Monday, October 6, 2014

Lee Bottom Fly-In Review Part 4 - And Uncomfortably Honest Discussion

Like our fly-in attendees - the same core passion diverging
into endless expressions of flight
THE DISCLAIMER: For those of you who get it, you can skip this discussion if you like.  But remember, we always like to get your input so stick around if you would like to add your two cents worth.

Everything in life gels with each passing day.  The more time you have to think the more things fall into place.  The more things fall into place, the less worries you with with sharing them.  Reality is a great debater.  It has yet to lose.
I will never forget the reaction to a specific blog post a few years back.  I’ve mentioned it before and I’m about to mention it again.  It described my feelings of driving vs flying to an aviation event.  More specifically, it detailed the overwhelming sensation of participation I get when I fly to Oshkosh and how I feel nothing more than attendance when I drive.  The point was this - there is a difference.
The post caused a stir.  What had been a simple observation of self-reflection turned into a serious debate.  In some places it almost sounded like a fight.  To say I was humored by it all is a great understatement.
In a time of participation medals it struck a nerve.  Of course, the nerve it struck was of those who had always assumed they were participating and never once considered otherwise.  Those who have no problem with being an attendee had nothing to lose.
So how does this all apply to the Lee Bottom Fly-In?
One thing we’ve long attempted to convey to those who come to the Lee Bottom Fly-In is that it isn’t being done for us.  The fly-in has always been about having an event for the “other people”.  They aren’t warbirds but they may love warbirds, they aren’t antiquers but they may love antiques.  They aren’t formation, light-sport, fat-tire, alphabet group, or general aviation either.  They are aviators.  Flying is their passion and the other titles are merely a reflection of that.  Not the other way around.
Because of this notion, and the fact so many aviation events today are highly focused, we’ve had a tough time getting people to understand.  We don’t hold the event to turn a profit, we hold it so that there is a catch-all event for those who love flying; an event where the groups do not matter.
Now, about that so called profit.  It’s no secret we’ve been “charging” for “attendance” since 2007.  It isn’t new.  What was new this year though was an online ticketing service.
During past events, it was possible to visit, enjoy yourself, and fly away without paying.  In fact, almost 30% of people did just that despite our constant reminders of red ink.  Why would pilots do that?
Myself, having contemplated this for ages, witnessed the reaction to the attendance vs participation blog, and fielded questions from a few angry pilots about the online ticketing system, I now feel I have a good understanding of why.  Through the years, aviation has made pilots believe they were participating when they were actually flying their planes to events and attending.
Organizers have coddled them, sucked up to them, kissed butt, and often given them a free pass to everything.  And yet, what was the purpose?  Usually it was, and is, to get them there so they could lay claim to the best collection, the largest crowd, most airplanes, or some other meaningless talking point.  In turn, the public who attended were those drawn to titles and those who flew to the events were those who were drawn to attention.   And for a while, this became the predominant model for all aviation gatherings.  Unfortunately, it also meant they turned into textbook sociological displays of the big frog in a little pond syndrome.
Two decades later, a guy said stood tall, puffed his chest, and spoke words like these into the cameras, “I’ve loved P-38s since I was a kid.  I loved their history, was fascinated by the pilots, and built model after model of them.  I guess it is because of this that when I had the means, I decided to rescue this P-38 for future generations.  I’m not its owner I’m its caretaker and I love sharing it with people”.  The same guy wouldn’t attend any event that didn’t pay his gas, give him a hotel room, passes to the VIP tent, and possibly a sexual favors.  Clearly, he had been enabled by other gatherings that had caved to his demands.  That’s how it worked.  They wanted that plane there and the owners knew it.
Event after event followed the lead and before long you couldn’t get a Stinson Detroiter to an event without at least giving them gas money.  People holding airshows and fly-ins were expected to roll out the red carpet for anyone in anything rare or odd.  If they didn’t, owners would pout, stomp their feet, complain to their buddies who were planning to attend, and generally try to sandbag the show.
When that behavior was challenged the common reaction from pilots was to point to the event as a money making operation and claim the planes as an operational expense.  Of course, for this notion to work, a huge amount of public attendance had to be achieved to put the event into the black.  Yet for the “other people” who attended, this became the nightmare of all nightmares.
People with planes considered desirable were treated like Gods and thus behaved in the same manner.  Their planes were roped off.  But when it came to the “other pilots”, the uneducated general public made a nuisance of themselves.  Pushing and shoving and trashing the grounds they made their way through the unroped areas.   Plane to plane they went, often allowing little Jimmy to do pull ups on pitot tubes.  Then when something bad happened the parents would scream at the owner for daring to address the situation.
If you were an enthusiast during this period it was a nightmare.  Where were you to go otherwise?
This was the impetus for the Lee Bottom Fly-In; a place for “the others” to go.
Unfortunately, there’s a single characteristic that goes hand in hand with any event; expenses.  There was a time this could have easily been addressed.  Today though, the citizens of the United States have managed to get it in their heads that everything should be free, and God forbid anyone make money.  It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.
Even proponents of charging for events add the disclaimer, “It’s not like you’re in it for the money”.  So what if we were?  If we offered everything you ever wanted what’s the problem with making money?  But I digress.  We don’t have that problem.
This brings me back to the participation vs attendance debate.  What I’ve recently come to realize is that this is what we’ve been trying to get people to understand about the event.  It’s not about us, it’s about you.  You are the event.  And when you are the event, you carry your part of the expense.
Unfortunately though, due to all those years of other gatherings soft-programming people to believe events have no costs, most have come to believe that when they arrive at a fly-in or airshow they are participating when in fact they are just attending.  And to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with attending.  Often that’s the most fun.  It’s just not what you do when you’re here.
Summarizing what I’ve just discussed, when it comes to events like the Lee Bottom Fly-In, if you choose to attend you are choosing to participate, and when you participate you are agreeing to carry your part of the expense.  It’s that simple.  And yet, there are other implications to be drawn from this.
Holding an event at a remote location like Lee Bottom is not easy.  Everything has to be brought in.  Volunteers have to travel good distances to volunteer, all support vehicles come from 15 miles away or greater, and anything we need has to be ordered and shipped in via DHL.  But most critical to the process is the food situation.
An event is only as strong as its weakest food.  Without food you do not have a fly-in.  Good food makes a bad airshow better and bad food can kill a great fly-in.  Talk to anyone in the event planning industry and they’ll tell you the same.  This brings us to the next fly-in talking point.
