Specialists Raise the Bar to Advance Professionalism in the Air Show Industry


Throughout most of its history, ICAS has focused on two main areas. At the top of the list is safety, followed by upping the level of professionalism, all under the banner of entertainment.  Much of the wisdom and information was passed down through seminars at the national and regional conventions, along with articles in the quarterly magazine. It’s all been about self-help, but some shows have found they need more help than they can find among local volunteers, giving rise to a number of niche specialists who are making their own contributions to improving the safety and professionalism of our industry.

Not counting pilots, some of the earliest air show specialists were announcers, followed by professional air bosses and sound companies. Old-timers remember the days when air shows relied on a local radio announcer to handle the public address duties, and they pretty much got what they paid for…an adequate voice that knew little of how to talk to crowds and nothing of airplanes. Today, there is a cadre of top notch, professional voices, some of whom did or still do work in broadcasting, but also know a lot about airplanes and air shows.

Similarly, the rise in professional air bosses has greatly enhanced the overall safety of air shows.  A decade ago it was not uncommon for pilots to attend a briefing where the word “safety” was never used.  In sharp contrast, pilots at today’s shows are reminded constantly that the only thing they have to do at an air show is be safe.

And sound systems, aided in large part by improved technology, have all but eliminated the tinny, high frequency sounds that were once emitted by a string of rusting horn speakers stretched along a crowd line. Such horns would blast those closest to the crowd line and leave dead areas on much of the ramp, diminishing the quality of the presentation and creating potentially serious safety issues in the event of an emergency.

Coming out of the special events industry to offer their services to air shows have been food and merchandise vendors, guaranteeing quality food and drink, fast service, a host of souvenirs, and in the process returning a chunk of change back to the show without the show having to do much more than make space available for these vendors.

And just as the professionalism in these areas has risen to unprecedented levels, so has the professionalism among specialty consultants who serve our industry in other ways.

Herb Gillen of Herb Gillen Advertising, for example, has developed a solid reputation within the industry for his innovative marketing, public relations and advertising work over the past 11 years. “Thanks largely to ICAS and the marketing competition it used to hold, air shows have been able to see what other shows are doing well and this has helped elevate their overall marketing efforts.  But there is still a ton of room for improvements. Our industry is far behind other professional events such as football and baseball where we see much more sophistication and more uniformity,” he said.

Gillen says too many shows still rely on local volunteers to handle their marketing. And while locals may have the expertise, most don’t understand air shows, so they don’t achieve their full potential. “There are things about air shows that take a lot of time to learn, like knowing which performers do the best media interviews, which ones are unreliable or simply not good at being interviewed, or how to maximize the use of jet teams in the media and in the community. And while most fans don’t know the difference between an F-16 and a C-17, a show’s marketing people need to understand the difference if they are to leverage such information to maximum benefit.”

An agency like Gillen’s has worked with large and small shows alike to help them improve their marketing and increase the flow of fans through the gate. “Shows that use us continue to use us because they see results through increased ticket sales, increased sponsor sales, greater attendance and more media impressions.” And, he said when the show is over he can produce a report showing that the cost of their service is minimal compared to the added value they bring to a show. “Whether it’s on a retainer or a fee for services, just about every show can benefit by using the services of a professional air show marketing agency,” he said.

Gillen says there is often resistance to hiring an outside firm to help a show do its marketing because someone on the show’s board of directors knows someone who will volunteer their services. “I totally understand this, but shows don’t always get the best service this way. We are more than willing to work with local firms because we know we can have a positive impact, even if it’s just giving advice,” he said.

The changes that have taken place in the air show industry over the past ten years — the advent of social media, online ticketing, and better consumer databases — have all pushed shows to change how they do their marketing. “The air show industry still needs more consistency in how we promote ourselves. Some shows do a great job, but there are still a lot of shows that don’t, and that hurts the entire industry.” Gillen said he sees many missed opportunities: jet teams not getting the media coverage they deserve; media ads that don’t emphasize the key selling points; and shows that resist selling tickets in advance online, choosing to rely on gate sales or store sales. “All of these hurt the bottom line,” he said.

Another leader in air show sponsorship is Phil Pacific of ADC Group in Dallas, Texas. ADC Group is a sales and marketing company that specializes in using the air show platform to create innovative marketing and promotional opportunities to meet corporate objectives. With over 23 years of sales and marketing experience with consumer product companies, Phil has spent the last 11 years of his career carving out a unique niche in the air show industry by marketing air shows to ad/promotion agencies.

