Caution: Air Shows at Work

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When the Pentagon announced in October that it was reinstating the jet demonstration teams’ schedules, our industry heaved a collective sigh of relief.  But, at the same time, we realized that those schedules may not be the same as before sequestration. We also realized that, while the jet teams may be back, we still may not see military static aircraft showing up at our shows at the same level as before. 

Sequestration caused more than 60 civilian shows and military open houses to cancel in 2013. Other shows proceeded without military support, and — in most cases — saw dramatic declines in attendance as a result, giving them pause as they consider whether or not to hold a show in 2014.  And those shows that are moving forward in 2014 are proceeding cautiously as they feel their way through the brambles of uncertainty before them. 

The Evansville Freedom Festival in Evansville, Indiana has been staging its event over the Ohio River for years, often with participation by the Blue Angels. But not this year. “Our attendance was down about 30 percent this year and this was the second year in a row that the Blue Angels had to cancel on us,” said air show committee chair Rick Kaskel. The show is part of a larger community festival that is built around the 4th of July. “When sequestration hit, we were already locked and loaded. We had obtained all of our extra permits, including those from the Coast Guard, which stops commercial barge traffic. We were too far along to cancel the event,” he said. 

The Evansville event is sponsored by the Shriners organization which, like most other shows, relies heavily on sponsors to cover their costs. Sponsors not only stepped up to keep the event going, Kaskel said they received more sponsor support than the year before, allowing them to fill in some gaps created by the loss of military participation.   

The week-long Evansville event includes a car show, carnival, dances, and live music every evening, wrapping up on the 4th of July with the air show. “We could hold our event without the air show, but the air show has been an important part of it, so we are moving forward,” Kaskel said. The event has already signed contracts with two performers for 2014, but Kaskel said they are planning their show around expectations of another year of reduced military support and reduced revenues.   

But they will be adding a few new elements to entertain their river-front audience. “During World War II, they built Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs) here for the D-Day invasion. We still have one in our community, so we will tie that in.  We will also do more to utilize the river with sea planes, duck boats, simulated rescue and recovery, etc.  We will start with river activities and transition into the air show,” he said. 

At the Quad City Air Show in Davenport, Iowa, organizer Ken Hopper says they have been anticipating something like sequestration for several years and have been planning for it. And the wisdom of that planning was evident. Hopper said that 2013 marked only the second time in the 27 year history of the event that they have gone without military support, and, he said, like most other shows that are used to seeing jet teams, their attendance was down. “With the Blue Angels, we normally get 80,000 to 100,000 people attending.  This year, we saw about 50,000,” Hopper said. 

Expecting the loss of military support, Hopper said they turned the event into a big warbird show, and sold it that way to their sponsors.  He said they all bought in, which is what saved them. “Ticket sales were down 40 percent, but we were able to raise more sponsorship money than in past years, so we came out OK.” Their show included P-51s, B-25s, P-40s and a host of other aircraft. “We tried to make it look like the 1940s,” he said. And, like most other shows, Hopper said that, while their numbers were down, the people who did come had a great time.   

When Hopper goes to Las Vegas this year, it will be his 32nd consecutive ICAS Convention. He said he will be booking a very different show than in past years. “If we don’t get the military support we need, we are going to do a Saturday evening show that will include a fireworks display, with a regular day show on Sunday. We’ve never done it this way before, but we need to try something different,” he said.   

Hopper said they will be bringing in the best civilian performers they can afford in order to make the show as entertaining as possible. They also are building their show with a “Cash in the Bank” philosophy. “We know we won’t make it on the gate, so we have to raise as much money up front as possible. We have to convince our community that the show enriches our community, that it is important for the airport, and that it is important for young people to be able to see and hear these airplanes. It’s not just about making money. It’s about staging an event that is unique in our community that our audience won’t see anywhere else in this area.” 

The Great New England Wings and Wheels in Westover, Massachusetts, as its name implies, didn’t rely entirely on airplanes for its success in 2013. It was the first time they had ever staged such an event, adding cars to fill the gap created by the loss of military static displays. “We had 25 warbirds come in, plus 600 cars. It was well organized, and those who attended had a great time; but attendance was not good, said Co-Chair Don Ferrell. And, unfortunately, the major sponsorship they had counted on failed to materialize as expected. One key sponsor backed out just days before the event.  Ferrell said they did have a number of smaller sponsors which helped soften the blow.   

“We saw the addition of the cars as a bridge opportunity that would carry us until the effects of sequestration were over. While we didn’t lose money, we didn’t make any either, which prevented us from giving money to our local charities,” he said.   

Unfortunately for his community, Ferrell said their event will go on hold, at least until 2016…not due to loss of military support, but for other reasons. “Our airport is planning some major activities in 2014 which prevent us from holding our show next year. And the Air Force Reserve, which shares the airport, will be holding an event of its own in 2015,” he said. 

A bright spot in the 2013 air show season was the Cape Girardeau Regional Air Festival in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.  In the face of sequestration, they made some changes in their offerings and got a tight grip on the budget, according to Air Festival Manager Bruce Loy, who also serves as the Cape Girardeau Regional Airport manager. A big change for them was the addition of a night pyro show on Friday night that included fireworks. 

