Air show organizers shouldn’t, either. When it comes to measuring your show’s economic impact on the surrounding community, most organizers use guesstimates and hyperbole to tout their value. But that won’t do in today’s market. You need an accurate navigational tool that will point your show in the right direction by measuring your numbers, uncovering potential problems and confirming your strengths.

If you’re looking for support from corporate sponsors, quality volunteers, local government officials, area tourism bureaus and tourist attractions, regional grant dollars or charities, you need to be able to demonstrate your show’s worth with solid dollar amounts, attendance numbers, demographics, marketing and spending trends, to name just a few. An effective way to arrive at these hard numbers is through a well-planned and executed Economic Impact Study (EIS).

Air show producers shy away from these scientific measures because it can be costly — on average $15,000-$25,000 — depending on how involved it gets. But these services can be obtained at greatly reduced rates or even gratis to enterprising organizers. Costs can be shared with co-sponsors, bartered out for air show tickets and VIP packages, or waived entirely if conducted by students from a local university or other educational institution.

“It’s a no-brainer!” says Don Ferrell, director of the Galaxy Community Council and the Great New England Air Show at Westover Air Reserve Base in Massachusetts, which draws huge crowds over a three-day weekend every other year. At the prompting of the Greater Springfield Convention andVisitors’ Bureau, he arranged for an EIS to be conducted by a group of graduate students from Professor Rod Warnick’s class at the Isenberg School of Management from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst…with no cost to the show.

“We were tickled to death and astonished with the types of information they mined for us,” Ferrell said of the 2008 study. “I would never go into another air show without having an economic impact survey done each time. We share this information with businesses and organizations throughout the Pioneer Valley. By doing so, we’ve secured a $50,000 grant from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts because we were able to prove our value to the greater community.”

And this is the real significance of an EIS. By demonstrating your show’s economic impact with current facts and figures, you can actually increase its worth with the support of powerful entities within your sphere of influence. In Westover’s case, it came in the form of a state grant and support from the local tourism bureau. For others, it’s cooperation from law enforcement or the local highway patrol, or co-sponsorship with a major car dealership, tourist attraction or hospital in the area.

In terms of marketing, an EIS sheds light on spectator spending habits, demographics, regional draw, market profile data, market segmentation, emerging consumer trends, market reach and penetration, visitation patterns in the local area, and more. All of this information can be effectively leveraged to better market your show and draw support from influential corporate and civic partners.

“Air shows are one of the best venues to promote and sell a product due to our captive audience composed of a wide range of age demographics,” says Ferrell. “Whatever the product, we’ve got the audience for it.”

Further, professional EIS researchers can provide comparatives from other outdoor venues which can elevate the status of air shows within the community. “Our research has found that air shows provide a better economic impact than arts festivals, food festivals/exhibitions, and selected musical festivals given the research studies we have reviewed to date,” Professor Warnick says.

While air shows don’t generate permanent jobs in the surrounding community, they do attract money from outside the immediate area, producing the kind of local impact that attracts the interest and support of local government officials, Warnick adds. For example, based on Warnick’s research, the typical spectator travels about 45 miles each way to attend the Westover show and spends slightly over $100 per group of four for a typical air show day.

Research also shows that air shows provide great value for the family entertainment dollar. Unlike other outdoor festivals, air shows are strong family, extended family and cross-generational events. Creative air show producers can use this knowledge to better position the show and increase its attractiveness to these target demographics.

Warnick and his students typically conduct studies at state parks and recreation areas, ski resorts and year-round resorts, public parks, hotels, and national sporting events. “All were helpful in providing us a background in improving the means of measures appropriate for the measurement of air show impacts,” he says.

EIS results helped the Great New England Air Show raise $319,000 from sponsors in 2008, which more than covered organizer expenses, providing important seed money to help pay for the early expenses of the 2012 show. “The demographics we gathered have been helpful to me when I approach people for sponsorship support,” Ferrell says. “It’s a good selling tool, because people get a firm handle on how many pairs of eyeballs will see their ad within a certain time frame.”

Just 12 miles down the road from Westover is Barnes Air National Guard Base, which hosts the Westfield International Air Show on alternate years. This two-day show is one of the largest weekend outdoor events in all Massachusetts.

Major Matt Mutti is the public affairs officer for the 104th Fighter Wing at Barnes and helps organize the Barnes show, as well. In order to quantify his air show’s efforts in 2010, he had Professor Warnick and his students conduct an EIS.

