What’s Your Number?

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Numbers. Most air show pilots are driven to share their passion for flying, the pursuit of perfection, the rush of adrenaline, and the energy of cheering fans.  However, it’s mundane numbers and calculations that bring the dream safely to life every weekend: air speed, altitude, fuel and oil.  A performer would never ignore the critical numbers for flight, yet many performers and event organizers are less inclined to pay sufficient attention to the equally important numbers and data that determine their potential sponsorship value.

Like sitting down to write a flight plan or event schedule, an event organizer or performer needs to thoughtfully and objectively evaluate all the assets or benefits that a sponsor can exploit to successfully achieve its goals before approaching a potential sponsor. Too often, the air show industry uses the metric of “I think it’s worth…” or “This is what you will get…” rather than the real market value or even perceived market value.

How can a performer or an event solve a company’s problem or fulfill a need? The air show business can offer Fortune 500 corporations or small businesses an impressive array of benefits that can easily be adapted or customized for a program that can outperform any other form of marketing or advertising when carefully crafted and priced. But the process of explaining these benefits to prospective sponsors must begin with an objective inventorying project in which the air show event organizer or performer assesses the assets available within the air show industry for the sponsor and then presents them in a manner that makes it clear how those assets will benefit the sponsor. 

Ride Program

There are many safety concerns and regulatory complications related to offering a ride program in conjunction with your sponsorship package. Not everybody is interested in or willing to take a ride, but if you can work through those details, a well-structured ride program that abides by relevant regulations is one of the most unique and effective elements that you can include in your sponsorship package. Whether you are a performer soliciting a corporate sponsor who will partner with you at many shows each year or you are an event organizer hoping to use access to performer planes as a tool in attracting sponsors to your show, airplanes rides – especially aerobatic rides or rides in exotic aircraft – are something that other types of sponsorship opportunities can’t offer.

When inventorying the assets that you can make available to a prospective sponsor, there are really two different types of ride programs. There are the rides that generate media coverage, logo visibility and brand recognition for your prospective sponsor. And there are rides that – in and of themselves – offer value to your sponsor as a way of providing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to a special customer, partner or employee.

Current U.S. National Unlimited Aerobatic pilot Rob Holland recognized Window World’s need for brand recognition even though it is one of the largest window suppliers in the United States. His current sponsor, Veteran Home Loans, also needed greater awareness of their products and services among military veterans in specific markets. Holland has found that mission-specific photo flights offer unique opportunities for his sponsors to increase name/brand recognition. A day or two before an air show, he arranges a two-ship photo flight; the news photographer flies in the lead aircraft and Holland flies in his aircraft, with the name and logo of his sponsor prominently displayed on the wing and fuselage. He positions his aircraft in a way that makes it easy for the photographer to get a dramatic photo, the kind of photo that often ends up on the front page of the local newspaper. “I find if you’re upfront and honest with the media about including the sponsor’s logo or name, they’ll usually accommodate it,” said Holland.

Media generated by an air show or performer is a “tangible asset” because it has a specific value that’s easily measured. The most effective way to demonstrate media value is to hire an outside firm like BurrellesLuce to provide reports that contain press clippings, broadcast transcripts or digital clips, as well as the value of the media. Some companies like Burrelles have also expanded to monitor blogs, forums, YouTube, and online news sources.

Essentially, the process involves assigning a value to the media exposure generated by comparing it to advertising rates for that newspaper or television station. So, for example, if the sponsor’s logo is prominently visible for 30 seconds of a two-minute and 15 second news story on the 6:00 p.m. news of a local network affiliate in Houston, then the value of that story is given the same value as a 30-second advertisement on that same news channel at that same time of day. Similarly, if the air show or performer generates a 6” x 4” color photo on the front page of the local newspaper, then the value of that photo is equated to what it would cost to buy a similarly-sized ad in the same newspaper.

Holland and other performers such as John Klatt, Sean Tucker, and David Martin all purchased a standard category two-seat plane for the specific purpose of giving flights to ensure their sponsors achieve company goals from brand awareness, client entertainment, or employee incentives. Klatt, sponsored by the Air National Guard, uses a ride program to not only generate media for the Guard, but to build goodwill with local recruiters. Klatt explained, “It’s a highly effective program and a huge asset that can easily be translated to a sales force and engage teams or clients.”

The Red Baron Stearman Squadron skillfully used its formation flights for years to entertain grocery department managers, which improved the positioning of the product in-store and increased sales. The air shows at which the Red Barons performed also benefited by the additional pizza promotions and the ability to pass along rides to some of their sponsors.

