Sun 'n Fun Changes

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In terms of marketing thrust, big events like Sun 'n Fun are like a giant oil tanker navigating through reefs. Sometimes, by the time you realize you need to turn the thing, it's too late. In marketing terms, audience interest can evolve and move on before you've realized what's happened. And that's why shows like this have to evolve—nothing stays the same.

This year, according to John "Lites" Leenhouts, who's now running the organization, that's why you're seeing a slightly different face on the show. This is not exactly a wholesale overhaul, but at a press briefing Tuesday morning, Leenhouts told reporters and editors that Sun 'n Fun has promoted hard in the local demographic—especially nearby Tampa and St. Petersburg—from which it hopes to draw to a big weekend crowd. Of course, that raises the question of who is this show for? Is it for aviation enthusiasts who drive or fly miles to attend this annual rite of spring to see products and buy things or is for the locals who come to see the airshow acts. Obviously, the answer is that it's for both audiences. It always has been, it's just a question of how you balance your promotional efforts to reach the audience most likely respond. These days, that's much more likely to be local and regional airshow attendees, not pilots. Like or not, that's the reality. To stay in the game, that may be what it takes to be profitable.

Leenhouts told us Sun 'n Fun has made organizational changes to make the show more family friendly. They've added activities like the kid's area and hands-on aviation things to do like the F-18 simulator that anyone can try. I'd expect to see more of this as the show evolves under new management. There are more airshow acts and the show runs from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. with more multi-airplane acts and shows many of us may not have seen before, including Team RV and Otto, a helicopter act. The Thunderbirds will put in an appearance and so will a Harrier team. On the grounds, all of the Sun 'n Fun golf carts have been labeled as mobile information centers, which is a good idea, in my view. The real acid test will come when we see how the show handles the anticipated traffic. Long lines getting into the parking lots have always marred the Sun 'n Fun experience.

Taking No Chances I got a giggle when I arrived Monday at our press trailer. Usually, they jack these temporary offices up on concrete blocks and roll in some stairs. This year, ours is tied with heavy steel straps bolted to stakes driven into the center of the earth, it looks like. I took a walk around to see what others have done with tiedowns. Did they learn a lesson from last year's tornado or are they figuring lightning won't strike twice? A little bit of both, I'd say. At the Aviat booth, where they lost a couple of airplanes last year, this year's airplane are secured with heavy flat steel stakes and robust rope, mostly.

Further down the line, I saw a few airplanes secured with The Claw tiedown. As I reported a year ago, these delivered mixed performance. Some held fine in the blow, but others broke at the center tie point.

Leenhouts says Sun 'n Fun puts itself in the take-no-chances column. The staff 's daily briefing includes a weather assessment. Fortunately, the forecast for the entire week looks perfect.

A Big Anniversary Year Everyone, it seems, is having an anniversary this year. Out in front of the Cessna tent is a big sand sculpture with an 85 on it. (It appears to be really sand, too, because I almost got chased off scraping off a little corner. It crumbled.) Down the fairway, Aviat is celebrating its 25th, but the emotional favorite has to be Piper.

For the first time in years, there's an iconic yellow Cub parked in front of Piper's new upscale chalet to celebrate its 75th anniversary. There's another nice one down by the EAA tent and later in the week, I'll have a podcast on that one—owned by Bob Jones—and on the Piper display later in the week. I'm always fascinated over how different these restored Cubs look. They can be very different in cockpit detailing, especially the instruments and things like placards. As manufacturers always seem to, Piper evolved these details and construction methods from year to year so one airplane is definitely not the same as the next. All this Cub talk is building excitement for the Cubs to Oshkosh project in July, celebrating the 75th anniversary. I'm warming to the idea of flying my own Cub up.

Comments (23)

I wonder how large the crowd is so far this year at Sun n Fun. I am skipping this year after attending the last two years in a row. The fiasco with the tornado and the absolutely horrible treatment from the show management after the tornado was enough to ruin my trip. I didn't travel 2500 miles to spend hours waiting in my rental car to get into the parking lot and then a repeat trying to get out of the lot after the day at the mud hole.

