When the Show Must Go On: Filling the Void When the Military Can’t Come

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All across North America, air shows are feeling the impact of military budget cutbacks.  The Air Force has grounded most of its tactical demonstrations, at least temporarily. Competition to secure the Blue Angels, Thunderbirds and Snowbirds is getting stiffer, particularly in a year – like 2013 – when the Thunderbirds spend six weeks on their biennial overseas tour.  Military static displays are increasingly more difficult for some shows to obtain and the cancellation rates of those that are committed to shows are higher than ever.  To say nothing of the sequestration-related budget cuts that threaten to further limit military participation at air shows in the United States.

Compounding the loss of military participation are the familiar effects of tighter sponsorship budgets, audience demands for more and different entertainment, and the continued competition for the entertainment dollar that exists in every community.  The consequences of the void created by the cuts in military support shows just how dependent our industry has become on military participation.  The impact of these cuts are compounded by the economic realities of today’s show environment which are pushing and pulling on air show budgets as organizers decide how to respond.

These forces are not all new, but – increasingly — they are making show organizers feel like they are managing a big balloon; if you squeeze at one end, something has to give at the other end or the whole thing will burst.  And, in today’s economy, these forces are producing some interesting and sometimes unexpected responses as air shows decide if it is worthwhile to work harder to produce a quality product, take a hiatus to reduce cost, or simply fold all together.

For the California Capitol Air Show in Sacramento, the decision is clear.  “We’re finding we have to roll up our sleeves and get more creative,” says organizer Darcy Brewer.  “Just because we may not have a jet team doesn’t mean our mission has changed.  We are still here to honor our past and inspire the future.”

Brewer’s team has been extremely successful with a variety of aviation heritage programs.  “We’ve done shows with ninety years of aviation history on our ramp.  We’ve also staged the largest gathering of P-38 Lightnings in the entire country.  And we’ve built an entire show around the F-22 Raptor.  We promote the opportunity we give to our fans to talk to the pilots, and our fans can learn about character and the courage it takes to fly these planes.  Kids don’t hear much about that anymore,” she said.

The second year her show went without a jet team gave them the opportunity to bring the Tora Tora Tora act to their show.  It was the first time the act had appeared in Northern California and they made the most of it by beefing up their legacy displays and warbirds in the air.  They also made changes to expand their kid zone, brought in local bands to play at every gate, and added a car show.

Another key to their entertainment planning is paying close attention to the data from the ICAS spectator survey.  The Sacramento show has twice participated in the survey.  “We take the feedback very seriously,” Brewer said.  “Each year, our board reviews issues and concerns and we do the best job we can to respond. For example, we try to eliminate long lines wherever we can, but in locations where lines naturally form, we offer some type of entertainment to make waiting a little easier,” she said.  This could mean musicians, magicians, or clowns.

Kid Zones have become popular at many shows, including Brewer’s.  But they have taken steps to beef it up in recent years to try to attract more kids to the show.  “We partnered with our local children’s museum which brought in interactive exhibits which the kids love.  We have bounce houses, obstacle courses and more educational offerings.  We also ask the kids to vote on what they consider the coolest thing inside the Kid Zone, as well as what they think is the coolest thing on the ramp.  They love it and it helps us to know what they like and what they don’t like, so we can be responsive to their wishes,” she said.

One year, the favorite for the kids was a display put together by a sponsor that was a small version of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.  It was intended for kids ten and under, had lots of interactive activities and rows and rows of educational things.  It was colorful, created from scratch and was a favorite with the kids.

Most of the Kid Zone activities have been for younger kids, but Brewer said they are now developing a new area for kids between 8-14 year olds.  “This is in direct response to the feedback we have received.  Older kids felt left out, so in the future we will offer opportunities that are more educational.  It will include the FAA, as well as the EAA.”

Another big change for Brewer’s show has been the incorporation of the surrounding military bases into their event. “The bases around us can’t afford to put on their own events on a regular basis any longer, so we have incorporated them into our show and they are excited to participate. They get continued visibility in the community and our show benefits from their involvement through more displays, volunteer manpower and assets,” she said.

Another California show feeling the economic pinch is Redding.  But, for them, it’s not a question of how to make up for lack of military support. It’s a question of whether or not to have the show at all.  And for 2013, they opted out. Sponsored by the Exchange Club of Redding, the show is held every other year, which creates some real scheduling challenges where the jet teams are concerned.  “Two of the three North American jet teams have gone to two year scheduling cycles, which is great for planning, but they don’t always coincide with our schedule,” said the show’s Bill Wagner.  “We then have to decide if we want to maintain our traditional schedule or host a jet team whenever it is offered.”

At the ICAS Convention, they kept their fingers crossed that they would get a jet team and were rewarded by showing up on the Snowbirds schedule for a weekend show in 2014.  “We were scheduled to hold our next show in 2013, but our sponsors have made it clear to us that they are not interested in supporting us if we don’t have a jet team,” Wagner said.  Given the choices, he said it wasn’t a difficult decision to move the show to 2014.  “When the economy here goes bad, it goes deeper than the national downturn and takes longer to recover, so we have to pay attention to what our sponsors tell us.”

