2016 Oshkosh Air Show prompts some marketing insights

I thought it would be worthwhile to take a break from our e-Book chapters this week and share some observations about my visit to this year’s Oshkosh Air Show and relate that to business aviation marketing.

I have attended many times since the early 1970s and flown in for nine of the last 12 events. A number of things especially impressed me about the 2016 Oshkosh show (sorry EAA but I have never come to grips with calling it “Airventure”).

First of all, let me distinguish “air shows” and “trade shows”. Despite including “air show” in their names, Paris, Farnborough, Singapore, etc. are trade shows. They are designed to do one thing – sell stuff to people wearing suits. On the other hand, EAA’s Oshkosh is first and foremost an air show oriented towards aviation enthusiasts and their families and secondarily features exhibits and vendors.

This isn’t to say that marketers should stay away. Au contraire. What it does say is that the marketing “approach” should be adjusted to suit the venue. Oshkosh visitors are typically information gatherers and adding items to their wish list.

How does this relate to marketing and the state of the business? Well first of all, I noticed there was less parking available this year than in the past. As a veteran Oshkosh goer, I know the right place to park for each day’s activities, or so I thought. This year the “Green” lot, which is close to the homebuilt aircraft, had been turned over to permit only parking for exhibitors since the old exhibitor lot (Lot B) was now being used for additional – you guessed it – exhibits.

Well, that’s a good sign. In fact, this year 560,000+ attended the weeklong event, surpassing the old record of about 520,000 set prior to the Great Recession of 2008-2009. A little more digging revealed new year-over-year records for Exhibitors (up 10%), for Homebuilt aircraft (up 11% to 1,124), Warbirds (up 6% to 371) and Vintage aircraft (up 7% to 1,032). So if nothing else this is a good indicator that interest in general aviation is alive and hopefully looking to spend some money.

With my interest piqued and my parking secured (Orange lot), I casually and unscientifically strolled the exhibitor areas to see what’s up.

Drones for one, but that’s no surprise. EAA smartly had dedicated a large tent to drone demonstrations, beginner information, and drone sales to satisfy the curiosity of people like me who have become interested in these clever devices.

I also sought out vendors selling ADS-B solutions. If you operate an aircraft you are aware of this FAA requirement due for installation by 2020. In addition to finding the usual homebuilder niche avionics vendors, I found L-3 Communications and their ADS-B solution on display. Really? When did giant military supplier L-3 decide to sell to the considerably smaller homebuilt market? This Fortune 500 Company apparently has recognized an opportunity and jumped into the fray. With a very nice product I might add. A Lynx ADS-B unit is now on my wish list and will likely be my next upgrade.

And why not exhibit? According to the FAA there are more than 26,000 experimental aircraft (officially E-AB for Experimental-Amateur Built) registered in the USA alone. That’s about 13% of the fleet. The point has not been lost on names such as Garmin, Dynon, Avidyne, Bose and many more. Should you take a look? Well probably not if you are Gulfstream, but certainly more than a few avionics, parts suppliers, and aftermarket companies may want to consider it.

The point of the story: as we look at marketing for the next 10 years we always want to keep an open and inquiring mind into changes in the marketplace. In aviation, these changes seldom happen overnight, but they do happen. Early adopters who exploit the opportunities first can sometimes reap large rewards. Skeptical? Consider where Garmin started. Yup, selling non-certified radio equipment to the E-AB crowd. Now their avionics are featured on everything from new production Skyhawks to top-of-the-line business jets. Do you think marketers at traditional business aircraft avionics leaders Honeywell and Collins are concerned – I’ll give you odds on that.

If you’ve never attended Oshkosh, I highly recommend it. You’ll be amazed at the family oriented atmosphere including a campground that rivals a small town, kids everywhere, a seaplane base, things flying overhead at all times and a generally slow paced, carefree atmosphere. You can have a great time looking at the planes and watching amazing air show routines and never visit a vendor. Unless, of course, you have a wish list that needs tending. Welcome to Oshkosh.

Chris Pratt

Oshkosh, Wisconsin

August, 2016