Sun 'n Fun At the Crossroads

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Walking around in our bright green AVweb newsteam shirts at shows like Sun 'n Fun has a certain advantage I had never figured on when I picked that color out of a catalog. People stop us all the time to ask questions, offer opinions and make interesting comments about what they've seen or heard. There's an understandable tendency to obsess over attendance numbers. If they're down, the show is circling the drain. If they're up, perhaps the great recovery is upon us.

I've stopped attaching much importance to the actual numbers themselves or the yearly trends. The reality is this: Sun 'n Fun is a mature show in a mature market that is itself in an industry that's on the down swing. No amount of glad handing and sappy prose is going to change that, so the numbers are likely to be generally flat—up a little some years, down a little in others. Judging by the crowds we saw, this might be a down year for any number of reasons I'm sure I can't surmise. We won't know for sure until Sun 'n Fun runs the totals.

But what does it all mean? I spent Sunday afternoon asking people just this question. All of the dozen vendors I spoke with had a good show. With only one or two exceptions, overall traffic in the booths appeared to be down over last year, but those who did show up tended to be buyers, not lip flappers. "We are definitely slower this year than last year. But we sold out of our inventory," said Chris Esposito, of Light Sport Group. (They were selling aviation-adapted Contour cameras.) Over in the Lancair booth, where the company had a pair of turbine-powered Evolutions parked, Doug Mayer told me the same thing. And something else, too.

"I've been coming here for 10 years with Lancair and for longer than that doing other things. And something happened to me that's never happened," he said. And what was that? A Sun 'n Fun staffer stopped to give him a ride to the parking lot in a golf cart. I blogged on this earlier in the week, but credit Sun 'n Fun's new CEO J.R. Lites Leenhouts for that, not me. He instructed the staff to reach out with these kinds of courtesies and they did. That's a positive development. (Credit due: the volunteers here have always been exceptionally helpful and friendly.)

Compared to last year, the weather this year was perfect. Highs in the mid-80s all week, with just an afternoon shower on Saturday. I cruised West Pipkin on Friday morning looking for the usual traffic jams, but they were nowhere to be found. Part of that may be due to lower attendance in general or just better organization. Either way, I was glad to avoid the backups that have marred every show I've been to. I think there are still things to be improved in getting people into and out of the show, but I get the impression these things are in the works.

I spoke with Gulf Coast Avionics owner Rick Garcia, who was in his booth on Sunday. Garcia told me his sales were up slightly over last year on slower traffic, but not as good as sales in previous years. He's on Sun 'n Fun's board of directors and told me Leenhouts needs to get through a show and watch the gears turn before making wholesale changes. "Every event is going to have its problems," Garcia said, "but they can be fixed." One thing he said that I find encouraging is that there's a plan to form an exhibitor's advisory council composed of perhaps 20 exhibitors.

If there's any consistent complaint I hear, it's from vendors who feel Sun 'n Fun needs to do a better job of making their lives easier and making them feel welcome at the show. Some told me that registering and making arrangements with show organizers is more difficult than it needs to be and when they need to hear the word "yes," they often hear "no" instead. (I hear the same complaint at AirVenture, but more often at Sun 'n Fun.) Airshows are nice, but the vendor community is the core of this show and I don't see any reason why these minor irritations can't be addressed, thus making the vendors more enthusiastic about coming.

And they're going to come. "For us, this is the start of the selling season," said Lynn Thomas of Quest Aircraft. "If you're not here, you risk people thinking you're no longer in business." Having said that, other companies told me they spend a significant portion of their promotional budgets in coming to Sun 'n Fun and they expect a return. Everyone I spoke to told me they got plenty of return for the effort this year.

What's ahead? That will be up to Leenhouts, his management cadre and the board. In my view, they sent the right message this year by, at least on the surface, making the show more attendee-friendly. If they now turn their attention to vendors--and the press, which serves an important informational and promotional force multiplier--there's potential to improve this event substantially. It will never be AirVenture, but then AirVenture will never be Paris, either. Sun 'n Fun is uniquely positioned to be the season opener, just as Lynn Thomas said. I'm optimistic that next year, they'll be making the most of that. They're on the right track.

Comments (9)

I arrived early Friday morning for Sun 'n Fun, had no traffic/ parking problems, was not parked on tall grass (fire hazard.) The crowd seemed as heavy by noon as at any of the many times I've attended. I missed last year after one look at the wx forecast. Didn't leave until after the excellent night airshow. Had my daughter there for the first time and she totally enjoyed it. Got a good look at the Skycatcher and good leads on where to find one for checkout at KORL. Had no traffic problems leaving, we just poked around looking at a few more things until most of the eager beavers got themslves out of there. The flightline seating was well worth the extra ten bucks and the air contioned restrooms with flush toilets and sinks to wash up in were a real boon compared to the porta-potties. We both enjoyed the show very much but I'm not a vendor.

