General aviation in the marketplace

Last week the news broke that Fantasy of Flight, the aviation-themed attraction in the heart of central Florida, was closing. That was the message most people got, even if it is slightly skewed from the announcement the company intended.

Those who read the full story (included the one by Drew Steketee right here in General Aviation News) already know the facility is closing to the public for a time and will reopen later in the year as a scaled down museum. It will remain available for special events throughout.

Bad news travels fast. And given the chance to misconstrue a story rather than delve into the details, the general public will do just that. They’ll get it wrong and react accordingly.

So it was no great surprise to find Fantasy of Flight’s parking lot stuffed to capacity this past weekend. Attendance was so high the park actually positioned an employee near the main gate to direct new arrivals into overflow parking lots in the grass. Even though parking in the overflow areas meant a long walk to the front door and the main hangars, the cars kept streaming in. Crowds kept tromping toward aviation nirvana, intent on seeing it for themselves.

The rational was completely understandable. To the general public, the people who were motivated more by rumor than fact, they took the opportunity to part with dollars to see this amazing collection of aircraft before it’s gone. They don’t want to be left out. By and large they took the position it’s now or never. Given a choice between the two – now wins out.

Market Research 101 tells us that if nobody comes through your turnstile, you’re doing something wrong. Later in the class we learn that if people are flocking past your ticket counter, thrusting money into your hands as they go, you’re a success.

So if that’s true (and it is) how is it possible that the same facility experienced both scenarios in the same week? Prior to the announcement they were…let’s say underperforming. As soon as the news and rumors broke, they were packed to the rafters.

The answer is as tantalizing as it is maddening. There is a massive pro-aviation audience out there in the world, and we’re not reaching out to them in a way they understand. We don’t relate to them and they don’t relate to us. That’s the bad news.

They want to come see us, but they don’t feel comfortable enough to do it. They want to spend the day with us, but they don’t want to spend the mortgage payment in the process.

If we could only broaden our presentation to include obvious stepping stones of incremental involvement, we would be awash in customers. In other words, give ‘em something they understand at a price they find attractive, and they’ll start coming. As they become more familiar with what we have to offer, they’ll take bigger and bolder steps.

That’s often how successful businesses get rolling. One little step at a time. If you force the customer to take too big a bite too soon, they’ll avoid you rather than risk an unpleasant experience.

Fantasy of Flight’s recent overflow crowds proves the point. When presented with an amazing collection of aircraft, daily flights, restoration tours, and even the occasional elbow rubbing experience with the boss, the public yawned and stayed home. When threatened with closing doors and a facility they could only see from afar, that exact same public flocked to the ticket counter in droves.

Are our prices too high, our products and services too incomprehensible, our facilities too intimidating, our morass of certifications and pilot specific jargon too weird? In a word, yes.

So let’s simplify, diversify and get a new mindset. Let’s commit ourselves to expanding our reach and involving an ever-widening group of aviation enthusiasts in what we do by making it palatable, understandable, and interesting to them.

When people go to a car dealership they know there will be something on the lot that fits their price range. Whether they’re in the luxury market or searching for a used econobox, they come in knowing they’ll find a good fit with at least one of the options they see.

Whether we’re shopping for a home, a car, a meal, or a vacation, we all know there are alternatives. All we have to do is find one that works for us and we’re in business.

That’s not true of aviation. Not for the bulk of the market in any case. And while that misconception may not be our fault, it is certainly our responsibility to correct the public’s perception of what we are, why we’re here, and how they might get involved.

Use your creativity. Use your imagination. Engage your drive. This is a problem that can be solved. More than anything it’s a communication issue. So let’s get it in gear and start talking aviation with people in a way they can understand, and start inviting them to participate at a level they can afford.

If nothing else this may be a great opportunity to grab a clipboard and head out to a public event somewhere to start asking members of the general public, “What would it take to get you interested in visiting your local airport?”

The conversation that follows that question would be worth a Master’s Thesis in Marketing, I’m sure.

