Twenty Tips for Improving Your Air Show

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All of us have been to at least one air show that we thought was “great;” a show that in some way grabbed our attention and made us sit up and wonder just what made that show as exciting and as captivating as it was. Was it the thrill of the edge-of-the-envelope performances? Was it the exhilaration of the engine noise working in concert with the music, or the attention-grabbing rise of the narrator’s voice just as the pilot poured the power to the airplane?

We are often impressed not by a single aspect of the show (a popular jet team, a beautiful day, an outstanding venue), but by the professionalism and elegance of a well-oiled, finely-tuned air show team flawlessly performing a thousand small, but important tasks.

ICAS performs its primary function best when it helps all of its members learn from the success of a single member…when it provides a reliable place where members can go to borrow ideas and mimic those shows that have “built a better mousetrap.” As more and more events implement these ideas, they become integrated into the “best practice” expectations that define what a great air show is, thus improving the overall stature of our entire industry.

During the last several weeks, we have talked with industry professionals from all aspects of air show production, and asked them for any tips and suggestions they might have that would both enhance the spectator experience and possibly even improve your bottom line. 

  1. Build a better traffic/parking plan

One common denominator for many of the country’s strongest shows is that they have tackled and solved their traffic and parking problems. But, in a biennial survey of spectators conducted by ICAS, parking and traffic issues are routinely identified as the most difficult facing our industry. And no wonder: the infrastructure of general aviation airports or military bases is designed to process a small but steady stream of vehicles over a long period of time. On air show weekend, an immense number of cars arrive and depart within a narrow window of time. The road systems cannot handle the overload.

But, by listening to their colleagues and the difficult lessons learned over many years, it is possible for air shows to solve their parking and traffic challenges. As in many circumstances, the first step is recognizing that there is a problem.  Even the most desperate situations can be improved once all parties involved focus on making use of available resources – professional parking consultants, thoughtful counsel from more established shows, involvement of city planners – to tackle the one issue consistently identified by spectators as our industry’s Achilles Heel.

  1. Identify/empower safety czar

To ensure that your show continues to put safety first even during the busiest days of your event, pick a well-qualified Board member or volunteer and make him/her your safety czar or ombudsman. This individual should answer only to your Board or CEO. He/she should have a single responsibility: identifying hazards and then taking steps to mitigate those risks. Whether it’s finding gopher holes in the parking area before the show starts or making hard decisions to stop flying when the weather deteriorates on a show day, this is the person your show designates to be the safety conscience of your event. Many shows have moved toward this model and have found that it keeps the entire show management focused on the right things when show preparation and execution get busiest.

  1. Child ID bracelets

Having a lost child area is wonderful, but there’s a new, simple idea that some shows are using that takes that idea one step further: the child ID bracelet. Air show personnel put a blank wristband on each young child as they walk through the gate at the beginning of the show. Parents use an indelible marker (supplied by volunteers) to write their name and cell phone number on the wristband. In the event that the child becomes lost, law enforcement officials or air show volunteers have a quick and easy way to make contact with the parents. From the show’s perspective, this service is inexpensive, uncomplicated, and quick and easy to execute.

  1. Off-site will-call

For your VIPs, it is important to make the delivery of their passes, credentials and information as smooth and seamless as possible.  A will-call area is sometimes the simplest way to make sure that those VIPs get the materials they need in a timely and uncomplicated manner.  If preferred parking is part of your VIP plan, it might also make sense to have a VIP will-call somewhere away from the show grounds, so that your most important guests are not required to sit through traffic jams or park in standard parking in order to access credentials that would normally allow them to avoid both of these inconveniences. Consider a dedicated tent, or business partner in town, away from the airport. Or, depending on your set-up, you might have a VIP will-call area at the entrance to your parking area.

  1. Volunteer parking and flightline access

While we are on the topic of parking areas, it is important to note that your volunteers and especially your concessionaires need access to parking and the flightline a full two hours before the area is open to the public. Industry veterans will tell you that it is often the volunteers who have the most trouble getting to the place they need to be on time. They are the backbone of your manpower, and supervisors need to be certain that their staff is able to be on-site, on time. Distant volunteer parking and the inability to get through checkpoints have the potential to substantially reduce your available (free) man-hours. 

  1. Simplify/communicate credentials

Some shows make use of wristbands, lanyards, hangtags, stickers, ID cards AND decals. But, increasingly, shows are moving toward a consolidation of credentials and combining that with an effort to communicate what those credentials mean and what kind of access they do/do not grant. Color variations of the basic credential style seem to be the way the business is going, but even that simplified program works best when every volunteer gets a legend that explains what the different colors mean. Good briefings for relevant volunteers are another excellent way to communicate that information. A well-thought-out credentialing system will not be effective if not all air show personnel have the necessary information.