I guess I can see why the new management is trying to market to a different crowd. For me, the existing crowd was so alienated last year that I wonder if anybody other than the vendors returned this year.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | March 28, 2012 6:25 AM    Report this comment

Even though I don't go to SnF every year, I have been several times since the early 90's. Our group put up with the deadly parking lot lines for exactly 1 day on the first visit. After that we were part of the cognoscenti who use a reliable alternative for daily parking with a 30-second walk to an entrance gate. Worked for years....probably still will this year. :-)

Posted by: David MacRae | March 28, 2012 7:22 AM    Report this comment

I'm headed to SnF on Friday, and flying into Plant City because of all the good pireps I've heard about these folks. Unfortunately, that won't eliminate the parking lot backups that I'm sure to encounter at the airshow. But I'm prepared to give them the benefit-of-the-doubt and keep a positive outlook. The bottom line is that it is Spring Break for Pilots, and I'm ready to have some fun will all of you aviation nuts like me!!

Posted by: ERIC CIPCIC | March 28, 2012 8:55 AM    Report this comment

These shows like SNF and Air Venture reminds me of a flea market + drive-by carnivals more than an aviation convention. When they start letting anyone in as a vendor selling crap like magnetic wrist bands, that's when I stopped going. It all comes down to money. So if they have to advertise to the locals to get the most bang, then good for them. I, for one, will not be there until these "conventions" start showing some more respect for themselves.

Posted by: Amy Zucco | March 28, 2012 9:47 AM    Report this comment

Went today (Wed). Very easy traffic flow and that's why from now on I go Tues-Thru to Sun N Fun. No more Fri/Sat/Sun Sun N Fun for me. Last year I went on a Friday and the previous year on a Sat. There were awful traffic delays, couldn't find a seat to eat your lunch anywhere, the mud (last yr), etc. I go because I consider it a "trade" show for airplane buffs. But throw in daily air shows makes it an "air" show public event. Don't know if the general public will pay $35/person to see an air show considering the economy, but I'll be interested in the general attendance numbers when its all over. The 4 hangar/exhibitors got hot and steamy inside, by 2PM I left, so get there early (9am) to avoid the heat of the day.

Posted by: Robert Litwinski | March 28, 2012 6:49 PM    Report this comment

Paul asked: "Is it for aviation enthusiasts who drive or fly miles to attend ...or is for the locals who come to see the airshow acts. Obviously, the answer is that it's for both audiences. It always has been"

No, not "always been". I was involved way back when Poberezny & Co. was vehemently opposed to another major homebuilt aircraft event, he was sure it would detract from Oshkosh. I remember one evening in Greenville when a few of us sat in a motel room arguing the question hour after hour. The predecessor to SnF was SESAC, the Southeastern Sport Aviation Council, and the idea of a super-regional homebuilt fly-in had nothing to do with attracting the general public. Of course, everything changes when the dollars get involved.

Posted by: Darryl Phillips | March 28, 2012 11:14 PM    Report this comment

I chose to drive in Saturday rather than fly because of the thunderstorm forecast. I got there around 10:30am. There were no traffic lines and the line to pay in the parking lot was less than a minute or two. I went looking for 3 specific vendors, none of which were there this year for some reason. They had nice air conditioned bathroom trailers this year which was a big change, but the pyrotechnics for the airshow were overdone in my opinion. They did absolutely no advertising in Brevard County where I live even though there are so many Space workers who are into that kind of thing.

Posted by: Kenneth Strite | April 2, 2012 5:25 AM    Report this comment

Drove down from Orlando on Saturday with the family. We arrived at noon and the parking was a breeze. Not much signage to the event on I4 but the driving directions were accurate. Have attended this event many times during the mid 90's and early 2000's I have seen the change in the show part of SNF. I think it's a good balance of airshow draw and homebuilt interest. I like seeing the demonstration teams vs just fly bys as was done in the past. The Volunteers were courteous and very helpful.

