Scampton Airshow Debrief
Friday 13th April 2018
Around this time two years ago, hope was kindled as a brand new airshow in the UK was announced, taking place at RAF Scampton in September 2017. New airshows in the UK in the current climate are golden threads running through an otherwise grey fug of growing safety measures, cancellations, prohibitions, and ever-soaring costs. How sad it was, then, that this fledgling event seemed to fall, rather than fly, from the nest, after it was announced that the 2018 event was cancelled, and doubt was placed on Scampton Airshow's future.
sat down for a short debrief with Andy Armstrong and Tom Gibbons of the RAFCTE on behalf of UK Airshow Review.
We entitled our 2017 Scampton Airshow review "Genesis". If that's the case, then the announcement in December 2017 that the following year's show was cancelled could probably be considered The Fall. The press release at that time stated "post-event there remains a lot to reflect on and areas where we would like to improve." Be it the ticket price, lack of foreign air arm participation, weather, date, or location, many were left disappointed that the event that showed potential, teething problems notwithstanding, was axed from 2018 calendars.
I put questions to Andy Armstrong, chief executive of the RAFCTE, to clear matters, and shine a light on why the 2018 show will not be going ahead, to discuss some of the challenges in 2017, and what the future holds for Scampton Airshow.
Why was the 2018 airshow postponed, or what were the main reasons that led to its postponement?
First of all, I challenge the word "postpone". But first, I would like to tell you why we think the show was a success, and then go into why 2018 is not going ahead.
As far as we're concerned, and as far as those that went, in the majority, they had a fabulous time. It had its challenges, but overall we ran a successful and safe show. We had 50,000 people over the weekend, it was atrocious weather, but I remember looking out over the airfield on the Friday as it was beginning to take shape and come together, and that excitement of airshows was there, and I was thinking "this is really going to happen". It wasn't a village fete, it was a professionally run show, and for me it had a very different feel to it. It was grass and tents, it had a sort of festival feel, albeit with a professional edge, as opposed to the heavy metal and military and concrete of RIAT. For me, that's not better or worse, just different. And from my perspective, I thought, "ok, this is new".
From a standing start, in a year where we'd already done RIAT, to pull that off as well, with amazing support from the RAF and from our volunteers, we are very proud of what we delivered, and I'll sing the praises of all those involved.
The truth, however, is that there were lots of lessons learnt out of that. The first is the time of year; clearly, from our perspective, when the RAF asked us to run the show, we had the expertise, we stepped up to the plate and agreed to do it, but we couldn't do it around RIAT, there aren't enough hours in the day and we didn't want to compromise that show. So, we chose to do it, for better or worse, in September. With hindsight, there are issues associated with that.
Firstly, when we were advertising the event, people had already committed their money on their summer holidays, and/or were on holiday. So, the "hockey stick" effect on the sales, where they would naturally pick up towards the event, wasn't happening as much as we expected. We were told by everybody that the demand is there for the show, and so we chose a single pricing point, as opposed to a stepped pricing point as we do for RIAT, and therefore there wasn't an incentive to buy early. Reflecting on that, was that the right decision? That's something we have to throw into the mix.
We tried to deconflict with other shows in September, I realise there was activity in Europe, but we were able to share some assets with Sanicole over that weekend, but September, despite what you think when you look at those traditional country scene calendars and see pictures of sunny wheat fields for that month, it doesn't always happen in my experience. The weather the week after as we were collapsing the show was of biblical proportions, and I tell you we had volunteers out there in extraordinary weather taking things down afterwards, I take my hat off to them. I was out there on some of those days, and it was a superhuman effort. So, there is that inclement weather. And we were one week into the new school term.
So, all that added up to the result that not as many people came to the show as we wanted and as we expected. People said "yes, we want it", but not as many came.
In terms of the human factors, I don't underestimate the effort and impact on volunteers and staff that were running two shows. We are a professional and capable organisation, and we did it because we threw human beings at it. 50% of the volunteers at Scampton were RIAT volunteers, so they knew what they were doing, and the new members benefitted from that. And running your first show is always three or four times the effort of running subsequent shows. Without the demand, obviously the finances are then affected by that, but I was asked recently if we had made a huge profit in 2017, would we run the show in 2018? The answer is no. There are too many other variables; we had completely new experiences, new people to deal with, and new ways of working with local authorities. That all eats time and, in many instances, those new experiences generated very positive learnings out of that in terms of how we organise RIAT.
