That’s Entertainment!

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As the air show community continues to struggle with the implications of sequestration, many of the industry’s performers are focused on making the changes, decisions and adjustments necessary to remain effective and relevant.

While some show organizers struggle with ways to attract the massive crowds once drawn by military jets, others are searching for the most entertaining civilian performers and rare vintage aircraft in the industry. Instead of the roar of jets overhead at auto races and sporting events, it’s now more often the rich rumble of round engines and a slew of props. Though some performers are reaping the benefits of this unprecedented military reduction, others in the industry are getting squeezed as sequestration impacts different members of the air show community in different ways.

“You really can’t change your marketing, so the scariest part of this for us is trying to fulfill for our sponsors and make sure Goodyear reaches its goals. There’s a certain parameter or metric which Goodyear uses to select an event,” explained Goulian. “[The air show] has to have a jet team, be located in a large metro area, have a high population of aviation business, have history, and a track record of success. The show also has to be in a location that historically has favorable weather. And it cannot be scheduled on a holiday weekend.”

With both U.S. jet teams canceled, Goulian and Goodyear immediately began making adjustments to the criteria list, which increases the risk to hosting a successful event. The financial exposure for Goodyear can be substantial. For example, if one day washes out, the cost of the event effectively doubles on a “price per customer” basis.  The number of shows meeting the criteria dramatically shrinks when the focus shifts to business to business such as flight schools, maintenance shops, fixed-based operators and large corporate flight departments.

Goulian is flying twelve shows to meet his obligation with Goodyear, plus another eight shows as a paid performer.

Deep Trouble

“With the number of military shows I had to cancel, I’m in deep trouble,” said announcer Rob Reider.  In the wake of widespread cancellations and the loss of more than half of his booked shows, Reider has assessed his 2013 season both strategically and tactically. “I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t afford to NOT go to Sun ‘n Fun or Oshkosh,” explained Reider.  “It wouldn’t look good for the Rob Reider brand and business. I’m there to support my sponsors like Sporty’s, Hartzel, Sennheiser, and Scheyden.”

Besides being an avid social media user, Reider also has increased his investment on traditional ad buys. “I decided to go with more advertising in Air Shows Magazine this year.  I need to get the attention of shows that I haven’t done in the past,” said Reider.

Greg Colyer, Ace Maker Airshows, agrees that sequestration has hit everyone hard, but the shows’ thirst for alternative jets has allowed him to pick up new shows to replace the canceled military shows. “Without a doubt, the best advertising I do with my available limited budget is sponsoring the ICAS Convention and running full page ads in the ICAS Air Shows Magazine,” explained Colyer. “It’s the only paid advertising I do. It’s by far the best bang for my dollar.”

Sign Here

The sequester has also changed the way performers and support service providers look at longstanding air show business customs. One possible change: performers and other contractors likely will be increasing the size of the deposits required to reserve dates. “Regrettably, I’m not giving military first choice on a date because the contracts really don’t mean anything. A base can cancel a contract at will and has [done so in the past],” Reider said. “The requirement of a deposit is not just for military, but civilian shows, too, because of the work that must be completed in advance of the show.”

The Replacements

Civilian teams like Lima Lima, AeroShell, and Tora Tora Tora have always been cornerstones for many air shows, but were often scheduled to supplement one of the military jet teams. Now, the civilian teams – both prop and jet –are taking center stage, but without the guaranteed draw that has made the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds such a valuable asset to the air show business during the last 60 years.

With former Thunderbirds and tac demo pilots at the stick, the precision of the Black Diamond Jet Team is impressive, but an earlier decision to focus attention on Drakken International (an aviation services organization that focuses on providing contract air support for military training) has kept the team largely out of the world of air shows and focused on DoD contracting work during 2013. “We’re standing up a 50 tactical jet air force, so we don’t have time to devote to a full air show schedule,” explained Dale Snodgrass. “We love air shows and understand there’s a need, but the start-up of Drakken diminished the sponsorship available to shows in past years.”  The team has created a price menu from one jet to six with costs being covered by the show rather than United Bank Card Services, the team’s sponsor in years past.

The California-based Patriots Jet Team also dazzles fans with a dynamic show flown by former Blues and Thunderbirds, but is largely limited to the west coast because of cost as well. “We still have a big price tag, so we’re not marketing ourselves any differently because they either need us or they don’t,” said team lead Dean Wright. The team has added two auto races and two additional air shows to their line up this year, but even the Air Force Academy couldn’t afford the team for a graduation fly over. Instead, the Academy relied on warbirds to fill the skies of Colorado Springs.