Having food at the Lee Bottom Fly-In is a logistical nightmare.  Planning for enough water and electricity, food, and facilities at any gathering is tough.  Host an event beholden to weather and it gets exponentially worse.  Given Mother Nature’s attitude, we’ve had as little as 30 people for the Friday night dinner and as many as 480.  Then of course there’s breakfast lunch and dinner on Saturday; not to mention Sunday breakfast.
Here is a graph about the two things that make pilots go.
Think about being the group in charge of preparing food.  If you want to serve steak for the Friday night dinner, you have to place your order with the meat supply company by Tuesday evening.  How then do you prepare for a meal that could be as few as 30 and as many as 480 without losing your shirt?  Even at cost the steaks alone could be thousands of dollars.
Of course since some suppliers allow you to return unopened items, you could keep the steaks in storage in a freezer.  This would help. But then you have to bring in a freezer trailer.  No matter what you do, the food represents the single biggest gamble of the fly-in.
What all this amounts to is a Tuesday cut-off for cheap tickets.  The cheaper tickets are there as a thank you for the people who understand participating in an event means accepting a small part of the risk.  By purchasing early they help us better plan for food and in return they get a discount.  If a monsoon or swarm of locusts were to blow through and the fly-in be cancelled, they would only be out $15; an acceptable sum to be risked in order to keep their event alive.  That’s all there is to it.  If you don’t get it, then it is your choice to stay away.
That brings me to the next topic of conversation, attendance, err, participation.
Participation at the fly-in was quite a bit more than we expected.  It was great to see.  Furthermore, the number of campers was incredible.  They are the real troopers of aviation and it is good to know they’re still out there in large numbers looking for places to go.  Of course, there were a lot of people who weren’t here for one reason or another.
Conflicts with other events, the aging pilot group, people who don’t know how to use a printer, a sharp line of weather, and some people who desire to be carried count among the reasons a few regulars were not on hand.  Although, when it comes to who was here the story is equally interesting.
Pilots from all corners of the country were on hand yet locals were largely absent.  It’s hard to believe we sit between UPS and DHL hubs.  People camping with their planes made up 25-30% of the total on hand.  The aviators who made it were all obviously very happy to be here and complaints were nearly non-existent.  And finally, perhaps the most interesting aspect of this event was that the crowd was noticeably younger.
In a time when pilots have a hair trigger for user fees, often that
emotion transfers to anything with a price.
There are many possible reasons for this but, from everything we know and experienced, we believe the online ticketing system was largely responsible.  Many attendees even went out of their way to tell us they liked the system and how easy it was.  It seemed that the technology not only made it easier, it also made the event more attractive to younger participants.  That’s an interesting point for all of aviation to consume.
Of course there were a few older attendees who had trouble with the system; not that age had anything to do with it.  One guy called and admitted he was a little befuddled.  Instead of starting off on the wrong foot, he asked if I could help and I personally walked him through it.  When he arrived at the fly-in we were like best friends.  Of course, he was a very likable fellow.  Yet, the main reason I mention this is to point out some of the things we experienced with the "old crowd".
The most common issue they had was with the printing of the tickets.  Rarely though did we hear this first hand.   We almost always heard of the problem from someone else who told us they were talking to “such and such” and that they were having an issue with the tickets.  They had spent time talking to the person, put some thought into it, and emailed or called us to ask what we could do to help.  Well, this became so common it made me sad.  Why didn’t the person who knew them, spent time with them, and had taken the time to email us help the person with their tickets?  In fact, I’m now afraid that if I were having a heart attack and called anyone around me they would call the ambulance instead of driving me to the hospital.  It takes a half-hour for the ambulance to get here and a half-hour to drive to the nearest hospital.
Remember how we did away with auto-camping this year?  The reason for
that was drive-ins, ride-ins, and auto-campers create the majority
of problems.  I have no idea why that is but it is true.  Not all of them
are bad nor have all of them in the past been a pain.  Yet, it doesn't change
the fact they continue to create a disproportionate level of issues.
If anyone has a solution to this that involves letting them
back in we'd love to hear it.
Then there was the guy who was mad at us for requiring pre-printed tickets because his group had a lot of “elderly” people in it.  According to him the requirement would keep them from attending.  His sob story, combined with the attitude of what we should be doing for him and his group, was incredible.  If you believed what he said, many in his group, for all practical purposes, didn’t know what the internet was.  Then he demanded an answer before their meeting.  Wait a minute, what meeting?
You see, this guy emailed us from our website (no problems with the internet there) to tell us his group is a bunch of motorcycle riders and that they have scheduled meetings to plan long rides to different events or gatherings.  So what he really said was he owned a Harley and knew his way around a computer but couldn’t bother himself to buy the tickets for his buddies and let them pay him back when they met.  He also unwittingly admitted they had monthly planning meetings where they all get together to discuss long rides.  So much for the feeble minded elderly.  And then of course there was that point that they all get together to organize their trips but they could not set aside a block of 20 minutes to print all their tickets?
And finally there was the “antiquer” who sent me a message so unbelievable and disappointing I couldn’t even bother to respond.  Fortunately for me, when he attempted to feel out the antique community by posting his toned down message online, another antiquer described my feelings best, “That’s sad”.  After that I knew that some people get it, some people don’t, and others refuse to get it.   The rest of my time was spent on those who did.
Thanks to Ashe Archer for the photo.
So why mention all these negatives when the event was so overwhelmingly positive?  I’ll tell you why.  I just wanted to offer a little bit of encouragement to other event hosts out there.  Don’t be afraid to do what you know needs to be done.  The nay-sayers are just that, and as exhibited at our event, when they don’t attend everything works more smoothly and a better time is had by all.  In fact, those who understand and are pure of heart will be that much more attracted to your location.  In turn, the quality of the event will increase.  Just remember, assuming an event to be successful due to a large number of participants is like assuming a car to be fast because it’s painted red.  Don’t chase numbers; market to the right group and pursue quality.
But what about those older aviation folks I love so much? Remember them? Something very interesting happened with that group this year.  Here it is; are you ready for it? Oddly enough, many of them were here.  Imagine that.  HA!  They never let me down. Nothing was going to stand in their way.  And for that I respect them that much more.  When faced with a hurdle, real or imagined, they found away around it.  Later generations, when faced with a hurdle, pout and stay home.
Don’t get me wrong.  I’d love to have everyone here.  But, I’d prefer to wait until they understand the difference between participation and attendance.


