Like many thousands of other aviation geeks around the world, a small Wisconsin town holds a special place in my heart. Once a year my friends, former & current colleagues, former classmates, former professors, and favorite airplanes gather in Oshkosh to celebrate all things aviation. Hosted under the wing of the Experimental Aircraft Association, the annual celebration of all things airplane was this year another great time to meet up with fellow aviation fans.
For my inaugural Opinion Leaders post last year, I wrote about the demographic challenges faced by AirVenture in the future. These challenges haven’t gotten any easier in the past year. As a matter of fact, they’ve only gotten worse. While attendance was up, aviation enthusiasts were greeted with this sight in several of the display hangars:
If AirVenture is supposed to be the pinnacle event for aviation enthusiasts around the world, empty booths and non-aviation related vendors are a foreboding indication of where the future lies for our passion. This past year, the Experimental Aviation Association significantly raised prices for booth space, which priced out several aviation nonprofits from having space this year. In addition, the number of booths that one attendee I spoke with described perfectly as “carnie-type” significantly increased: those selling personal massagers, saunas, a number of pain relief/skincare creams, and most confusing, a booth selling pots and pans in the FlyMarket area of the show.
While the increase in the number of booths dedicated to pain relief and other associated problems of aging might be a better indication of the changing demographics of AirVenture, the sheer number and placement of these non-aviation booths was surprising and disconcerting. AirVenture is an understandably expensive proposition for EAA, but allowing prime real estate to go to non-aviation vendors defeats the purpose of having an event from an organization that touts itself as being the “Spirit of Aviation.”
There were apparently more attendees at Oshkosh this year than in past years, but I found it very easy to get around the display areas of the show during the second half of the week, quite unlike the crowded throngs of years past. Something about the equation of AirVenture is off…and aviation suffers for it. That said, some basic changes could do well to reinvigorate the show and open it up to a broader audience, particularly those that will carry the show well into the future. Here are a few suggestions:
- Devote an area of a display hangar to local/regional/national aviation nonprofits (with an emphasis on the future generation of aviation enthusaists at a discounted display rate. If we are truly interested in fostering the future of aviation at a grassroots level, these organizations are the ones that work in tandem with Young Eagles to foster interest in our communities. A display area dedicated to these organizations could work well at promoting to attendees and sharing of best practices among other groups. This area should be either subsidized or discounted, as the current display booth rates have priced the vast majority of these organizations out of the market.
- Better promotion of opportunities at AirVenture for middle school, high school and university students. The College Park/Education & Interactive Zone is a fantastic idea, but does not receive nearly the attention or promotion it should. While universities do their best to promote their presence at the space, EAA needs to be the one driving families looking at employment/college/other opportunities. KidVenture is prominent in materials, announcements and other promotions. Trams stopping at the College Park area rarely announced the area’s goals, mentioning the forum buildings and nothing else.
- Innovative approaches to “weaker” days at the show and other special events. EAA said that attendance was up 20% on the Saturday and Sunday of AirVenture. Sunday’s attendance was likely reduced throughout the day by a series of thunderstorms that put a damper (literally) on activities. The last day of AirVenture continues to be a “lost” day for attendees, booth staff, volunteers and the like. The Thunderbirds were a likely draw, but they won’t be coming back to AirVenture every final Sunday. Why not get creative with a final day special? Alternatively, it might just be better to scale back the show entirely on Sunday and leave time for vendors to pack up and leave in the morning. This year’s AirVenture included a career fair and College Mixer. Neither were well promoted to attendees and the public. Instead, offer free or 1/2 price admission on the day of to those attending these events. What better way to get the younger generations and their families involved?
While AirVenture continues to be the pinnacle celebration of aviation, EAA and other partner organizations need to be aware that these warning signs for the future of Oshkosh have drastic implications for where we will be in the next 10-20 years.