Lessons Learned: Best Practices Air Shows Can Adopt from Festivals & Events


I’ve worked with hundreds of special events over the 40 years I’ve been in business, ranging from high-end arts festivals, parades and state fairs to consumer shows, triathlons and air shows. While they are all considered “special events,” each has its own distinct theme, appeal, audience, production issues and purpose.

Within each genre of event, I have found many organizers simply “rinse & repeat” what they see other events like their own employ. Air shows look at other air shows, arts festivals look at other arts festivals, and parades look at other parades. Rarely, do we look at other types of events and borrow from their best practices.

Air show event organizers know how to arrange chalet villages, static displays, autograph tents, and hangar parties. But what might you learn from a concert festival or cycling event? Here are some practices you might want to consider as you begin to plan next year’s air show.

Reinvent your event every year

In this age of constant innovation and guest stimulation in entertainment, it is hard to keep people’s attention. The last thing you want your air show to become is predictable. Your event is a discretionary activity and you always need to be developing new tactics, attractions and features to attract spectators. What will be your “Wow Factor” in 2018? Will you have a compelling answer when the media ask, “What’s new this year?”

Certainly, air shows can keep things fresh with new aerial acts, but even that is somewhat expected. One of our clients is the Cherry Creek Arts Festival, a 27-year old Denver event that annually attracts 350,000 people over three days each July 4th weekend. Yes, the artists change each year, but they are constantly looking for the next “new thing.”

This year, they worked with one of the sponsors to “surprise and delight” festival attendees with “pop-up” performances by a quirky, burlesque-style performance group.  The performance would begin with a procession of odd vehicles and mobile contraptions that would appear from a side alley, move a block down the festival site, gathering curious guests along the way, and then taking over an intersection with a fun and captivating 15 minute performance. Attendees loved it and spent the rest of the festival trying to predict where the next pop-up performance might appear.

What unexpected experience might you be able to provide at your next air show? How about a flash mob performance by a local military band? With a bit of creativity, anything is possible.

Leverage your social media  

Whether you know it or not, your air show’s social media platforms — from Facebook and Instagram to Snapchat and Twitter — have become some of your most powerful tools to generate buzz, increase attendance, add to sponsor value, and engage your attendees.

Sadly, many event producers only use the social media outlets simply as digital bulletin boards, placing perfunctory information that they want to get out to their followers. Even worse, many event social media sites are dormant until a month or two before the event, only to go quiet again after the event is over.

The impact and reach of your social media needs to be nurtured and developed year-round though a clear and ongoing effort to provide relevant value to your followers. We make more than 600 posts throughout the year to the Facebook page of a bike ride we manage. Yes, that is almost two a day.

But we follow the 80/20 rule: 80% of the content is of specific relevance and interest to urban cyclists (the prime audience of this event) about such topics as cutting edge cycling gear, cool new places to bike, local cycling advocacy news, etc. Just 20% of posts are promotional, pushing registration, merchandise sales, etc. Almost all the posts in the 80% content are repurposed or aggregated news content from other sites or sources, so it doesn’t take that much time to manage our page.

If you have developed a good following on your special media sites, your sponsors will love creating promotions that achieve their goals. As an example, a local credit union that sponsors the Denver Comic Con created a social media contest that ran for three weeks before the event, encouraging people to enter to win tickets to a private VIP preview screening of Spider-Man. The social media blew up with responses and shares.

How are you using your social media? Can you work with sponsors to create a promotion to win VIP chalet passes or even a media ride before the air show? What other assets can you leverage to create social media buzz at little or no cost? The sky’s the limit!

Create Millennial moments

Connecting with Millennials is not easy. Not only do they sidestep all traditional media outlets, their interests can be quite different from the type of event you are producing.  However, now that the Millennial generation is officially larger than the Baby Boomers, this is a group you cannot afford to miss.

Let’s face it. Air shows appeal to the patriotic and nostalgic. While I love dressing up and going to a WWII era hanger party, that is not going to appeal to my 20- and 30-something kids. Air show event organizers need to create activities and experiences that will attract and appeal to this generation.

