Air Show Reinvented

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It’s 2037. Power and telephone poles are dismantled because delivery is entirely wireless. The planet has run out of zinc, once used in everything from sunscreen to steel. A Universal Basic Income ends unemployment, and meat for food ceased to exist two years ago.

As the futurist consultants at QuantumRun note: The world will look nothing like it does today. And that will likely go for air shows, as well.

“As an industry, we are not as conscious of our brand—who we are and what we stand for—as we could be…as we should be,” said John Cudahy, ICAS President.

We talked to show producers, pilots, industry insiders, and marketing outsiders about the future of the industry, especially as it relates to branding. Some of the ideas are radical departures from business as usual, some are more in line with current best practices, but all of them involve air shows and performers moving past idle discussion to make tangible changes.

Outside Looking In

“In general, there’s room for improvement in the air show industry when it comes to branding,” said Joe Reynolds with Red Frog Events. A strong brand can deliver dollars while improving the quality of your customer’s experience. Take Red Frog’s wildly popular, open-air camping and music festival called Firefly. Red Frog knew it wanted to attract the young Millennial crowd, and created a strong, consistent brand to do just that: “Carefree summer days and carefree summer nights.”

“We took what it meant seriously, and everything we built has centered on that,” said Reynolds.

Using the brand as a guide to build the entire experience, Red Frog reinvented what people expect at these types of events beyond its 100 musical performances set across seven stages. It rolled out a wide selection of tickets and accommodations at a variety of price points, allowed fans to vote on the themes in certain areas of the expansive venue, created a video game arcade in a huge tent, a Hammock Hangout, a Coffee House offering multiple vendors and additional live music, and even art stations where people can create custom designs for Toms Shoes, a brand known for its social awareness. And these ideas can easily transfer to the air show industry, again, centered on a strong, calculated brand that works for your particular market or demographic.

“Branding is important, but it also evolves over time,” said Reynolds, pointing to his company’s creation of the Warrior Dash, a nationwide series of five-kilometer mud/obstacle runs. In the beginning, the brand was deliberately aggressive, complete with a Viking helmet logo and more.

“We sold turkey legs at a loss, because it fit with the brand,” Reynolds joked. “Now, with even more challenging races out there, we’ve shifted our brand to a more family-friendly approach.”

His company is now taking a long, hard look at air shows, and so far, has come to the conclusion that there is plenty of room to grow if we can move past an old school approach to putting on these events.

“It feels like shows are produced in a way that reinvents the system every single time and doesn’t have a lot of innovation to attract a younger demographic,” Reynolds said.

He suggests multiple shows partner together and pool resources to leverage much greater buying power. By way of example, if 15 shows could agree on a brand, be it patriotism, inspiration, STEM, or family-friendly values, they could then target large-scale national sponsors by offering exposure to hundreds of thousands of spectators, instead of tens of thousands. Who else does this well? NASCAR. 

The Holy Grail

“We invest more than any other sport in both the quantity and use of flyovers,” said Jon Schwartz, who oversees NASCAR’s marketing from corporate offices in New York. Aviation crossover aside, NASCAR maintains an incredibly recognizable brand, recently landing Monster Energy as the title sponsor in a bid to attract a younger demographic.

But within NASCAR’s consistency is also flexibility that allows for local flavor, something surely important to individual air show performers as well as shows with a unique identity.

“We think of the track as a living, breathing personality,” said Schwartz, which is why you might find wine served on a road course in Sonoma with pre-race entertainment that has a Hollywood feel, versus a very different experience in Darlington, South Carolina. “But the line of demarcation for us is that we’re a sanctioning body who licenses to operators we trust. It’s how we’ve grown into Mexico and new markets with success,” said Schwartz.

Performer’s Corner

“To Jon’s point about investing in aviation, we’re actually flying our routine before the Sonoma NASCAR race,” said Rob “Scratch” Mitchell with the Patriots Jet Team.