Comments

  1. Haiko says

    I had an interesting experience this Monday at our local EAA Chapter meeting. We had invited a well respected AME to talk about getting, keeping and/or reinstating your medical certificate. The room was full of 70+ year old “Geezers”. Most of us were either ex military, ex commercial ATP’s and guys that got their ticket in the 60’s or thereabouts. There were a few younger pilots in attendance, probably less than 2%. Anyone that was interested in aviation but was not an active pilot yet, attending this meeting, would have been scared to death with the many contingencies one would have to consider to get and to keep an aviation medical.
    I certainly am glad to hear the legislation afoot to do away with a third class medical and to accept a valid drivers license instead. Let’s be honest, the closing rate of two automobiles, separated by maybe 10 feet is in excess of 100MPH and the odds of anyone hitting something with your car are WAY greater than a Cessna 172 tooling along at 130MPH over mostly open tarrain. If the Cessna crashes for some reason, most the time only the pilot and/or passangers get hurt or die. That picture is completely different in an automobile accident. If you have diabetis or a heart murmor, one is still allowed to drive the automobile missile. Those regulations and the sheer cost of complying with all those regulations makes flying a VERY expensive hobby that can not be justified by most younger folks that are interested in GA. Unless we change that, GA will die an agonizing death within the next 10 years.

  2. Doyle Frost says

    Jeff G. pretty much hit the nail on the head, in my case. I’ve always been into aviation, even finally managed to get my PPL, (after the grandkids left home, and wife told me to go spend the money on myself, fulfilling a lifelong dream.) (At the time, I was the ground ops supervisor at this airport before the county took over as FAA approved sponsor.)
    Went to take my youngest grandchild, fifth grader, to the local airport, and could not even get on it to visit a friend working on several planes for other friends. This airport does not seem to want GA there at all. And the only place they want the general public is in the new terminal they built a few years ago, and are already looking at spending millions to upgrade and increase the size of.
    There’s no place to go for “$100 hamburger and gab fest,” as they just want the snack bar vending machines in that new terminal, (behind the TSA security checkpoints,) to pay for itself.
    I’ve sent “letters to the editor” and got positive responses from the general public, but our elected officials don’t want to hear anything about earning the money from the general public, and G.A. in particular. They seem to think it would interfere with their dreams of becoming a “major hub.” That isn’t going to happen, as there is already a small primary hub only fifteen miles from here, with a much larger population base, and their GA flight schools use this field for practice, (much longer runway here, and much wider as well,) and it doesn’t require contact with ATC or a tower.

  3. Steve says

    Not sure I get the spending the mortgage piece. At $29.95 for an adult general admission ticket, the price was rather reasonable. It’s more like the scarcity finally kicked in and people who have been saying, “I need to go there one day” finally started showing up.

  4. lindsay petre says

    Airplanes meant nothing to me for most of my life, and I started flying on a whim. Now aviation is all I think about. So what does it take to flip that switch? I’m reading a book written in the 1950’s about a test pilot who on his way up (no pun intended) used to fly all around and offer flights at small town airfields for $5 or so. (Are there any small town airfields left?) Anyway it’s not the clear answer but I try to get anyone and everyone to take a short flight with me….if I just talk about flying they mostly tune me out after a while.

  5. says

    Jamie:

    Another excellent piece. And as usual, you make some excellent points.

    I remain frustrated that aviation has not found the handle on promoting our love of airplanes and flying to a wider audience … possibly we failed to keep up as computers and the Internet kept offering more and different work/recreational/entertainment choices while we made ourselves less accessible with high prices, incomprehensible jargon and a jaunty I-can-do-this-but-maybe-not-you attitude (with considerable help from TSA’s 8-foot-high fencing and signs saying “Stay Back!”). Aviation is simply not very approachable.

    Since he has financial resources others can only dream about I hope Kermit Weeks can find another way to something impressive. Yet even with great wealth and drive he can only do his bit in a few locations. We’ll all have to put on our “thinking caps” and be willing to take steps if we want to reverse the decades-long decline in pilot populations.

    • says

      Hi Dan;
      Sorry, you, frankly, along with the other “bias” and touters of the “WHY” just can’t or don’t want to, (denial?) accept the FACT that you’ll ALWAYS have a very limited/vertical demand for GA (recreational) flying – like it or not!
      Time for grown-up, mature, RATIONAL, “outside the sandbox” creative solutions IF you want to SAVE what so many deem as the greatest thing since sliced bred or –X!