I’ve seen other events create “Young Professionals” groups with after-hours gatherings at local distilleries. I’ve seen nerd speed dating at comic cons. I’ve seen consumer shows create 80s and 90s-themed evenings.

Perhaps your pre-air show party could be a Star Wars-themed event with decor to recreate the Cantina scene with X-Wing fighters parked outside. Or, in your chalet area, you could feature a local craft brew beer garden with entertainment by an up-and-coming underground band with a local following.

Do what I do and ask people under 30 what they would create at the event if they were in charge. You’ll get a fountain of ideas. And if some of those ideas make you a little uncomfortable, that probably means that you’re on the right track.

Encourage sponsor cross-promotions

Often, event producers keep their sponsors apart like feuding children. I’ve rarely understood this, but I think the main reason is that they don’t want to have them comparing fees and terms. I have found that the more we get our sponsors engaged with one another, the greater the opportunity to collaborate. In many of these cases, 2 + 2 can = 10.

One of my favorite sponsor cross-promotions was when Chevy Trucks and Home Depot worked together in their sponsorship of a Home & Garden Show. Chevy provided a new model truck they wanted people to see and Home Depot filled the bed of the truck with all kinds of tools, gear and products from the store. Then they shrink-wrapped the bed with everything in it and the truck made the rounds to different Home Depot stores the month prior to the home show. People had to guess the combined value of the truck and the Home Depot products in the bed. The winner was drawn at the home show and they received a $1,000 Home Depot gift card.

The real winners, though, were the home show for the additional promotion, Chevy for the exposure of the new model, and Home Depot for featuring some of their newest tools.

There is no reason you can’t get your air show sponsors to work together in a similar manner.

Control your beverage sales

I am still surprised to discover many special events that give away their beverage sales. The income events generate on beverage concessions from water, to soda, to beer is often one of their most lucrative revenue streams. Yet, I see many allow their food vendors to sell beverages along with food. Don’t!

You can make much more by keeping beverage sales to yourself. Beverage income should be a combination of sponsorship fees, sales commissions and net revenue. I have seen a number of events add $10,000 to $35,000 to their bottom line by making this one change to their vendor policy.

Begin by selling exclusive pouring rights to the distributor as a sponsor. Negotiate wholesale special event pricing often with rebates based upon exceeding sales goals.  Determine a fair retail price (usually 200-300% of the wholesale cost). Recruit non-profit organizations to staff the beverage sales locations and pay them a commission or set donation. You keep the sponsorship fee plus the net income.

You are, after all, creating the thirsty market for all these products. You should be the one lapping up the profits.

Combine media buys with sponsorship benefits

Many producers either recruit media sponsors as promotional partners or make traditional advertising buys with their local newspaper, radio, and television. Those who are really maxing out value are combining these two practices.

As traditional media evolve with the changing marketplace, you need to be tuned into their objectives, audiences, programming and resources. Taking your ad buy and combining it with typical sponsor benefits, such as exhibit space, hospitality, etc., can increase promotional reach and frequency dramatically.

For a holiday market event for which we manage the marketing, we recently leveraged a $25,000 media spend with benefits including onsite exhibit space, holiday entertainment package, social media posts and listener contests. The result was an additional $50,000 in measured media, creating a $75,000 media campaign for the event.

Even a low-level ad buy will get the attention of the media in your area. If you can provide them with additional ways to monetize their partnership with your air show including exhibit space for their third-party advertisers, contest prizes such as plane rides or VIP seating, you can dramatically increase promotion.

So, next time you are looking for the next new idea for your air show, expand your horizons and see what the local county fair or 5K race organizers are doing.  Remember, if you steal an idea, it is called theft. If you steal two or more ideas, it’s market research!

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Bruce L. Erley
Bruce Erley is the President and CEO of Denver-based Creative Strategies Group. Bruce has been lead instructor for the Sponsorship for Events workshop at the ICAS Convention for more than a decade.