“We’re marketing ourselves to a sponsor, not necessarily to the air shows,” explained Wright. “We want to attract an additional sponsor to join Fry’s Electronics so we can lower the cost of The Patriots for shows like Redding [California] and Wings Over Wine Country [in Santa Rosa, California].”

It’s All in the Name

For ten years, a group of RV pilots flew their 12-plane routine under the brand “Team RV,” creating a cloud of confusion; the general public associated the term “RV” with “recreational vehicles.” “We had show organizers tell us, ‘We can’t put you on our poster because it’s too confusing,’” explained Kari Morris, public affairs officer and team announcer. “We’re proud of our homebuilt custom aircraft, but — for the long term and to be the best in the industry — we had to bite the bullet and give up the name we had used for ten years,” said Morris. “It was bittersweet, but we’re already seeing some of the benefits of using “Team AeroDynamix,” she added.  The team has focused on building their new brand through advertising, Facebook, and being heavily involved in the VANS-RV forums.

Colyer also decided to market his plane the “Ace Maker” rather than his name as a performer. “Everybody already knew the jet, so that is what I went for instead of starting from scratch, trying to sell myself,” said Colyer. The “Ace Maker” has been featured in magazines in Europe, Japan and the U.S. “There are two companies selling RC models of my aircraft down to my name on the side of the cockpit, so my jet is out there,” added Colyer.

A Performing AND Marketing Force

Other performers are responding to the current marketing challenges and opportunities by combining talents and capabilities in a manner that makes them greater than the sum of their individual parts. The 4ce is a four-ship formation aerobatic team that is capitalizing on that strategy.

With more than 60 years of combined aerobatic and formation experience, Matt Chapman, Jack Knutson, Rob Holland and Bill Stein offer abundant and varied capacity: a four-ship formation team, circle the jumper capabilities, four very different solos, and a two-ship act.

“We are a different value, because we fly a huge number of acts and ones that everyone remembers,” said Bill Stein.  “We’re trying to do our best and provide what the air shows need.” Stein added, “We’re also trying to build something that isn’t a flash in the pan, but that’s always highly entertaining.”

From a marketing perspective, the team benefits from the collective reputation and experience of all of its members. Barb Haluszka, longtime director of the Battle Creek Field of Flight, typically has the USAF Thunderbirds headlining the show, but hired The 4ce this year without even seeing their show based on the stellar reputations of the team and its overall value.

Flying South

Many years ago, on a trip to AirVenture at Oshkosh, Skip Stewart watched Jim LeRoy spin his dynamic biplane. Then he watched Sean D. Tucker in the Oracle Challenger. Those two events changed his life forever.

Stewart custom built his own Pitts S-2S, adorned with flames and checkerboards to provide a dramatic image cutting through the sky. A YouTube video of his low-level flying caught the attention of air show organizers in El Salvador and they hired him. Stewart has flown the show three times since then, plus nine additional shows in six countries, including Panama, Honduras, Australia, China and the Dominican Republic. Although there are unique challenges to flying outside of North America, there are also opportunities. “Earning $20,000 in the Dominican Republic is just as cost-effective as going to Georgia for $10,000,” explains Stewart.

Others like The 4ce, Melissa Pemberton and Team AeroDynamix have joined him in the southern hemisphere as performers look to find additional air shows and income. According to Stewart, the Dominican Republic follows the same rules as the U.S., but other countries may have the performer flying 15 feet from the crowd, so performers must carefully weigh all aspects when flying outside North America.

Stewart is also a heavy Facebook user because he enjoys answering fan questions and comments. “I prefer it because I approach it as an air show fan,” says Stewart. “I’ve been a fan since I was 14 years old; I do it for them.” Stewart was recently named as the 2013 recipient of the Bill Barber Award for Showmanship. “My style is the illusion of danger and the Bill Barber verifies you’re doing a good job.”

Civilian performers will have to soar above the average, embrace change, find the wow factor, turn up the creativity, and, ultimately, enhance the entertainment value of the show without relying on the military to pump up the crowd. This unique window created by sequestration allows performers to create an entirely new canvas of what entertainment looks like for the next air show generation. Will you be leading or following?

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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.