Helen Webb International Airshow Marketing

Helen Webb: What outdoor events can learn from the airshow industry

What outdoor events can learn from the airshow industry. Helen Webb, the former head of marketing at the Royal International Air Tattoo and now director of International Airshow Marketing, reveals all…

In the vast multitude of outdoor events, airshows stand out as being a unique spectacle, captivating millions in the UK and around the world with aircraft displays and flypasts. Unlike many sporting, motoring racing or music events, the main action takes place in the sky which means wherever you are at the event you get a great view.

However, their existence faces a dual threat, despite being the third most attended live event in the UK, boasting 4.2 million visitors in 2023 according to a recent report from the British Air Displays Association. What is this threat? It’s the challenge
of making airshows sustainable – both commercially and environmentally.

Airshow credit Glenn Stanely/Your Digital Memories

DIVERSE SECTOR

It may be tempting to dismiss airshows as entertainment, but the numbers, scale, societal value, and public enthusiasm for airshows are quite remarkable. They are run by a diverse mix of organisations, and this is one of the challenges. Some events are organised by enthusiastic volunteers who love aviation, and a few are run by larger commercial enterprises, usually with a charitable aim or partner.

Several airshows, such as Farnborough, Paris and Dubai, are now mainly tradeshows with no real public access. These are where aerospace and Defence come together to sell their latest aircraft or technology. There are also the seaside council-run airshows, which, it seems, are becoming increasingly difficult to justify, despite the clear economic benefits to an area. The Royal Air Force was previously a huge part of the airshow scene, and its airshows formed an important part of its public engagement and recruitment campaigns; however, the RAF Cosford Airshow is the only one that now remains.

PRICING STRATEGY

While football matches and horse racing reign supreme in attendance, with airshows as the third most attended, they often suffer from a lack of perceived value. Many are free to attend, or the ticket price is very low compared with other similar scaled events, and this, unfortunately, diminishes their perceived worth. Yet, beneath the surface lies an industry with significant additional costs compared to other outdoor events. This is mainly due to aircraft, aircrew attendance, fuel, and specific aviation insurance.

The historically free or low admission price is an area the events industry should take note of. It has hit the airshow industry particularly hard.

It is not too late to start increasing prices, but this should be done incrementally and in small amounts each year. Also, no one buys a ticket just because prices have been “held” at previous levels, so be braver with your pricing strategy, within reason. Additionally, a wide range of different hospitality options should be made available, starting with low price/high volume, through to a smaller number, but no less profitable, very high value, exclusive packages.

This is what was implemented several years ago at the Royal International Air Tattoo, as well as dynamic pricing (like airlines, based on demand) and it has meant the organisation is in a much better place to weather the increased costs of putting on the event.

Airshow Glenn Stanely/Your Digital Memories

BRIDGING THE GAP

Increased costs are not only an issue for airshows. Growing numbers of festivals are being postponed or scrapped this year. So, what business model will ensure the survival of outdoor events?

Ticket and hospitality sales alone will no longer cut it, so commercial sponsorship is now essential. Ideally, a 50/50 income split will support the ongoing cost increases as well as deliver for sponsors in terms of the package they require in return.

These types of options, opportunities, and implications will become clear as part of a strategic review. But when was the last time your event carried out a strategic review?

In a rapidly changing world, conducting regular reviews is essential to identify future trends and growth opportunities. Maybe not every year but organisations, including airshows, need to reassess their position, purpose, and relevance in the evolving commercial and environmental landscape. To attract long-term sponsorship, commercial supporters need to see a real benefit that aligns with their values.

Keeping up with these changes may require a shift in focus to ensure engagement with the right audience through the right channels. This struggle to find value and relevance isn’t unique to airshows alone although the industry is definitely at a pivot point.

From the airshow perspective, understanding generational shifts is vital, as it is for the survival of any industry. For airshows, bridging the gap between diverse generations is crucial for sustained growth, particularly as the traditional audience of Baby Boomers and Generation X is ageing. These generations had more direct links and an affiliation to events.

They are steadily being replaced by Generation Z and Generation Alpha, who demand more inclusivity, authenticity, and sustainability. They require the airshow industry to align with their values and perception of the world. This presents a huge challenge for airshow organisers but also a tremendous opportunity to reshape the narrative.

Glenn Stanely/Your Digital Memories

PERCEPTION

As with many events addressing environmental concerns head-on is key. However, airshows have an additional perception problem – “that aviation is bad for the planet”. The contribution from airshows is actually very small. According to a recent study by MyClimate for Airpower in Austria, the carbon footprint of flying displays was just two per cent whilst mobility (travelling to and from the event) was circa 40 per cent.

But perception is everything. In 2023, the organiser of Sunderland Airshow cited sustainability and environmental impact as its reasons for cancelling.

And how should we address this? The airshow industry must position itself as a multi-million-pound marketing and recruitment campaign for the aviation and aerospace sector. The skills gap in aviation, and the need for commercial sponsorship coupled with the values of Generation Z and Alpha, makes this a no-brainer.

How can other events create wider opportunities for themselves and learn from the challenges facing airshows, which are common to all outdoor events? In a world where change is inevitable, understanding the evolving customer landscape and adapting to it is key.

Although airshows are often underestimated, for many years they have been the inspiration for future aviators, scientists, and engineers, but there is only anecdotal evidence to support this. The real challenge lies in proving the importance of airshows as a gateway to science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) careers, as well as opportunities in aviation, aerospace, and Defence.

Airshows and outdoor events need a strategic overhaul to secure their place as more than entertainment. Airshows can redefine themselves as crucial players in the aviation and aerospace industry by understanding and adapting to generational shifts, engaging the next generation, embracing sustainability, and seizing opportunities in innovation and collaboration.

The airshow and outdoor event industry can then not only survive but thrive in our dynamic and ever-changing world.

All images: © Glenn Stanely/Your Digital Memories