Longtime ICAS member and air show performer Jan Collmer initially started giving aerobatic rides in his two-seat Pitts as a way of making a unique impression on his company’s clients. At the time, Collmer owned a semiconductor manufacturing business. He wanted something more than the traditional fancy dinner or golf outing as a way of entertaining his clients. He found that an aerobatic thrill ride in a high performance aerobatic plane was just the ticket. “I’ve had people come up to me 15 and 20 years later to tell me that that ride was one of the most memorable experiences of their lives. Which was exactly the impact I had hoped to have.”

The opportunity to fly in a high performance aerobatic plane or touch history in a vintage fighter or bomber has a tangible value or cost, but more importantly it creates a powerful, memorable experience without a price tag…an intangible benefit. For an air show or performer, the greatest sponsorship value is going to come from intangible assets like exclusivity, prestige, audience loyalty, the ability to activate, potential media coverage and awareness. 

Tickets and Hospitality

Tickets and hospitality are generally tangible assets that have a face value price. For example, an admission ticket with a value of $40 or access to a private chalet that is valued at $100. According to IEG, the leading sponsorship consulting organization in the country, a logo or sponsor identification on a ticket is rarely worth more than $.05 per ticket, depending on how many other logos are included and if the ticket is more keepsake-like. If you’re using an electronic ticketing system, you may offer demographic information from ticket sales as a value added item to your package. For example, you may give the sponsor access to the names and e-mail addresses of individuals who bought their tickets on-line.

However, the opportunity to meet Oracle’s Sean Tucker in a private chalet and take photos with him becomes an intangible benefit making the chalet ticket even more valuable because it’s not an opportunity that is available to the general public at any price.  Hospitality chalets offer the most value to sponsors when they combine both tangible value and intangible value. Indeed, the most successful corporate chalet programs in the air show business have focused on providing individuals within the sponsoring organization with opportunities to meet, get to know and chat with sponsoring organization’s customers. As an example, Oracle has a chalet at every air show at which Sean Tucker performs. Oracle management and sales representatives use the chalet as an opportunity to invite guests and then spend an afternoon socializing with them. That’s a sales opportunity that would be otherwise hard to manufacture and, for that reason, it has considerable intangible value to Oracle.

Michael Goulian’s sponsorship with Whelen also focuses on a unique and memorable experience that the company couldn’t offer its customers without their sponsorship of Goulian. Whelen can talk directly to its customer, build relationships, gather feedback, and — ultimately — drive new and additional sales.

Discovery Channel used air shows to entertain media buyers because they realized executives didn’t want to travel to exotic places without their families. Instead of leaving the spouse and kids at home while the buyer biked the canals of Versailles or explored the rainforests of Costa Rica with Discovery Channel sales representatives, a VIP hospitality chalet at the Chicago Air and Water Show allowed the clients to feel pampered, avoid the crowds and entertain their families for the weekend for far less money than some of the other adventures offered by Discovery to their top clients.  For Discovery, the intangible benefits far exceeded the actual costs of buying the chalet space, catering, and staffing. 

Sampling and Retail

Performers and event organizers can also take advantage of tremendous air show demographic and attendance figures by offering the opportunity to sample a new product or even providing a coupon after sampling to incite in-store sales after the show. When Dr Pepper launched its new Cherry Vanilla Dr Pepper, they used air shows to sample the flavor and supported the launch with a broader program that included activation at multiple retail outlets like grocery and convenience stores, quick service restaurants and more.

In some markets, Dr Pepper sponsored the Shockwave Jet truck and then asked the Shockleys to display the truck at Wal-Mart or other outlets the week of the show. You can enhance the value even more by tying in a live radio remote from a media partner to promote a special offer (i.e., tickets, t-shirts, sales) the air show, and the sponsored act.

Event organizers should review their performer list and see if there’s a way that the performer can be incorporated into a larger local sponsorship with the performer’s approval. Often times, this localized or regional sponsorship allows the show to create a sponsorship package with more value, which in turn allows the show to pay for the performer it might not otherwise be able to hire.

Red Barons created a “retail-tainment” zone by selling pizza onsite, offering coupons and an experience that immersed the consumer into the Schwan’s brand with a mobile marketing trailer loaded with a simulator and entertaining activities for fans. Similar to Dr Pepper, Red Barons distributed the coupons to the crowd face-to-face, which has more value and higher redemption rates rather than stuffing the coupons into goody bags.

