When NBAA’s annual Schedulers and Dispatchers conference last visited Savannah, Ga., in 2008, it was at the apex of the industry’s most recent successful period. That conference attracted more than 2,600 attendees, the highest total in the show’s history, as well as 390 exhibitors. The end of that year marked the start of the recession that has ravaged economies around the world.
After several years of industry erosion, Schedulers and Dispatchers returned to Savannah last month for its 22nd iteration, and attendees fueled an upbeat mood as the industry experiences signs of revival. “It was a great vibe, good atmosphere; you can tell that business is starting to pick up a little bit,” said Meric Reese, the newly appointed director of scheduling for fractional provider Executive AirShare. “There wasn’t as much concern this year about employment and where the business is going as there was the last time I attended, so it’s a good feeling.” That feeling is supported by a definite uptick in business aircraft activity over the past year. According to statistics released by industry data provider Argus, 2010 saw a 5.8-percent increase in the number of business aviation flights over 2009, with every month posting gains over the previous year.
While the numbers did not approach the bar set the last time the show was held in Savannah, they were nonetheless healthy. The total of 2,272 attendees was approximately the same as at last year’s show, but an NBAA spokesman told AIN that given the severe weather that hampered much of the country, the association was “delighted by these numbers.”
This year’s attendance made the conference the third largest in S&D history, according to former S&D committee chair Darren Hall, while the 375 exhibitors represented a 12-percent increase from last year’s event held in San Antonio. The show continues to attract international visitors, with guests from 29 countries (some from as far afield as Australia, Japan and South Africa) making the trip to Savannah.
For the second straight year, S&D was co-located with NATA’s FBO Leadership Conference (held the preceding two days at the Westin Hotel), next door to the Savannah International Trade & Convention Center. “I think it has been a positive thing,” said Sandy Wirtz, NBAA’s director of seminars. “It gives our exhibitors who are NATA members an opportunity to maximize their time away. It just fits perfectly.”
Some attendees applauded the “one-stop-shopping” of having both shows in the same venue. “In aviation we always pride ourselves on doing things efficiently, and I think it was an extremely efficient week with time well spent,” said Millicent Becker, vice president for business development at Teterboro Airport FBO First Aviation Services. “I think you come back from a week like that feeling energized and motivated to do business.”
For others who attended both events, the preparations and five straight days of conferences left them feeling taxed. “It is convenient for a lot of our small FBOs, but [S&D] is a big show,” said Andrea Montgomery, the owner and vice president of operations of Indiana-based Montgomery Aviation. “I like them broken up just a little bit.” In a continuation of the synergy, NBAA officials presented a seminar at the end of the FBO Leadership conference on successfully exhibiting at S&D.
The opening session featured a welcome and industry update from NBAA president Ed Bolen, along with an inspirational and often humorous speech by keynote speaker Susan O’Malley, the former president of Washington Sports and Entertainment, and the first female head of a professional U.S. sports franchise.
Then the real business of the conference began. Over the next three days, the show offered a slate of 32 NBAA-education-track-qualified breakout sessions with topics of interest to a wide range of attendees, from the seasoned corporate flight dispatcher to the rookie just entering the industry. Several sessions–such as Benchmarking for the Seasoned Scheduler/Dispatcher–proved so popular that extra seats had to be placed in the foyer outside the room to accommodate the overflow. Other sessions served the beginners, offering advice in Part 91 and Part 135 scheduling and aviation maintenance. Several sessions presented job and life coping skills and, given their options, attendees had their hands full. “There’s a lot of really good seminars and I had a hard time picking one out of four every time,” said LuAnn Zimmerman, a scheduler for Kimberly Clark. “I would have liked to attend a few more, but there just wasn’t time.”
As was the case last year, the organizers designated the final day of the show an education day and closed the exhibit floor Thursday night. An “International Night” reception held on the show floor extended the networking opportunities and kept things lively at the convention center until the evening.
Exhibitors were still constrained by the mandatory 10-foot by 10-foot booth size regardless of the size of the company, intended to give all exhibitors equal prominence, but a change this year allowed exhibitors to use full-size advertising displays rather than the previous table-top varieties in their booths. Those booths saw plenty of action as companies met with customers, both current and potential.
“For us it’s the best show of the year,” said Signature Flight Support vice president of marketing Patrick Sniffen. “It is a great opportunity to speak to our customers directly, and the folks who are making decisions on where airplanes are going. It’s a much more intimate show, and you have the opportunity to speak in a more relaxed atmosphere than you would at the bigger shows.”
“I’ve gotten more customers from this show than I ever have from the big one [NBAA’s annual convention],” noted Montgomery. “I probably have about three hundred solid leads that I am taking back.”
For many attendees, one of the prime benefits of the show is making those face-to-face connections. “You talk to some of these people for a decade, you have no idea what they look like, you wouldn’t know them if they walked up to you on the corner, but you get to sit down and talk to them,” said Jon Anne Doty, charter sales manager for Corporate Flight Management. “It gives you a connection to somebody and makes it more comfortable to call them if you need supplemental lift, if you need advice or need to discuss a new regulation.”
Along with that networking forum, one of the show’s underlying themes was to encourage attendees to “get connected” by frequenting NBAA’s Web site and using the resources available there, and by joining a regional group in their area.
The conference also recognized 20 individuals for their achievements in the Schedulers Professional Development Program, an offshoot of NBAA’s main professional development program, which offers specially tailored courses each year immediately preceding and at the site of the S&D conference. All 20 received either plaques or certificates of achievement or completed entire program modules.
“One of the positives about coming away from a show that was successful like this is that everybody is energized and recharged and ready to take that next step in bettering their flight department or their own professional development,” said Hall, who is also the v-p of marketing for Fargo Jet Center. At the end of the conference he handed over the S&D Committee chair to Chad Hartke, account manager for private aviation services at Marion, Iowa-based LimoLink. Hartke will be the helmsman for next year’s show as it moves back to the West Coast with a first-time visit to San Diego, from January 15 to 18.