Have you ever been to an air show or fly-in where the experience was so bad that it wouldn’t matter if your favorite air show performer and every airworthy warbird in the United States was scheduled to be there — and giving free rides — you STILL wouldn’t go back?
It happens. It’s the little things that people remember about shows, say the folks behind some of the biggest aviation events in the United States.
Here are some tips to help you and your organization put on an event that will be a crowd pleaser.
The first step is differentiating between an air show and a fly-in. Although many use the terms interchangeably, advertising the event as an air show implies that there will be aerial performances.
A fly-in can be an event where pilots and airplanes gather for static display, or it can have an air show component to it in the form of demonstration flights by aircraft manufacturers, distributors or even aircraft owners.
Although it is tempting to start planning by calling around to air show performers to see who is available on that date, it is better to start your planning on the ground, notes Tom Poberezny, president of the Experimental Aircraft Association.
Poberezny literally grew up in the fly-in/air show business as his father, Paul Poberezny, founded the EAA fly-ins. EAA’s big event, of course, is AirVenture, the mid-summer gathering held in Oshkosh, Wis., by which all others are measured.
“Sometimes people get so hung up on planning the air show aspect of the event, attracting and booking aerial acts, that they don’t pay attention to the on-the-ground details,” says Poberezny. “The experience for the visitors begins the moment they arrive on the grounds. Don’t ignore the static displays or the parking lot cleanliness. Those are the first things people see. You don’t want them to react negatively. You want their experience to be positive so by the time they get to the flightline they have smiles on their faces.”
Barbara Tolbert, executive director of the Northwest EAA Fly-In and Sport Aviation Convention in Arlington Wash., agrees.
“You have to walk through your event like a guest,” she suggests. “You have to arrive by air as a guest and arrive by car to see the experience. The challenge is that, as you prepare and plan an event, you don’t lose sight of what it is like to be a visitor.”
It is especially critical that support services are in place and in good working order.
“Very often it is the lack of support services that makes people not want to come back,” Poberezny warns.
Support services can mean everything from making sure there are plenty of restroom facilities, in good working order, to enough people available to assist should a guest have a question or a problem. The latter can be the most tricky, says Tolbert, since most fly-ins and air shows are staffed by volunteers.
“The important thing is not to look at the event as an event when it comes to recruiting volunteers,” she says. “You need to look at it as setting up a volunteer organization first. Then you need to be sure that the volunteers are well placed within the organization — that is, doing jobs that are tailored to their skills and talents and interests.”
One element that impacts volunteer recruitment is pride of ownership, adds Bob Hasson, executive director of the Copperstate Fly-In in Arizona.
“The key volunteers are often heard referring to Copperstate as ‘my fly-in’, and the reality is that it is their fly-in,” he says. “This may be the most important element of all. When key volunteers truly believe that they are making a difference, there is nothing they can’t or won’t do to make ‘their fly-in’ better and appear smooth running. And, by the way, the wheels come off of some portion of the event several times a day, but in most cases the potential train wreck is not transparent to visitors due to a volunteer seeing the problem and stepping in to correct it without being told.”
Another element is success, Hasson notes.
“People gravitate to events they perceive as successful and want to be a part of,” he says. “Therefore, the more successful the event becomes, the more volunteers it attracts. Success begets success, which is good for larger events, but makes it very difficult to start a fly-in from scratch.”
Once you have volunteers, communication is key, says Tolbert, who recommends developing a detailed description of each position.
“They have to be clear on your expectations of them and you need to be clear on their expectations of you,” she says. “You have to be sure it is a good fit. If you have volunteers and a large number of people don’t come back to help year after year, you need to take a look at your program.”
How volunteers are treated is critical to maintaining their allegiance, says Hasson.
“During set up and tear down days, the volunteers all go to a restaurant for lunch where Copperstate picks up the tab,” he says. “During the show we provide a sit down hot meal for key volunteers. On the night before opening day we have a volunteer barbecue to celebrate the end of preparation and the beginning of the show. We have a huge hot dog feed on Friday night during the show. These are just a few of the tools we use to say ‘we truly appreciate you’ to our volunteers.”
DON’T REINVENT THE WHEEL
You can learn a lot from visiting other fly-ins, says Hasson.
“Most of what I’ve learned about managing a fly-in came from studying the masters,” he said. “During my many visits to AirVenture I intently studied every aspect of how they do it. Since EAA invented the fly-in, it is dumb to reinvent the wheel, so I simply picked out their best practices and applied them to Copperstate. Of course a smaller fly-in has an opportunity to be more user friendly than a larger show, simply due to its size. Therefore we are able to blend out some of the annoying parts of the show.”
If you decide to include aerial acts, expect to have more challenges when it comes to aircraft logistics. Among them is the issuance of a NOTAM, which indicates when the airport will close for the show and when it will reopen.
Also, insurance costs likely will be higher. Cost of insurance has made many an organizer decide to skip putting on an air show.
If you still want to maintain a flying component without the cost of an air show, consider offering exhibitors and owners the opportunity to conduct fly-bys during an aerial showcase.
According to Hasson, the showcase has become the focal point of the Copperstate event.
“Our showcase includes ultralights, powered parachutes, helicopters and gyros, as we want to give everyone a chance to fly in front of the crowd,” he says. “Our patrons are extremely pleased with the opportunity to be the center of attention.”
GET THE WORD OUT
All that planning is for naught if nobody shows up. Several months prior to the event you need to figure out your target audience and how to reach it. Are you trying to attract GA pilots? Warbird buffs? Scout troops and school kids? The general public?
Be sure to know which members of the media to contact. For example, you don’t want to send an invitation to the transportation editor of the local newspaper when the lifestyle editor would be more appropriate.
Make sure to provide contact information, press kits and escorts for media representatives when they arrive on site.
If there are people who have been especially critical of the airport in the past, extend a special (and sincere) invitation to them and let them know they will be treated like VIPs. They may not attend, but the gesture will be remembered.
An open house is a good start for airports wanting to get more people involved or to educate the community on how critical its airport is to the area.
The emphasis of an open house is to show the non-flying public the benefit of the airport. To that end, tours of the facility, equipment demonstrations by the local fire department, and exhibits from other community groups or municipal departments, can work in your favor.
Don’t forget to offer short airplane or helicopter rides and kid-friendly activities like clown shows, face painting or crafts.
The idea is to create an experience that is fun, memorable, and a positive connection between the airport and the community.
Need help? AOPA has a “how to” booklet at AOPA.org