Commentary: Risky Business

 - January 16, 2008, 11:27 AM

It was a risk from the start. No, I’m not talking about President Bush’s decision to wage war on Iraq. I’m referring to LABACE, the Latin American Business Aviation Conference and Exhibition, a much smaller and less significant risk, but a risk nonetheless. LABACE took place for the first time in São Paulo, Brazil, last month.

LABACE appeared on business aviation’s radar just over a year ago and about two months before the second edition of another “-BACE,”

the European Business Aviation Conference and Exhibition, or EBACE. The common denominator between the two is the National Business Aviation Association, which formed a joint venture with the European Business Aviation Association to create EBACE and another 50-50 partnership with the Associação Brasíleira de Aviação Geral (ABAG), Brazil’s bizav association, to create LABACE. ABAG is currently the only national bizav association in Latin America.

LABACE was an iffy proposition–and still is. ABAG officials are not shy about their admiration of NBAA, its annual convention and their desire to emulate both. As the story is related, ABAG executive director Adalberto Febeliano and chairman Rui Thomaz de Aquino invited NBAA president Jack Olcott to visit them in Brazil with the intention of selling him on the idea of a Brazilian business aviation convention. They had earlier teamed with Kallman Associates of Waldwick, N.J., on Business Aviation Brazil (BAB) in November 2001, but this was not the success either party expected. So ABAG looked to NBAA. After his visit to São Paulo with NBAA v-p of conventions Kathleen Blouin and enthusiastic briefings by Febeliano and Aquino, Olcott took the idea to NBAA’s board of directors. Thus was LABACE conceived and tentatively scheduled for December 2002, then, later, January of this year.

The initial lack of enthusiasm for the event among those who mattered most–the business airplane manufacturers and others who sign up for big exhibit spaces and sponsorships, therefore footing much of the bill for such endeavors–was deafening. Part of it was the date, which was not that far away; part of it was the season (the middle of the Brazilian summer); part of it was the economy; part of it was the location; and part of it was the concept itself. The organizers managed to reschedule the date for March, when, they say, a date opened on Transamerica Expo’s schedule. Tom Kallman of Kallman Worldwide claims the January date violated a three-month-exclusionary clause in his contract with the convention center for Business Aviation Brazil 2002, which was scheduled for November (and eventually canceled). Whatever the reason for the postponement, the March date seemed to increase the general enthusiasm for the event by a notch or two.

From the first announcement, NBAA and ABAG speculated that LABACE would attract some 300 exhibitors (BAB had only about 70). Observers found this high. After all, EBACE had only 190 exhibitors its first time out and 219 the second, but the 300 number stood. Perhaps there’d be a big influx of local firms, one wondered? As the pre-registered exhibitor list nudged slowly up to 70 and hovered in that region, NBAA officials told AIN the 300 number quoted earlier really meant the number of 10-by-10-foot booth spaces they expected would be taken, not the actual number of exhibitors. As it turned out, the 88 LABACE exhibitors (including NBAA, ABAG and EBACE) occupied a total of 204 booth spaces. Registered attendees totaled 2,876, close to the 3,000 estimated by NBAA.

But let’s not quibble about numbers. As Olcott emphasized at the opening general session, the success of LABACE should be measured not by the number of exhibitors and attendees, but rather “by the recognition of the media, government and those gathered of the importance of business aviation in Brazil.” In other words, the main goal is to raise the profile of the industry among the country’s decision makers so that general aviation is not shunted to the side when push comes to shove.

By Olcott’s measure, LABACE would appear to be a success. Several Brazilian government officials spoke at the event during the opening general session and other briefings. The Brazilian press, both print and broadcast, covered the event well and literally swarmed around Maurico Botelho, president and CEO of Embraer, who confirmed he had recently consulted with the Brazilian president on the state of his company, the country and aviation in general. One television station ran a three-minute segment on the conference, which, according to Brazilian observers, was an extraordinary amount of broadcast time. The day before the official opening, Olcott and Aquino made their own use of business aviation to fly to Brasilia, the capital city of Brazil, for a 20-minute meeting with the head of civil aviation.

Exhibitors measure success differently, of course: in numbers of contacts, quality of visitors and, hopefully, new and likely sales. The general impression appeared to be, “Not that great, but not bad for a first-time event.” They would like to have seen more qualified buyers, but did appreciate the organization of the event. It will be interesting to see how they respond to LABACE 2004.

For our part here at AIN, we’ll be back in São Paulo next March, regardless of the numbers. LABACE did for us what Olcott hoped it would do. The conference may take some years to grow to the size of EBACE, but we’re convinced of the importance and increasing potential of business aviation in Brazil, as well as in much of the rest of Latin America. That makes us all the more proud to present to you, our readers, our first special report on LABACE and business aviation in Latin America. You can also expect greater coverage of Latin American business aviation in the pages of AIN from now on.