Deland Sport Showcase: A Good Start

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Late last week, on the heels of NBAA BACE in Orlando, a new show popped up a few miles up the road in Deland: The Sport Aviation Showcase. I think everyone who has mentioned this to me has said the same thing: Don’t we already have one of these in Sebring, the Sport Aviation Expo? The answer is yes and that begets another question: Why two?

Evidently because the Deland Airport is bullish on growing the facility and they see a competitive advantage in going after Sebring’s efforts, with a combined show and an industrial complex devoted to light sport. I’ll get to the show in a moment.

One thing I think many people miss about the light sport industry is that it continues to, well, kind of trickle along. We have long ago settled the notion that it’s never going to be a mass-market industry but will likely continue to sell enough airframes to represent 10 to 20 percent of all aircraft manufactured in GAMA’s universe. (There’s another universe outside of GAMA and hundreds of airplanes are produced and sold in Europe and elsewhere that aren’t on our radar.)

So Deland’s idea is to erect a sport aviation “village” consisting of hangars and infrastructure devoted specifically to that industrial segment. Here, they are competing with Sebring, for in addition to its annual Expo in January, Sebring has several light-sport related industries on the field, including Lockwood Aviation, Tecnam, Paradise and a float manufacturer. So it’s not as if Sebring has been asleep. If Deland can offer sweeter deals and better support for light aircraft manufacturing, I’m sure it will attract companies, despite the anemic market activity. Remember, anemia isn’t death; it’s just weak growth. Many light sport businesses are cottage industries and it’s easy to see how they could benefit in a community of like businesses.

Like so many airports in Florida, Deland saw its heyday during World War II, when it was a Navy training field. Similarly, Sebring was used for B-17 training. Deland is smaller than Sebring, but it’s more centrally located—about an hour from Orlando International and half that from Daytona Beach. Inside the orbit of those two cities, Deland is, how to put this delicately, a little more cosmopolitan.

Deland has an active skydiving center and many of the businesses there are skydiving related. It’s already got several light sport businesses, a couple of turbine businesses and a naval air museum. MT propeller also has a facility and there’s a paint shop on the field. In other words, it’s got a solid core industrial complex and Deland clearly sees an opportunity to expand that.

As for the show itself, in this video,director Jana Filip said the city sees a symbiotic relationship between the sport aircraft village idea and an annual trade show to promote both Deland and the industry. It’s easy to see tie-in opportunities to make this work, although the ultimate success of such efforts remains to be seen. Launching a new show is a tall, steep hill to climb.

I canvassed a few of the exhibitors on Thursday, the day the show opened, and all of them said they booked a booth because the show was cheap to do and they were curious about the potential. Attendance on Thursday was too sparse to make any judgments; I’ll survey them again after the show closes. Two complaints I have consistently heard about the Sebring show concerned the weather and the racetrack. Sebring runs in mid-January and despite what you’ve heard about sunny Florida, when winter cold fronts march through, it can be cold, windy and rainy. More than once the Sebring show has been tanked for a day by gales. A November date, which is where Deland plans to be, will yield reliably warmer and drier weather. The Sebring show began life in October, but moved to January later.

The racetrack relates to Sebring International Raceway, which is joined at the hip to the airport runways. I don’t recall there having been races during the Sport Aviation Expo week, but there’s plenty of practice. And vendors and attendees have complained about the grinding din of cars running practice laps. It makes normal conversation a chore and at the end of a day, your teeth hurt from grinding them.

My initial impression is that the Deland show is set up similarly to Sebring, albeit smaller. I thought for a first effort, the show was well organized and had excellent signage to find the place and navigate the grounds once you’re through the gates. The demo area was an easy walk and they had a temporary tower set up to oversee operations with a nice, tight demo pattern. For indoor exhibitors, there was a spacious tent. They could do with better food opportunities, but I say that about every show I attend except for Aero, where I basically go just for the food. Next year, invite a Korean taco truck or two and that will help.

There was a media tent right at the show entrance; a solid there. I missed the free lunch because I could only stay for one day. I would offer this advice: Don’t lard up the schedule with phony press conferences. That’s not how people find out about things these days. It’s all through the web and social media. If you’re a company looking for coverage, make up a press contact list and issue direct invitations. Trust me, it’ll work a lot better. I could have stayed another day and done productive work, but juxtaposed against four days at NBAA, I just didn’t have the time.

Thinking about attendance at this show, I have concluded that expecting a big gate the first year is folly. It will take a few years for it to declare itself as real and durable. And vendors will have to decide if it’s worth coming back and my guess is they will choose between Deland and Sebring. For many of these companies, doing both is just not practical or possible. I suspect the competition will get fierce and I won’t be surprised if only one prevails. The industry is hardly robust enough to support two so closely spaced on the calendar.

Meanwhile, when I heard they’re going to call the complex a Sport Aviation Village, my ears perked up. Every village needs an idiot, so I’m sending them my resume.