The dollars and sense of Sun ‘n Fun

Jamie Beckett is a CFI and A&P mechanic who stepped into the political arena in an effort to promote and protect GA at his local airport. He is also a founding partner and regular contributor to

It was nearly 40 years ago when a spry young fellow named Billy Henderson gathered with a small band of like-minded aviation nuts, and decided to put on a show. They planned, and they prepared, and they sent out invitations, and they did indeed hold a reasonably well attended fly-in. They called it the Mid-Winter Sun ‘n Fun. It went well enough that they did it again the next year.

Shortly the skies over North America will be filled with pilots and airplanes headed to Lakeland Linder Regional Airport in central Florida for this year’s event. For those who have been to this massive event, they know what it’s all about. It’s about aviation, community, education, fraternity, sorority, mentoring, advocacy, and corn. Admittedly, the corn thing is something you have to be a participant in to truly get it. But it’s there, and it’s good. You can take my word on that.

It’s also about money – but, not in a solipsistic way. Sun ‘n Fun has an economic impact that flows outward from the airport grounds, through the gas stations, hotels, restaurants, and local shops that surround the field. It oozes out beyond the city limits of Lakeland and falls benevolently on surrounding towns, and disperses just a bit of its largesse to the populace of every town or airport where visitors stop while on their trek south.

Sure, I can say all that. But is it true? Does an event like Sun ‘n Fun really provide much bang for the buck to the community that hosts it? After all, there are traffic issues, parking issues, restaurant reservation issues, and all the other negative and potentially annoying effects that come hand-in-hand with any large event rolling into town – and out again a week later.

The folks at Sun ‘n Fun wondered the same things. And so they did the responsible thing, they brought in the University of South Florida to do a study to find out exact what sort of economic impact this behemoth we call Sun ‘n Fun has on the area.

Now the simple way to do an economic impact study is to ask what the expenditures are for the event, and apply a multiplier factor that approximates how much cash is mixing around in the local economy as a result of the process. The more time-consuming and more accurate method involves surveying a broad cross-section of vendors, visitors, exhibitors, and residents. That’s the way USF chose to go, thankfully. The results of the study have much greater weight given this method. Even if it is more work.

How much work? Imagine surveying, inputing, and crunching the numbers associated with 2,300 individual responders. That’s work. But the information gathered by that process is incredibly important to anyone who wants to really understand what the benefits of such a large event really are.

In this case, the benefits run in the neighborhood of $27 million, per year. That’s serious business.

Now understand, that’s not $27 million that goes into Sun ‘n Fun’s cash registers. That money spreads out like a swarm of honeybees searching for sources of pollen to make sweet honey. Some of that cash goes to the Holiday Inn or Econolodge. But of course some visitors stay with friends in the area and don’t spend money at the motel. But they eat, so restaurants and grocery stores benefit directly from the event. Some of those folks may find that they need to put gas in their car, or their airplane, so the money flows there, too. And they may need to buy a roll of duct tape, or a T-shirt, or flip-flops while they’re in the area. You get the point. The money leaves the airport.

The truth is, and it is supported by the USF study, an enormously broad cross-section of the central Florida economy is positively impacted by Sun ‘n Fun – including the farmers who grow the strawberries and blueberries and citrus that are consumed by visitors from the north who haven’t seen a truly fresh piece of fruit in months.

So what’s all this mean to you? Well that depends. If you’re bemoaning the fact that you don’t have an event the size of Sun ‘n Fun in your neighborhood, you may have missed the point. Sun ‘n Fun didn’t start out as a massive blast to the local economy. It started out as a handful of friends who wanted to share their love and affection for homebuilt airplanes. It was essentially a brief gathering of like-minded folks who were willing to travel a short distance to be with people who shared the same interests they did – and if they could sell a widget or two in the process, all the better.

That’s kind of the same way Microsoft, Apple computers, and Facebook got going, too. Just a small group of friends who see an opportunity to have a good time, without much of an investment, and maybe make a buck or two in the process. They all seem to be doing pretty well for their efforts.

Could your town be the home of the next big thing? I don’t know, but there’s only one way to find out.

You can reach Jamie at

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