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.