Sun 'n Fun At the Crossroads
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.