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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Hosting Industrial-Military Expositions; Searching for the Middle Ground

By Andrew Drwiega

The opening late afternoon session of the U.S. Army Aviation Association of America (Quad-A) annual convention usually has a vibrant expectation to it. An eclectic mix of fighting men and women all with aviation in common, some shouldering old buddies with the “where the heck did you go” conversation; beside them old veterans—some recently retired and working in industry, others “really” retired and getting the respectful greetings that they have earned through their service. And amid all of this is expectant industry eager to push forward their products and services (and increase their revenues or just guarantee corporate survival).

All of this comes together for a few days of information sharing and pushing Army Aviation development forward a few more steps.

At Fort Worth this year, though, it was different. You could have shot a Hellfire down some of the aisles on opening night, safe in the knowledge you wouldn’t hit anyone in uniform. The tumbleweed in the city’s environs would have been at home here. The cuts made to the U.S. Army’s travel budget through the sequestration process had a major impact. Although it did get better, marginally, the following day, it had died again by the close. With exhibitors taking a brave stance by declaring that they had more time to talk to those who were there (including industry peers on the surrounding stands), there was no escaping the fact that this cannot happen next year. Either the Department of Defense (DoD) will have to rethink its travel allowances, or the organizers and industry will have to drastically rework the way the convention is done.

To back away from industry conventions, particularly those that are as well established as this, is a grave mistake. Drastically reducing military contact with industry, especially the lower-tier players, will be bad for the future. The multinational OEMs will always have their lobbyists to maintain contact with those at the top in government and the senior military, but where the axe-restricting travel hits hardest is with the smaller concerns to whom suddenly having their order book frozen for 18 months means almost certain disaster. It is they who need to keep their business’ finger on the pulse. They need to hear what Maj. Gen. William Crosby, PEO Aviation, has to say. And they need the word on the street, rubbing shoulders with those serving and their peers in business. This is their recon—their intel mission.

Crosby offered the organizers a solution: “If we can’t come to you, then you come to us.” He means hold the events near to the key U.S. Army Aviation sites of Huntsville, Redstone and Fort Rucker. The problem here is a lack of facilities suitable for staging events the size of Quad-A in these locales.

There is not the draw of the “side events” that the big cities offer either, or more importantly the range of hotels for the thousands that attend. Perhaps this ultimately leads to a plethora of smaller, more focused events, staged throughout the year. But that too would not be ideal as it could increase travel rather than reduce it. Or perhaps there is another solution.

Would the military be able to open their own facilities for this kind of event, for which they may even generate additional revenue? The problems are many: finding a suitable location, security access to the site—for industry, visitors and even media, power supply for all the stands, catering, parking—the list is long. But perhaps somewhere in there is a short-term solution that might be workable if not as a direct replacement, then perhaps as part of the solution? Certainly there are too many exhibition and conferences, both in the U.S. and internationally. And also during years-gone entertainment, by that I mean corporate after-hours events, played a role and it was very much “work hard, play hard.” But that can be moderated.

Tightening up on what can be attended and supported by the military should be examined. But there needs to be a more pragmatic approach than just a blanket ban on all attendance. That, in business terms, reminds me of the oft-cited case where an organization that is going through a difficult period starts its cash-saving drive by cutting the advertising budget. Not smart, and almost always counter-productive!

Editor’s Note: As this issue went to press, the Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA) announced that its 2014 Winter Symposium will be held at Redstone Arsenal in Hunstville, Ala.

 

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