Who Will Run the Air Show Business of Tomorrow?

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For years, ICAS has published articles in this magazine focused on the long-term sustainability of air shows. From budgeting/finance and entertainment quality to volunteer recruitment/management and leadership/board structure, ICAS has highlighted the importance of operating air show businesses in a manner that ensures they will survive and thrive for many years.

But, gradually and stealthily, a new threat has emerged that poses an even greater risk to the long-term health of air shows.

The individuals running the air show business are aging and we are not doing enough as an industry to replace them. If we look ahead 15 to 20 years, it is not clear who will be the event organizers, performers and support service providers of the future.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, that is because ICAS has been sounding the alarm on the growing age of air show fans for a few years now. Statistics from our biennial spectator survey have shown very clearly that a greater percentage of our audience is 60 years of age or older. In the long term, that trend is unsustainable. This means that every show in North America must make it a priority to offer a product and develop a marketing plan that attracts younger audiences.

Although the age of our spectators is a serious and existential threat, I am alerting you here to a parallel, but fundamentally different, danger. A surprising number of our members have taken me aside during the last 24 months to say something like, “I am xx years-old and I’m probably going to start slowing down next year.” Or, “I’ll be celebrating my xxth birthday later this year and I don’t imagine I’ll be doing quite as many shows in the future.” The statistics support my anecdotal experience. As one example, the average age of our performers has been steadily increasing and – as our most active performers retire – we are not replacing them with young pilots. It’s a similar situation with event organizers and support service providers.

This is not unique to the air show business or ICAS. Industries and organizations of all kinds are seeing the average age of their membership increasing and contemplating the same shortage of younger people to fill the ranks. As the Baby Boom generation matures, long-established trends on member engagement and volunteer involvement are changing…sometimes dramatically. Organizations that track these statistics tell us that volunteer engagement has been dropping by five percent per year for at least the last decade. Whether it’s the ready availability of “online” communities or less free time or a fundamental change in how people value various activities, it should be a real concern  for any community like the air show business that finds most of its value in the time and talent of the people who work in the industry.

Like the challenge of an aging spectator base, the potential problems resulting from an aging air show professional base will require the deliberate and concentrated effort of our whole air show community to solve. Air show pilots, board members and volunteers still age at just one year per year. And there is not a great deal of difference between a 69 year-old air boss and a 70 year-old air boss or between a 73 year-old air show board president and a 74 year-old air show board president, so the temptation is to postpone consideration of the issue until next year.

So, what can we do?

  • We can serve as mentors to people who express interest in becoming involved in the air show business.
  • We can see younger people not as threats or competition, but as the future of our business. We can encourage them and help them achieve the kinds of success that will keep them interested and engaged.
  • We can make room in our air show leadership structure for young people who bring new energy and ideas to the demands of planning and conducting an annual air show.
  • We can “adopt” a new performer and teach them the ropes, encourage shows to hire them and offer tips on how to both fly safely and build a strong air show business.
  • If you are an event organizer, put “succession planning” on the agenda of every board meeting so that it becomes and remains a point of focus and attention for your entire organization.
  • We can keep this reality in the front of our minds rather than let it fade from thought, becoming secondary in importance and put off indefinitely.

They say that an addict’s first big step on the road to recovery is admitting that he/she has a problem. There are no one-size-fits-all fixes. Our answers for populating the performer ranks with younger pilots will look a lot different from the steps we take to help an air show. But – in each case – the road to long-term stability begins with acknowledgement that we are facing a formidable threat that, left unaddressed, could devastate our 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.