In the absence of this year’s NBAA show that was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, AIN is publishing remembrances of past conventions from captains of the industry to you, our readers. The responses highlight how the annual event resonates throughout the industry. To read more, go to the NBAA Memories landing page.
Kathleen Blouin, NBAA senior v-p of conventions and forums (retired)
I could write a book about the NBAA Convention, which I attended from 1980 to 2015, but here are a few experiences that stand out.
The Katrina Story
On a Sunday, the late great Jan Barden woke me at 5 a.m. to advise that she was being evacuated from her home near New Orleans—Hurricane Katrina was coming with great force. The NBAA Convention was scheduled to be in that city in eight weeks. That afternoon I received two more calls. The amazing Kim Showalter simply said: Kathleen whatever you need us to do, we will do. The legendary Pat Epps called with the same message. Brian Williams on NBC Nightly News appeared in waders on Canal Street with water up to his hips, and I will never forget the look on NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen’s face as he appeared in my doorway on Monday.
After calling the few cities able to host the convention, we were on an airplane to Orlando. Although our normal East/West building was occupied throughout the Fall, the newly built North/South perfectly square hall was available.
Our Guardian Angel Ed McNeill, who had helped us through the September 11 crisis when the show was again to be held in New Orleans, had relocated to Orlando in a semi-official capacity with the convention bureau. He knew us and the convention well and made it his mission to bring all-hands-on-deck to fit us in. Linda Peters and Roxanne Ebbers reworked the 1,000,000-sq-ft show floor from a long narrow configuration to a square. Deb Hanson moved 30,000 hotel bookings. Joe Hart had perhaps the easiest job in working with the Showalters to layout the 150 display aircraft at Orlando Executive Airport. Of course, we were constantly on the phone with Ed. By Friday, we were able to tell the NBAA board that the convention had been successfully relocated from New Orleans to Orlando within eight weeks of the event—a monumental task. It was the Friday before Labor Day, and they told us to take Monday off.
For years, business aviation exhibitors complained that they were lost at the major airshows around the world. With the focus on military, commercial, and space, none felt they were obtaining enough attention. We were asked to consider a business aviation-centric event in Europe. NBAA has great knowledge of putting on events, but we needed help in creating one from scratch overseas and finding the best location for that event. We approached the European Business Aviation Association to partner with, and Fernand Francois, who was president of that association, suggested we meet in Geneva. As everyone now knows, Geneva Palexpo is located on Geneva International Airport. We thought we died and went to heaven.
One problem—there was no direct access from Palexpo to the desired static display area on the airport. Between the two was a French road used by French travelers since France borders GIA. We independently lobbied the airport with a suggested plan to build a simple bridge (former NBAA president Jack Olcott’s genius) over that road and did the same with Palexpo. They met and, between them, came up with a brilliant plan to build a bridge over the French road, and voila, problem solved. I genuinely believe the city of Geneva is a great part of the wonderful success of EBACE. Having used a tradeshow to advance business aviation in Europe, we established LABACE in Brazil and ABACE in Asia.
Linda Peters, Sandy Wirtz, and Marti Smith were already in the air on their way to New Orleans when the airplanes struck the World Trade Center on 9/11. When all flights were directed to land, Linda and Sandy’s plane was brought down in Alabama. One of them headed to baggage claim and the other to a car rental counter. The two drove from Alabama to New Orleans. Marti Smith was brought down in Chicago and on arrival, walked over to the Hilton and checked in. She returned to the airport to pick up her luggage and booked a 20-hour train ride to New Orleans. All that these three thought about was getting to the show site—my heroes. I was scheduled on a later flight, so I rented a car and started to drive the next day with Joe Hart and Bob Blouin.
On the way, Jack Olcott scheduled a board call resulting in their desire to postpone versus cancel the convention and we started to contact all the cities able to hold the show for available dates later in the year. When I arrived in New Orleans on Thursday, the convention staff was battle-scarred from wanting to go home to family but held captive by an air system that had been shut down. Of course, exhibitors were canceling considering the terror attacks, so the staff was being bombarded with inquiries.
The show crew was adamant that the only way to recreate the convention was to stay in New Orleans. Luckily, there was a display aircraft headed to Dulles so most of the staff was home by the weekend when flights were permitted again. My work was to meet with hotel and convention center personnel to negotiate out of cancellation penalties—terrorism was never even thought of as a reason for cancellation—and renegotiate for a later date. We hosted a truncated show in December since we believed the community needed to convene after such a tragic event.
Getting Our Proper Recognition
Tradeshow Magazine—obviously, the magazine for tradeshows—has a ranking of the largest tradeshows in the country each year based on the net square footage occupied by exhibits. In the 1990s, the NBAA Convention was ranked in the 30s. We noticed that the large agricultural show with huge machinery in the convention center parking lots was able to count that outdoor space in their square footage as was the homebuilding show with actual houses built in the parking lots. We were told that because the static display was not on convention center property, that additional one million square feet could not be included. We persisted, went on tradeshow association committees and boards, and finally turned that around. The NBAA Convention is now listed as one of the five largest tradeshows in the country. That means a lot when negotiating with cities, convention centers, hotels, and support vendors.
Parade of Airplanes
During our first time in Las Vegas, we realized how close McCarran International Airport was to the Las Vegas Convention Center. What if we tried to move airplanes from the airport—then site of the static display—to the convention center for an indoor display? The genius team of Joe Hart and Nelson Aveleno went to work looking at all obstacles on every roadway and came up with a plan to make an opening in the surrounding airport gate, remove and replace light poles, temporarily raise traffic lights, move signs and billboards, fill potholes and other roadway obstructions and ensure one of the doors in the convention center was wide enough to accommodate some of the planes. For obvious traffic reasons, the movement took place in the middle of the night. We were all excited to be part of the “Parade of Planes” and witnessed shocked expressions on folks in the streets as we passed by with our “Parade of Planes.” Of course, our parade is now a fixture of the convention in both Las Vegas and Orlando.
Warren Buffet and Al Ueltschi Strolling and Chatting
Can you imagine these two giants walking the halls of the convention center together? Well, it happened! We were asked by FlightSafety to allow the duo early entry into the convention which, of course, we went out of our way to accommodate. Having to be at the show early is a true benefit when these “Masters of the Universe” are strolling through the empty aisles and acres of exhibits just chatting away. The convention staff wore their finest apparel and stood at attention as the duo strolled by. What a pleasure!
Ed told me Apollo 11 flight commander Neil Armstrong’s accomplishments as a great explorer would go down in history next to Christopher Columbus. Commander Armstrong was not a fan of the spotlight, but somehow Ed convinced him to appear at the show. It was my distinct honor to escort him to the opening general session and the luncheon afterward. That was no small task as so many attendees wished his autograph, to take a picture with him, or just to ask him questions. He just did not wish to do any of that. We have had so many greats at the show, but I was most impressed with having Neil Armstrong there.