Aviation Marketing vs. the Chicago Auto Show

By Robert Mark on February 14th, 2007

I’ve heard that one trade show is much like the next. I’m not so sure about that anymore.

One of the biggest annual events in the Midwest is the Chicago Automobile Show. But if we compare the Chicago Auto Show to the National Business Aviation Association Convention, for example, the differences in how the two groups sell their products is vast. And I’d say the aviation industry could teach the auto industry more than a thing or two.

The NBAA show was developed with a clear goal, to be the premier event and an annual meeting location for everyone who makes a living in business aviation. In Oshkosh each year, the EAA bills AirVenture as the aviation world’s family reunion. By contrast, the Chicago Auto Show is billed only as the largest in North America.

Certainly regular Jetwhine readers have heard me grouse about the lousy job flight schools and airports often make of marketing themselves. But after spending last Saturday walking around the mammoth McCormick Place near the shore of Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago, it is pretty clear why most of the U.S. auto industry is experiencing some serious economic heartburn, while aviation is booming.

The purpose of aviation industry trade shows is to act as a catalyst for the customer buying experience. In English that means we’re trying to convince potential customers to fall in love with the products and services they see at the shows. Many bring their checkbooks and credit cards.

Not so at the Chicago Auto Show. With the exception of the awesome Chrysler display that included an opportunity for potential customers to drive a Jeep or a Dodge Ram truck around a complex indoor track of hills, bumps and even an ice track to test out the ABS, the rest of the show looked like a visit to CarMax with row upon row of cars simply sitting there emitting about as much energy as a five watt bulb.

At the AOPA Expo, or NBAA or AirVenture, you can guarantee yourself that the manufacturers are on hand to try and sell you an airplane if you’re ready. The Chicago Auto Show was not designed for taking orders.

At aviation shows, we’re always trying to send people away with stuff, not simply marketing brochures, but posters and pictures and memorabilia that will make them remember the experience both immediately and when they are ready to buy.

In an effort to save money, the auto dealers have cut the admitedly expensive collateral brochures to a minimum. Auto show visitors were pointed to rows of computer monitors to see the marketing materials online. If you wanted more, you’d best have brought a pencil to write down the URL of the car company, because no one was printing anything.

At AOPA, or AirVenture or NBAA, customers have an opportunity not only to see and touch airplanes, but to hear a wide range of experts talking about topics of interest, whether it’s the newest regulation or tax law change, how to program a Garmin 1000 or why VLJs will actually make a difference in the marketplace. And we do that for a reason. We’re trying to make people think of our products when the time is right.

The Chicago Auto Show – the largest in North America – offered no information forums about the driving experience, nor was their any food to speak of for the thousands of visitors. And for those people who did buy the $8 slice of pizza there was only a place on the floor to sit and eat. Sure we do that at Oshkosh, but it’s part of the ambiance!  

I have often said here that the aviation industry needs to better hone its marketing efforts to keep the industry alive.

I can tell you there are some very clear reasons why the auto industry is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and that the aviation world is not. Consider this about the Ford Motor Company display where things looked particularly bleak. Ford had trouble selling its new 500 model, so they simply changed the name of the 500 to the well-known Taurus. Don’t they call that bait and switch? Can you imagine Cessna simply calling the Citation “7” a “10” and hoping no one would notice?

To its credit, the aviation industry has a very clear focus on their customers. I’m still trying to figure out why anyone attends the Chicago Auto Show. My guess is the dealers association that build the show most likely couldn’t articulate the purpose of the show either.

Despite the comparative success of the aviation industry, we can’t rest on our tails for long because general and business aviation are being challenged on a daily basis to demonstrate their value. New regs, higher costs, needed Air Traffic Control system improvements … they’re all there every time we look over our shoulders.

But I think the aviation industry sees the problems, unlike the auto industry.

Just to be certain though, I wonder if anyone might happen to have two tickets to the Tokyo Auto Show for a little research trip?

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