Challenges and Opportunities

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This year’s 50th anniversary of ICAS has prompted some big picture thinking within our industry. Sometimes on their own, and occasionally with a gentle nudge from me, our members have been using the golden anniversary as an opportunity to examine the long-term trajectory of our business.

For me, it’s been an eye-opening chance to take the pulse of our air show community and assess the membership’s collective perspective on the direction our business is heading. On the phone, at air shows, and in email exchanges, air show professionals are looking beyond the immediate demands of the current air show season and thinking about where our business will be two, five and ten years from now.

Of course, we are not a homogenous community. Military and civilian shows. Flip-flop pilots and warbird operators. Sound system operators and concessions companies. We are a diverse business with many different perspectives on almost every major issue facing this industry.

So, it is all the more remarkable that there is consensus on some of the most pressing issues and opportunities facing our business.

Ticket prices

At just under $21 for an adult, on-site ticket, many believe that air shows should increase ticket prices . By virtually every measure, air shows that charge admission don’t charge enough. From NASCAR races and football games to amusement parks and music concerts, we lag way behind comparable entertainment venues despite the fact that we offer an incomparable form of family entertainment. And, ICAS survey after ICAS survey makes it very plain that our audiences believe there is room for a thoughtful, gradual increase.

Combine low ticket prices with the fact that many of our shows consistently suffer from a shortage of revenue and all signs point toward ticket prices as both one of our most acute concerns and greatest short-term opportunities. Ultimately, each show must make its own decision about whether to increase fees, but all indications are that, collectively, we are failing to take full advantage of this important source of revenue.

Professionalism

During the last few months, most of the conversations I’ve had with members about the direction of our business included some discussion on the need to increase professionalism. And it’s a mid-term challenge that has energized the ICAS Board of Directors who see a clear role for ICAS in this area.

For years, the concept of an “air boss” has been vaguely and inconsistently defined. Literally, anybody could declare himself or herself to be an air boss. And that created wide variations in the quality of our air bosses. So, during the last three years, ICAS has worked to identify an acceptable minimum level of training and experience and developed a process to recognize individuals who meet those minimums. Within the next several weeks, that process will be finalized and our industry will have taken a big step forward in  defining a key safety function.

Similarly, our industry has no clear concept of what it is to be an air show “professional.” How often should an air show pilot practice? How much liability insurance should an air boss have? How familiar should an event organizer be with U.S. and Canadian safety policies? How much familiarity should an organizer have with air show budgeting? With contracts? Any sustained effort to advance professionalism must necessarily begin by defining professionalism in an air show context. And that is an initiative that the ICAS Board and several working groups have embraced with enthusiasm. At this year’s ICAS Convention, some of that work will be shared and individual members will be encouraged to engage in that effort.  

Our members are also aware of two key opportunities available to our business. Both are critical areas that must begin to receive attention soon to avoid becoming big problems later.

Demographics

For at least the last two decades, the average age of the air show spectator has been steadily increasing. Over an 18-year period, the percentage of air show spectators over 60 years of age more than doubled from 8.1 percent in 1998 to 18.8 percent in 2016. During the same period, the percentage of air show spectators from every age group over 45 increased (sometimes substantially) and the percentage of air show spectators from every age group under 45 decreased.

The bad news is that air shows face a significant dilemma in an aging spectator base that could eventually do real damage to our industry. The good news is that this is a very solvable problem and, if addressed  purposefully, the pursuit of solutions should be a boon to our entire industry.

Young families are the natural sweet spot for our events. Outdoors. Inexpensive. Exciting. Many different things to see and do. Our members recognize that they must take steps to accentuate these features to this natural constituency. But confronting this threat cannot be postponed indefinitely. Event organizers realize that new programming must begin soon if we are to address the inevitability of an aging demographic spectator base who will eventually stop attending our events.

Branding

Who are we? What are we about? How do we want to be perceived by potential ticket buyers and sponsors?  

Our competitors (professional sports, car racing, amusement parks, music concerts) are aggressive in their efforts to build their brand. Establishing and maintaining those brands have helped solidify the perceptions and reputations of their events among current and prospective customers and sponsors. And, many of our members have made the case that air shows need to do the same thing.

We provide a unique and exciting type of entertainment. We are patriotic. We are educational. We are family-oriented. These are foundational truths that can be used to create a meaningful branding program within the air show community.

But, for the most part, the investment we make in branding doesn’t pay off this year or even next year. It takes multiple cycles to establish a tone and reputation for your air show that contribute to creating your brand equity, which, once established, requires constant attention.

A single common assumption among the members with whom I’ve spoken this year about the future viability of our industry is, that responding to the challenges by taking full advantage of the opportunities will require that we become proficient at looking past the present in order to act now to improve air shows in the mid- and long-term future. 

Raising ticket prices, laying the groundwork for air show professionalism, addressing demographic challenges and doing the preparatory work necessary to build and maintain brand equity all require that, together, we prepare for our industry’s future even as we continue the day-to-day work of running our businesses. And, as ICAS begins its second half-century of serving the air show community, that maturation, that recognition that we must plan ahead, is central to the long-term health and sustainability of the air show industry.

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John Cudahy
John Cudahy, ICAS President. | John Cudahy first joined ICAS as the organization's president in June of 1997. He has worked his entire 36-year professional career in association management, including more than two decades as the chief executive officer of ICAS. A graduate of the University of Virginia, Cudahy holds a private pilot certificate and is married with two adult children.