As a performer who has almost two decades on the circuit, first as a CF-18 demo pilot, two stints on the Snowbirds including team lead, and now seven years with the Patriots, he thinks it’s time for performers to do more on branding.

“It’s like the old adage; dress for the job you want. Everything I put out there in my public persona is part of my business brand: a jet performer and fighter pilot. It’s consistent and it’s carefully crafted,” said Mitchell.

He’d like to see performers more aggressively adopt the same cohesive strategies as industry leaders like Michael Goulian.

“It’s about how people see and interact with you. It’s not just about a logo, but being deliberate in your image and messaging across all platforms,” said Mitchell. 

He also points to acts like Tora Tora Tora as a great performer example of the power of storytelling in flight to clearly draw the audience into your brand. “That’s why Tora Tora Tora does so well. There is a clear story here: the attack on Pearl Harbor. The industry needs more of this. People are used to airplanes and jets, but the immutable strength of storytelling prevails,” Mitchell said.

But storytelling isn’t limited to epic tales like the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. There’s room for stories of all kinds.

“I’m showing the history of what ushered us into the jet age,” said Greg Colyer of Ace Maker Airshows. “The T-33 played such an important role in military aviation,” he said.

Colyer won an ICAS Pinnacle Award, in part, for standardizing his air show brand. And rather than make the flying and brand about himself, he opted to take a page from the larger jet demonstration teams.

“I’m selling the act, I’m not selling myself. So, even as I expand my demo to two jets, with additional pilots coming on, the shows are getting what they paid for and I can grow my business,” said Colyer. “I just had a jet in Barksdale [Louisiana] and a jet in Chino [California] on the same weekend. Ace Maker was in two places at once,” he said.

Thinking Bigger

“It has to evolve,” said Kevin Walsh, who directs Thunder Over Michigan. In what may seem like a radical departure from business as usual, he sees the long-term need for an industry-wide governing body as opposed to the current membership model. Take a minute to consider what that means in a practical sense. It would entirely change how we work, recruit, train, and sanction events and performers. But, from a branding perspective, he sees it as an easier path to big ticket sponsors as a result of what a unified body can already offer: 10-12 million spectators in North America.

“We would benefit from having a governing body that has a plan based on research and goes in a unified direction,” said Walsh, who also currently serves as chairman of the ICAS Board of Directors. And shows in the U.S. and Canada could still maintain their own identity within standards set by the sanctioning organization, much like the Sonoma versus Darlington NASCAR example. So, STEM could continue to thrive within the California Capital Airshow, and patriotism could remain central to the Salute to Veterans show in Columbia, Missouri.

“The timing is right,” said Bill Braack of the Oregon International Air Show, who has a unique perspective because he’s also a performer. “Sponsors are out there, and if we don’t start speaking the same language from a branding perspective, we’ll miss out.”

Like Walsh, Braack  also sees a long-term need for a system-wide organization with the teeth to pursue big branding and big sponsors. He also points out that — unlike major league sports — we’re more mobile…relatively speaking.

“Any big sporting event has a fixed site and the same viewers. Marketers are reaching the same people over and over. We’re part circus, part theater, very entertaining, and there’s not a lot of crossover competition. With the right brand, we can offer sponsors a fresh audience,” Braack said.

Oil magnate John D. Rockefeller once said, “If you want to succeed, you should strike out on new paths, rather than travel the worn paths of accepted success.” It’s a sentiment that pairs nicely with a column in Law in Sport Magazine on branding: “[We] cannot be complacent. The demands of sponsors are becoming more sophisticated, and there are endless sponsorship opportunities to choose from, with brands increasingly seeking out alternatives to sport such as music and food events and community initiatives.” And perhaps air shows. How we take advantage of that is up for debate and — eventually — action. But at its core, any strategic positioning of the air show business will necessarily be accompanied by improvements in how we brand our shows, our performers and our industry.

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Steph Stricklen is an aspiring pilot, Emmy-award winning television news anchor, digital content creator and aviation writer based in Portland, Oregon.