Thanks to all of you who made this one of the most enjoyable fly-ins in memory. We're sorry the weather front kept some of you away, but there's always next year. We hope to see you here.

NOTE:  Ginger and myself, we are always debating every possible viewpoint of an issue.  Some say “there are two sides to every argument”. The truth is the sides are endless.  It’s just that for most problems it boils down to two that are worth considering.  Therefore, when I wrote this post, I first tossed it out to Ginger to see what she had to say about it.
Often, when it’s 2 am and your hammer a point onto paper, you understand what you were trying to say but may have said it in a manner confusing to others.  Ginger is great for finding those sticking points.  This time she found one so good I wanted to discuss it briefly.
Her point was that some people would read about the P-38 guy and say the same thing about us.  We’ve learned how people think and she was right, someone would surely read that exactly the way she predicted.
Here’s what she believed some would read, “They say they're saving this field for future generations, that they love the place and love sharing it with others but they want us to pay for holding the event”.  What do you think?  The same?  Just in case you do, we have a scenario to put it all into perspective.
Let’s say the P-38 guy had enough money to own the plane, keep up the annual maintenance, and fly it for 20 hours a year.  Then out of the blue one day he said, “This weekend I am going to allow everyone with the desire to fly a P-38 to fly mine”.  When that page of the calendar was revealed his hangar was flooded with people there to put it in their logbook.  One after another they climbed in and flew it.  Then when the weekend was over and the pilots were gone, there was a gas bill of $18,000, a leaking prop seal to fix, and two engines approaching the limits for overhaul.  Everyone had experienced a great time but now the owner was out of options.  Nobody had left so much as a dime to cover the expense of their fun.  Had they each paid their way he might have done it every year.  But people with the attitude of “anyone who owns a P-38 should be able to cover my expenses” put an end to it all.  

