Raising Ticket Prices: Less is More…Unless We’re Talking Ticket Prices

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“Less is more,” a phrase adopted in 1947 by architect Mies van der Rohe, applies even more today to almost everything than when he built his minimalist skyscrapers decades ago. In our case, the exception is what we charge for all that we do in the air show business. After speaking with several producers who have raised their ticket prices to as high as $40 (plus paid parking), I found that there have been very few complaints from buyers. Offering customer promotions, allowing for discounts and adding value to their shows has kept their core fans happy.

Although the typical Broadway play now costs $92 and an NFL game is roughly $113, North American air shows are still charging just over $20, on average. Recent ICAS research, collected at shows that charged admission, indicated that we can and should charge more. In the 2016 survey, 13.4% of attendees said it was “inexpensive” and 3.7% thought it was “very inexpensive.” Only 5.9% of respondents said their ticket was “very expensive.”

Since then, several shows have successfully taken the plunge and have – we can now add — shown results. Of the shows I spoke with for this article, not one received a single complaint about the increase. All of these shows have added value, strengthened content, built shows within a show and offered promotions to loyal fans.

Think about it. What if there was a way to eliminate most of the things our ticket buyers complain about: A way to shorten time spent in traffic, provide enough shade, serve better food, provide clean washroom facilities and deliver everything the next generation of air show consumer is looking for? The answer? Increase prices.

Don’t worry about attracting as many people as you can; worry about attracting a number you can manage better. For example, Wingman Events president, Kevin Walsh, raised ticket prices knowing that it would bring fewer, but happier, people. The audience was easier to entertain, yet large enough to attract sponsors and bring added dollars to reinvest in the show experience. And, the extra profit can be donated to a charity or given back to the community.

Ultimately, when improvements result from price increases, customers clearly understand the extra value they are getting.

Thunder over Michigan: $40 gate price to $190 for individual VIP chalet

Walsh, who produces Thunder Over Michigan in the heart of one of the most socio-economically challenged areas of North America, says, “Our general admission price at the gate is $40, plus $20 to park, and it’s been going so well we produced a second show at the same venue. I’d rather have 25,000 people enjoy the experience than 100,000 jammed in or waiting in traffic to get in.” He also understands that content is king and fears the complacency of having jet teams four years in a row: “I want the challenge of working without them. We all have to ask if we’re prepared for another sequestration. Build a show that stands on its own.”

In doing so, Walsh hired digital content creator Stephanie Stricklen to create “Facebook Live” and other social media hits before and during the show, driving fans to buy tickets early and informing those attending more about what to anticipate at the event.

“We’ve never had so much internet engagement before. The stats were crazy and they should have been. We’re going to do it again and will be watching the numbers for another comparison. The idea was to make her the face of the air show — the face of ‘Thunder’ — and we’re more than satisfied. Social media is more and more critical to the industry and she was a great asset. She, along with our ticket promotions, helped drive very good early sales.”

The growth of “Live Streaming” and other social media strategies can also help connect more people to an event and boost revenue without having the burdens of parking or feeding them, since they watch from their television, computer, tablet or phone.

“We much prefer a manageable crowd and to give them a better experience. A higher price demands that we put on a higher quality show, something they can’t see somewhere else,” Walsh adds. “The value in their ticket is that they’ll see something very special. It’s not a cash grab, it’s about increasing the value. The return on investment (ROI) is very good. We spend more money to produce our show because we’re worried that much about the value of what we’re charging.”

Walsh is happy enough with the ROI that he is not increasing ticket prices this year, “If we do raise them again, there will be a strategy and additional value to justify it,” says Walsh “I think we can charge even more. Everything goes up, other events are charging 49 or 50 bucks. If costs — like fuel — go up, we may have to make adjustments. Your ticket price is the cost of a good sold and there’s an ROI on it.”

When asked if his patrons have complained, he says, “We have had a few complaints, but very few and far between. The people who do complain don’t work with us throughout the year or won’t engage with an email address. They wait for the weather, but I think they are learning that there’s a premium for that and a reward for those who commit early. Some will complain over a $15 ticket because of old thinking. Our tiered ticket pricing as well as our BOGO (Buy One, Get One) has moved 75% of ticket holders to get their tickets in advance.”

Discounts run right up to show day, as tech-savvy fans will even buy tickets on their mobile phones while on their way to the show. Using internet promotions speeds things up, helps your budget, and is a big protection against weather as the tickets are all non-refundable.

