AINsight: To Be Or Not To Be at NBAA-BACE 2020?

 - June 19, 2020, 10:44 AM

As professionals across the business aviation industry consider the current state of affairs given the pandemic, it has become apparent that we are living through an historic time. Covid-19 has been the aviation industry's equivalent of Black Swan windscreen strike at FL450 that has obliterated much of our forward visibility.

With just 109 days left until the scheduled opening of NBAA-BACE 2020 in Orlando, Florida, many dyed-in-the-wool attendees are likely staring at their wide-open travel calendars and asking themselves: am I ready to do this?

Long before that question is resolved, more fundamental issues face exhibitors at The Greatest Bizav Show on Earth, who are approaching a go/no-go decision on committing budget, staff, and other resources to the annual trek—this year to Orlando’s cavernous Orange County Convention Center (OCCC). An event that has continuously attracted more than 25,000 devoted attendees and a sky-darkening fleet of new and preowned business aircraft, NBAA-BACE is the largest and most impactful gathering of industry leaders.

In many ways, the entire experience can be likened to a three-plus-day smorgasbord of back-to-back meetings, must-attend briefings, dazzling displays, and countless handshakes and business card exchanges that are today’s measures of goodwill—and good business.

I am going to make a leap-of-faith assumption that most readers have had the opportunity to attend at least one past NBAA-BACE. For them, the convention and exhibition provide an unmatched opportunity to connect with a vast array of customers and suppliers at one time under one massive roof. They have come to know that there is simply no better venue to gain an appreciation for business aviation’s hallmark technologies, hardware, software, and avant-garde services.

For the young and the young at heart, NBAA-BACE is a place to connect and reconnect with like-minded people from every corner of the globe, united in time and place. They share a passion for the industry and know that NBAA-BACE is the premier event on their annual calendar to gather competitive intelligence, get exposure to next-generation technology and talent, meet friends and colleagues, and even kick a few tires.

Some will invariably “geek out” with VR goggles, the latest avionics gadgetry, and Wi-Fi systems that somehow manage to crisply operate at 500 knots 45,000 feet above the ground. Among the happiest will be those who bring their pen to sign an aircraft purchase contract—and those who finally get to book the sale.

NBAA-BACE is not a building or an event so much as it is a state of mind—an intoxicating elixir of solutions to cure the weariest air traveler. While the signage, displays, and well-dressed executives might scream “industry convention,” NBAA-BACE plays a unique role in showcasing leading-edge products and technologies that unfailingly entice customers to its well-set table.

While other industry gatherings have their unique regional appeal and important roles to play, NBAA-BACE’s U.S. location—home base to 58 percent of all fixed-wing turbine-powered business aircraft in operation today—assures the kinds of attendance levels that help build brand reputations and generate marketing ROI to encourage smiles from the grumpiest CFO, if only for a moment.

With about 3.5 months to go, domestic return airfares and hotel nights at four-star resorts within OCCC walking distance can be purchased for less than $100 each, a remarkable deal that alone should encourage would-be attendees to “step right up, folks!” Low prices and family-friendly attractions are among the intoxicating “secret sauces” that consistently entice convention-goers, a recipe that the developers of Orlando, Las Vegas, and other convention resort cities long ago perfected as a science.

Enter the Covid-19 dragon. Confirmed exhibitors and attendees are more than aware that this year’s NBAA-BACE will be unlike any previous and perhaps any that follow. Handshakes? Nope. Business card exchanges? Well, maybe for the long-armed. Face mask-to-face mask meetings?  Yes!

If Covid-19 has taught us an enduring lesson, it is that humans are inherently adaptable, clever at puzzle-solving, and driven to succeed despite obstacles and setbacks. Multitaskers will once again prove their net worth as they navigate the great hall of the OCCC while talking, texting, dealing, and smiling—among friends new and old, and thankful for their transparent face mask.

With 109 days until the opening NBAA-BACE 2020 bell, the pace of exhibitor registrations appears to be well behind prior years, although most “big name” companies have committed to attend. For many exhibitors, including anchor tenants investing millions of dollars per show, questions such as display sizes and floor plans, event travel and entertainment budgets, and the numbers of static display aircraft and crews might still need to be resolved.

Limited air travel options into Orlando, international travel restrictions, and the fear of Covid-19 exposure in a region currently experiencing a sharp uptick in coronavirus cases are all conspiring to complicate the decision to attend NBAA-BACE 2020.

On the one hand, events such as NBAA-BACE are vital to replenish the cash reserves of a key advocacy group that has long defended the interests of business aviation through good times and bad. On the other hand, reduced show attendance could mean that legitimate sales prospects and steady booth traffic are as scarce as snowballs in the Florida heat.

In years past, commitments to attend The Greatest Bizav Show on Earth likely didn’t warrant the careful scrutiny they do in 2020. For some, the decision to attend will be made in a boardroom and communicated at the appropriate time.

For others, these will be intensely personal decisions that factor in the known risks on one hand, and FOMO—the fear of missing out—on the other. Those who choose to stay home will stay as connected as possible through social media. Others who make the trek to Orlando will more likely be rewarded with the available new business, whether in spite of the face mask or perhaps because of it.