Posted by: Richard Raines | April 2, 2012 5:51 AM    Report this comment

I've attended most SnF since 2001 and spent Thus & Fri this year. I go to specifically look at airplanes and equipment and NOT for the airshows or kid shows or nite aero-sparkler shows or all the non-aviation related BS. Each year the prices creep up, a couple of years ago they started charging $5 for parking which was always free prior. $8 burgers and $6 for a beer at the end of a day is not acceptible. Everyone is paying ... where does all that money go? The easier time people had getting in during good weather is telling. Vendor's "missing" is telling. Heavy 'civilian' advertising is telling. Wonder if they'll still cook the attendance books, too? SnF is NOT Airventure and shouldn't be thinking it is or charging prices like it is. At some point soon, I'll stop going.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | April 2, 2012 5:53 AM    Report this comment

Been going for 26 years. SNF has been in a dramatic decline mainly brought on by the past leadership who continually cut corners and treated the event as a cash cow. The new leadership appears to be working hard to reverse that. They do need to recognize that the event is, first and foremost, an aviation trade show. Priority one should be to get vendors back (lower rates). Cut the (flying) airshow to 3 hrs per day (too much of a good thing). T-Bird toss out still stinks but better managed. Kid Zone was good (but expensive). Too many vehicles in show area. Overall, much cleaner and much better logistics.

Posted by: Tom Feminella | April 2, 2012 5:59 AM    Report this comment

The lines of traffic to get into the event was such a horror show that I expect it will take a long time for me to want to go back. The treatment of the attendees has gone downhill a long time now. It has always been a filthy place to take your aeronautical pride and joy, the dust, sand, and salt residue take months of cleaning to remove. I doubt that can be fixed. Overall, though, I agree with the general tenor of the comments here. The "business" types have taken over both this event and "Airventure", and like most venues seek to stick a vacuum into your pocket from the time you arrive until you leave. These have become very expensive events to take in. I remember fondly flying into Oshkosh and spending a week there, taking in the displays and visiting friends and not really worrying about the expense. Now, well, last year cost me around $5K for a family of four over the week, all in. You gotta think about numbers like that. I think it is probably evolution, but I miss the times when it was mostly about a grassroots aviation "County Fair" atmosphere, both at SnF and OSH. Honestly, $35 a Day??

Posted by: BILL MCCLURE | April 2, 2012 8:16 AM    Report this comment

I have been attending every year since 2001. Flew in & camped under the wing for 3 years. Retired & moved to Lakeland in 2004.Started camping in the campgrounds along Juliet Road. Met & made friends with several couples from different parts of the country. It soon became a ritual to come early & circle our wagons so to speak to renew our friendships every year. This year I refused to attend as after having to pay close to $700 for the privilege to camp along Juliet Road every year, then have to evacuate during the Thunderbird's routine just does not set well with me. Ever since Sun-n-Fun and the city fathers started inviting the Thunderbird's and or the Blue Angels to perform to try and draw the general public to come and watch. It is just a money grabbing scheme and I want no part of it.

Posted by: Carl Vik | April 2, 2012 8:17 AM    Report this comment

Stupid things: price gouging ad infinitum ... $35 entry, $8 burgers, $4 ice cream bars, $4 water, $5 parking; gross dust and dirt everywhere, dumbass rental cops. Good things: discounted entry for memberships, crowd and aircraft display safety improvements, trained & helpful volunteers. Recommendations: Shuttle service to/from parking lots, minimum age limit for kids (10+), air mover system for vendor barns, place portapottys all over the place, offer real food vs the airshow choke & puke... Overall this year was huge improvement over last year's "take their money and screw em / look out for the flyers and to hell with those driving in" attitude. However, if in the future current prices are maintained, you'll do it without me; I'll go to OSH instead.