Posted by: Joe Sikora | April 1, 2012 10:34 PM    Report this comment

I attended from Wed thru Sat Morning. Involved in two sheetmetal forums and one cooling forum, I didn't get out as much as Paul, but of those I did converse with, I was surprised at the spontaneous expression of the majority that they wouldn't return. The general theme was the belief that the Bd of Directors had made it a business and lost touch with the "base." I'm still trying to understand the sentiment.

Posted by: Marc Bourget | April 4, 2012 9:23 AM    Report this comment

I am surprised that nobody has commented on the monster fence that was installed for last year's show right in front of the spectators. I used to get great pictures during the airshow of the various airplanes landing, low passes, etc. and now it is impossible. I was not even permitted to put the lens through the fence to take a picture. Some security guard made a big deal of that! S&F should come up with a modification to the fence by which it can be hinged to make it lower during the show. While the vendors is what brings the money, S&F management needs to take care of the people who go see the show as well.

Posted by: Alberto Silva | April 4, 2012 12:38 PM    Report this comment

I got there for show setup on Saturday. I found the staff to be very helpful. We got our credentials, found our space and set up without any issues at all. Sun 'n Fun volunteers stopped by each day to see how we were doing and asked if we needed anything. On Monday we were carrying out some large cases to our car in the vendor parking lot. A golf cart pulled up and offered us a ride! At the end of the day it was a much welcomed offer! We consider the Sun 'n Fun show to be an excellent experience and look forward to coming back next year.

Posted by: tom ham | April 5, 2012 12:29 PM    Report this comment

I've been going for about 10 years now and I have to say that the first few years were without a doubt the best. As time has gone by there seems to have been a shift towards making as much money as possable and away from the ordinary people who pay alot of money to attend. I usually purchase at least three week long passes and I must say this year was pretty expensive for just those. Then to top it off, unlike all previous years where you were given a packet at the ticket booth that contained many items including a sticker with the dates for the following year's event, this time I was handed a sticker for 2012! I told them I didn't need that since I obviously had the dates for this year and they said they hade none for 2013, nor was I able to find any 2013 stickers anywhere else on the grounds. Big miss Sun-N-Fun! Also, the area where attendees can set up their chairs to watch the airshow continues to shrink year by year to make room for more "VIP" tents and private areas. The area by the announcers stand that used to be free now costs $10 A DAY! Of course, chairs are provided. I personally believe there are more reasons than the economy to explain the continuing drop in attendance. Just my opinion. I will probably come again next year but if the current trend continues, that may be my last. The people who travel, pay the money and attend this event are it's life blood. Come on guys & gals of Sun-N-Fun, how about showing some respect for the fans!

Posted by: Chris Wareham | April 5, 2012 10:30 PM    Report this comment

I attended on Friday night and Saturday. The night air show was my first, and made the event for me.

But the ticked sellers at the ticket booth were impossibly slow Friday evening - the process and the people. A line of 10 or so people in front of each seller took about 1/2 hour to process. Fortunately all those in line were patient and in a good mood, or it could have been unpleasant. Oshkosh is immeasurably better at the ticket sale process.

Posted by: Chris Moon | April 9, 2012 2:34 AM    Report this comment

After being inactive for 27 years, I attended my 1st SNF. My main intent was to go to the forums and the trade show. My Florida trip turned into a semi-family vacation including the Orlando theme parks since my wife, daughter and oldest son came with me. My son and I went to SNF Tuesday and Wednesday, then all of us on Friday. I would have liked to attend more forums on other days. The FAA forums were too far away from the user forums in the high school, but I'm sure the use of the air-conditioned high school was a plus versus previous. We did not find the parking and car traffic to be near as bad as I had been led to expect by an aviation friend that has been to SNF many times. Yes, I considered the entry fee to be steep, especially for my wife and daughter who were much less interested than me and my instrument-rated son. The thing that most needed improving was the ticket sales process. It took WAY TOO LONG to purchase walk-up tickets. I tried to purchase Friday tickets on Wednesday afternoon after the air show was over, but found only one ticket window open and they shut down right in my face. Overall, I found the forums and trade show worthwhile, but unexpectedly found my enthusiasm for resuming flying went down due to the realization that cost is just so high for this avocation. I think before we use vacation and drive half-way across the country, rent housing, and do the SNF thing again, I will likely check out Oshkosh and the AOPA Summit.

Posted by: Geoffrey Kret | April 13, 2012 10:00 PM    Report this comment

The concept of Sun 'n Fun fest is really interesting. I have read this report about the fest held long back. I wanted to know about the plans by the evweb team this year. If somethings comes up please inform me a read more

Posted by: ping red | May 30, 2014 3:48 AM    Report this comment

We consider the Sun 'n Fun show to be an excellent experience and look forward to coming back next year. blog festa

Posted by: Sheila Festa | September 24, 2014 5:03 PM    Report this comment

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