For the Good of the Industry, Bring on the Change

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Things change. If I’ve learned anything as I’ve entered life’s midpoint, it’s that nothing stays the same for very long. That’s certainly not a deep thought and probably isn’t a surprising statement to anyone, but how often do we really think about how often things around us change? Personally, I thrive on it. It’s the way some of us are wired. During a nearly 20-year career, here’s what I’ve learned: it is uncomfortable, necessary, constant, challenging, and entirely effective.

Once a person or company has even experimented with a new idea, it’s hard to go back to business as usual, because now they know there’s something different, and maybe a little better, out there.

As a relative newcomer to the industry, my thoughts on change have evolved several times as I’ve learned more and interacted more with those within the air show community. The acceptance of at least having the conversation is here. And judging from the conversations that occurred at the 2015 convention and the positive feedback ICAS has received on its post-convention survey, it seems we may be witnessing a turning point in the way the industry conducts its business. Included as an addendum to this article are the “60 Marketing Tips in 60 Minutes” that were presented at the convention. If you’re already doing all 60 things on that list, well, then please by all means submit a 2016 Pinnacle Award entry immediately after you’re done reading the rest of the magazine. If you’re missing a few of those tips in your marketing arsenal, please read on and consider why change could be a good thing for your business.

I’m a traditionalist in almost every case. I’m nostalgic, old fashioned, love history, love old things and believe customs are important. If we recognize the good and the still functional parts of the past, it helps us believe our actions of today are not for naught and are part of the thread of civilization. If we know or at least believe what we do matters, hopefully we will approach our jobs, words and actions with care, compassion, intensity and thought.

Doing things out of tradition or because “It’s always been this way” is often an unfair or ineffective way to operate a business or society. Since the beginning, whether religion is your guide or the “Big Bang” resonates, life and everything in it has been fluid.

I preach that, as a marketing communications professional, it’s necessary to keep one foot outside of one’s respective business so you can recognize when opinions and behaviors are changing and you can adjust your message or methods. As an avid sports fan, I often look at how the four major U.S.-based sports leagues have made what seemed like, at the time, radical changes and how they’ve ultimately made their respective sport better.

Major League Baseball, 1968, “The Year of the Pitcher”: Denny McLain won 31 games. Luis Tiant had a 1.60 ERA. Pitchers had an unfair advantage and it was hurting the product by making the game less exciting. Fans sat more. So, in 1969, baseball lowered the pitcher’s mound to help hitters. The NFL, in the late 1970s, made it more difficult to defend receivers. The Pittsburgh Steelers, who won four Super Bowls that decade, won their first two with their legendary Steel Curtain defense. They won their next two with offense as they adjusted with almost the same roster. Before rule changes, here are Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw’s Super Bowl stats:

Super Bowl IX (1975): 9-for-14, 96 yards
Super Bowl X (1976): 9-for-19, 209 yards

After pass defense rule changes:

Super Bowl XIII (1979): 17-for-30, 318 yards
Super Bowl XIV (1980): 14-for-21, 309 yards

More rule changes have made it even easier to pass in the NFL. Scoring is way up and the popularity has never been greater. The NBA put in the three-point line, took out hand checking, and now a skinny, silky player such as Steph Curry can be the most exciting and fun player in the league. Even the NHL has considered bigger nets because goalies and equipment are getting bigger and better. New rules allow for great athletes to become even greater.

The leagues didn’t modify some of their rules because they needed to be “saved,” even if they were getting a little dull. I, like millions of others, love sports. I’d watch them anyway because I appreciate the small things in them and how they bring communities together. That sentiment is true within the air show industry and its loyal fans. It doesn’t necessarily need saving. People love air shows and would watch them anyway. But think about this, especially if you think a sport like hockey is a little boring…wouldn’t it be better, more entertaining, crazier, more unpredictable and more fun for the players and fans if the net was a little bigger and there were a few more goals? Each of you might have a different answer for that question, and it’s what we need to think about.