Posted by: Jim Epting | April 2, 2012 8:23 AM    Report this comment

I flew into Sun N Fun and camped under the wing of my aircraft for the first time. Never again. The black ash (apparently caused by burning the grass earlier in the year), coated me, my clothes, my tent, my aircraft and everything. It was so bad I had to cover my air filter to prevent blockage or worse, ingestion of small particles into the engine. I muat now spend the better part of two days washing the black ash off my tent, my sleeping bag, my clothes and my airplane. I have gone to many fly-ins over the years but none so dirty as the campgrounds at Sun N Fun.

Posted by: Richard Haldeman | April 2, 2012 8:31 AM    Report this comment

I started attending SNF in the early 90s, long before I was a pilot, and walking the rows of home builts and seeing all the plans in the GA parking and display areas was incredibly inspiring. I've been a pilot three years now and have flown in the last three years. This Sat I flew in and was struck by how empty the home built area was. Disheartning to say the least. All of us who love everything aviation should always be looking for opportunities to participate in ways that can inspire others. Having non-pilot public come and see the enthusiasm and joy amoung pilots surely can't be bad. Sure the logistics of crowd management and lines need review - but just think if there were no long lines... it would mean no one was coming - which surely would be the worst. The biggest barrier is the pricing. The daily rate needs to go down, and please, no more Teeth Whitening vendors. I like to support vendors who participate and appreciate the opportunity to talk with knowledgeable people. Most of all, being able to enjoy an event filled with people who love aviation is a treat I'll continue to seek

Posted by: KENNETH ZILL | April 2, 2012 9:25 AM    Report this comment

Unlike many of the others commenting, this was my first trip to SNF. I have also been once to Oshkosh. Here are a few observations:
- no Starbucks! In fact good coffee was hard to find. We arrived early every morning (before 8:00 a.m.) and there were of course no lines and no heat – a great time to enjoy the peaceful setting. But there was no coffee to be found within sight of the main entrance. It would have been great way to start the morning. The only really good coffee was located at an entrance used by campers and there was no seating.
- too many volunteer vehicles (golf carts, motorcycles, etc.) driven by inexperienced and inconsiderate young people mixing with pedestrian traffic. As a pedestrian, I had to be alert and move out of the way when these kamikaze drivers came speeding along.
- agree with the comments on the costs. As a pilot who is not building and not really attending for the airshow, I am mostly interested in static displays by vendors selling aircraft and equipment. $30 (EAA Member) per day is a lot to pay to go shopping. Of course I enjoy seeing the restored classics and completed homebuilts on display, but these people paid to be there as well.
- the tram system was excellent – once I figured it out. It’s a great way to get off your feet and out of the sun while seeing the whole venue – but not so obvious for new arrivals. The depot should have been located at the main entrance with a large billboard displaying the colored coded routes.

Posted by: Harv Martens | April 2, 2012 9:38 AM    Report this comment

I've been attending Sun and Fun for years---have not missed a year since '94. Once upon a time, I looked forward to each Spring and would plan for months to be sure I could be there for at least 3 or 4 days during the week. The last couple of years, I've actually not planned to go, but decided literally at the last minute to make a quick trip down. Have to say, the last few years have been very "underwhelming" at best.
I'm a homebuilder and sport flyer. I don't fly for business, etc. I don't have 10's of thousands of $$ to spend on the newest glass panel avionics and razzle dazzle, and I don't want to buy a retractable flag pole or magnetic bands to cure my aches and pains.
I also really hate having to play "dodge the golf-cart" everywhere you go! And,who's bright idea was it to start selling beer during the day??? Beer and props-that's a mix that is going to cause grief one day, guaranteed!
Talked this year with a fellow that summed it all up. Sun and Fun is no longer a Fly-in. It is now an Airshow.
I love a good Fly-in. I also love a good Airshow. I'm afraid that Sun and Fun has moved to a strange middle ground that is not either. Since it appears that $$$ is the main goal now, I'm afraid that the Fly-In aspect of Sun and Fun is basically finished. That is a real shame.

