The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s decision to cancel its annual convention and trade show made news this month. It certainly shows movement instead of “business as usual” under new president Mark Baker. I have some perspective to offer and a modest suggestion. Care to listen?
When I showed up at AOPA in July 1991, the convention was planned for that fall in New Orleans. Being new, I was just along for the ride but, as I recall, attendance was low. New AOPA President Phil Boyer said of future efforts, “Either we’re going to do this right or we’re not going to do it at all.” Thus was born AOPA EXPO, which succeeded so well. You can thank the professionalism and showmanship of Phil Boyer and some great staff people.
Working on EXPO was the annual highlight of my AOPA time. I took pride adding in meaningful content to its five major assemblies: The three morning general sessions and two meal events (opening luncheon and closing banquet.)
To boring elements of any association meeting — award presentations, for instance — we added context and aviation lore both educational and motivational. We even developed annual themes and put our message across in original video produced just for EXPO. (Pre-made videos replaced boring, lengthy speeches with visual communication and better control of time.)
I was busy on EXPO every year from Aug. 1 through mid-November — a substantial fraction of my year’s work. Many similarly had their hands full. But EXPO was a focus for the membership. It also generated follow-up stories and concepts for the association’s magazine, AOPA Pilot. It certainly focused the staff’s minds and they reveled in “delivering the goods” for the membership.
Problem was, EXPO was experienced first-hand by only a small fraction of that membership. Although convention attendance grew from a pitiful 3,000-something in New Orleans to 12,000+ in EXPO’s heyday, most members merely read about it. Substantial resources were applied directly to only 2.5% of the membership. We dreamed of extending EXPO’s outreach through live TV or video over the Internet; efforts later to do just that (using an outside contractor) were awfully expensive, I understand.
Beyond that, there was general concern among associations that national conventions were in decline. Travel costs and time away from job and home weighed heavy. Vacations were shorter and family budgets tighter. The cost to attend EXPO was increasingly at issue. AOPA noticed that many of its full-fare three-day attendees were aging long-time “regulars” and not newer pilots. Many just dropped in on Saturday, buying a one-day pass and missing a lot of what EXPO had to offer.
But EXPO had its advantages. Held in alternating East and West Coast venues, the autumn event was usually held amid big Florida and California GA populations (a nice alternative for them versus a long OSH trip.) Palm Springs always yielded a great EXPO. Las Vegas was strong. Long Beach and San Jose were good and Tampa worked especially well in Florida.
Problems emerged, however, in seeking venues beyond that. To serve the Northeast, two Atlantic City EXPOs were exciting but the city fell miserably short on visitor amenities. Philadelphia was surprisingly great, I thought, but apparently Hartford disappointed.
Away from the coasts, Texas was always a question mark. A big GA state and center of airline/military activity, did that region have enough population density? AOPA will try it this October, when the Summit kicks off Oct. 10. I hope the South, Southwest and the Plains states will turn out; attendance might be boosted by this Summit’s “last time” billing.
Beyond attendance, there’s the “dollars and cents.” EXPO as a trade show bloomed with the 1995-2005 GA market. Now, the industry is squeezed. Complaints began years ago about “too many shows.” And these days after a busy show season, are exhibitors reluctant to take on yet another show? I think so.
So I’m happy to see AOPA take a new tack. Returning to more presidential pilot town halls and trying some AOPA regional fly-ins gets to more members. Simple fly-ins, for instance, offer more two-way communication — something AOPA needs now. Members have a lot on their minds. They need to get it off their chests. Big convention events are structured for one-way communication. (The association is on stage talking; members are in their seats “getting educated.”) Right now, it’s AOPA that needs to do the listening.
My suggestion to new AOPA management? Find two old 16mm films that used to be in the Communications Division closet. One reminded me of AOPA slipping into “a rich man’s club.” Produced at an early 1960s convention in Hollywood, Florida, the film glamorized AOPA’s “Plantation Party” at a swanky hotel/golf venue. Maybe it was just the overblown style of the film (and my hate for that name), but it looked to me pretentious and status-seeking.
Inside the other film can are golden memories of the 1952(?) AOPA fly-in to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware — one of AOPA’s earliest member events. It was just planes and pilots gathered around old Rehoboth Airport’s stucco terminal. Definitely NOT “sophisticated,” everyone was happy getting their shoes dusty on the literal “grassroots” of GA. There (and seemingly everywhere) was AOPA’s legendary Max Karant in a sports shirt, greeting arrivals and talking pilot-to-pilot. Clearly these relaxed, smiling people loved simply getting together with fellow pilots and their planes. Nothing fancy, but fun.
If AOPA is thinking about regional fly-ins, I’m all for it. This has risks and costs, however. Fly-ins are weather-dependent; rain or IFR means a blown event.
Actually, AOPA may intend merely to set-up shop at existing major fly-ins around the country. This has its pluses but is a blow to AOPA prestige – making the big pilot association merely an exhibitor or co-sponsor rather than host.
And a fly-in is unlikely to accommodate all the bells-and-whistles that EXPO or Summit had – big projection screens, classy exhibit hall offerings, scores of seminars, nice meal events. What a comedown.
In fact, it will come down to execution of the concept. Avoiding big convention costs should cover a number of well-staged regional events. And AOPA would be getting closer to more of its members, both geographically and metaphorically. It’s time.
There’s loss of prestige in canceling one’s premier event. But now is AOPA’s time to reflect, reconsider and change course. The organization’s 75th anniversary year seems an apt moment for AOPA to find its footing again.
© 2013 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved