Mark Broadbent's 2011 blogGAR Entries

DEC 15 2011
blogGAR: The Ground Side of Airshows

Like it not, I think we’re likely to see more of this over the coming years at aviation events. That’s not to say all airshows are going to start running concerts, but more that organisers will increasingly look to think differently in broadening the range of attractions on the ground to more than just bog-standard beer tents and stalls.

While RIAT has attracted the ire of some enthusiasts with the concert – and its other ground attractions such as Tri@RIAT and arena displays – the show at Fairford is far from alone in trying new things on the ground. At the last Farnborough in 2010 organisers ADS (formerly SBAC) paid for the BloodhoundSSC car to attend the entire week on the ground, while also presenting a Land Rover obstacle course and skateboarding displays. My local airshow at Southport had BMX stunt riders this year. Bournemouth and Eastbourne both have live music on the ground, and Sunderland now has a Friday evening launch concert. There’s music too at the Abingdon Air & Country Show in Oxfordshire, which for years has had a range of things on the ground unconnected to aviation including tank rides, MG cars and arena displays.

In the UAE the Al Ain Aerobatic Show included a 30-minute presentation involving live music and ballet (as well as Austrian aerobat Hannes Arch) in what was surely one of the most unusual ground attractions at an airshow ever. Back in the UK Dunsfold’s successful Wings & Wheels event has from its start emphasised motoring displays as much as aircraft. Next year Cotswold Airport is running an entirely new event, the Best of British Show, where an air display will be just one element of an event that will supposedly include a range of ground attractions.

But this trend for including attractions that aren’t necessarily associated with the core of an event is not just an airshow thing. The British Grand Prix at Silverstone has invested a lot in recent years in creating entertainment zones and evening concerts. The Cholmondeley Pageant of Power in Cheshire, a motoring event, includes air displays and shopping (or “Lifestyle Pavilion” as they call it). Glastonbury has, over the last decade or so, upped the range of arts attractions in addition to the main attraction of the music.

There will no doubt be some who will say that airshows cannot be compared to other events, and to a certain extent that’s true. But that would ignore a subtle, but very important point – value for money.

For an enthusiast, value for money at an airshow is bound up with the participation list. If organisers stock their airshow with a good range of types appropriate for their event – overseas visitors for the military events, interesting historic aircraft at Duxford, for example – the chances are an enthusiast will feel it’s been money well spent. So you can understand why RIAT spending money on a singer was said to be a waste.

But the value for money criteria are slightly different for the wider public who constitute the majority of an airshow crowd. For these people, who may only go to one airshow a year, may be visiting an airshow for the first time or who may go several years between visiting an airshow, the minutiae of the participation list is a secondary factor. Certainly the aircraft are important, and they want spectacular, high-quality displays, but in the same way as a family visiting the Cholmondeley motoring event do not attend because one or two particular vintage racers will be there, so the general public who visit most of the UK’s airshows are not swayed into attending by the presence of one particular aircraft. Rather, it is the opportunity to see a number of aircraft and the sensations and experience provided by that, combined with the range of other things to see and do, that determine whether that family feels it was value for money or not.

I’ve got first-hand experience of this. I must declare an interest: I’ve helped out with the marketing of the Abingdon show since late 2008. Moving from the spectator to the organising side was interesting because on speaking with members of the public on the show day, you got a different impression of what made their day. People of course highlight particular aircraft (this year the Vulcan was mentioned a lot), but what is interesting is the number who’ve said they liked the other things there were to do and see on the ground besides watching the air displays.

Admittedly, this is unscientific and it’s at just one venue. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if people at Waddington or Yeovilton said they enjoyed the hangar displays, or if people at Cosford or Duxford said they enjoyed looking round the resident museums. For the vast majority of people going to airshows, I’d argue that value for money is about the whole range of entertainment that’s on offer – of which aircraft are one part, albeit a key one. I’ve often thought, for example, that seaside airshows’ appeal lies not merely in the fact that they offer a flying display, but that they also offer a day at the seaside. In short, value for money is about the total experience - of which aircraft are only part.

And here’s the nub. Airshows are part of a much bigger leisure industry in which the public has a huge choice of where it can go. It was fascinating to attend a talk a few years ago by Peter Moore, then chairman of Manchester’s ChillFactor ski slope and previously marketing chief at Alton Towers and MD of Center Parcs. Moore said that over the last decade consumers, almost without noticing it, have become much more demanding. Moore said they want a good experience and that the key to creating it was not only the quality of the core attraction (in his case, the ski slope) but everything else that is offered at the venue. Moore said the success of ChillFactor was not just in the quality of the skiing and snowboarding opportunities, but the experience and atmosphere offered by the range of shopping and catering outlets also provided.

Silverstone Circuit’s MD Richard Philips is another leading leisure venue boss who’s talked about the importance of experience. He told SportsPro magazine in 2009 that the circuit’s experience about people attending the British Grand Prix “was that it isn’t about just coming on a Sunday to see a race for an hour and a half” but that people enjoy “getting under the skin of it and having a great experience”. Philips added: “You’ve got to do a lot of work making sure people who come aren’t just wandering around the venue aimlessly. They’ve got to be entertained”. Hence why Silverstone invests in entertainment zones and live music.

Of course, airshows are different to ski slopes and F1 circuits. But the principle applies. The aircraft should be the main event, but by adding things to the event – which, yes, might sometimes not have anything to do with aircraft – the public will feel more satisfied that they’re having a good, entertaining, value for money day out which hopefully will convince them to go back.

And while the aircraft might be enough for an air enthusiast, for the wider public a quality experience goes beyond the things with wings and into what there is to do before and after the flying, the quality of the on-site amenities and what to do and see if it rains. The latter point is perhaps sometimes forgotten. If the weather clamps at Waddington or Fairford an enthusiast will happily (well, not happily if it’s chucking it down but you know what I mean) have a wander round the static aircraft. But the prospect of walking round aircraft will soon get tiring for those less keen – I well remember how rubbish weather at Elvington back in 1997 saw hordes of people flocking to the shelter of the resident Yorkshire Air Museum, proving the value of having an event that offers more just a line of aircraft.

If Moore is right and people are more demanding, then perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that many airshows are now investing in things which enthusiasts raise their eyebrows at. I’m not suggesting Shuttleworth book Jay-Z or Duxford has dancing JCBs on the runway – everything’s got to be appropriate for each venue – but surely things which help improve the majority of people’s experience and make them feel they’re getting bang for their buck is no bad thing.

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