  1. Make sure that your spectators can hear the air show narration

Poor sound systems with mediocre announcers are SOOOO twentieth century. Technological advancements to air show sound systems and similar improvements in the overall quality and professionalism of today’s announcers have made quality sound and narration more accessible than ever before. Saving $2,000 on your sound system or narrator, but providing your audience with unintelligible noise is the definition of being penny wise and pound foolish. Quality narration delivered over a sound system that can be heard over most or all of your spectator area is now a minimum expectation of your spectators.

  1. Crash/fire/rescue orientation

Your CFR personnel should meet with the pilot and crew of every aircraft and performing vehicle before the show begins. They should know how much fuel each aircraft/vehicle will be carrying, how to get into the plane, how to release the pilot/driver’s restraints, and how to “secure” the airplane/vehicle if necessary. You can use rehearsal day as “Crash Fire Rescue Day,” an opportunity for CFR personnel to get that familiarity, as well as provide the families of CFR personnel with an extra opportunity to enjoy the show. In addition to providing emergency personnel with critically important information, this kind of “meet and greet” orientation session gives performers a higher level of confidence and comfort about the promptness and professionalism of an emergency response should it become necessary.

  1. Add variety to your show

Even the performers who would potentially lose business agree that it is critically important to invite a variety of acts to perform at your show. For more than twenty years, the results of the biennial ICAS spectator survey have told us very plainly that different people are attracted to different types of aerial entertainment. And, fortunately, our industry has many options to offer: wingwalkers, ground-based jet vehicles, sailplanes, warbirds, parachutists, comedy acts, solo sport aerobatics, pyrotechnics, formation aerobatic teams, jets and much more. There is a growing consensus within the industry and among our spectators that a show does a disservice to itself and its customers when it focuses on one type of act to the exclusion of others. Whatever the reason that a spectator attends an air show in the first place, that person will only come back if he/she is entertained well. And variety adds to entertainment value.

  1. On-site ATMs

Spectators can’t spend money that they don’t have at your show. So make sure you have one or more easily accessible, clearly identified automatic teller machines (ATMs) on your show grounds. While helping your customers get cash that they will then spend at your show, you can also make your best deal with the ATM provider to split any usage fees generated during your event. On-site ATMs have now become a minimum expectation of your customers.

  1. Offer high-end hospitality options

From Dayton to Salinas and from Holloman to Andrews, the air show business is learning that a segment of their audience wants and expects upscale hospitality options at the shows they attend. Historically, inexpensive tickets and affordable family entertainment have been the hallmarks of our business. But virtually every show that has offered a high-end hospitality option has found that there is a market for ticket prices in the $125-$200 range, if the ticket includes preferred seating and parking, shade, good food, and readily available drinks. In addition to serving the needs of a portion of the audience, these high end hospitality options can contribute significantly to a show’s bottom line.

  1. Diversify your air show management team

Many of the strongest civilian shows in the country have survived and prospered by reaching beyond the pilots in their community to attract local business men and women who can bring diverse skills and experience to bear on the challenges of organizing, conducting and sustaining an air show. Fond as we all are of pilots, they can sometimes be a bit one-dimensional in their business perspective. One common trait of the country’s most successful shows is that they involve marketing professionals, bankers, small business owners, law enforcement officials, and accountants beyond the airport/pilot community to benefit from their collective training and experience. This philosophy has the additional benefit of more thoroughly integrating the show into the fabric of the local community.

  1. Emergency response table top exercise

It’s a necessary part of the planning process that North America’s leading air shows recognize as a key factor in sharpening emergency preparedness. One or two months before the show, everybody who might possibly be involved in an emergency response gathers around a table (that’s why they call it a table top exercise) to simulate response to an actual emergency during air show weekend. The group “role plays” its way through at least two different scenarios: a “typical” emergency and a “worst case scenario” type of accident. The table top process is well defined and relatively easy to execute; any one of a number of people involved will have experience with these exercises. The challenge for most shows is to make the commitment, schedule a time and actually conduct the exercise. 

  1. Communicate well and frequently with your performers

Your show gets immediately stronger when you institute a program to improve communications with your performers. They become more focused and effective. You are relieved of distractions and interruptions.