ADC is credited with pumping nearly $5 million into the air show industry that otherwise would not have been there. ADC Group manages 100 percent of the sponsorships, exhibits and private chalets for five shows, from New England to California, and serves as the national sponsorship representative for another 50 shows. Currently and over the years, ADC Group has tailored specific programs to fulfill the marketing objectives of numerous national brands including Dr Pepper, Hyundai, Chrysler Brands, Toyota, Five Hour Energy, GEICO, USAA and Wargaming.

“National sponsors mostly shy away from the air show industry, but some do get involved at the local level through individual show sponsorships that may include branding, a chalet and/or an exhibit,” he said.  “Our strategy is to focus on those agencies who represent the national companies and those that specialize in mobile marketing tours.” Why not go after large companies? “The NFL, Golf, and NASCAR have 10 to 100-plus sales representatives hustling corporate accounts. For ADC to spend all its energy and resources on simply chasing accounts such as these would not be beneficial to the air show industry.”

But what about title sponsors? Most air shows would be ecstatic to get a title sponsor willing to pay $100,000 or more for the privilege, but Pacific said he doesn’t work that way. “Right now the growth is in working with the agencies that have corporate accounts and in wanting to spread their presence among a number of air shows. But agencies prefer not to talk to individual air show organizers or events. They will talk to ADC because we can get them information regarding 50 shows in a matter of minutes from the database we have created,” he said. “Plus the agencies love having one point of contact, one contract, one invoice, and all fulfillment completed by one company.”

And, size does matter. “Most of my clients will support a two-day air show that can draw 25,000 or more, but, occasionally, I’ve been able to land contracts for smaller shows,” he said.

Some have worried that Pacific might interfere with local sponsorship efforts, but he says that isn’t the case. He only works with national and regional agencies, and he provides a list of all the national sponsors/mobile marketing companies with which ADC has a relationship, so local and national efforts do not conflict. “I sell to accounts that are normally out of reach of local fundraisers,” he said.

ADC Group has worked hard to increase professionalism in the industry. “Shows are raising the bar for sponsorships because they are learning that if they don’t, the likelihood of sponsors returning is slim. In addition, ADC’s client presence with the show diminishes. One bad air show hurts the chances of sponsors attending future air shows, which in turn hurts the industry as a whole. Sponsors must be treated as guests at an air show. They have paid a price to be there and have high expectations. Shows must remember where their funding comes from and ensure that those expectations are met,” he said.

Pacific says he hopes to see more corporate support of the air show industry in the future. He recommends that the industry work together to brand itself like other large organizations and professional sports have done. “By doing this, we will become a united front. We need to capitalize on all that air shows have to offer. They are inspirational, aspirational, family-friendly, and patriotic.” Pacific hopes the work ADC Group is doing will build a solid foundation that eventually brings more corporate support both for air shows and performers.

Getting the word out about an air show and lining up sponsors are only part of the task. Selling tickets has its own set of challenges. The days of selling through local stores or at the gate are fading, giving way to online advance sales. But in the mind of Eugene Loj of Air Show Profit System™, too many shows have the toe breaks on when they should be fire-walling it.

Loj, who is based in Rochester, New York, has considerable experience with not-for-profit organizations. “Most air shows are not-for-profit, but unfortunately that mentality drives their actions in the wrong direction.” Loj is a consultant who says many not-for-profit organizations confuse their tax status with their fiduciary responsibility to be a solvent business. “Shows need to focus on having a highly profitable air show while having an extraordinary customer experience,” he said.

As a marketer, Loj has created a proprietary, seven-step profit system that helps organizers make decisions based on what their customers are looking for. He uses a show’s email database, then develops relationships with those fans. “For example, it’s up to the show organizers who they hire, but those decisions then become a function of the revenue they are able to generate. There is a real disconnect between the performers and the public, and organizers need to understand how performer selection impacts the bottom line and how to organize a show objectively. We help them step back, look at their data, see how the public reacts, then ask the public what they want to see at shows.”

ICAS data gathered over many years very clearly demonstrates that fans first want to see jet teams, then solo jet demos, then warbirds. That’s very good data, but Loj says when you remove the jet teams from the equation there is an amazing variety of responses at the local level that deviate from the ICAS survey. “ICAS looks at the macro level, as they should. But shows need to look at the micro level and focus on revenue and profitability.”

Loj argues that air shows should hold their advertising and marketing “ruthlessly” accountable. “If you are spending money on radio, television, billboards, newspaper, Facebook, whatever it is, you must be able to show how each improves the bottom line,” said Loj.

He said few shows know which medium is the most effective form of advertising or how to quantify it. “A lot of shows do what they do because that’s the way they’ve always done it.  Many shows don’t understand they can reduce their advertising budget by 50 percent and still raise the same amount of revenue. The key is to know which forms of advertising work the best,” he said.