Wagner said they did have an opportunity for a mid-week show with the Snowbirds in October of 2013, but he said a mid-week show in the fall in their area is tough on volunteers.  “The Snowbirds are still coming in 2013, but we will not do a show. Instead, we will host a reception with them for our sponsors and potential sponsors, and use their appearance to launch our marketing for the 2014 show,” Wagner said.

At the Kansas City Aviation Expo, reduced military support is nothing new, according to organizer Ed Noyallis, and they may well follow the lead of Redding. “We have a jet team about every other year, but we are in a position now where we may have to cancel the show in those years where we don’t have a military act,” said Noyallis.  He said revenue at the Kansas City show goes down so sharply when there is no jet team that it’s not worthwhile to do a show.  And while a show without a jet team costs less to produce, fixed costs don’t go down enough to make up the difference.

It’s not that they haven’t tried to bridge the financial gap in the years between jet teams.  “We’ve always tried to have some type of team, even if we don’t have a military team.  We’ve even had the Budweiser Clydesdales, and a Legoland display from the Lego company,” said Noyallis. They always feature a Kid Zone, don’t charge for kids under 12, and don’t charge for military in uniform on Sunday, which increases attendance, but he said it still isn’t enough.

The Stuart Air Show in Stuart, Florida doesn’t even have the opportunity for a jet team.  The airport is simply too small.  Located just north of West Palm Beach, they do qualify for single ship tactical demonstrations, but even those are harder to come by because of Air Force cancellations and increased demand for remaining military assets. “We are fortunate that we have been able to increase our income from sponsorships, and our gate income was up, which allowed us to spend more on performers last year to make up for the loss of military support,” said organizer Mike Moon.

Unlike the year prior when military static displays went down by 40 percent, Moon said military displays in 2012 were up 40 percent.  The show also brought in more civilian static displays, more warbirds, and included the Lockheed 12A that was used on the movie Amelia.

“This is a big family show and that’s what we promote.  We focus a lot on kid stuff with carnival rides, and a variety of free activities for children that are related to aviation, and our fans respond by continuing to support us,” he said.

Because of economic uncertainties, the Great Georgia Air Show in Peachtree took 2012 off, knowing it would be a lean year.  They used the time to restructure their organization so they could come back stronger in 2013. “Our fans appreciate the military support we receive, but we don’t rely on it. We rely on our own efforts to put on the best show we can,” said Director Angie Faulise.  “When we restructured, we discussed the need to find new and innovative ways to market our show.  We also need to make better use of social media and we’re working on it,” she said.

Changes coming for their 2013 show include improving the ground experience for fans by building on what they did at their last event.  “In 2011, we had a multitude of local vendors.  We also got a robotics team to do a demonstration in the exhibition area. We had a display from the United States Tennis Association which brought a mini-tennis court to the show and did a demonstration for kids.”  These are in addition to the simulators, inflatables, and even bungee jumping.

Another innovation for them has been a World War II reenactment encampment, and they have since opened it to Civil War and Revolutionary War reenactments.

At the Prairie Air Show in Peoria, Illinois, they have gone without a jet team since 2009, forcing them to cancel their air show in 2012.  “We couldn’t justify putting on an event when we knew we would have no modern military support,” said Director Brett Krause.  “When they cut the tac demos and left us with only a Heritage Flight, we didn’t feel it was enough to draw people through the gate,’ Krause said.

Like most other shows, the Prairie Air Show sees a marked difference in attendance between shows with jet teams and those without.  In 2011, they got hit with a triple whammy.  They didn’t have a jet team, but were scheduled to receive an F-22 Raptor demonstration.  Unfortunately, the F-22 demo had to cancel and Krause said a lot of their fans were angry and demanded their money back.  While the show did receive an F-16 demo as a replacement, Krause said it didn’t help with the fans who wanted to see the F-22.  On top of that was what Krause described as a huge reduction in the number of military static display aircraft.  “Bases that traditionally supported us no longer had the number of flight hours in their budgets to send crews to our show,” he said.

The Prairie Air Show has been around for 25 years, and Krause acknowledges it was a tough decision to cancel the show in 2012.  “From 1984 to 1999, we never had a jet team. We were the epitome of a creative air show.  Then the jet teams started coming and our crowd changed.  A long time ago, they were happy just to see barnstormers. Now, they want all the modern military we can find.  We still offer lots to see and do at our show, but our crowd drops off by about two-thirds without a jet team and there is just no way to cover our costs when that happens,” he said.

The picture is further complicated by big cuts in sponsorship support when there is no jet team.  “In years with no jet team, our sponsorships fall off.  We have to work twice as hard to get money, we need more civilian performers to make up for the lack of a jet team, and this adds anywhere from $15,000-$30,000 to the cost of our show.  We’re in a rural area and it’s very hard to bridge that gap,” he said.

But the show is far from dead. “Our plan is to wait for another jet team.  We will definitely put on a show with them,” Krause said.