Professional air show performers are largely self-sufficient and eager to stay out of your way during your busiest weekend of the year. But they need certain information to do their jobs properly. And everyone benefits when you ensure that they get all the information they need when they need it. From NOTAMs, TFRs, and practice aerobatic boxes to social events, autograph signing sessions and briefing location to local laundry facilities, hotel directions and decent local restaurants to air show radio frequencies, a local map and air show management contact information, the best shows in the United States and Canada spend a lot of time in the weeks before their events assembling this information and presenting it to performers in a useful, accessible format so that they won’t have to spend time during air show weekend answering standard, predictable questions. Some even identify an “ambassador” for each performer who becomes a single source for all interaction between the show and the performer.

  1. Get a supplemental cell phone tower or repeater

Cell phone coverage at air shows is typically very bad, but it doesn’t have to be. Permanent cell towers are not equipped to deal with the saturation of so many people in such a small area, so an additional tower can be extremely helpful. With some early planning and a working relationship with a local cell phone service provider, your show can supplement normal cell phone coverage to benefit your spectators, performers, volunteers and show management. 

  1. Raise your ticket prices

With very few exceptions, air show ticket prices are too low. And the shows that have increased their ticket prices have found that the change has had no discernible impact on ticket sales. In part as a result, some shows are starting to realize that there is room to increase their prices, and, slowly, the needle is moving. Average ticket prices of under $12 just a couple of years ago have increased to nearly $15, with some shows charging as much as $25 or even $30. Air shows are discovering that small, regular admission ticket price increases are the easiest way to raise revenue in a business that is regularly and notoriously short of revenue. And past experience has demonstrated that there is virtually no risk in doing so.

  1. Re-evaluate your website

Our industry’s top events are relying more and more on the power of their websites to sell tickets, communicate with spectators and – generally – serve as the public face of the air show. Fortunately, coming up with solutions to the design and content challenges of a show’s website is more science than art. Trial and error, and research have eliminated most of the guess work that may have been required in the past. It’s now clear what works, what doesn’t, and what the most important functions of your site should be.

First, and by far most importantly, sell tickets. Make it easy, clear and fast for prospective spectators to use your site to buy admission tickets. Then, explain who will be performing at the show, when the show begins and ends, how to get to the show site and where to park. Acknowledge and thank your sponsors. Explain how prospective volunteers can become involved. Provide answers to the questions you most frequently get in a “frequently-asked questions” area. Tell the audience about any restrictions you have in place (coolers, weapons, pets, etc.). Provide details about the show to media who might like to cover it. And give them contact information to reach you with other questions. 

  1. Trading/Bartering for ad time/space

Our industry’s top practitioners buy very little media time/space for television, radio and newspaper ads, but they do quite a lot of trades to get the ad time and space needed to effectively market their events. This is not a new development, but the trend became more evident recently when ICAS did some research for an article (“Marketing Matters: Trends and Best Practices in Air Show Marketing,” Second Quarter, 2012, Air Shows Magazine). Cash is always in short supply in the air show business, but the most well-established shows know that hospitality chalets, sponsorships, visibility within the community, and association with one of the area’s largest events can often be used to trade for advertising worth tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.

  1. Think about and plan for your show’s leadership succession

Air shows often fail because the person most responsible for making the show happen loses interest, gets sick or becomes otherwise unable to continue. As important as the passion of a single individual can be to the success of an event, the history of air show management clearly shows that long-term sustainability requires that future leaders be continuously groomed to take over leadership responsibilities.

  1. Go to other air shows!

These ideas are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to great techniques. The best way to improve your show is to get out there and see what other shows — both large and small — are doing. Making yourself aware of other shows’ strengths and weaknesses is a terrific way to identify your own best practices. It is amazing what you can see when you are on the outside looking in. Remember to use your own guests’ perspective as a resource, as well. If you can, add a survey to your website and invite your guests to write online and let you know what your show was doing particularly well or where they saw a need for change. Allow them to help you avoid complacency and provide you with the information you need to improve and grow.

The overall health and well-being of our air show community cannot be measured by looking exclusively at either the top practitioners or those struggling hardest to survive. Our collective success is defined by how we are collectively performing. And so it is essential that we continuously advance the industry standard, and measure this de facto standard against those of our true competitors: professional sports, automobile racing, concerts, festivals and other outdoor events. Simply treading water is no longer an option; as an industry, we will drown.

The innovators and leading practitioners in our business have clever, useful and important things to teach us. But we need to be willing to listen and change in order to take advantage of these opportunities and ensure that the air show industry stays attractive, competitive and committed to  continuously improving the experience of our ultimate customers: air show spectators.

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Devin A. Norris
Devin Norris is a pilot for a major U.S. airline who has worked in and has been associated with the air show business for nearly a decade.