AOPA's brilliant decision to replace Summits with local/regional events is a positive change

3:18 PM

By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor
About two months ago, I was enjoying another great meeting of my EAA chapter 1457 at the Oregon Air and Space Museum, when the answer to a question I had been pondering for some time became clear.
I was watching another installment of the extremely high-quality and very popular EAA Chapter Video Magazine, a well-produced video presentation that can only be seen when members attend a person. These videos are not available anywhere else but at EAA meetings, and it really makes those in attendance feel like the people at the top of EAA care deeply that their members have a positive experience with each chapter meeting.
The question I was pondering was pretty simple. With each EAA chapter meeting, my personal connection to that association was growing stronger, and it made me realize that the one thing that was missing from my relationship with AOPA was a direct connection between the association and myself as a member.
I have been an AOPA member since 1996, and have immense respect and appreciation for everything - EVERYTHING - that AOPA does. The praise I have for that association has been well documented on this blog. AOPA's website is nearly perfect in my opinion. Their programs are first-class, and their lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C. are vital to the future of GA. I could go on all day about the stellar services AOPA provides to the GA pilot community. But the direct, face-to-face contact with other pilots that EAA's monthly chapter meetings create just was not there with AOPA. Outside of AirVenture, Sun 'n Fun and the popular ASF Safety Seminars, there just doesn't seem to be any glue holding the AOPA members together in the way that building experimental airplanes does with EAA.
There is no AOPA equivalent of the EAA monthly chapter meetings. This is the major difference between the two associations, and the topic became top of the mind to me recently when AOPA announced a major change to their operational structure that eliminates their annual national Summit events in favor of more "grassroots events" at community airports across the country.
As AOPA prepares for their 2013 Summit event next month, making the announcement now was bold, and direct:
"AOPA's Aviation Summit in Fort Worth, TX, from Oct. 10 through 12, 2013 will be held as planned and is shaping up to be one of the best ever. We are on track for thousands of members to join us and the exhibit hall is nearly sold out, with new exhibitors still signing up. But convention plans for 2014 have been cancelled. In 2014, AOPA will host a series of enhanced pilot town halls and fly-ins. These Saturday events will give members the chance to share in a discussion with Mark Baker and other AOPA leaders, partake in an educational forum, and enjoy a burger or a hotdog on AOPA."
This is a sea change in the philosophy behind AOPA operations and how the association relates to its members. Done right, this decision to go out and "meet pilots where they fly" could make monumental strides towards fixing what I perceive as a relationship gap that exists between AOPA brass and its rank-and-file members.

AOPA's VP, Communications, Katie Pribyl recently gave Airplanista a better look at how and why this decision was made, and also allowed us to glimpse what these new events will look like:
"While Summit has been a wonderful event," Pribyl explained, "it reaches a relatively small segment of our membership. We want to get out to community airports and meet more of our members where they fly. This decision has been in the making for some time and many people were involved in it, including AOPA's new President, Mark Baker. Ultimately, after much discussion and analysis, our Board of Trustees voted to end Summit in favor of smaller, more frequent, and more widespread events. We evaluated Summit very carefully, in terms of our mission, member feedback, attendance, and resources. And we came to the conclusion that it is time to do something different to engage our members."
It's that key word - resources - that contributed greatly to this decision. Pribyl elaborates:
"Of course finances played a part in the decision. The economics of hosting large conventions have changed substantially in recent years, and many industries are moving away from these kinds of events. Summit, and previously Expo, has vacillated between a profit-making venture and not. More important, though, was a look at the total resources committed to Summit, everything from the time invested in planning and promoting to the number of staff traveling. We had to ask ourselves if we could be using those resources differently to have a bigger impact on our members in the ways in which they want to engage with their association, and the answer was yes. AOPA's financial health is solid, and I wouldn't call the decision to move to more regional events a cost-cutting move. It's much more about aligning our resources to match member desires."  
O.K., so if the financial ramifications make sense, how about the physical make-up of the events? How will AOPA leverage this new engagement model in 2014 and beyond? Again, here's Pribyl:
"We are feverishly working on what these regional events/fly-ins will look like next year and as soon as those details are firmed-up, we’ll be communicating them to members.  But in our first year, we’ll probably hold 5-7 regional events. The events will differ with the venue and occasion, but we are planning Saturday events where participants can expect to hear from Mark Baker and ask him questions. He wants the chance to meet members where they fly and speak with them in an informal setting, so expect him to spend time conversing with participants. Also, members will be able to take part in a seminar, and enjoy a meal on us.  Plus, we’ll have additional fun and engaging activities unique to each location."
That model sounds familiar to Allan Beiderman (AOPA # 01064115), a private pilot based at KPNE (Philadelphia, Northeast Airport). "I remember the old AOPA fly-ins at KFDK," Beiderman said, "lots of cool planes, forums, vendors and chow. If AOPA is looking for less glitz and more grassroots contact with members, then setting up a traveling version of those KFDK fly-ins would make sense." He also threw in an idea that actually sounds quite interesting:
Airplanista illustration; not an official AOPA image
"Rather than hitting the road in something as mundane as a tour bus," Beiderman said, "they should modify an old Russian AN-2 biplane, maybe paint it up in AOPA colors. It's as big as a bus, and just about as slow. It would bring crowds wherever it landed, and AOPA could then properly barnstorm the United States with a biplane. You don't get much more grassroots than that! I am half-kidding, but only half. An AOPA barnstorming tour of all different types of aircraft showing off the utility and diversity of the GA mission could boost public awareness and bring non-pilots (eventual pilots) out to the airport to enjoy the festivities."
In closing, Pribyl emphasized how important it is right now for AOPA to develop more direct contact with its members. "Certainly, general aviation has struggled, as has every industry in the past few years. But we are optimistic about the future. We’ve got a rush of innovation happening in avionics, airframes, training, and everything in between. We’ve got millions of people in this country who say they’d like to learn to fly. And we’ve got hundreds of thousands of active pilots who are committed to GA and want to share what they love. We can accomplish a lot if we energize our own community and we’ll be attempting to do a lot of that with these new events. We want to have more direct contact with our members, and we want to meet them where they fly. That means seeing them in their own environment, hearing their concerns, and keeping them informed about how AOPA is working for them."

As a long-time AOPA fan, I view this new momentum towards local and regional events as a win-win-win. AOPA wins because they get to engage their members in a smaller, more personal setting. The members win because we should now gain regular access to the top brass that usually can be found somewhere between AOPA HQ in Frederick and Capitol Hill. And the aviation family wins because these new events should draw the public out to the airport and make them aware of our world.
And it's my contention that if we can just keep dragging the public out to the airport to show them how incredibly cool flying general aviation airplanes is, a positive rate of climb in the pilot population has to be a direct result.

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