Air Shows as Aviation-Oriented Fairs, Festivals


The discussion and debate rages about what air shows could or should be without the active support of the U.S. military, but one pilot who also holds the title of former U.S. National Hot Air Balloon Champion quickly simplifies it: Air shows are “like the local festival.”

There.  Someone said it.

For many years, air shows and performers tried to believe air shows should be compared to NASCAR or other sports and attract the corporate dollars showered on the ultra-hyped category. However, the unintended result of sequestration is “small” shows — which combine thrilling flying with concerts, hot air balloon competitions, car shows or other events — are thriving. Sounds like a festival!

IEG has always classified air shows in the fairs, festivals and events category along with the national rodeo, state fair, and local shrimp festival, which irks some show organizers who believe their events offer considerably more value for sponsors. While the category is forecasted to attract $849 million in sponsorship this year, it still pales in comparison to major sport spending which rakes in an eye-watering $2.62 billion. William Chipps, Senior Editor, IEG Sponsorship Report, recently said, “Fairs and festivals continue to benefit from banks, auto dealerships and other categories looking to strengthen their local positioning.”

Air shows across North America have largely relied on local sponsors, with the exception of an occasional national mobile marketing tour or a nationally sponsored performer.  “We’re an old fashioned barnstormer where we try to showcase the airport and anything that flies whether it’s a power glider or a T-6,” says Steve Borowski of the Valkaria Aviation Association.

The Valkaria Air Fest located near Melbourne, Florida is in its seventh year. Ticket prices for the one-day event range from $5 to $15. This year’s event included big name stars like Patty Wagstaff and the Aeroshell Aerobatic Team, along with hot air balloons and multiple concerts.

For any size air show, local companies can leverage the community goodwill to drive traffic to its business or simply bask in the halo of goodwill generated by the event. “Our sponsorships are mostly one to two thousand with the highest being five thousand” said Borowski. “We have large businesses like the Harris Corporation with more than eight thousand employees, and Northrop Grumman nearby, but we’ve never signed them for sponsorships. Largely because we’re all volunteers and we don’t have someone hammering on that year round.”

“I would rather have ten $2,000 sponsors than one $20,000 sponsor because sometimes the larger one demands everything, and actually costs me money,” says Battle Creek Field of Flight Director, Barbara Haluszka. “This is a community event, a family event. We listen, make adjustments and continue to evolve.”

There are key categories for all events regardless of size: media, retail, beverage, auto and banking, to name a few. Each category overlaps with another, creating a strategic bundle of benefits for all partners. Example: the media partner includes a radio remote at the local car dealer or grocery store. The grocery store offers a beer or soda provider in-store displays that incite sales and benefit the air show fan with discounted tickets or a chance to fly with a performer. The combination of activation opportunities is truly unlimited. Some shows, however, do struggle with limited staff or time, which hampers their overall marketing efforts.

Power of one

One person working with a board of directors is a common event practice with the difference being how actively engaged the board and volunteers are in soliciting sponsors. How does one extraordinarily busy air show director find the time to sell sponsorship? The most common solution is to create clever packages with cute names or titles that evoke richness and value with a few extra tickets. (See “Marketing Matters: Seven Mistakes and Myths about Selling Sponsorship” from the First Quarter issue of Air Shows Magazine.) Yes, you’ve heard it from sponsorship consultant Bruce Early and others that this is something to avoid, but reality bites hard when you’re trying to execute RFPs, run an airport, find volunteers and a multitude of other tasks required to run an air show.

It’s also critical to create a valuation of your show’s benefits, but practical reality rears its head again for the office of one. Brenda Kerfoot, former general manager, Vectren Dayton Air Show, offers these suggestions. “You do have to be careful to set up sponsorship levels that have clear distinctions in benefits, and then be consistent in your agreements,” said Kerfoot. “Many shows have entry-level packages, which for Dayton is $6,000.  However, you don’t want to turn down someone who wants to participate, but only has $4,000.  For them, you may offer premier exhibit space and a few VIP tickets, but the real branding is reserved for a true sponsor.”

