Trends and Best Practices in Air Show Marketing

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Established more than 20 years ago to recognize and showcase marketing excellence within the air show community, the annual ICAS Marketing Competition has served to improve the professionalism of air show marketing throughout North America.  And, with the addition in 2010, of a “Best Overall Marketing Plan,” the competition is now giving us insight into more than just the materials that shows use in developing their marketing; we’re now learning how they combine these materials as part of a comprehensive marketing plan.

Recently, ICAS combed through the last two years’ entries in the “Best Overall Marketing Plan” category to identify larger trends and developments from which the rest of the industry might learn. 

Observation #1
Good, creative marketing does not require a lot of money or an extensive staff. There are many ICAS member shows with total budgets under $250,000 (some, much less than $250,000) that run sophisticated and cost-effective marketing programs because show management is thoughtful, makes the best possible use of the resources available to them, and never stops trying to improve their marketing from one year to the next.

Nor does it matter how much money a show spends on marketing as a percentage of its overall budget. Indeed, some of the top shows in North America report that marketing represents just two or three percent of their budget. One of the largest shows in North America allocates less than one percent of its expenses to marketing. 

Observation #2
Whether they call it trading, bartering or leveraging, the single most important thing that shows with strong marketing programs have in common is that they work hard to develop extensive advertising and promotional coverage using as little cash as possible. Big shows and small shows, military and civilian, the shows with successful marketing plans know how to use their non-cash assets to get television, radio, newspaper and magazine advertising time/space to increase attendance at their events.

As an example: the Cleveland National Air Show “leverages” a relatively small marketing budget to create an out-sized marketing footprint in the days and weeks leading up to its Labor Day weekend event. Using cross promotions, on-air radio ticket give-away contests, and other non-cash arrangements, the Cleveland show receives extensive media coverage on television and radio, and in the local print media that is worth, literally, ten times what it actually spends in cash.

Another example: with a promotional budget of just $25,000, Minnesota’s Duluth Airshow generates more than $275,000 in marketing value by trading, cross-promoting and thinking creatively.  They supplement and preserve the show’s limited cash with clever bartering that allows local organizations to affiliate themselves with the air show, while at the same time promoting attendance.

Many shows trade sponsorships and hospitality chalets with television stations, radio stations and newspapers to get the advertising time/space they need to promote attendance without spending any of their scarce cash. The Great State of Maine Air Show in Brunswick sets aside three chalets for the specific purpose of trading. Organizers of the MCAS Beaufort Air Show in South Carolina trade a sponsorship with the local cable/internet television provider to get extensive cable television advertising exposure. The Memphis Air Show begins negotiating its trade deals seven full months before its event, including billboards, cable television, radio and newspaper.

Other shows leverage the cash that they spend by combining it with cross-promotions and ticket give-away contests to make their media buys go further. The Joint Service Open House at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, as an example, spent $40,000 in media buys, but turned that into $195,000 in overall media value. 

Observation #3
Websites have become the focal point around which the rest of the air show marketing program is developed.  Whether an event uses traditional media (television, radio, newspaper) or new media (email, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Constant Contact) or (as most often is the case) a combination of both, the prospective customer is pushed toward the website. This is where it is easiest to sell admission tickets, seat upgrades and sponsorships.

This, in turn, makes it even more important that – once the potential customer arrives at the homepage of the website – it is very clear how to make the purchase. Whether it is admission tickets or seat upgrades, the de facto industry standard seems to be that the “click here to buy” message should be the most visible item on the homepage.

A show’s website is also the best place to provide and update detailed information on the show, including schedules, performer information, and driving directions. Although that information must also be easy to find, those informational functions must be secondary to making most effective use of the website homepage as the facilitator of the sales transaction.

Observation #4
Social media and other forms of internet-based advertising are becoming an important part of the marketing mix; but that mix must still include heavy doses of “legacy” media.

Because the internet is where the most innovative changes are taking place, air show marketing directors have focused much of their energy in this area. The more progressive shows are now focusing a considerable amount of resources on social media-based marketing efforts, especially Facebook. The Fort Worth Alliance Air Show now uses a social media management tool called Hoot Suite to keep track of its social media marketing efforts, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr. Fort Worth Alliance also encourages its performers to Tweet about the show and uses contests to encourage its fans and followers to re-Tweet the show’s Tweets. MCAS Miramar developed a mobile app for iPads and iPhones that provides spectators and prospective spectators with key information about its show.

This embrace of social media by the industry is understandable. Social media is in vogue, inexpensive and exciting. Although the perfect internet marketing solution has not yet been identified, the air show trailblazers in this area are beginning to see that, used properly, social media can drive attention to the show’s website which acts as a virtual ticket sales agent for those prospects.

But, as prevalent as social media has become, it is still the legacy media that does the heavy lifting for generating awareness about the upcoming air show within a given market. Even as the industry continues working to unlock the full marketing potential of social media, television and cable commercials, radio spots and newspaper ads remain the foundation on which most promotional programs are built. 

Observation #5
Each market is different. A mix of radio spots, cable television commercials, billboards and email newsletters that works well in one location may not work at all in another. It would be convenient — particularly for new shows — if there were rules or guidelines to direct a new, air show marketing effort; but there isn’t, and it’s unlikely that there ever will be. Marketing plans are influenced by many different factors, including:  bartering deals, relative strengths and weaknesses of media in particular markets, ticket prices, civilian show vs. military, demographics of various audiences, time of year the show is held, competing events, how long the show has been conducted in the same market, and other considerations.

