Moving Forward: Reaching the Millennials


As we celebrate 50 years as an organization, one of our biggest challenges moving forward is attracting the next generation of air show fans. “As an industry, we are often so focused on the immediacy of preparing for this year’s show that we sometimes ignore larger, long-term trends that will have a significant impact on our business. And this is one of them,” says ICAS President John Cudahy. “Our audiences are growing older at a rate that appears to be accelerating. It’s critical that we do something about it while there’s still time.” 

Peter Shurman, pilot, former radio executive, former politician and author of the book Millennials: Boom’er Bust or How Gen Y Will Save the World, says, “Entertaining them involves some new thinking. Baby Boomers and Millennials need to understand each other because they’re just not getting along! Millennials are next in line but — unless aging Boomers and Millennials start to see each other as useful — the passing of the torch will be fumbled. The world can’t afford that because Millennials are indeed the ‘next big generation,’ the echo!” 

Make no mistake: they are and will continue to be “useful” to us. Our own research indicates we have to adjust. As Cudahy points out, “If you wallow in these statistics a bit, the trend is a bit alarming. The percentage of our audience over the age of 60 has doubled in just the last 12 years. Even if that percentage doesn’t continue to rise, we will find ourselves in a difficult situation in another few years when that older demographic has become even older and is no longer able to attend our events. Fortunately, there is an equal and opposite opportunity. The percentage of our audience under the age of 40 has dropped significantly during the last ten or twelve years. If we take measures to make our events more attractive to them, we have an enormous untapped market to access. But doing that will require vision and creativity on the part of the industry and individual air shows throughout North America.”

Peter Kozodoy, Chief Strategy Officer at GEM Advertising, who was tasked with reshaping the ice skating industry in the U.S., says, “It is somewhat difficult to convey Millennial values to a niche industry that hasn’t changed much in decades. No matter what industry, if there is one thing that prevents organizations from effectively reaching, attracting and retaining Millennials, it is that they fail to change their mindset. Too many rely on knee-jerk tactics, like, “Let’s advertise on Facebook!” without realizing why they’re pursuing the strategy.”

Cudahy adds, “For me, there’s not much question that this is more of a marketing challenge than a problem with our product. That is, air shows aren’t more naturally appealing to older audiences. I feel pretty sure that it’s a question of how we position our events, how we promote them and how we schedule and present them. With a few tweaks and a bit of creativity, our existing events can be as attractive to adults under the age of 35 as they already are to adults over the age of 45. But it will take a thoughtful, deliberate and sustained effort; those kinds of changes won’t happen on their own.”

According to Kozodoy, “Most companies can greatly enhance their Millennial marketing techniques by asking (and correctly answering) this one, simple question: ‘What business are we in?’” To help them, he offered four choices:

  1. Ice skating (think air shows)
  2. Team sports
  3. Facility management
  4. Experience design

The right answer is the same answer for any industry: experience design. Kozodoy explains: “Whether you manage a figure skating rink or an air show, if you want any chance of reaching, attracting and retaining Millennials, you must understand that you’re in the experience design business. There are obvious reasons for this. For instance, it is well known that Millennials prefer experiences over things and we know why: Millennials saw the crash of 2008 decimate lifetime savings accounts to historic lows, forcing many people out of their homes and lifestyles. But, the better reason to accept being in the experience design business is because experiences lend themselves extremely well to additional marketing necessities like affinity, trust, attention and brand evangelization. Local, non-profit support is particularly aligned to Millennials. By using social media, you can collect important data which can be used again and again to reach your audience. All of these revenue-driving results come from mining data, and there is no better way to ask for a Millennial’s data than to first offer a memorable, enjoyable experience that creates affinity. And it works. If it can work for an outdated industry like ice skating, it can certainly work for your industry, too. So, the next time you’re wondering why you’re having trouble marketing to Millennials, remind yourself what business you’re really in. Then, design an experience that no Millennial can ever forget. Just remember to ask your attendees for their email addresses.” 

Understanding the Target Constituency 

When it comes to marketing to Millennials, author Peter Shurman says, “Conventional advertising won’t work. They collaborate in groups and live inside social media. They are incredibly collegiate and use their smart phones the way they are designed to be used, as shopping, information gathering, and opinion tools. If they’re thinking of going to the air show, they will learn more from peer groups by going to their on-line community and — if it meets their criteria — they’ll buy tickets on-line as a group. The decision to attend is going to be made as a group. These people run in packs and they have alphas. Reach them and you get the group.”

Shurman explains their criteria, “They have the disposable income; they spend it differently. They are very experiential. They will spend money on travel. They investigate what will be there. An event will win over a product every time. Twenty-five to fifty bucks is a price that fits into their budget. However, they will expect better food choices and have no problem paying extra to upgrade for shade, comfortable seats, craft beer, wine and a better view for the many photos they’ll be sharing via social media.”

Shurman points out that their experience begins when they walk out the door, suggesting, “They like mass transit, but not yellow school buses. Try and find more comfortable coaches if you can. Showcase your stuff on the ride. Groups of four in cars is another idea; see if the rental car company you work with or a local car dealer will provide a shuttle service for your VIP or upgrade guests, and remember Millennials are happy to pay for the ride if you’re giving a decent cut to a charity. Their mind set is all about corporate responsibility and they are driven by experiences.”