He says, “The benefit outweighs the cost involved for planning, marketing, traffic flow… all the things it takes to not work off speculation and assumption. It’s just better when you can back up your observations with hard data. It alleviates so many problems.”

The study demonstrated that the show draws spectators from five states throughout the Northeast… not just from within state boundaries. And it attracts people of all ages, from pre-schoolers to octogenarians.  Dr. Warnick’s research also revealed that the 2010 Westfield International Air Show generated a $13 million economic impact over a 15-mile radius (due to concession sales; increased traffic at gas stations, restaurants and convenience stores; booked hotels; and carryover tourism at local attractions like Six Flags).

“In fact, we learned that our economic impact is significant enough to affect the state’s transportation and tourism budget, so now the state is willing to share costs with us,” says Mutti. It also has led to powerful new partnerships with co-sponsors including the Massachusetts Tourism and Travel Agency and PioneerValleyVisitor.com, to collectively promote attractive “stay-cations” in Western Massachusetts during the air show weekend.

“This type of captured data validates the investments that sponsors make in your show and backs your argument that their investment is well worth the risk,” Mutti says. That grabs the attention of prospective sponsors and motivates them to sign on with confidence that they will reach their target audiences at the air show.

Thanks to an EIS conducted by International Festivals and Events Association for the California International Air Show in Salinas, Executive Director Harry Wardwell can confidently say, “The direct and indirect impact to our community was $4.4 million over a three-day air show weekend.”

And the approximately $2,500 cost of conducting the study in 2003 is still delivering value, Wardwell claims. “I’ve used the survey results every year since, and it’s still viable. By demonstrating how we bring money into the community, we’re able to bring in more sponsors, and by showing how many people travel over local highways to get here, we’re able to negotiate better costs for city services.”

The air show in Salinas alternates each year from a two-day to a three-day event, requiring an annual $1 million budget. The EIS revealed surprising trends that organizers had previously been unaware of, such as the fact that 50 percent of spectators drove at least an hour to get to the show. The trickle-down effect was that hotels, gas stations, restaurants and tourist attractions (like wineries, aquariums and golf courses) also benefitted as spectators made their way to the Salinas show and lingered in the area for a three-day vacation.

As a result of this newfound knowledge, the air show published a press release about their expansive economic impact, distributing it through the local Chamber of Commerce and generating significant positive press coverage. The show is still able to solicit new sponsors based on the seven-year-old study.

Previously associated with the International Festivals & Events Association, Scott Nagel is president of Birchhill Enterprises, a festival and event consulting company. Nagel has conducted economic impact studies for more than 50 festivals, including air shows at Barksdale and Miramar, as well as the Salinas show. Nagel also produced an air show in Everett, Washington, so he is familiar with the industry.

Nagel says the economic impact of festivals and events is even more important in today’s world than it was in previous years. “Your sponsors, your board or government agencies and the corporate community are asking for real financial data about your event. In order to gain continued support, you not only need to get ahead of those answers, but — as the producer — you need to know more about who’s coming to your events, where they are coming from, how many days they are attending, and the trends that will help you know where to apply your limited resources. You need solid information that will improve your visitors’ experience and increase your bottom line.”

Birchhill’s EIS program produces a statistically reliable 25-page report (with a 95 percent confidence level) including a detailed visitor profile that identifies segmented visitor spending (among locals, visitors, vendors and the air show organization) and household demographics (including educational level, income bracket, age, sex, marital status, occupation, etc.).

This type of program typically costs $15,000-$25,000, but Birchhill Enterprises holds costs closer to $1,500-$2,000 by having the air show provide the labor – generally volunteers – to survey the spectators, code the surveys, enter the data onto a spreadsheet, and submit the information for analysis.

First, Nagel collects basic operating information including your budget, daily attendance, map of the grounds, and a press kit. Birchhill then designs the questionnaire, provides a training manual and instructions for organizing and conducting the survey, as well as selecting and training volunteers.

Air show volunteers then survey people as they enter the gates, chosen using a systematic sampling method that minimizes respondent bias, and they fill out the 3-10 minute survey. After the show, either you code the data and enter it in a spreadsheet, or simply send in the survey forms.

Within a few months, you receive an EIS report plus background information, sample press releases, and assistance in presenting the data to your board, media, or community.