Some local businesses actually demand to see a sponsorship package, often so that they can pick out the benefits they want and use that as a tool to negotiate a lower sponsorship fee. You can avoid this selective shopping by presenting a “customized” package based on a variety of benefits, but tailored specifically for that category. Get that? The category: auto, grocery, media, telecom, cable, beer, water, carbonated beverage and more.

Creating a comprehensive sponsorship package does allow you to evaluate the costs and adjust the benefits, but this now becomes an internal working document. If you share the entire package with a prospective sponsor, it has the potential to overwhelm them. This could keep them from understanding the best way to leverage the opportunity. Worse, they could opt for a lower sponsorship level.

“It’s far more efficient for me to say, ‘Think of us when you’re planning your budget,’” explains Battle Creek’s Haluszka. “Then, they’ll call and tell me that they have $4,000 and want to entertain their employees. OK, now I can craft a package that exactly meets his needs.”

Shows also fall into trouble with the menu approach with media partners who want the “gold” package. “You have to do your homework and know which outlets (television and radio) get the largest audience share and fit your demographics,” explained Kerfoot.  “Then, go and ask them to provide proposals for buy/trade combinations and let them know that you have tickets that can be used for promotions, etc., to sweeten their entire promotional proposal.”

Donation or sponsorship

Agencies and sponsorship experts consistently say sponsorship is not a donation. True. The reality is that most air shows struggle to raise the necessary funds to operate an event that inspires, educates and entertains. Some companies will move a sponsorship request to the advertising budget while others will consider it to be a foundation donation or file it under charitable contribution. Then there are shows like Wings over Waukegan, which is operated by a 100 percent volunteer board who essentially tasks themselves to contact potential donors.

“If you’re going to help the community, we ask the businesses at the airport to donate money to the show,” said Grant Farrell, President and Air Show Director. “We have a core group of people who have a relationship with the air show. They see their donation helping a good, quality family event that might inspire a little kid to go through an AFROTC or the Air Force Academy because they talked to a pilot.”

Just outside Chicago, the one-day Wings over Waukegan prides itself on hosting a better show than much larger, nearby shows. “Our show is a better quality show because the planes are right there. You can talk to the pilots and you don’t have to put up with the crowds,” said Farrell. “It’s a home grown air show with 20 thousand people paying $10 a ticket.” The show generally tries to raise $80,000 to $100,000 through sponsorships and donations, which generally covers the cost of the show since many of the statics and aircraft reside at the airport. Farrell added, “We’re trying to educate people about aviation and the value of having a national airport in their backyard.”

Understanding the local culture and expectation of the business community also shapes your sponsorship and marketing. Some cities have a tradition of selling “tables of eight” at charitable galas and functions. So selling a “table of eight” in a VIP tent at an air show fits into the local business culture and economy. Is that sponsorship? Donation? Typically, the staff-of-one air show director has neither the time nor the inclination to consider such questions. Deadlines are approaching. The phone is ringing. The difference between a sponsorship or a donation isn’t really important as long as the check clears.

Companies in a smaller market might want a photo in the local paper of a “check presentation” of their sponsorship to the air show. While the presentation itself has little value to the show or partner, the photograph in the paper generates excitement for the show and encourages other sponsors to provide similar support for a community event. More important, it’s the culture and is expected in some cities, so embrace it and exploit it to benefit all parties.

Looking Back to Look Forward

Recently, people refer to the vintage barnstorming days when they point to the future of the air show industry without substantial military support. The success of small shows lends credibility to that theory when the focus is on entertainment and ramp diversity with plentiful activities, whether it’s motorcycles, auto shows, concerts or hot air balloons.  Shows of every size find marketing and sponsorship a challenge for small or all-volunteer staffs on a limited budget, yet smaller and new events often thrive because of their local connections and grassroots appeal. These events are focused not only on the bottom line, but on celebrating their passion for aviation. Nobody involved is particularly concerned whether it’s classified as a festival or sporting event. And sometimes, you just have to break the “rules”!

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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.