Reaching Out for New Ideas


By now, it’s no secret that the air show industry faces a daunting demographic challenge as the Baby Boomer generation ages and the up-and-coming Millennial generation becomes our industry’s prime target. And, increasingly, ICAS members are recognizing that overcoming the challenges of an aging air show fanbase will require identifying and implementing new marketing strategies that will reach this younger generation while there is still time to avoid a crisis.

So, how do we tap into these new ideas to attract Millennials?

Although there are many answers to this question, a number of air shows have discovered that working with outside-the-industry public relations agencies is one possible solution. Even though most of these companies have never promoted an air show, they often have excellent contacts in the local market, advanced social media marketing skills and a better understanding of how to promote air shows to younger audiences.

For Thunder Over Michigan, a show that went from doing its own advertising in-house to recently hiring local marketing professionals, the outcome has
been significant.

“To go to a local agency was a real eye opener,” Thunder Over Michigan President Kevin Walsh said. “They have a better feel for the market for special events. They have a tab on ‘let’s not launch the tickets on this day because there’s something else happening that day.’ They are trying to time our announcements so as to realize the greatest return for us.”
Even though the firm they chose had never promoted an air show, Walsh states that their in-depth knowledge of and marketing expertise in the Detroit special events industry have been invaluable.

“I think the benefit is huge. It’s true that we are in the special events business, so we shouldn’t say we’re in the air show business,” Walsh said. “In my market, I compete with the Detroit Tigers. I compete with every local music festival and fair. I don’t compete with other air shows.”

In addition to identifying an air show’s competitors in their respective market, an outside firm can also provide assistance in scoring good deals for ad buys, finding year-round opportunities to market tickets in the community, and introducing strategies that have worked for other events.

The Abbotsford International Airshow, another show that has recently transitioned to outsourcing their marketing, has been able to strengthen its social media presence by developing original content and maintaining continuous communication with its fanbase. The company the show selected had significant experience in promoting to younger audiences through such events as food truck and beer festivals.

“It was important to us to find a social media team that had a connection to [the Millennial] market,” Operations Manager Dave Reith said. “That’s the market we really need to be looking more and more towards because, even though our core is families and young families with children, Millennials are quickly becoming that core.”

According to Reith, their decision was twofold:

“Number one was the opportunity to get ideas and have somebody with an outside perspective who is more into events- and business-related marketing – rather than just air shows – working on our social media and online presence,” Reith said.

The second reason was a capability issue. Although the show could largely handle its own social media for nine or ten months of the year, their marketing group has been able to take it over during the 60 days leading up to the show, so that the show management can focus on the event itself.

“One of the reasons we wanted to pick somebody who had a lot of experience in marketing to events that appeal to younger audiences is because they understand that,” Reith said. “It’s about creating a conversational space between you and the audience. They understand that and have come to the table with lots of great ideas.”

Through this collaboration, the Abbotsford International Airshow has already launched a number of creative social media campaigns and special event features. For example, the air show posted an April Fool’s Day prank about Air Force One coming to this year’s air show, which became one of the most popular posts ever on the show’s social media channels.
Additionally, this year’s show introduced an area called The Grandstand, to serve as a designated social and festival area that included live music, food and 12 local craft breweries from around British Columbia.

However, air show organizers are not the only ones looking for outside-the-industry marketing help. Former Snowbirds and CF-18 Demo Team pilot Rob “Scratch” Mitchell has also begun working with a local firm to strengthen his social media presence.

“I solicited professional help and they brought in some insight that I wouldn’t have organically known, or would have spent months figuring out, and that’s been very helpful,” Mitchell said. “Just in that alone is the real-time analytics where they say, ‘no, this type of post with your engagement, this is better for people looking at your stuff.’”

For Mitchell, his decision first stemmed from being unable to designate the necessary amount of time to build one’s own social media brand. Nonetheless, the collaboration has demonstrated to him that an involved social media presence is more than simply posting a couple of cool photos and videos.

“It’s a recognition that [social media] is a modern paradigm, that one must adhere to a social media strategy… I think a lot of air show people, they think it’s just about airplanes, whether they’re performers or producers, and there’s a larger story to be told and that needs to be figured out first,” Mitchell said. “My takeaway is, ‘it’s not a fire-andforget solution,’ and you still have to guide the ship to some degree. And I think some people forget that and just wholesale give it over. But to have people doing the grunt work, that helps.”

But choosing to outsource your marketing brings with it an unanticipated dilemma. Air shows will have to deal with the fact that these professionals do not have a working knowledge of air shows, which will require a steady dialogue between both parties to avoid communication errors.

For Abbotsford, there were concerns early on due to their agency’s unfamiliarity with air shows and inability to identify regular aircraft.

“There are certainly challenges in working with someone from outside the air show world; I mean we have had to take them to school on air shows and aircraft, for sure,” Reith said. “It was on our side of the table to deliver the air show specific content that they aren’t familiar with, so it’s a good partnership.”

For Thunder Over Michigan, relinquishing total control of their marketing was a big step.
“I think one of the biggest challenges is when the marketing agency brings something that is so different – from a standpoint of creativity that works for concerts or festivals – and it’s just that we are not used to it,” Walsh said. “Embracing what they bring you is sometimes difficult because we have been at it so long and it is hard to step back and say, ‘Ok, you’re the professionals.’”

That being said, constant communication with their marketing group is key to fostering creativity. For example, Walsh holds a call with them every Friday to review past decisions and strategize fresh ideas.

The overall takeaways?

Don’t be afraid to reach outside the air show industry where you may learn an inventive approach to promoting your events. Understand that you are in the greater entertainment business and that there are organizations out there that can be excellent sources in developing original ways to step up your marketing efforts and better reach the Millennial demographic.

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Chris Morrison
Chris Morrison, ICAS Manager of Marketing, Communications and Digital Media. | Chris Morrison joined ICAS in August 2017, shortly after graduating from the College of William & Mary with a bachelor’s degree in business marketing. His prior work experience includes internships with EdgeConneX and Interstate Van Lines.