John “Lites” Leenhouts, president/CEO of the Aerospace Center for Excellence and the Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo, conducted his last pre-show press briefing this morning (April 4) before relinquishing the reins. His message was upbeat, and he predicted a strong show as general aviation emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite other challenges from inflation and the conflict in Ukraine, the industry is on the upswing, he said. And so is Sun ‘n Fun.
“We have no debt, and money in the bank,” he said. “At this point in 2018, we had $650,000 in pre-show ticket sales. This year we’re at $1.33 million. We’ve never seen that before.”
Asked how that translated into actual visitors, Leenhouts said that, by past experience, 25 to 30 percent of visitors buy their tickets in advance. He also noted that some 20 percent of the exhibitors at this year’s expo are new to Sun ‘n Fun.
Leenhouts gave a special shout-out to the high school students at the Lakeland Aero Club. “Students are working on airplanes, doing wings and engines. These are 14-, 15-year-old young men and women—these are not kids.” He introduced “John,” an 18-year-old Aero Club student who has already earned his private certificate and instrument and commercial ratings. “When I was his age, I didn’t know what I was doing,” Leenhouts quipped.
Citing the financial success of this year’s show, he told the story of a VIP ticket hopeful who was told all the spaces were sold out. “He said, ‘Give me a number,’” said Leenhouts. “I said—five thousand bucks,’ and he said, ‘OK.’ The thing is, he knows it’s a donation; not to pay for the experience [for him], but making a donation to the students to have these opportunities.”
Leenhouts then yielded the microphone to Chairman of the Board Harley Richards, who opened by assuring journalists, “We’re here in the midst of the educational corridor, the Davis Center, high school, Lakeland Aero Club hangar, the new [Project] Sky Lab, and the Innovation Center. We know the airport is changing—and the footprint of Sun ‘n Fun will probably change over the next four to five years. But this education corridor is totally protected.”
Richards turned to predictions about the success of this year’s Sun ‘n Fun experience. “Mr. Putin has taken the heat off of COVID (laughter from the audience), and people are more comfortable. Thank you all for coming!”
Leenhouts interjected, “And have a super Sun ‘n Fun Day!”