Podcast: Behind The Scenes At Sun ‘n Fun

Greg Gibson, Sun ‘n Fun airshow director and chief marketing officer, speaks with Molly McMillin, Aviation Week managing editor of business aviation, about the return of the aerospace expo and the importance of the show, following last year’s cancellation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the number of exhibitors is down 20% from typical years this time, attendance is setting records. Is this show laying the groundwork for AirVenture Oshkosh in July?

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Rush transcript:

Molly McMillin:            Good day. And welcome to a podcast. I'm delighted to have with me, Greg Gibson, who is chief marketing officer at Sun 'n Fun. We're out here in Lakeland, Florida. It's a beautiful sunny, busy day. The show started on the 13th and it runs through the 18th and we've grabbed Greg Gibson for just a little bit. And he's going to tell us about the importance of this show and kind of how things have gone, like attendance wise and all of that. So welcome, Greg.

Greg Gibson:              Hey, thank you very much. Glad to be here. We are off to a fantastic start. We've got some record breaking attendance in the first few days of the show and weather has been very kind, so we're looking forward to a great week.

Molly McMillin:            Great. And you mentioned earlier that the exhibitors are down about 20%. Was it, I mean, I'm sure it's COVID related.

Greg Gibson:              Yeah, we have... About 20% is about right as far as the numbers go and what's interesting is those... That we have on quite a number of new exhibitors who had never been here before. So our total number of those is definitely down. Most of them are saying it's a COVID related decision based on their corporate travel policies and whatnot. Those that are here though are taking advantage of some pretty good numbers.

Molly McMillin:            Sun 'n Fun funds some important missions for you. Can you talk about the importance of this show to your mission?

Greg Gibson:              Absolutely. The Sun 'n Fun Aerospace Expo is the major fundraiser for the aerospace center for excellence. And that is our 22 acres STEM education campus, kind of a classroom extension, if you will, for schools and what have you in the local area, sometimes not so local area. We actually, as a matter of fact, we have a team from Oregon that's touring the campus today. So our reach is pretty extensive and the mission is to engage, educate, and accelerate the next generation of aerospace professionals. And we do that through a number of programs, including the scholarships that are designed to capture, you know, the imaginations of young people, give them ways to engage with those interactions. And then to turn that into a passion that hopefully we can extend all the way into a career.

Molly McMillin:            Now last year's show was canceled at the last minute. Can you talk about what kind of impact that had on your organization?

Greg Gibson:              Well, definitely devastating. Like everyone that's been affected by this mess, it's been a kind of a tough year, like it would for anyone, but we've been very fortunate that we've taken advantage of all the government programs. We were able to qualify for all of those and a number of fantastic donors that came to our rescue as well. Our city of Lakeland was instrumental in helping us kind of navigate the financial side of things. And we have been able to reach all the way to this day with, you know, debt-free, being able to manage our company and our programs where they're largely unaffected because of our, you know, some rainy day funds that we had that we were fortunate to have put away. So we're fine now. It's going to be a little bit of a long recovery with the success we're seeing this week will help.

Molly McMillin:            And talking to people, some folks immediately say I've been vaccinated. People are wearing masks and, or they are telling people if they've been vaccinated or not. And so some people are saying this may be a bellwether for the Oshkosh show, the AirVenture Oshkosh in July. Do you think this will kind of lead the way for other air shows?

Greg Gibson:              Well, we'd like to think that, you know, we're being very responsible when it comes to the COVID policies that we have here. We've got them all posted on our website and we're following all state local and federal guidelines when it comes to, you know, managing the virus. The fact that people are turning out, the fact that people are enjoying themselves and that we're having a, you know, again, a thousand acres of outdoor, you know, fun is something that's probably a really, you know, a blessed relief for a lot of folks. So Oshkosh being very similar to other air shows I'd like to think that that would be something they could anchor to and hopefully benefit from the success we're seeing.

Molly McMillin:            What was your biggest challenge of getting this up and running after a yeah of kind of not really being off, but not being able to have a show? What was your biggest challenge?

Greg Gibson:              Well, you know, the COVID, you know, pandemic obviously has affected everyone. So the volunteers making sure we had the, you know, the numbers there that we would normally expect for our event was something that we needed to fulfill. We are down a little bit in those numbers, but not critically. It was enough to where we were definitely able to pull off the show very, very handily. You know, other than that it's been kind of normal, really, ramp up. We've had, you know, COVID mitigation and the different things that we had to do to put that in place was a very time consuming and expensive proposition to have the mass in the hand sanitizers and all the preparations. That was a new thing that we hadn't had to deal with before. So it was definitely something that consumed some resources, but nothing that we couldn't overcome. And again, as it's being evidenced for the first few days of the show, it's going very well.

Molly McMillin:            Good. I noticed that your campgrounds, you said, are full or near full, I believe. Is that correct?

Greg Gibson:              They are packed. We actually had to go into our overflow area over there just this morning. So people are definitely taking advantage of the outdoors and wanting to, you know, find themselves, you know, good space that they could operate from. And we're glad to have that available for them.

Molly McMillin:            I've attended some of your educational sessions and your presentations, and there's a lot of them, there's a lot of booths and exhibits and your manufacturers are here, most of them in person. I noticed Textron Aviation has taken a little unique tack in that they're having a virtual exhibit.

Greg Gibson:              It's really neat. I'm kind of very impressed with what they've done down there. It's very innovative and they're taking advantage of technology in the middle of an uncertain, you know, display time for them as far as their travel policies. So we congratulate them on the innovation. We think it's great.

Molly McMillin:            It's interesting. It's very interactive. You can text them questions and they'll answer. You can scan the QR codes to see some virtual airplanes, and they're having a Caravan. They're just... The main folks are here. So this is kind of the place to be right now.

Greg Gibson:              I think so. We wall wanted an aviation season opener and now it's more like aviation's reopener, you know, was kind of what we found ourselves and that's great. We'll gladly take it.

Molly McMillin:            Well, we appreciate your time with us, Greg. And congratulations on getting the show up and launched and busy. It seemed like the first day was a little slower, but every day it's getting busier and busier, it looks like.

Greg Gibson:              We've had, we've had record attendance each day so far. So Tuesdays are usually a slower day of the group, but we still had a great crowd. We had a wonderful night air show last night with just the thousands of people out watching that and just really good to be back. It's just good to be back.

Molly McMillin:            Well, we can't thank you enough. Thank you so much. And we will talk to you next time.

Greg Gibson:              Good luck. Thanks for coming.

Molly McMillin

Molly McMillin, a 25-year aviation journalist, is managing editor of business aviation for the Aviation Week Network and editor-in-chief of The Weekly of Business Aviation, an Aviation Week market intelligence report.