More art than science, the process of developing a well-balanced, cost-efficient and effective promotional program necessarily requires time, patience and experimentation. That’s why established shows are, generally speaking, having success in marketing their shows; they have had many years to fine-tune and identify which tools and tactics work best and in what balance. They recognize that there are no “copy and paste” options…that every plan must be custom-designed to match the environment and circumstances in which it is executed.

That said, there are some rules of thumb that appear to apply in most situations:

  • Whatever techniques and tactics they use, the more progressive air shows in North America recognize that they can’t improve what they don’t measure. In some cases, these tracking systems are complex, but they often are simple and focused on providing information on which to base decisions related to allocating next year’s marketing resources. The Cleveland National Air Show carefully documents year-to-year statistics on website activity, marketing expenditures by category, number of news stories produced, and details on advertising trade deals, so that — over time — they build a clear history of what they have done. Another example: Thunder in the Valley, a mid-size show in Columbus, Georgia, has begun conducting a post-show survey of spectators to determine what they can do better in the future and, importantly, how the spectators first heard about the show.
  • Successful air show marketers do not become overly dependent on one or two promotional techniques. They distribute their time and resources across a number of different types of marketing tools: from television, radio, billboard, and newspapers to websites, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and QR codes. The combination that any one show uses, and the relative emphasis it puts on different techniques will, of course, vary from show to show. But virtually all leading shows use a variety of techniques.
  • The unique nature and once-a-year schedule of air shows usually make aggressive public relations efforts a significant component of marketing programs and an efficient use of limited resources. Successful shows have become adept at using media rides as an effective tool in generating compelling editorial coverage on television and in newspapers…coverage that often provides a timely reminder to prospective spectators that an air show will be held later in the week.

These types of public relations efforts typically are very time intensive, but do not include the kind of cash outlays that television commercials or newspaper advertising require. The shows that make the best use of public relations generally, and media rides specifically, put a lot of thought into how to leverage the limited opportunities available to generate positive editorial coverage.

After years of trial-and-error experimenting, the Cleveland National Air Show now runs a highly choreographed media ride program that matches specific media outlets with specific ride opportunities during the two-week period immediately preceding the show. The program minimizes no-shows among reporters and ensures that the most desirable media platforms get the rides that are likely to result in extensive, favorable coverage. The Fort Worth Alliance Air Show made arrangements for the weatherman from a local network affiliate to conduct live, remote weather forecasts from the ramp on the Thursday, Friday and Saturday of air show weekend, raising awareness about the show among those who tune into the local news.

  • The use of posters as a genuine marketing tool has just about ended. Some shows print small quantities as souvenirs or for sentimental reasons, but there seems to be consensus among marketers that posters no longer are a cost-efficient way to get the word out on an upcoming air show.

Observation #6
The air show community is making increased use of marketing agencies. As the environment in which air show promotion has become more expensive and complicated, more shows are opting to take that responsibility away from volunteers or self-taught staffers and put it into the hands of paid professionals. These shows are finding that the costs are more than offset by the professionalism and bottom-line results of those who run marketing programs for a living. Some of the more established shows, however, have volunteers or staffers who have been promoting the show long enough to have become, in effect, agency-level marketing professionals with specific expertise.

The deadline for entries in the 2012 ICAS Marketing Competition – including entries in the “Best Overall Marketing Plan” category – is October 1, 2012. Winners will be showcased during the annual Marketing Competition Awards Luncheon on December 12, during the ICAS Convention at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel. ICAS will distribute entry materials for this year’s Marketing Competition later this summer.

Bonus: Marketing Trends and Ideas

  • Promotional commercials shown in movie theatres while customers are waiting for the movie to start.
  • A special, heavily discounted deal offered through a warehouse club store like Costco or BJ’s. At least two ICAS member shows have made deals with local Costco stores to offer two-for-one tickets packaged in a plastic blister pack and sold off of a pallet at the front of local stores.
  • Mobile “apps” for smart phones to help encourage attendance and provide spectators with information once they arrive on the air show ramp.
  • Small, promotional flyers inserted into the envelope of quarterly water bills of all residents in a particular town or county. The single, additional piece of paper does not increase the postage, so – if a deal can be negotiated with an air show-friendly local government — the show is only responsible for the cost of printing the insert.
  • Large, pre-printed plastic sleeves that are “wrapped” around a commuter bus.  In at least one case, an organizer negotiated free placement of these bus wraps in return for identifying the public transit agency as a show sponsor.
  • Special offers with Groupon, Living Social, DealFind, Tippr and other internet-based “daily deal” type services. ICAS members who have negotiated these types of deals warn that shows should offer tickets only on those days when they have excess inventory – like a Friday show — because the partner organizations take such a heavy commission that it likely will be the least cost-efficient way to sell tickets. But it does open ticket sales to an entirely different segment of the market.
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John Cudahy
John Cudahy, ICAS President. | John Cudahy first joined ICAS as the organization's president in June of 1997. He has worked his entire 36-year professional career in association management, including more than two decades as the chief executive officer of ICAS. A graduate of the University of Virginia, Cudahy holds a private pilot certificate and is married with two adult children.