The Cape Girardeau show doesn’t get a jet team very often, so the lack of a jet team in 2013 didn’t hurt them.  The last time they had a jet team was in 2010.  Before that, it had been 18 years. Where they felt the impact was the lack of military static displays and the loss of single-ship demo teams. So, they had to be creative to make up for it. “I had hoped we could do night shows on both Friday and Saturday nights, something we had never done before. But, to keep costs down, we did the night show on Friday only, with a day show on Saturday.  It was successful, but the most difficult part of our planning was keeping the budget down because we didn’t know what to expect for attendance,” Loy said. 

Having limited funds, they were able to afford only a few warbirds. A local aircraft collector brought in some of his vintage airplanes, including a DC-3. They also brought in a Tuskegee Airmen display, a kids’ tennis exhibit, bounce houses, and an Air Force simulator. “One of my board members was also able to get some World War II assets that allowed us to put up a reenactment camp,” Loy said. He noted the show was not what he would call a huge financial success, but said it was successful none-the-less. “We made a little money and got a lot of praise from the community.” 

The Cape Girardeau show is not an annual event, normally going every-other-year.  But Loy said they decided to do another show next year, because they are on the Snowbirds’ schedule and he anticipates another successful event. “We will be increasing our budget, but we know we can’t go crazy with our spending. Our audience is not as familiar with the Snowbirds as they are with the U.S. jet teams, so we will have to figure out how to be creative in our marketing,” said Loy.   

Loss of the Thunderbirds caused the organizers of the air show in Rochester, New York to postpone their event and they will wait to see what happens with the military before committing to a 2014 event. “We know from experience that a non-jet team show would not be successful. We know a lot about our audience and we would be hard pressed to move forward without a jet team,” said organizer David Cooper.   

ICAS demographic surveys make it clear that the priority for most air show fans is a jet team, followed by solo demonstrations. Cooper said they do their own surveys periodically and the results parallel what ICAS has learned. He said they have tried adding a variety of elements to their shows in the past, including a car show, a carnival, monster trucks, and other activities, but these have met with only marginal success.   

“We are keeping our fingers crossed for 2014. If there are fewer military shows, then we may see jet teams available to do more civilian shows, so anything could happen,” he said. But, he said that lack of a jet team will cost them their title sponsor and that has a big influence on whether they want to go ahead without a jet team. 

While some shows are fearful, or at least apprehensive about 2014, organizers of the Vectren Dayton Air Show in Dayton, Ohio are moving forward with enthusiasm, in spite of reduced attendance. “2014 will be our 40th year. This is a strong aviation community and we have no intention of cancelling,” said Executive Director Terry Grevious. Normally, they see 75,000 fans come through the gates, but not this year. Attendance was off by two-thirds.  “It was a good show and we put a significant amount of effort into it. We replaced modern military aircraft with warbirds and additional civilian performers.  But, despite it all, we saw only a third of our normal audience attend and the financial impact was significant,” he said. 

Grevious said they are fortunate to have strong sponsorship support. “We promoted our show and sold sponsorships on the expectation of having the Thunderbirds.  Fortunately, most of our sponsors stayed with us after we announced the loss of the team,” said Grevious. But it wasn’t enough to cover the loss at the gate, saying they had to go deep into their reserves to cover the loss. And he believes the lessons they learned are obvious. “The lack of military does reduce the crowd, no matter how good the list of performers.” He said they had the best of the best flying for them and had good ground attractions, but still couldn’t overcome the lack of military support.   

Grevious said they are trying to be optimistic, but that it’s hard. “We will go forward with optimism. If military support is restored, we will integrate them back into our show.  But we don’t have the luxury of waiting, so we are moving forward,” he said. For their 40th anniversary, they will likely shorten the length of the show by an hour, beef up their marketing and keep a tight grip on their spending. “We are limiting our budget to essential spending only. If it doesn’t bring people in the gate or support the program, we cut it,” Grevious said.  

In Louisville, Kentucky, they kick off the festival leading to the Kentucky Derby with a wide range of events, including an air show.  But in spite of the draw of the Derby, air show organizer Wayne Hettinger said they got hit as hard as anybody else.   

“We are a one day air show and military support is a big deal for us. Because of our location, our fans don’t see a lot of military aircraft, so anything we get is a coup for us. We saw sequestration coming in 2012, so we loaded our 2013 show with civilian performers and it worked out great. We are going forward with our show for 2014, but we will have two plans. Plan A will be to do the same thing….load the show with civilian performers and fill with military if we can get them. We will even extend the hours of the show to accommodate them if we need to. Plan B will only happen if the effects of sequestration are lifted, in which case we will reverse our strategy and load up with military and fill in with civilians,” he said. No matter which way they go, he said it’s going to be a great show. “We will give it everything we have because 2014 will be our 25th anniversary.” 

The Louisville show is totally funded by sponsors, so they don’t have to rely on the gate. “We know our budget before going to the convention, so we can do some serious shopping when we get there.” The show takes place over the Ohio River where it forms the border between Ohio and Kentucky.  It concludes with what is billed as the largest fireworks show in the United States. “We set off 58 tons of fireworks and people come as much for the fireworks as for the airplanes,” said Hettinger. 