By the way, did I ever tell you one of my favorite models as a kid was a P-38?


Gary Holt said...

Very well said Rich, your ability to put to words in writing has for along time now intrigued me.

I was unable to attend this year after realizing that my re-painting project on the Colt would take longer than I would have imagined, but I will be there next year for sure!

Your story brought to mind another event that started grass roots and ended up being overcomplicated with the needs and demands of attendees the Burning Man Festival in the desert.

My hat is off to yourself Ginger and all the volunteers that work so hard to make "our" fly-in such a great success.

Gary Holt

NormC said...

Rich - you are my kind of people. You can't please everyone so please the one's you can and like.
The on-line system worked great and anyone who can write e-mail or find and look at whatever sort of pictures they are into on the internet can certainly been able to handle that on-line system.
I appreciate the ticket you sent me out of the clear blue sky for volunteering. I wasn't expecting and had already bought all my tickets. When I landed with extra tickets, I just offered them back to the fly-in to help someone else attend.
My advice for next year, thanks, but no need to take the time to send me a ticket. I'll buy what I need, I'll be there if I can, and if I do I will volunteer. You see, I like to participate.

Unknown said...

Well said. When my budget doesn't allow me to fly my plane, I certainly wouldn't expect someone else to fund my entertainment, the plane stays in the hangar. Weather prevented my participation this year, not the ticket system. Looking forward to next year. Always looking for a place to do a little air camping. :-)
William Willyard

Andy Abreu said...

Attended with the Pietenpol from Toledo but had to leave sooner than we wanted on Saturday due to the weather forecast for Sunday. It took a tag team of pilots and a chase car with camping gear, spare parts, tools and jerry cans of fuel but we managed to make it late on Friday. Hope we can repeat the adventure next year and with an extra week of vacation the year after next, maybe I can be "participant" too.
Personally I like the idea of preordering discounted tickets for the event. I don't remember if you had it setup this way, but maybe you can do the same thing with the food.... offer discounts for meals ordered prior to the event. Double the price for those that don't preorder. If the event is a blowout due to the weather, you are not left holding the bag.

Best Wishes
Andy Abreu
Toledo Pietenpol

RayMan said...

I love the control you have over your domain.

I would love to participate at one of your fly-ins; but unfortunately, TODAY, I do not meet your qualifications to participate in that event - BUT THAT"S OK !!

After four airplanes, my financial position has left me with a powered parachute, a 7X12 covered trailer, and a van to pull it all with. It's sad to think that this would prevent me from participating (as per your view of "flying" v. "driving"); as us "Chutests" have to fly "out of the box", both figuratively and literary.

I understand your situation with campers mucking up the system - I am one; however, one should not throw out the baby (self-contained RV campers who are also GA savy) with the bathwater.

I'm not trying to open up a "pissing contest" here. I'm merely speaking my mind.

Ray DeForge, AC1, USN, ret; PPL/ASEL, CTO/KNJK, AD

Rich Davidson said...

You would be welcome. Your situation is a little different. You should have called. In fact,at several events, and to the joy of others, we've had powered parachutes flying near sunset while they waited in line for food.

Anonymous said...

I have been receiving NORDO news since 2009. I got my Private in 2010. I finally attained the means to attend in 2012, but alas it was not to be. When I found out 2014 was happening I immediately put it on my calendar and searched for the online registration. I think the online registration makes life for everyone a whole lot easier. I know I have a slot, you know I'm coming, you can plan for food vendors and the like. And if I don't make it then a donation to folks who support aviation is a drop in the bucket. $15 is cheap, so those who complain, got no business showing up to begin with. I mean, this is aviation for crying out loud.

I brought my daughter age 11. We arrived Friday evening, and camped with our plane. She met some new young friends, they had a great time, I met some cool folks, I had a great time, the food was great, the event was great in my book.

If you have another one, I would plan to participate.

Thanks for having the event, and know that we appreciate your efforts and hope to support the event again.

Thanks Again and Best Regards,
Jeff Laughrey & Alexandria Laughrey
Super Decathlon N400AB
1A0 - Chattanooga, TN