If you’ve resolved to take the plunge this year, you will need to be able to explain the reasons for the price hike to loyal customers. Most of the shows in this article would agree with Rieva Lesonsky, a speaker and author focused on entrepreneurship, who suggests you give fair warning and use the upcoming change as a marketing tool to encourage last-minute sales before prices increase. Lesonsky also points out that — while the customer ultimately ends up paying more — they still feel that they are getting a good deal. However, if you have not raised prices in a long time, she notes that you must be sure to let clients know how long prices have been at the current level.

Other business experts advise that you should implement promotional strategies like BOGO (buy one at full price and get others at a discount) or some group deal to attract Millennials (since they tend to buy in groups). Additionally, you can offer an add-on service as part of a bundled price, or keep the regular price on previously offered products and services while offering a new and improved version for more.

California Capital Air Show: $35 gate price to $225 for individual VIP chalet 

Darcy Brewer, Executive Director of the California Capital Air Show, also understands the importance of content, promotions and increased value. After a series of price increases, her event won’t raise ticket prices this year. Brewer says, “We will maintain a $35 adult ticket price. It took us three years to get from where we were to where we felt we should be. We did it strategically and with our public. We built value incrementally until we had greater content, so it wasn’t too big a jump for our region, which isn’t the wealthiest area of California.”

With regard to their promotional campaigns, Brewer pointed out that, “Less than ten percent of our customers pay the gate price because they take advantage of our promotions. Our price goes up in $2.50 to $5.00 increments and our ‘Insiders Program’ keeps our loyal customers informed.” Brewer feels it is essential to add value with higher ticket prices, saying, “We added bands, free activities for kids, other goodies and told ticket buyers how much more they were getting for the price, and it worked.”

Even without a jet team last year, there were no complaints about her ticket prices being among the most expensive in the industry. Brewer says, “Last year, we didn’t get a jet team, but we didn’t want to reduce our price, so — for every ticket purchased — we allowed four children free. We connected with our subscribers and watched our social pages and not one complaint about a $35 ticket was seen or heard.”

By using the show’s website and social pages to build a database and sell tickets, she notes, “Our success is based on people who buy in June for a September show. Sixty-three percent of our revenue comes from those buying premium tickets, $45 to $225 depending on what level and when they buy that ticket. We sell out both days well ahead of time.”

Their “Insiders Club” webpage, “…allows us to connect with them and they pay less. We don’t do comps; even our programs for school kids are sponsored. Two thousand families got to come because of those offsets helping us to fulfill our mission, which is making sure kids get an education and get a job in our region.”

Brewer says, “We also charge for parking: $10 a car and $50 for an RV. We use Jeff Shapiro [Solutions Events Services] who helps manage the traffic and that needs to be paid for. With better traffic flow, we’re delivering a better experience for our guests. We see it on our Facebook pages in the lack of complaints. Industry-wide, water, shade and traffic are spectators’ biggest complaints, but we manage those issues well here.”

“You’ve got to have a great show for the ticket or you’ve got to be creative,” Brewer concludes. “Try something new if you’re afraid to raise prices. Create another revenue source like a new area or attraction. Based on our connections with subscribers, we built a Mather Club named for the airport which celebrates its centennial this year. It was so popular people were asking to be notified if someone left early. Get your customer involved in your decision making, even if it’s just focus groups.”

Air Show Atlantic: $33 gate price

Air Show Atlantic has a different model: the show frequently moves around Atlantic Canada region’s three provinces (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island). President Colin Stephenson produced shows in Summerside Prince Edward Island in 2015, New Brunswick in 2016, and Nova Scotia in 2017, and has also successfully increased their ticket prices.

“So, it’s hard to gauge crowd response from year to year as we reintroduce the show to somewhat new audiences, but we did take a hard look at prices last year. We went with a strategy of kids, 12-and-under get free admission, [a change] from our traditional five-and-under [free admission policy]. We are going to stick with the 12-and-under thing, as it helps young families, but we will keep raising prices for everyone else.”

Colin also noted that his ticket buyers did not complain. That further supported recent ICAS survey data stating, “There was no change in the fans’ responses to satisfaction level with the price; they are still very satisfied with prices. We went from $28 at the gate for an adult to $33 at the gate. Bottom line is we have been careful, but do not yet see a ceiling to ticket prices, so long as we have a good, solid lineup.”