New technology and new web-based services have become integral to good marketing strategies.  “Google Analytics is an example that allows users to track coupon codes and other web-based resources that drive customers to purchase tickets. One show that I work with created individual promo codes for each of its advertising partners. This allowed them to see which of the partners was resonating with fans.”

Loj said mass advertising creates impressions, “but impressions don’t impress me. They are used by ad agencies to show a client’s exposure but they don’t show how three million impressions have driven anyone to a show’s website to buy tickets.”

Quite a number of shows across the country are making strong use of Facebook to reach their fans. Loj cited one show that spent $63 for 30 days of Facebook advertising to reach fans within a 60 to 70 mile radius. “By targeting our demographic we generated 2.1 million impressions and showed that 120 people clicked on our site. That, in turn, generated 12 leads which turned into $200 in revenue to the show. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s this ability to track the data that allows us to make intelligent marketing decisions,” said Loj.

“If you have the right systems in place you can measure how many people go to your site, what pages they view, and whether they make a purchase. The data will even tell you how they found your site and tell you if your TV ads are working for you. And these principles can be applied to small shows as well as large shows,” Loj said.

The advent of social media has some believing mass marketing is becoming a thing of the past.  Loj disagrees. “Traditional media can still work but only if they are effectively conveying your message. It’s the same for the Internet. It has to be effective, and every show organizer should demand that all advertising, whether paid or in-kind, be measured and show the result it is generating.”

Loj has developed a top ten list of mistakes made by most clients. Among them is how air shows develop a website that is not designed to make money. “Data shows that 70 percent of people visiting a website visit only once and never return. Between 40 and 60 percent of those who go to the website spend less than ten seconds there. Clearly, people don’t go to an air show’s website accidentally, so I have to ask what shows are doing to overcome the traditional pattern.”

He cited one show that reluctantly added a plug-in to its website to collect first names and email addresses. “We modified their home page to generate leads. In 21 days we generated over 600 leads. In 60 days we generated 7,500 leads and we were able to sell tickets to a high-end VIP area to a free show.” Not bad. “If an air show can’t be profitable it can’t pay its bills. It’s that simple. And that’s why we focus on profitability, not just on revenue,” said Loj.

“If you have the Blue Angels and good weather a child can make money. But most shows without a jet team lack a connection between the fans and the performers. When someone in the family goes to an air show website they need to see that the show is going to be fun and it will be something the family would want to do. Marketing isn’t enough. Marketing needs to resonate with the target market,” he said. The same is true for air show posters. “Too many shows put every civilian performer on the poster, then cram it full of details that no one cares about or understands.”

P.T. Barnum is quoted as saying, “There is a sucker born every minute.” In truth, it was spoken by a critic of Barnum. But Loj says Barnum did say something as profound today as it was in the 1800s: “There is no advantage to advertise unless you intend to fulfill the promises made in this manner.” Truer words were never spoken.

Another niche entrepreneur who has made a name for himself and his employees is Jerry O’Neill of Airdales Flightline Operations. His company provides safe and efficient flight line operations and ramp control procedures. “We don’t replace the local volunteers. We work with them and use our time-tested techniques to improve a show’s ground operations,” O’Neill said.

His team of experienced aircraft handlers has worked everything from F-16s to C-5s and everything in between. “Air shows are non-standard operations. We understand that and have the depth and breadth of experience to handle it,” he said.

Ramps can become chaotic during an air show and occasionally draw the interest of the FAA, if things aren’t going smoothly. “We’ve been able to turn things around at shows that were under scrutiny to the point that we get kudos from the FAA rather than criticism. We are the eyes and ears on the ground. If something is unsafe we stop it. This gives show organizers and the air boss peace of mind. We take a lot of the worry out of the equation,” he said.

Much of O’Neill’s success is based on flexibility. We know what we are doing so they leave us alone to do our job. We know what airplanes require and what is safe to do.  Safety is always first. Everything else is second,” he said.

Often one of the biggest problems for military bases is finding a reliable supply of av-gas for civilian performers. That’s because the military has converted nearly everything in its modern inventory to jets and turbo props. That’s where Shirley Gunn of The Fuel Desk has stepped in. Gunn is a fuel broker in the Atlanta area who supplies av-gas, trucks and personnel to military bases throughout the southeast United States.