One of the first shows to announce they would proceed in 2013 without military support was the Battle Creek Field of Flight Air Show and Balloon Festival in Michigan.  Battle Creek is a small town with a limited population base, so attendance levels are all the more important. And organizer Barb Haluszka said their attendance was down about 40 per cent in 2013 due to lack of military participation.  Part of the reason they went forward this year was because they are also a balloon event, which is also why they are proceeding in 2014. Their event is wrapped around the 4th of July and one of their biggest questions is not whether to do an event, but whether to go four days or five. 

“We are working on our budget, looking for ways to cut costs and looking for things to add to our entertainment offerings that will bring people out. We are planning to do a twilight air show followed by fireworks. We are also going to look at our admission price, so it is easier for people to attend,” she said. And they are working with performers to get as much from them as possible, including such things as mock dog fights, formation routines, and even flying twice a day. And, like several other shows, their event includes a carnival…something that has been a feature for them since 1987. 

While most shows going into 2013 had experience on their side to guide them, organizers of the Chennault International Air Show boldly went into the unknown, staging their first show at the Chennault International Airport in Lake Charles, Louisiana. It was the first air show in that community in 15 years. 

“We expected 8,000 to 10,000 people each day and came very close to our projections,” said Megan McLellan, the event’s director of sales, marketing and development. Their lineup included a Canadian F-18 demonstration and the Black Diamonds, but, since they hadn’t had a show in 15 years, there was no expectation of U.S. military support. 

“People were excited just to be here.  We had a great lineup of professionals and mixed them in with warbirds; we received a lot of positive comments,” McLellan said. Statics included a B-29 and a B-25.  Without any recent attendance history, there was no way to know if the crowd was normal or not.  But McLellan said they did great with their sponsorships and more than covered their expenses. 

Now, as they plan for 2014, they have experience on their side. “A year ago, we didn’t know what we didn’t know. Now we know what we can do better. We are very pleased with what we did in 2013 and are looking forward to 2014. We are seeking feedback from our sponsors and doing everything we can to improve,” she said. 

The California Capital Air Show in Sacramento was a bright spot in 2013, partly due to having the Snowbirds.  But they have achieved success over the years by building their shows around particular themes.  One year, they had the largest gathering of P-38s since World War II. Another year, they built their show around a 9/11 tribute, with a C-130 doing the world’s largest drop of rose petals.   

“I think the days of air show audiences coming out just to see a jet team may be over. We have to roll up our sleeves and offer something for all ages, all day long. I want audiences to show up when the gates open, not just when the aerobatics begin,” said Executive Director Darcy Brewer. “I want people to know they haven’t seen the show if they are not inside the gates,” she said.   

These kinds of programs aren’t available on the convention floor. They have to be created by each show. “We develop our story board, and then match performers to our theme, whether we are doing a throwback to barnstorming or doing something with the hottest jets. We create the show we want to produce, then hire the performers that give it to us,” she said.   

And to Brewer and her team, it’s not just about the number of people coming through the gates. “We have a duty to tell the story of those who have served and sacrificed. We talk about a time of honor and we also believe it is our duty to show what Americans have been inventing, so kids will understand that math results in something and that science is cool.” 

Her 2013 show featured a lot of civilian jets, both solo acts and teams. And replacing the C-5 and C-17 statics were airplanes from FedEx and UPS, alongside vintage cars and trucks, a 1905 Montgomery Flyer, a Curtis Jenny, and lots of seaplanes. “We made sure kids could see these airplanes and climb all over as many as possible,” said Brewer. They also added new attractions to the Kid Zone, including the Launch Pad, which saw more than 8,000 visitors go through.   

“We have learned how to scale back expenses without curbing the guest experience, and we will continue to do this for years to come. We don’t know what the future will hold, but we will continue to build our shows around sharing a century of aviation history as we honor our past and inspire our future,” she said.  She is already negotiating with performers for the 2014 show and will launch the 2014 web site on December 5. 

In spite of the success of some shows, optimism for the 2014 air show season is hard to come by. There are bright spots, certainly, but most optimism is tempered with caution.  ICAS Chairman Judy Willey is also president of the Oregon International Air Show in Hillsboro, Oregon.  Like other shows around the country that have a history of strong military support, her show saw 2013 attendance fall off because of the loss of a jet team and no military statics. 

“It was a tough year. Paid attendance was down, which created a domino effect on food vendors, souvenir vendors and others who use our show as a fundraiser,” Willey said. “We’ve tightened our budget and have taken our budget down about as far as we can.”   

So what has our industry learned from our 2013 experience?  “We’ve learned that some communities can have a great family aviation event without the military. We miss them terribly and the loss means we miss out on something wonderful. Some shows never have military support and are very successful. But, to survive, those shows with a history of military support have to decide if they want to go forward. Those that do have to decide what kind of show to create without that support. They must control expenses and understand we won’t see the same size crowd if the military isn’t there,” Willey said.

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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.