Walking into an aviation show is like entering the ultimate toy store. With big eyes and a sense of childlike wonderment, you see open seating on brand-new airplanes, colorful new avionics for testing, and aisle upon aisle of everything the general aviation pilot could hope for. But for the manufacturers, shows such as AOPA Expo are a time for hard work, long hours of meet-and-greet, and the hope that new products will be a hit.
Because behind all the bright display screens, flight simulators, and shiny aircraft, are the people who work in the GA industry.
It’s Thursday morning, less than two hours before the ribbon-cutting ceremony to open Expo 2007, and inside the exhibit hall there is literally a buzz in the air. Vacuum cleaners are working at max power in just about every corner of the convention center. They’re underneath the Diamond DA50, next to the Adam A700 cockpit mockup, around a Lycoming engine, and between the Garmin displays. Elsewhere, the wings of Cessna’s SkyCatcher LSA are being dusted, and the windows of Cirrus’ jet are being cleaned. At several booths, teams of employees are getting their final briefings while screens are powered up and doublechecked at avionics displays.
Preparing for a show such as Expo actually starts long in advance for the manufacturers. “We usually start in the middle of the previous year’s Expo,” says Tom Aniello, Cessna’s vice president of marketing. Some things are minor, such as making sure the display is big enough and nobody is tripping on anything. Some are even a little clandestine. “There’s a design team that looks at the [competitors’] booths,” Aniello says regarding part of the Cessna team that prepares for the next year’s show minus their Cessna credentials. “It’s a lot easier to look at a competitor’s airplanes if you don’t have a Cessna shirt and badge on.”
Often companies try to time a new product release to coincide with a trade show. When this is the case the workload can increase even more as the day arrives. “Leading up to a show you’re always really nervous,” says Matt Fussy, the marketing and trade show coordinator for L-3 Communications Avionics Systems. It was especially true for Fussy in 2006 as L-3 was getting ready to unveil its SmartDeck avionics suite. “You want to make sure that everything is working 100 percent. It’s a lot of fun, but you do age a couple of years in the trade-show environment,” he says.
After last-minute runs to Radio Shack for a power strip and Kinko’s for a few more pages to go into the press releases, the doors open and the manufacturers’ hard work pays off. With people filling up the aisles, the focus for those in the industry turns to simply talking with the other pilots. Most of the people on the other side of the handshake are pilots themselves and have the same passion for aviation as Expo visitors. It’s still hard work, but they’re happy to talk about aviation all day. “Once the show opens,” L-3’s Fussy says, “you know that everything is done. Now it’s just enjoying talking to the different people.” Cessna’s Aniello agrees. He likes Expo because it attracts a strong, concentrated core group of owner pilots. “It’s not a corporate show. It’s not a military show. It’s a fun atmosphere,” he says. “As pilots ourselves, we like to sit around and talk about flying with other pilots.”
The talking with other pilots isn’t strictly about making sales either. The large number of actual owners and pilots acts as a massive focus group for the companies and a chance to get face-to-face feedback with existing customers. A Jeppesen spokesman acknowledges the interaction with people at Expo provides valuable information for the engineers and developers back at the main office. “These are the hardcore users here at AOPA [Expo]; these are the pilots that fly the airspace.” He points out when a product is in development, it can be easy to fall into the trap of being convinced you’re doing everything right. But at a show, the customers are right there to tell the company what is needed. “It’s a lot of positive feedback you get direct from the customer, rather than drinking your own Kool-Aid,” he says.
Not everybody can make it to Expo, and this leads to another of the important preparations for the industry—the press conference. Every day at Expo a series of press conferences take place for the aviation media who quickly spread the word via the Internet and may include the information in future articles. “[The press conferences are] certainly one of the high points, if not the high point of the trade show,” says Bob Stangarone, Cessna’s vice president of communications. It’s up to him and his team to make sure new products and updates are distributed as widely as possible beyond the halls of the convention center. Having the press conference is a bit of relief because the company can start to talk about what has been under wraps for months, even years. “It’s where you’re free to talk about all the news, and that really stimulates the dialogue on the new programs,” he says.
By the close of Expo on Saturday, there are tired feet and raspy throats from the long days of standing and talking aviation all day. For many of the manufacturers that don’t offer direct sales, there isn’t always a direct way to determine if all of their efforts have paid off. Fussy says when the booth is busy during the show it’s always a good sign. “But when [our] salespeople’s phones are constantly ringing and e-mails are coming in, then I know that we’ve done our job.”
Fussy and the others in the industry go back to the office with all their notes and feedback to get started on the new products and preparing for the next AOPA Expo and the shows in between.
AOPA Expo 2008 will be held at the McErney Convention Center in San Jose, California, November 6 through 8. For more information, visit the Web site.
Jason Paur is a freelance writer and pilot living in Seattle.