Wings over Houston: $40 gate price to $250 for individual VIP chalet 

Prior to increasing ticket prices for Wings Over Houston, Operations Manager Natasha Avey and her team began researching how their prices compared to other large air shows. Their findings showed that they were not consistent in pricing and were underpricing their show. Since then, Wings Over Houston has increased ticket prices, initiated a variety of promotional deals, and delivered additional value to their fans.

“We start selling tickets Father’s Day weekend [in mid-June]. The general public has the opportunity to buy them the cheapest at that time…50% off for most ticket levels. Prices go up each month ever so slightly until the weekend of the show [in late October]. We also have our ‘Air Show Insiders,’ who sign up to receive emails on our website and receive personal emails with an ‘Insider Rate’ which is cheaper than the public sale rate. That Insider Rate also goes up each month.”

But the show still wants their loyal Wings Over Houston fans to have the best chance to get cheaper ticket prices. “We have really focused on early online ticket sales over the past couple years,” she says. “Yes, we raised our prices, but — for the savvy Wings Over Houston Airshow fan — you are still able to get them much cheaper if you buy early. We haven’t raised our ticket prices to be unreasonable, and we offer opportunities to get them for much less than full price.” 

As a result, she says, “We have added two new VIP chalets: one built for families (The Family Chalet), and one as an adult 21-and-up super fancy chalet (Business Class). With our general admission tickets, we have made it so that children 15 and under are FREE (up to six kids) to make it appealing for the parents to bring the family.”

When asked if there have been complaints, Avey replied, “We have, but very few. Most of the complaints have come from people who paid full price at the gate instead of purchasing early where tickets start at 50 percent. We try to answer all of those people’s complaints, invite them back, and remind them to buy early and possibly become an Insider to get even cheaper tickets.” 

Duluth Air and Aviation Expo: $23 gate price to $150 for individual VIP chalet

When asked if he was raising ticket prices, President of Kern and Kompany Ryan Kern answered, “Kind of.”

Kern, who runs the annual Duluth Airshow, doesn’t believe air show ticket prices can be derived from what other shows are charging. Kern explains, “You have to look at the value you have against other events in your region. What’s the going rate at a concert in your neck of the woods? Some parts of the country are doing well, some are not.”

Kern evaluates similar types of entertainment, saying, “Not only do we look at regional events, but we look at nearby air shows and similar market shows. Some ticket buyers have a choice and may choose to go to another nearby show. We need to be competitive because — at the end of the day — this is a business, a risky business, and you don’t want to price yourself out of the market.”

As a result, the Duluth Airshow has increased some ticket prices. Kern says, “We break our tickets into two segments. General admission ticket prices haven’t changed in 15 to 20 years. Our upgraded seating has. We’ve gotten creative, making our show family-affordable, but you can buy into several higher end options. We create options for the consumers, so they can pick what best suits their budget. We do this with all our events, not just the air show. We offer ‘tiered’ or ‘stepped’ pricing; those who buy early get a discount for buying early. But, the closer you get to the date, the more the cost goes up.”

Kern wants to attract as many people to the Duluth Airshow as possible. While he feels there is no ‘right’ way, he won’t consider raising prices to attract a smaller crowd that might be easier to manage and keep happy. Kern says, “Concessions people wouldn’t be happy, for starters. If you don’t have enough parking, you may want to do that, but we have plenty and charge for it. You have to strike a balance. It’s to our advantage and our region’s economy to attract as many people as possible. We have a tourism tax in Minnesota and — the more people who come here for the air show — the more it helps the entire region, not just the air show.”

Another tactic that Kern has perfected to creatively generate more revenue is to split the weekend. Kern says, “Recent history shows us that there is a huge difference in Saturday vs. Sunday attendance. It’s two-to-one Saturday over Sunday here. We’ve been working on attracting more on Sunday with ticket promotions for that day only. If you wanted a cheaper ticket, you had to buy Sunday. We sell out of our flight line seating and premium seats on Saturday despite higher ticket prices; Sunday, less so, but the promotions are working.”

Kern also warns about giving tickets away. “We don’t give away tickets,” he says. “There are some comps for sponsors only. Any ticket giveaway is sponsored and those tickets are then paid for.”

Take the Plunge 

Increasing ticket prices can enhance your customers’ experience and advance your air show. With proper research, planning, communication and promotion, this can even be done without complaints!

The time has never been better to do it. Plan early for ticket increases this or next year and reap the rewards. It’s the beginning of a new year, season and era. I hope you will resolve to raise your ticket price and move us forward.

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