The air show in Olympia, Washington is another air show where field constraints prevent a jet team demonstration. Organized and conducted by the Olympic Flight Museum, the show has been fortunate to receive solo jet demonstrations both from the Air Force and the Navy in the past, but lack of Air Force participation is creating a void familiar to many shows.

Each year, they look for ways to expand their offerings on the ground. “We try to add entertainment for the kids each year. We’ve cleared space for paintball, brought in bounce houses, work with historical groups to provide re-enactors, and we’ve set up what we call mini-museum encampments from WWII, Korea and Vietnam which are very interesting to all ages,” said Olympic Flight Museum Executive Director Teri Thorning.

The museum uses the air show as their primary fund raiser, but — unlike most shows — the show is just one of many fund raising events held throughout the year.

“We focus on kid activities throughout the year, which includes conducting a paper airplane flight school, conducting a variety of aerospace education events, and even sponsor Santa’s arrival by helicopter.

For years, the show has been a traditional Father’s Day event in Olympia, but — in spite of their best intentions — the June weather in the Puget Sound area just wouldn’t cooperate, hammering them at least one air show day each weekend, if not two, for the past four years.  “Moving our show to July was a tough decision, but it was the only to get away from the cold, rainy weather we had been experiencing,” she said.

She says they take a look at what they do after every show and adjust as necessary, but if it isn’t broken, they don’t try to fix it.  “We know we can’t do the same thing year in and year out.  But we can’t rearrange the airport either.  What we can do is rearrange where the ground assets are and try to mix them up in an entertaining way,” she said.

Attendance at the museum’s air show has leveled off, but Thorning notes it hasn’t gone down in spite of the weather and the economic problems in the region.  “Unless the rain is falling sideways, people still come, but with the move to July and hopefully better weather, we expect to see an increase in attendance.  We will also be further into the tourism season in our area, which should bring in people as well,” she said.

Organizers of the Thunder in the Valley Air Show in Columbus, Georgia have their own way of responding to all of the different pressures they are feeling.  Lacking an aerobatic box big enough to accommodate jet aerobatics, they — like other shows in similar situations — have relied on non-aerobatic military demonstrations and military static displays.  In 2011, they were also lucky enough to get an Ospry demonstration, along with an F-18 fly-by, but the show can’t rely on those demonstrations to be there every year or even every other year.

“We have rebranded our show and are turning it into a broad-based community event.  The main attraction is still the air show, but we are so much more than we ever used to be,” said event coordinator Phaedra Childers. Proceeds from the show go to local charities, so — as part of their rebranding — their tag line for the 2013 show is “Give the Fun Way From the Runway.”  “This way, we are not just promoting just our air show.  We are promoting our community,” Childers said.  And those charities that receive money from the air show are invited to set up information booths at the main gate, forming a causeway as fans enter.  “This lets the public see, first hand, where their money goes.  It’s been a big hit and everyone loves it,” she said.

Their first show under this new brand will be in March 2013 and Childers is excited because the rebranding means more exciting displays and demonstrations on the ground and more community related activities.  “For example, we have reached out to our local high school ROTC program director and have asked him to coordinate a battle of local ROTC drill teams.  Our event will be held a week prior to a statewide competition, so we are giving drill teams from every high school in the tri-county area a chance to practice and perform for us,” she said.

Childers says they also did their own audience survey to better understand the demographics of their fans.  “We found out we were missing the teen-age crowd, so we are trying to find things to interest them and bring them to the show.”   They contacted one of largest bike shop owners in their area to set up a display of mountain biking, stunt biking demonstrations, and other activities.  They will also include an adult big wheel trike display to take advantage of their growing popularity.  Other youth attractions include a mobile shooting gallery and motorcycle stunt riders.

And to make greater use of social media, they have partnered with a social media marketing company to promote the 2013 air show.  In addition to building an online fan base through the creation of a mobile site and web site, they proposed collaborating with one of the local television media partners to utilize what has become known as Short Message System or “SMS” marketing.

SMS is the most widely used data application in the world and their TV partner has already created its own system.  Through this marketing channel, text messages can be sent to an established subscriber database of fans wanting the most up-to-date information about the air show.  Messages can be sent unlimited times and real-time to fans.  “We are also creating on-line contests where fans can win tickets to the show.  Kids are social media savvy and this will allow us to develop a data base, so we can start communicating directly with them prior to the show through such media as Facebook, tweets and blogs,” Childers said.

Columbus, Georgia is in America’s Bible belt, so they are now working on a new idea to showcase gospel choirs from local churches in an effort to bolster attendance at the Sunday show.  “We have a lot of early morning church services in our area, but there’s always an attendance lull at our show late Sunday morning so we want the choirs to come and have a sing-off in hopes more parishioners will come to the show after church to support their particular choirs.”   The project has been undertaken by a local minister who sits on the air show board of directors and organizers are keeping their fingers crossed that the sing-off will be well received.

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Mike Berriochoa
Mike Berriochoa is an air show announcer, former member of the ICAS Board of Directors, longtime communications professional and award-winning broadcast journalized based in Pasco, Washington.