The automotive industry has a particular fondness for air shows, not because they particularly like aviation, but because air shows have consistently demonstrated an ability to increase qualified leads and actual sales. Chevy, Jeep, Hyundai and Ford have all used on-site test drives at various air shows with tremendous results. When shows do not have the real estate to safely offer test drives, they can still offer ramp space for an interactive display like Saab’s “Born From Jets” sponsorship in which potential consumers watched engaging videos, could sit in the vehicles, and enter a sweepstakes to win a car. Air shows consistently delivered more qualified leads than any other event Saab sponsored, which makes the flightline real estate more valuable than the actual cost of the space.

But in all of these examples, the assets and opportunities of the air show were closely integrated with the sales and marketing goals of the sponsoring organizations. It’s unlikely that any of these companies would have participated in the air show at a substantive level if all they were offered was a chalet, ten public address announcements on each day of the show, and their logo prominently displayed on two dozen banners positioned around the airport perimeter.  

Mail and Event Programs

Although people who make their living in direct mail would argue that it’s still a viable medium, electronic mediums like e-newsletters are quickly overtaking the traditional medium for its ease of use, ability to target a specific audience, and deliver measurable results. Like websites, the sponsor’s logo has more value when it’s integrated into the content or there is call to action that encourages people to click on the sponsor’s message. This applies to performers or event organizers who want to keep fans, sponsors, and new businesses energized about the latest news on the show or team.

Event programs are another medium that face challenges from mobile and tablet devices, which can offer more relevant and useful media possibilities for the sponsor’s message. Ads in show programs are generally valued at $.02 each, but you can take advantage of new technology to add value to a flat ad and transform it into a mini-experience or commercial for your sponsor. QR codes are similar to barcodes used by retailers to track inventory, but can hold more information and connect to digital content such as a sponsor’s video or commercial, a website, or special offers. Now a flat ad potentially becomes a powerhouse of possibilities for your potential sponsor. 

Websites and Social Media

Facebook seemingly dominates the world, but it doesn’t replace your website because it doesn’t improve your search engine optimization (SEO) and you can’t protect your sponsors from conflicting ads displayed on your Facebook page since the inventory is controlled by Facebook. You can however, use Facebook and other social media to drive traffic to your website, create specific branded campaigns, and add extra value to your sponsorship package.

For websites, use the number of unique visitors to calculate the cost, which — again — will be higher if the sponsor is integrated into the content rather than a simple logo identification on a static page. IEG values this $.0025 -$.10.  Be wary of marketing firms that can promise you thousands of “Likes” on Facebook so that you add more value to your Facebook statistics. The smart business will want to see your Facebook “Insights” or demographics to see if your “Likes” come from countries known for ratcheting up figures or if you have true fans. A person who “Likes” your Facebook page because they want to hear more about your event or your act has a greater lifetime value than a paid “Like” which translates into more value for your sponsor. 

Own the Sky

For 10-15 minutes a day, a performer has an audience fixated on his or her aircraft, but this opportunity can be wasted if the sponsor’s message isn’t integrated into the narration or – worse — a poor sound system keeps the audience from hearing it. Most public address announcements are valued $.00025 per event per attendee who can hear the message, but it’s more like $.05 per event per attendee if the message is woven into the performance or — even better — if it’s professionally pre-produced leaving no opportunity for mistakes or omitted copy. So, if you have a crowd of 60,000 over a weekend and they all hear a non-integrated sponsorship message, industry experts say that the public address announcement has a value of $15. If that message is integrated in some meaningful way into the narration of a particular performance, that value might go up to as much as $3,000.

Additional public address announcements should continue to promote the sponsor’s message and drive traffic to a website or on-site display which can then be measured and added to the overall value.  Surprisingly, 30-second commercials on a jumbotron are not valued much more than a standard public address announcement because you should only multiply against the number of people who can actually see the ad.

All these elements and more are used to determine a sponsorship value and, while the foundation is based on the tangible assets, the majority of a sponsorship’s value originates in the intangible benefits like the thrill of flying with an air show performer, associating with a prestigious event, connecting with a loyal audience, and the ability to activate the sponsorship to name a few. For a performer or event organizer working to develop a compelling proposal for a prospective sponsor, the challenge is to take the assets available in the air show environment and translate them into an attractive sponsorship proposal that delivers clear value more efficiently or more effectively than other event sponsorship opportunities available to that prospective sponsor.

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Deb Mitchell
Deb Mitchell is a former broadcast journalist who ran the NAS Oceana Air Show in Virginia Beach, Virginia for several years and helped create the Air Show Buzz website.