When military bases have to find av-gas on their own, they usually convert a jet fuel truck to handle it. They don’t like to do this because it’s expensive to clean the truck, then convert it back to jet fuel after a show. Their other option is to contract with a local supplier. But local suppliers don’t always have big enough trucks to provide fuel for a weekend and have to keep going off base to refill, then work their way back through base security to get to the flight line. “I have trucks that are large enough to come in and stay the weekend without having to refill. My crew is experienced and knows how to refuel civilian airplanes,” she said.

Gunn began her career working for Lockheed where she procured fuel for customers, but always wanted to run her own business. “When I left Lockheed I started a fuel brokerage business serving corporate clients in our region. Companies like Coca Cola, food processors and others that had their own fleet of aircraft needed fuel so I started providing it. I also discovered a lot of fly-in communities in our area needed fuel so I started doing that as well,” she said.

Then her world changed. “One day in 2004, I saw a posting that Maxwell Air Force Base was looking for a fuel supplier. What they wanted was exactly what I had been doing…procure equipment, fuel and personnel who knew how to safely work with av-gas. They also wanted smoke oil and engine oil. I knew how to do all that, where to find the equipment and the people, so I submitted a proposal and was selected.” She was instantly hooked on air shows and began looking for new opportunities.

Gunn says she doesn’t do civilian shows as a rule simply because they already have fuel suppliers on the field. She will, however, provide smoke oil and engine oil when asked.

“It still amazes me that I do what I do. I still have local customers that buy their gasoline and diesel from us but it is an honor to support the military bases in our region.” She now provides av-gas to air shows at 11 military bases throughout the southeast. “To do something like this you have to love the industry and want to do a good job. I’ve gone to every air show that we support and I’m proud of what we do. We have been welcomed into the air show family and performers that we see year after year know us and remember us. It’s a very good feeling.”

Barbara Long, a onetime ICAS “Air Show Fan of the Year,” is another entrepreneur who has turned her love of air shows into a service that offers air show administration and logistics support. Her background is producing large events such as banquets, board meetings and trade shows start-to-finish and she has a great reputation for crossing “T”s and dotting “I”s.  Barbara’s been around the air show business for more than 30 years, starting with the Dayton Air Show, and now does everything a show would want, from hospitality to air operations, volunteer coordination and social media.

“A lot of show organizers use local volunteers and many of them are good, but sometimes things get missed. My biggest asset is my knowledge. I know who to call to get the answers I need when there is a problem. I know what needs to go into a welcome packet. I know what performers want and look for. I know how to get comp rooms and other concessions from hotels, something local volunteers may not have experience with, and I know how to review hotel and car rental contracts to make sure the shows are getting the best deal possible,” she said.

Her biggest market in the air show industry is shows that have been operating five years or less.  “I can help mature shows fill in some gaps and can jump from ramp parking to hospitality, but newer shows tend to need the most help,” she said.

Long said many shows are unaware of the duplication of effort occurring among members of their teams. “I often find too many people doing the same kind of job and I’m able to streamline the operation which saves them money. I also make sure a show is putting their best foot forward with their fans and make sure the show is a good reflection on their community,” she said.

She says some shows don’t understand that performers talk among themselves and also to the jet teams. If the support they expect isn’t there, word gets around and some performers will decline an opportunity to appear there. “The key is to pay attention to detail,” she said.

Thanks, in part, to advancements in technology, air show sound systems have made giant strides in improved sound quality, not only for narration but for accompanying music. Jay Rabbitt of In Concert Productions has been on the cutting edge of sound systems for 17 years. His background is live events. He started in the air show business with a small show in Atlanta and grew from there.

But Rabbitt acknowledges it has not been a smooth progression. “It is hard for some shows to afford what I do and I’ve had to approach air shows carefully. I’ve had to find what works best in terms of people and equipment to keep the cost affordable and still deliver a top quality system,” Rabbitt said.

With the advent of CDs, HDTV, iPhones and other personal devices, the public has come to expect high quality when it comes to communications. “Just like everyone expects HD images, they also expect top quality sound and don’t understand if we are unable to deliver a full range of sound, including deep base. They may forgive us if they can’t hear our sound system occasionally over the blast of an F-18, but during the rest of the show they expect to hear what is going on.”

It’s been said that the three most important elements to the safety of an air show are a top notch air boss, a good announcer and an effective sound system. A weakness in any of these three areas can threaten audience safety. “Air show fans need to be able to hear the narrator no matter where they are on the ramp in case of weather problems or other emergencies. New technology has given us the ability to escape the tinny sounding horn speakers that used to dot the crowd line and replace them with high quality stacks that can be remotely placed and operated throughout the field,” Rabbitt said.