Overlaid on top of all of that, we've got a very busy year in 2018. We are going to be remembered for the RAF centenary, and what we deliver in this year, and we could not afford to take our eye off that ball. We have four events to run this year including RIAT and the Concert Tour, and the team are also giving advice where required at Cosford and East Fortune and so on, so it's a very busy year, and I'm not going to commit us to doing something, unless we are prepared to do it well. It's a reputational thing.
What would have had to have (or not have) happened in 2017, which would have allowed the 2018 airshow to go ahead?
There's a twofold answer to that. The vast majority of new products fail. We were far from that, we successfully delivered the event. It is not a surprise to us that the first year of the event had some financial challenges. That's the stuff of building an event over time, and I have a great confidence that you could build the plan that gets you to a different place. RIAT has been operating for 47 years and is a well-developed machine and brand. With Scampton we were at the start of that journey, and I doubt the first IATs ever made money. That isn't the objective. The objective is to run a successful and safe show, and I believe we did that.
Therefore, it's not about the money, and in business it's never one thing. It's always a mixture of different influences and challenges that get you to a place that makes you say "hm, we need to think about this". It's the definition of insanity to do the same thing again and expect a different result, and it was my responsibility to call that.
Despite this, I recalled that 2018 airshow dates were broadcast, and even printed in the programme, so there must have been some sort of assumption, regardless of whether it was not a surprise the "new product" had some financial challenges, that a 2018 show would take place. I put this to Andy:
In the 2017 airshow programme, there are 2018 dates. Was it your intention up until some point after the 2017 show to hold the event in 2018?
We had always assumed that we would run this show and I could see this happening annually thereafter, but our experience on the day made us say "hm, let's stop and think". I refer back to the definition of insanity.
How involved were the RAF in the decision on the 2018 airshow not going ahead, and what was their reaction to the news?
The decision about the 2018 show was ours, and ours alone. When we communicated it, they were as disappointed as we were, and everyone else. Let me describe it as a Marmite decision. Within DBH there are many people that were really disappointed, including the volunteers, and I'm personally conflicted by it. I like the airshow, I like getting out and meeting our customers, and absolutely I like meeting the volunteers.
I'm conflicted because many people that came really enjoyed themselves, and we are super proud of what we delivered, but I'm not going to commit the resources of this company unless we can deliver something to that standard or better, and there are currently too many variables.
Turning away from 2018, I wanted to further explore the 2017 airshow.
A Q&A with Airshow Director Paul Sall in November 2016 said that he expected the airshow's personality to evolve as the event grows. In your opinion, what was the airshow's personality supposed to be?
We talked about it being a family fun day out. It was a much broader offering, and it had to be because of the assets we were planning, and I believe we delivered that. That "festival" feel, that softer, more intimate day out was great. I hope that continues.
Was it fair, then, for some people to consider Scampton Airshow as "RIAT North" and hold you to those high expectations?
We decided right at the beginning that this was not RIAT North and this wasn't Waddington moved down the road. This had to have a completely new and different personality. That was the strategic intent from day one, and it was clearly communicated on all of our internal documents, our volunteers all knew that, and our marketing efforts played that out.
£39 each for tickets, with children going free. Do you think that ticket price was value for money?
Yes, unreservedly. It was the same price as an adult ticket plus children (you had to pay for children's tickets) at Waddington. But obviously if you are an adult without a child, then yes in that situation it was different, but remember we were going for a family audience, and at the heart of what we do, we are the fundraising arm of an RAF charity with our focus on youth. I make no apologies for that as a strategy. If I had had my time again, there might have been a benefit of buying the tickets earlier. But as far as the headline price of the tickets, that was absolutely right.
How were the prices determined?
Ultimately, the marketing textbook will tell you that you charge what the market will stand. As I said earlier, Waddington adult price plus child was the £39 benchmark, that seemed a reasonable thing to do, and it is our decision to select the purchase price, and it was the consumer's decision whether they wished to buy it.
Reading the feedback, the ticket price was a bugbear for a lot of people, though. In terms of 2019, you alluded to the idea of an incentive to buy early. Are there any other pricing mechanisms you're looking at?
One of the calculations will be around what the demand is. To exaggerate to make the point, the way to get 100,000 people in there might be to charge a lesser amount, but clearly the financial maths of the event changes, which would need some modelling, but I still believe that £39 is value for money.