Posted by: Marl Halbrook | April 2, 2012 1:14 PM    Report this comment

Both SnF and OSH need to cut the number of golf carts by at least 50%. There is no reason for them to be mixing with the crowds, and most are not replenishing consumables. Costs are to high and food quality was LOW. I used to stay all week, but 2 days was the limit this year. Cost of booths has driven away some vendors (like Sonex) and others are following. Getting traffic off East bound I-4 should be a higher priority for Sheriff, stop signs are NOT the answer. Toilets with AC are good, but not if cutting back on dumping porta-pottys continues. The smell by OX5 and food court were unacceptable in the afternoons.

Posted by: Stone James | April 2, 2012 2:16 PM    Report this comment

One other gripe worth bringing up. You can't have a rule in the campground that it's quiet time from 10pm to 7am (turn off your gensets, etc) and then have a VERY loud SunNFun sponsored alcoholic karaoke event in the middle of the campground till midnight.

Posted by: Tom Feminella | April 2, 2012 4:49 PM    Report this comment

When I learned to fly 40 years ago, I enjoyed attending fly-ins. It was real flying and lots of fun. In todays market however, too much selling the latest and greatest flying inventions. The real problem is fuel affordability. How can the average pilot afford to invest in more equipment, when the money has to go for fuel? The cost of flying takes all the fun out of it anymore.....

Posted by: Brent Wagner | April 2, 2012 11:50 PM    Report this comment

Have been attending sun n fun for over 10 years, after the last few years im done! Over the top prices for getting in, even for camping & parking your airplane. Not to mention how your treated & talked to by most of the "security ". Where does all the money go? Not one improvement to the camp grounds or especially the shower facility, are you kidding me! Where does the money go? You would think they would want to improve the areas where the folkes that fly in & use, but apparently they don't care about what the event stands for anymore. Its all about rolling in as much money as possible & tradition & aviation brother hood be damned!!

Posted by: Howard Rogers | April 3, 2012 6:49 PM    Report this comment

Have been attending sun n fun for over 10 years, after the last few years im done! Over the top prices for getting in, even for camping & parking your airplane. Not to mention how your treated & talked to by most of the "security ". Where does all the money go? Not one improvement to the camp grounds or especially the shower facility, are you kidding me! Where does the money go? You would think they would want to improve the areas where the folkes that fly in & use, but apparently they don't care about what the event stands for anymore. Its all about rolling in as much money as possible & tradition & aviation brother hood be damned!!

Posted by: Howard Rogers | April 3, 2012 8:01 PM    Report this comment

I've attended my last Sun'n fun. I've attended for over 30 years, but the changes the "new" management have made do not appeal to my aviation interests. I went this year and found it a disappointment. I'm just glad there's still Oshkosh, which has kept it's eye more on it's roots, whereas SNF has completely lost their way. Once SNF broke away from the EAA chapter that started it, it's done nothing but go downhill. Now I see it as nothing more than a local airshow, which I've seen so many of I no longer watch them. Oshkosh and Reno are about the only decent aviation events left in this country that are on a large scale. Oshkosh has a much better setup, the flightline isn't closed during the airshow, the grass is in much better condition, so the airplanes aren't covered in dirt from parking there, and they have a much larger turnout of homebuilt airplanes. The only negatives of Oshkosh are it's a bit harder to get to, and the housing situation isn't as good as in Florida. But the quality of the event is worth overcoming those issues. And it's still an EAA event. Reno is just a class act. All the planes park on hard surface, and the high performance planes are there for all to see up close and personal. And the sport class planes, which I am building one of, even get their own hanger to park in. Being able to look over planes I'm interested in, inside a shaded hanger, it doesn't much better than that. Reno doesn't have the exhibition buildings, but it's still unique.

Posted by: Richard May | April 5, 2012 8:09 AM    Report this comment

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