ON THE ROAD. Top LSA companies toured Florida on the first of what may be many LSA tours.
"If the mountain won't come to Muhammad," goes the ancient saying, "then Muhammad must go to the mountain." Applied to the need for LSA manufacturers and dealers to more efficiently—and prosperously—market their winged wares, the wisdom gets a modern interpretation: the 2011 LSA Tour.
Dave Graham, formerly of Gobosh Aviation and now with Legend Aircraft, huddled up with SportairUSA's Bill Canino to conjure a trip commingling the selling acumen of five different companies into one outreach effort. "We thought bringing a group of top LSA to local airports," says Graham, "in a small, more personal event where people wouldn't be distracted or intimidated, could see everything in an hour, maybe take a flight and have the significant other take one, then be able to talk to a manager right there, might be just what's needed."
So envisioned, five top LSA companies headed out for six airports in the Sunshine State a day after the Sport Aviation Expo in Sebring, Fla., last January. The destinations were a mix of executive-style airports, smaller GA fields and fly-in communities.
Five crews made up the gaggle:
• Dave Graham and Darin Hart in Legend Cubs
• Bill Canino and dealer Eric Rieke with a Sirius and a Sting S3
• Randy Schlitter and gal pal Michelle Miller showing off his Rans S-19
• Sebring Aviation's John Hurst and the Flight Design CTLS
• Jim Julius and CFI Ray Lyons of Sport Planes Florida in a Jabiru J-230
Cutting to the chase, how successful was the event? John Hurst: "When we were at a friendly airport, such as Orlando Executive or Spruce Creek, and got support from an FBO or flight school, it worked really well." The final tally showed some aircraft sold during the tour, several likely sales prospects harvested, and a consensus: The tour is definitely worth repeating.
Not that there weren't glitches. One airport on Florida's west coast, Hurst says, "...was an oppressive, unfriendly airport. The TSA security environment made it pretty worthless; it was difficult to get people onto the ramp to look at our airplanes."
Climbing The Mountain
The glue that binds these amiable competitors in united purpose is the perception that air shows and traditional marketing stratagems don't reach a larger, still-untapped market. "People say, ‘It's the bad economy,' all the time," says John Hurst. "To me that's a cop-out. If you're doing the right things, a customer will do whatever it takes, even when times are tough. So, you have to work hard but also work smart to reach them."
"I thought coming to people's local airports would demonstrate what this LSA thing is about. They'd realize ‘Hey, this is a real airplane, not a flight-medical compromise. It offers more than my 172 does.' I'd be stepping up!"
Bill Canino weighs in: "This first tour was testing a theory. We wanted to take it to the customer who skips air shows but has a strong interest in airplanes. And we found those people at every stop we made. Look, not everybody can go to the shows. Others have gotten the air show excitement out of their system, but still want to be involved in flying."
The logistics of assembling the tour were compelling: Vendors were already at Sebring, so financing a separate trip wasn't necessary. Florida has a huge population, good weather and many GA airports to boot.
A remarkable quality evident on the tour pervades the industry at large as well: how congenially these LSA folks work together. "I've always felt our competitors aren't strictly competitors," says Rans Aircraft's Randy Schlitter. "At least we're not to the cutthroat stage yet! It's admirable that a group of competitors can work together, using each other's drawing power, to bring in business that will benefit everybody."
He sees such cooperative ventures as harbingers of a paradigm shift in general aviation marketing.
"The tour was valuable in terms of learning how much work still remains to educate people about LSA. To have a group of competitors showing up together also makes a strong statement to the consumer: that we are not afraid to be compared side by side. That signals the buyer that these brands are the real thing, and we're all working together to better aviation."
Tour Part Deux
Refinements to the tour are being made, including picking friendlier airports and a shorter trip: Some exhibitors left early due to post-Sebring exhaustion. The daily schedule needs reworking, too. Arriving the night before instead of in the morning, and staying into the evening to draw people after work, will be tried. Minimizing weekday stops and giving an LSA info presentation also are on the docket.
Though mailers were sent out in advance and venues such as flight schools, FBOs and airparks proved their value, the group needs a stronger promotional push. Suggestions for Tour v.2.0 include longer lead times for mailings, and mining EAA, FAAST Team groups and other aviation organizations to get the word out. A website is also in the works.
"You know," reflects Jim Julius, who's spearheading planning for the next
tour through Georgia, "I'm amazed, six years into the light-sport category, that a lot of people still don't fully grasp the concept of sport pilot." To enhance the education process, he sees getting people smoothly from parking lot to airplanes is crucial. "We need one-door access to the event, so people don't have to go through a bunch of TSA hassles."
"Air shows are so static," adds Bill Canino. "It's like waiting for nets to catch fish. I'd rather go fly fishing and put the product in front of the people." However the long term plays out, one thing is sure: If more sales continue to happen, keep your eyes to the skies. The Great LSA Tour may soon come to an airfield near you.