The one down side to big speaker systems is the need for power. Systems are big, heavy, and require lots of wattage. But generators are able to meet the need when plug-in power isn’t available. “We can project CD quality or movie quality sound over long distances. Our systems can shoot sound 1,500 to 2,000 feet away, and in some cases reach the entrance gates so customers can hear what’s going on from the minute they arrive,” said Rabbitt.

Many shows try to go cheap with their sound systems, but Rabbitt says good quality sound is essential to complete the entertainment experience. “There are a number of good audio companies out there that serve the air show industry, but too many people still approach the air show industry as a hobby and aren’t able to deliver a professional product. The value of air bosses and announcers is understood, but not all shows appreciate the need for a quality sound system nor appreciate what they are missing. Once they hear the difference at their own show, however, they never go back,” he said.

Another area of the air show industry that occasionally gets overlooked is parking. The work is hot, dusty, tiring and thankless. And the moment there is a snag, air shows hear about it in spades… and almost immediately, thanks to social media. But Jeffrey Shapiro of Solutions Event Services has developed a real-time parking and tracking system which can greatly improve the parking process for any kind of event, including air shows.

“It’s called planned flexibility. We monitor parking and traffic flow in real time and can quickly adjust our traffic flows because we determine in advance where the choke points will develop and how to prevent them,” he said.

Thanks to proprietary software, Shapiro and his team can assist shows with as few as 5,000 spectators or as many as 750,000. “We remove all the logistics headaches of people coming and going and get them in and get them out as smoothly as possible. Just like they would hire an air boss, I’m the traffic boss,” he said.

Shapiro noted that local authorities are usually pretty good at managing normal traffic flows on the roads and streets around an airport, but don’t have the experience with major events. “I start with developing an Event Logistics Plan (ELP) that examines how people get from the major roads to the air show parking. The plan includes routes, signage, gates and everything else we need to consider.”

Shapiro said they can develop different models for different budgets but still rely on volunteers to get the job done. “Most air shows hire us to manage parking, not to do it. We train the local volunteers, whether they are military or civilian.

During the ELP development process, Shapiro says he explores the slowest link in the chain and decides, in advance, how to make the flow faster. “Once one is solved we go to the next and the next. Our software tracks the traffic flow. We count every car coming in through every gate and compare it to our total capacity. It shows if lots are nearly empty, if they are nearing capacity and when we need to open up additional lots.” He also works closely with law enforcement and emergency response vehicles to plan, in advance, how they will get into a show, and how they will get out.

Shapiro doesn’t wait for one lot to fill before opening additional lots. He said having multiple lots open at the same time moves traffic faster. “For example, we know that if we get 3,500 cars per hour coming to the show we need to be parking 12 cars simultaneously. And driving speeds through parking lots means one team can park no more than 300 cars per hour. And we know that if we expect to park 7,000 cars it will require 56 acres to park them all,” he said.

Once he has those numbers, Shapiro starts by identifying the 56 acres. Then he examines entrances and egress options.  His software can test his assumptions. “The planning stage is very intense. We test speeds, we test roads, and we work to maximize throughput. We also have to be sure we park cars in the right order so we don’t have pedestrians walking through areas where cars are being parked,” he said.

Some shows recognize, in advance, the deficiencies in this aspect of their planning, but most wait until they have problems before contacting Shapiro. “Unfortunately, most of my business comes from failure. A lot of local people feel they have the experience and the ability to do it, but they aren’t professional, and most don’t know how to handle this type of volume,” said Shapiro.

He notes that airports are non-traditional venues for large events. Unlike NFL or Major League Baseball stadiums which were built to handle large volumes of vehicles in a short amount of time, airports weren’t designed that way. “We understand this and successfully do it every weekend. We plan, develop alternatives, and can not only predict but can also react appropriately. We don’t wait until we have a quarter of a mile backup to take action. We fix it quickly and move on,” he said.

Whether it is a small show in Maine or a large show in San Diego, Shapiro said they all have the same challenges. Once the ELP is in place his team does the setup, trains the volunteers and remains on site for the entire show. “Our goal is to have zero traffic delays. We want people to drive up to the show, pass through our gates and park just as if they were driving up to their own home. The faster we get them parked and onto the ramp the better their experience and the more they will likely be to return.” And, he noted the sooner they get onto the grounds the more time they will have to spend money.

Many shows get along fine by using volunteers for all of their services, but as the air show industry grows, and becomes more sophisticated and more professional, the need for specialists becomes greater. And clearly, those specialists are out there waiting to be called.

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The International Council of Air Shows (ICAS) is a trade association dedicated to building and sustaining a vibrant air show industry to support its membership. To achieve this goal, ICAS demands its members operate their air show business at only the highest levels of safety, professionalism, and integrity.