From the point of view of the Airshow business plan, how many tickets did you expect to sell, compared to the 50,000 that came through the gates?
We got 75% of what we expected.
Do you think international air arms not supporting the show as much as enthusiasts expected was a factor in that?
Tom Gibbons answered:
Who knows? But as Andy said before, we were clear on any comparisons with a "RIAT North", and that was a comparison that people made that we were at pains to highlight that was not the case, and we were clear on that with our engagement with air arms leading up to the show, both through the RAF and other air arms, and they were very clear, given their constraints and requests elsewhere for their events, that they would do what they could. They ended up doing what they could do, and we were trying to balance that with events taking place in Europe. We were in regular contact with events in Europe, they had their events to deliver, and we had ours to deliver, and priorities were in different places for different air arms for different nations and operators.
That's the route we went down. If that influenced certain enthusiasts on whether they wanted to come or didn't come, then so be it, but we couldn't do anything about that. If we had pitched the show as "RIAT up the road" then maybe there's a legitimate point to be made there, but we didn't go down that route.
Looking at the difference in ticket prices, you used the Waddington ticket pricing as the market rate. Waddington was billed as the "Waddington International Airshow". As you say, the Scampton Airshow was billed as a family friendly airshow. Comparable family friendly airshows that are billed as such, like the RAF Cosford Airshow, are around £25 per ticket. Did it reach you that if you're going to sell yourself as a family friendly airshow, not an international airshow, that that has different connotations? Did you consider that difference?
Of course we did. However, each event has different cost structures. Looking at running the event versus one that is run by a military establishment; as an example, we have to fund our own accommodation and transportation (we had to hire the local showground and busses). There are minimum costs and infrastructure costs associated with the running of the Scampton Airshow which were unique to the event and frankly needed to be covered. Again, I make no apologies for that.
That's the way it had to be in 2017. We want to let the dust settle. We will go back in the future, and it might be the same, it might be different, we'll work that out in due course.
In order to arrange and run the Scampton Airshow, RAFCTE created Scampton Airshow Limited in June 2016, a business chaired by Alan Smith, and employing Mr. Paul Sall, the former director of the Waddington International Airshow, as its airshow director. Whilst those at DBH are still clearly in the overarching role of running and operating of Scampton Airshow, as an indication either way of the likelihood of Scampton Airshow's return I wanted to examine whether the company, and indeed its staff, remained in situ.
What's the status of Scampton Airshow Ltd., and are the members of the team still on board?
Scampton Airshow Limited is a going concern. When you describe the team, it's a mix of those based at Scampton, and those elsewhere. Those that were physically based at Scampton are no longer with us.
At present, we're in April 2018. Do you think the Scampton Airshow will return in 2019?
We are still working through that. We have every ambition to go back to the East of England. We are busy at the moment running and planning RIAT, and there is other work going on in the background. When we are ready, we'll announce what the plans are.
You talked about a return to the East of England. Now that runway repairs are complete at RAF Waddington, has this venue been looked at again as a potential airshow venue?
That's a question for the RAF.
Do you see yourselves, either now or as the show evolves, as the spiritual successors to the shows at RAF Waddington?
No. This is an area of the country where there is demand for an airshow, albeit less than people led us to believe, so we wanted to be doing something different. I think it would be a huge mistake to try and be Waddington down the road.
Long-term, is Scampton a viable venue for hosting airshows?
I think Scampton's a great venue.
Finally, given your ambition to return, can you guarantee an airshow in 2019?
No, I will not guarantee an airshow in 2019.
Ambitious new airshows in the UK of the size and scope of the Scampton Airshow in 2017 are like gold dust in this day and age, and every fledgling airshow will have its particular quirks and teething problems. The real test, then, is whether its organisers are able to battle, struggle even, to make the event worth all the powder and shot. It's a shame to see this one reach a relatively early nadir, but sometimes the benefit of low points is that the best can be yet to come; if the will at Douglas Bader House, and Scampton Airshow Ltd, and the RAF remains, and is sufficient enough to take another bite out of the Lincolnshire apple, then there's a chance that the Scampton Airshow can ascend the mountain and more robustly plant its feet in the future. However, with no guarantee of the event returning in 2019 and plenty of issues to overcome, it's some considerable mountain to climb indeed, and that's precisely why everyone involved should relish the challenge.