“But air shows have been around for 100 years; there’s no reason to mess with something that already works.” And to that I say, “Really? Do you think that’s true? Are you making money? Has your attendance grown year after year? Are the sponsors calling you or are you still struggling to find them? What happened to air show attendance and the overall health of our industry when we lost just one element – the military – a couple of years ago?” The point is, air shows may always be around, but how can they be better?

It’s a new world. Spectators want excitement and payoff for their time and ticket. It’s less of a recreational outlet supported with t-shirts and model F-18s and more a heavy investment in people’s time. How are you going to fill that time? How are you going to compete with computer games, smart phones, YouTube videos, and social media at a time when the public’s collective attention span has dipped to eight seconds, according to a 2013 study by Microsoft. Perhaps more importantly, how are you going to use the lessons and tools provided by those technologies to more fully engage with your prospective customers and sponsors? How will you make aviation more accessible and attainable to your community? By simply putting on an air show every year, or, by creating a scalable, marketable and buzz-worthy experience that keeps people talking and coming back?

You don’t want an attendance increase to come from just having a jet team in a particular year. That is static growth that will disappear the year you don’t have a jet team. We saw that with sequestration. You want more attendance from offering something new and different, a great product. Like NFL quarterbacks and NBA point guards, we need our stars to shine, and we need to cultivate new stars to attract a new generation of aviation and air show enthusiasts. Give yourself something to market. If you know 10,000 people come every year because you’re the only show in town, how can you attract 15,000 people, showcase your community to tourists outside your market, and make the city council understand that an air show is a no-brainer, must-have event because it’s good for the whole town’s bottom line?

Payoff! This is the biggest reason the industry needs to embrace change: for art’s sake. Because spectators are on a bathroom break, waiting in line for a hot dog, checking their Facebook feed, can’t hear or understand the announcer on a tin can loudspeaker, or are otherwise bored or distracted, what are dynamically entertaining performances often vaporize into the niche social media outlets of aviation enthusiasts, grainy cell phone videos and the ICAS Convention banquet hall instead of being featured on SportCenter’s Top 10 on ESPN or Outrageous Acts of Science on the Science Channel. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a big deal that, thanks to technology, so many more people can see our product. In the 1970s and 1980s, the air show industry celebrated if it got national media exposure once or twice a year! Now, video segments from the military jet teams routinely generate millions of views and civilian performers are followed on social media by tens of thousands of fans. That’s an astounding development. Technology has undoubtedly made our industry more accessible. But we must rise to the challenge, and adapt to accommodate the new tools and opportunities available to us. Is watching Tony Hawk on a skateboard more exciting than a 600-mph sneak pass? Is watching Shawn White on a snowboard half-pipe more attention-grabbing than a biplane with a jet engine strapped to it? And is Travis Pastrana jumping a motorcycle somehow more exciting than an Extra 330 performing an aerobatic maneuver at top speed? I, and I think you, would argue “no.” Yet somehow they’ve been able to take their respective sports to the mainstream, win Olympic gold medals, and earn millions of dollars in endorsements and television contracts while bringing others in their respective businesses along with them.

Love and passion for an inanimate object won’t pay the bills unless we can come up with new and better ways to present it to the paying public. A bunch of moonshiners in North Carolina had a passion for racing suped-up cars on dirt tracks 70 years ago until Bill France turned that passion into a product worth billions of dollars in advertising, sponsorship and television revenue. What do they know or have that we don’t? In-car cameras – we have that covered. Personalities – we have those, too. Cool machines that go fast – yep, got ‘em. Competition – ‘hmmm,’ now maybe we’re on to something.

The hockey net is smaller and the basketball rim is lower than it once was because of bigger, better-trained humans and better equipment. Incremental, minor adjustments in professional baseball and football have made these sports both more challenging and exciting. More and different offerings could help grow our industry by giving fans more reasons to jump out of their seats in excitement or wait a couple minutes before going for a burger. We need more goals, baskets and touchdowns. It could make the game more exhilarating and more fun – for the spectators and for us.

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Matt Warnock is the former Director of Marketing, Communications and Digital Media for the International Council of Air Shows.