      Is it the goal of the “Billy Graham” types who’s continue to “sell” and spread the gospel that’s getting $$$ results – HELLO? The whole “recreational” aviation dilemma seems to be dominated by those ONLY interested in ANYONE who will read their “Bible” – whether they “buy” it or not?
      The “fools gold” is just that; it’s no wonder the “smart money’ isn’t in the recreational segment of GA- if and when it passes muster on “Shark Tank” – I’m in !

  6. says

    Mr. Beckett, used two words here, seldom heard, if ever, pertaining to GA business ventures; market research!

    FLYING TANK PROJECT CANCELLED?
    (Aberdeen) The concept of a “Flying Tank”
    was cancelled yesterday when it was deemed
    unfeasible by Army designers and engineers.
    The light weight tank, labeled the “Patton Menace”
    would have required a wing span of nearly 900 ft,
    which, if development continued, might have
    become the Army’s secret weapon.
    As a result of the failed attempt, a Major General,
    2 Colonels, and a Captain were “sacked’ by way of
    early retirement.
    A Senate investigation into the matter is being
    considered by several high ranking officials.

    Silly – no more sillier than the “Flying Car”!

    But Hermit Weeks, didn’t suffer from a lack of a “quality” marketable product;
    rather, my take at least, from a combination of geographical location, population and low density/volume demand. The challenge was to DRAW the “visitor” to his airport location from other nearby frequent tourist destinations; Sun N Fun (pilot market) and Disneyland (general or non-aviation market), however, low volume demand resulted.

    Had this very fine attraction been located here, 40-50 miles away in northwestern NJ or NY state, where over 15M+ residents work and reside within a 50 miles radius, this would have made for an ideal weekend event for BOTH those interested in aviation history (selling point) as well as capturing one of the largest pilot populations in the USA.

    But back to “marketing research” for a moment.
    Aviation, both GA and commercial, has, without a doubt, some of the most talented, skilled and brilliant technical/engineering minds going to waste!
    When this “business” wakes up and finally figures out that whatever the product or service, a DEMAND must exist BEFORE the fact for it to be financially viable in the future market place.

    Hopefully, and sooner than later, visionary marketing executives/entrepreneurs will merge (meet) with these engineering wizards, and ask, collectively: WHERE does the latent, pent-up, or potentially unsatisfied DEMAND exist?
    Now, ONCE defined, go about building and marketing “IT” ; but only IF potentially proved cost (profitable) effective the product to satisfy or fill that demand!

  7. Jeff G says

    “What would it take to get you interested in visiting your local airport?”
    That question is a little different from visiting an attraction like Fantasy of Flight.
    But to answer your question; To paraphrase our late President. ” Mr. TSA, tear down that fence”.
    By this I mean today’s generation has almost no chance of getting up close and personal with general aviation, what with 10′ barbed wire fences, key cards, punch locks and an attitude of “What do you want?” Not how can we help you?
    Airports must be more accessible.
    Costs need to come down all across the board.
    Most airports don’t hold open houses or air shows. Nothing to get the public involved. When we do most of the time we cater to our own, public not invited.
    Nostalgia is a powerful driving force. I bet many visiting Mr. Weeks facility turned to their partner/ family and spoke of the “good ole days”. Can we replicate the “Good ole days” again? Not the way things are now.
    Get the public on the ramp, up close and personal and we may have a chance. Hide off in a corner and the public’s only exposure is a plane overhead or a news story about a crash and we have lost them.

  8. Ray says

    It’s a fine line to walk – but those of us who love and support aviation are a fanatical, dedicated lot. We’ll see this through and support museums/working attractions like Fantasy of Flight in any way we can – either by show of solidarity, spreading the good word whenever and wherever we can, financial means, or backing up whatever reinvention Mr. Weeks is planning to repurpose Fantasy’s ultimate message. Something tells me that someone as well-known and successful in aviation restoration circles as Mr. Weeks is will no doubt be successful in refocusing the facilities’ mission. The collection pieces under his stewardship are too valuable to the world of aviation for the message to fail.

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