An EIS points to specific actions an air show can take to increase its economic impact on the surrounding community. It starts by identifying the biggest problems air shows face, such as traffic, parking, congestion, weather problems, inadequate bathrooms and lack of shuttle transportation. In order to effectively alleviate these undermining demand patterns, Warnick’s top recommendation is increasing the length of a show from 1-2 days to 2-3 days. Other complaints gathered by EIS surveys include poor viewing areas and the high cost of onsite food.

On the positive side, the EIS and resulting market analysis are extremely valuable for attracting corporate sponsors and engaging attractive market segments to your show. These, in turn, increase your show’s impact in the market area. Local, regional and national corporations want to participate, valuing the opportunity to stage product and service demonstrations at your high-traffic air show venue.

The outcome of an EIS is only as good as its design, so care must be taken to build a thorough, attractive and accurate study, particular to the needs of your specific show. Consequently, it’s recommended to leave this in the hands of trained professionals who can glean the pertinent information you’re seeking, then let them execute the process with the assistance of your air show volunteers.

A word of warning: Be more committed to truth in numbers than skewing the survey process in order to legitimize your desired outcome. Steer clear of EIS consultants willing to utilize questionable procedures, as identified by EIS guru Dr. John L. Crompton, Distinguished Professor of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences at Texas A&M University, and author/co-author of numerous books and articles published in the recreation, tourism, sport and marketing field. Some of those suspect techniques and tactics include using responses from local residents in the survey data, inappropriate aggregation, inclusion of “time-switchers” and “casuals,” abuse of multipliers, ignoring costs borne by the local community, ignoring opportunity costs, ignoring displacement costs, exaggerating visitation numbers, and inclusion of consumer surplus.

In an article entitled, “Economic Impact Studies: Instruments for Political Shenanigans in the August, 2006 issue of the Journal of Travel Research, Crompton wrote, “In some cases, these practices are the result of ignorance and are inadvertent, but too often they are deliberate and enacted with intent to mislead and distort.”

Crompton argues that including local residents represents a recycling of money that already exists within the community. “Economic impact attributable to a tourism attraction relates only to new money injected into an economy by visitors, media, vendors, exhibitors, volunteers, sponsors, external government entities, or banks and investors from outside the community.” Others may counter that expenditures by local residents could have been spent across local boundaries if an outside event attracted their dollars, so local resident spending should be counted, but perhaps not given as much weight as spending injected from outside the community.

Warnick suggests a survey pool of 800-1,200 respondents. Attractive incentives (like entering participants in a drawing for a luxury vacation or another valuable gift) ensure a robust response rate. Your pool of participants should be as random and diverse as possible, and large enough to allow identifying trends and differences within subgroups of the larger survey respondent pool.

From the onset, your air show publicity should encourage people to visit your website to register for updates and sign up for free promotional materials such as an air show poster. This builds your pool of registered visitors to be tapped for survey participation after the show.

Incentives for survey participation typically include a resort vacation stay or hotel package, free flying lessons, limited-edition memorabilia from the show, or tech products like iPhones, GPS or digital cameras. Warnick gathered more than 500 respondents in just a few days with online surveys versus snail-mailed versions… with the added benefit of significantly reducing administrative costs and duplicate handling issues.

EIS surveys typically mine for market analysis, involvement and psychological connection with air shows, economic impact measures, visitation patterns to the area and region, and demographics. A typical online survey contains 40-70 questions.

The Westfield survey was comprised of only 25 questions (three printed pages), requiring about 10 minutes of each respondent’s time. Questions focused on demographics, how spectators learned about the show, what captured their attention inside the gate, which attractions they liked best, what frustrated or disappointed them, etc.

Although it’s tempting to conduct surveys strictly from an online registration process, you’ll get a truer representation of your visitor profile if you gather a percentage of survey-takers from random visitors during the show. At Westover, uniformed Civil Air Patrol volunteers were stationed at the gates, randomly collecting more than 600 email addresses from spectators over a three-day period. Westfield garnered a total of 3,000 respondents from both on-site and online participation. The data collected from these surveys provided a clear view of each air shows’ strengths, weaknesses and future potential.

Ultimately, your air show is much more than an air show. It’s an economic stimulus for your co-sponsors, your business neighbors, your metro region and perhaps your entire state or tri-state area. An economic impact study may the best tool in your marketing kit to measure that impact, earn due respect and propel your show to the next level.

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Estelle R. Brown
Estelle Brown is a freelance writer and independent public relations specialist based in northeast Ohio.