It’s in the record books: The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s sixth and last new regional fly-in — seven if you count the heavily-attended Homecoming to AOPA HQ in Frederick, Md. How did it go, this change from one big annual convention? What was gained and what was lost?
The one-day AOPA fly-ins finished strong on Saturday, Nov. 8, at Malcolm McKinnon Field on St. Simons Island, Georgia. AOPA officials cited surprisingly heavy fly-in traffic at a venue where they thought traffic might be lighter than average. Some 200 airplanes arrived the night before compared with 50-60 early arrivals elsewhere. The Air Boss later estimated a total of 400 fly-in aircraft.
AOPA president Mark Baker said the 2014 fly-ins attracted some 16,000-17,000 participants, but that number may be conservative. AOPA counts meal tickets issued. At each event, it’s possible another 500 attended but did not partake. One might speculate on a total audience approaching 20,000.
In their heyday, AOPA conventions drew 10,000 to 12,000 people, even 14,000 one year. Staged in a convention center, each EXPO (later, SUMMIT) would offer top-notch theater-style presentations for 1,000-1,200 at a sitting. Myriad forum rooms hosted 60-100 hours of educational offerings over each three-day convention. Extensive audio-visuals, dramatic lighting, well-produced original videos and fun entertainment graced three general sessions, plus an opening luncheon and closing banquet.
By design, the AOPA fly-ins are more relaxed and informal. Major presentations and a couple educational sessions are held in hangars. Audio-visuals rely on simple front-projection screens. At St. Simons, a static display of 20-30 aircraft was nestled amid the hangars. Along with marquee-style tents for various member-service functions, it was a cozy and comfortable outside venue. A single hangar for commercial exhibitors hosted just 32 booths.
Formerly, an AOPA EXPO/SUMMIT static display would boast 100 airplanes, usually at a nearby airport. The exhibit hall would host hundreds of aviation businesses and organizations. And nowhere was that traditional gathering better staged than in Palm Springs, California. No wonder once AOPA abandoned its planned 2014 Palm Springs convention, someone came in to clone it.
Las Vegas-based Lift Event Management grasped the opportunity. The Oct. 31-Nov. 2 gathering had hallmarks of the AOPA original. A Parade of Planes through city streets allowed exhibit aircraft to be right outside the convention hall. Even the Friday night social event was held, as usual, at the Palm Springs Air Museum.
FLYING magazine signed on as event co-sponsor. The resulting FLYING AVIATION EXPO featured programs and speakers befitting the magazine’s reach into the aviation industry.
Relating GA to other American lifestyles, Palm Springs welcomed not only Tesla cars but also high-end jewelry and fashion exhibitors, even Hangar One vodka. AOPA once hosted BMW, sure, but didn’t Hangar One vodka raise eyebrows just as AOPA’s infamous wine club did recently? Regardless, attractions for family “consumption” have merit.
Veterans of the ancient sniping between AOPA and FLYING might sniff that their first foray yielded only “around 5,000” attendees. Their Parade of Planes numbered only 32. I don’t know the fly-in count; FLYING said it was affected by “a fast-moving storm system over Southern California.”
When AOPA’s recession-ridden 1991 New Orleans convention attracted only 3,900 people, then-new AOPA president Phil Boyer demanded, “Either we do this right or we don’t do it at all.” And then the re-born AOPA EXPO did it right for 15 or 20 years. I expect FLYING’s entry will grow, too, beyond its introductory year.
When asked about this new FLYING-branded offering, AOPA president Baker said, “There’s no such thing as a bad aviation event.” His only early concern had been that a new Palm Springs fling might be mistaken for AOPA’s. No worries. In the end, it was well-branded. And many of FLYING’s old fans are rooting for it (and editor Robert Goyer) as it soldiers on under new ownership.
The aviation expo is expected to return to Palm Springs next October. The people at both FLYING and at AOPA are wishing each other well. That said, I was surprised that AOPA gave up its greatest convention venue and left it open to others.
AOPA’s Baker voices no regrets. His strong conviction: AOPA must reach out to members nearer where they live and fly. While a big annual convention now falls victim to price-resistance and attendee time pressures, AOPA’s calculus also includes GA’s intrinsic speed/range limitations on long-distance travel. Few EXPO attendees flew farther than 500 miles — and that perhaps averaged up by airline arrivals. For AOPA’s new regional fly-ins, Baker presumes a “catchment area” of 250 miles radius.
This rang most true among Baker’s rationales: AOPA’s fly-in locations were not selected to maximize attendance. His goal was to reach members AOPA hadn’t seen before. His proof? Most 2014 locations save Indianapolis (St. Simons; Spokane, Wash.; Chino, Calif.; San Marcos, Texas, or Plymouth, Massachusetts) are not populous metropolitan centers. They are where GA pilots are or enjoy flying to. (Coastal St. Simons and Plymouth are especially illustrative: Half their catchment area is off-shore!)
“We are very, very pleased that we are speaking to new attendees,” Baker said. “Some 70-80% have never attended an AOPA event before. We are living in that 250-mile world.”
As further evidence, Baker notes that when IFR hit the San Marcos event, many who gave up on flying drove in. Attendance still hit the typical 2,500 meal count.
Baker says he has had “not one call” to go back to the big annual convention/trade show. I am personally nostalgic for the AOPA EXPO of old, but it was costly and took months of staff time. And times are different. EXPOs back then made a positive contribution to AOPA’s budget. Now, they might not.
Moreover, today’s AOPA has fence-mending and member relations to do. Expending grand effort for an in-person audience of just 10,000 to 12,000 members — many the same “regulars” each year — did little for outreach. That’s now the important purpose of new AOPA regional fly-ins.
AOPA’s 2014 fly-ins may have nearly doubled the attendance of recent, somewhat diminished AOPA SUMMITs. If not, maybe next year’s fly-ins will. And some 40 to 45 airports are competing to host one of those. That says something.
Mark Baker’s plans after AOPA’s 2014 fly-ins — and 100 other speaking engagements this year? “I’m taking next weekend off,” he declared!
© 2014 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved