Fly, and they will come.
The inaugural Breitling Huntington Beach Airshow comes to Orange County’s shoreline Oct. 21-23, an event that its planners and city officials hope will become an entertainment staple.
The show, which will feature racing jets, stunt pilots, vintage planes and skydivers – not to mention a military flyover – could draw a quarter-million fans or more to the city’s beaches over a three-day span.
Now, who doesn’t love planes? Or enjoy a beach party? And what tourist town would turn down an extra flock of visitors?
But this business columnist wonders how the show itself makes a profit when most of the audience will get in for free.
The event is the brainchild of Mike McCabe, an air show consultant from New York. About two years ago, McCabe was talking with a partner from Southern California when a wild idea about a beachfront show turned into a serious business deal.
“We just saw an opportunity,” says McCabe, whose firm is involved with 10 to 12 air shows a year.
The area seems like a good fit. There’s a rich, local aviation history. Numerous aerospace technologies were born here. Squadrons of planes were built at factories in Long Beach. And the old Marine base at El Toro held 47 annual air shows. The last one, in 1997, drew 1 million visitors.
Organizing a show to meet that market potential is no small feat.
Obviously, you have to get the host city to play ball. Mayor Jim Katapodis said it was pretty easy to say yes – once the organizers and their plans were vetted – because who wouldn’t want a family-oriented event held in a traditionally slow period for tourism?
“Everyone I talked to about it, when I asked if they’d go to an air show at the beach, they’d say, ‘I’m going,’ without hesitation,” Katapodis says.
Getting the city on board was one of many hurdles.
Finding a lineup of airborne talent is tough enough. And having planes flying over the beach’s relative small viewing space means air traffic control is critical, especially in the complex airspace of Southern California. Extensive planning sessions with federal aviation officials have been required to set the show in motion.
But once you have all the operational approvals, how do you make a dollar when most of your customers are freebies?
Find businesses who relish crowds. Like Breitling, the Swiss maker of high-performance watches.
For the past 13 years, Breitling has had what amounts to its own air force: racing jets that perform at air shows around the globe. The past two years, Breitling’s jets have toured the U.S., so a match was made and Breitling became this year’s named show sponsor.
Breitling is in the air show game as a marketing tool. Its corporate heritage dates to the 1930s, when the company made cockpit instrumentation. So flying aerobatic planes adorned with the Breitling name is a way to give back to an industry where its watches are a status symbol.
“For us, it’s about supporting aviation, entertaining people and hoping people discover the Breitling name,” says Thierry Prissert, president of Breitling USA. “If people are so inspired that they want to buy our watches, great!”
Organizers are still busy lining up other sponsors. Some will use the show for branding efforts. Others will be selling food and goods. In addition, organizers will sell a limited number of VIP tickets – with food and seating and shade.
And if all goes well, money-wise, this won’t be an ordinary profitmaking endeavor.
Organizers plan to set up a charity that will eventually own and run the air show, which has a six-year contract with the city. The charity – Aerospace Education Foundation of Huntington Beach – is designed to promote the aviation industry and offer training for those who see flying as an employment opportunity. The industry faces a severe pilot shortage, for example, due to coming retirements, growing demand and the high cost of training.
“It’s a way to give back,” McCabe says.
Air show. Beach. Years from now, if the show becomes another Orange County entertainment staple, we’ll look back and say it was a “can’t miss” idea in 2016.
Nothing is that simple. Today, the only guarantee is that slick planes will fly over Huntington Beach in October.
The big question is whether the organizers can adequately monetize all the eyeballs gazing skyward.
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