He adds, “Shorten your acts. Embrace the drone, the video game, virtual reality and other new technologies, and provide areas where they can experience them. Musicians are a big draw, as are local artists, especially because of the community aspect. All genres of music should be included in your playlists, as Millennials have broad tastes. If you offer any of these things, then be sure to share that information on your social media. Most of all, everything has to be real. They need to see the voices and the pilots. Nothing recorded. Everything has to be experienced. They want to see, meet and photograph the pilots. They want to see the narrator, the air boss, even the producer, and connect.”

The Military Adjusts Its Pitch

Because much of the military support received by air shows is centered on military recruiting, it’s also useful to understand how Millennials perceive the military.

The latest generation of military recruiting messaging has taken a rather dramatic turn recently, and these new brands are all aimed straight for the heart of the Millennial. For the air show industry to be part of that plan, we’ll have to adapt. The common denominator: They all have pivoted away from more personal benefits and are embracing messaging that shows organizational strengths that Millennials value. And it’s working.

The United States Marine Corps has a new recruiting message. “Battles Won” is designed to drive home the message that mental, moral and emotional strength are as important as physical toughness. The campaign was created around three concepts: fighting self-doubt, fighting the nation’s battles and fighting for what’s right, officials said.

“It focuses on what we believe is the irreducible essence of a Marine, which is the fighting spirit,” said Lieutenant Colonel John Caldwell, Assistant Chief of Staff, Marketing and Public Affairs at the Marine Corps Recruiting Command. “It’s the promise we make that — if there is a fight in which we engage — we will win. We’ll win that battle and also become a responsible member of our community post-service.”

The other services have followed the Marines’ lead.

Earlier recruiting messages of the United States Army were “Be All You Can Be” and “An Army of One.” The new message: “Join the Team that Makes a Difference, Living a Life with a Higher Purpose.”

The U.S. Air Force used to encourage potential recruits to “Aim High.” The new Air Force recruiting message: The Best Dreams Empower Others as Well as Ourselves.”

The Navy is also fine-tuning its pitch. The old messages: “It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure!” and “Accelerate Your Life.” The new message: “A Global Force for Good,” being a shield for the homeland and protecting those you love.

Polls have shown that Millennials value giving back more than previous generations. This message is well suited to what we have always done in the air show business, but – to appeal to Millennials — we have to raise the bar.

A Millennial Performer

Adam Baker, an ICAS member, comparatively new air show performer and member of the Millennial generation himself, discovered flying while in college and has been breaking down barriers to reach a younger demographic. His progressive thinking and industry-changing strategy have attracted a sponsor run by a group of Millennials. Beginning his career with only a few dollars in his pocket, he is now sponsored by Playful Corp. Founded in 2013, Playful is an independent game studio on a mission to “bring joy to the world,” one game at a time. The company is comprised of young techies who say they are inspired by the promise of disruptive technologies like virtual reality and are actively developing games that take full advantage of these new mediums.

“I met Paul [Bettner, Founder and CEO of Playful Corp.] through aerobatics,” said Baker, “He inquired about some upset recovery training while I was flight instructing part-time while flying at the airlines. He was smiling ear-to-ear once we landed from our first flight. Our personalities clicked and we have been great friends since. That was seven years ago.”

The Playful website recruiting page gives a glimpse into their culture: “We highly value work-life balance and go out of our way to find inspiration and motivation from life outside the office.”

Located north of Dallas in the town of McKinney, Texas (ranked the best place to live in America by Money Magazine), the company and its employees are connected to the community. Baker now lives there, as well, and is the company’s corporate pilot.

“Playful is all about making people smile. Playful games are fun and happy games that are created to make you feel happy when you play them. They even have some good educational purposes like engineering and sharing,” says Baker. “I just left an air show and I can’t tell you how many families came up to me and said I was their favorite performance. They said the colors in the air and characters just made them smile while watching.”

While Baker loves air shows as a business, he suggests marketing them differently, explaining that even the look of the aircraft is important. “I don’t think, as an industry, we have targeted kids with airplanes. Typically, airplanes are held to a standard of symmetrical and standard paint schemes. For our very first scheme, I worked with our chief artist who put “Playful” on the plane in an asymmetrical way and I was like, ‘WHOA!! That’s different and awesome!’ Even though the scheme wasn’t as dramatic as it is today, it was the first time I had seen that and it drew my eye to it.”

He also feels that technology is very important adding, “I think we need technology in our industry. I think we have kids these days who want to use mom’s or dad’s phones and watch videos to figure things out. Heck, that’s where I learned and perfected a lot of the maneuvers I fly in shows today.” He believes we should make sure Millennials have the chance to experience things like virtual reality at our events.

Moving Forward 

The good news is that air shows offer the kind of experience Millennials want to attend. Adjusting the way we market our product to include them will be easy with the right mindset. Cudahy leaves us with this thought: “Sustainability is the key. It’s important that we are able to present a safe, entertaining and profitable air show this year, but it’s just as important – perhaps even more important – that we build events that are secure and stable during the next decade. And it’s not until we take that long view that we can address these macro-trends that don’t seem to matter much at all right now, but could become challenges for our business over the long haul if not confronted before they reach crisis proportions.”

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Ric Peterson
Ric Peterson is an an air show announcer and award-winning broadcast journalist based in Odessa, Ontario.