Although it's been no secret to attendees (and
many vendors), it's escaped the local rah-rah crowd in and near Sun
'n Fun's host city of Lakeland (FL): the numbers the Fly-In
puts out are, um... optimistic.
Now, nobody's really worried that the egoes of the SnF POWERFUL
BOARD are being massaged by the incredible numbers they regularly
spew -- in and of themselves, they're just numbers. What is getting
under the skin of so many of the faithful -- what else could
explain the acceptance? -- is that Sun 'n Fun
profits from its high, self-reported,
unaudited attendance figures.
Last year, we expressed open incredulity at SnF's
claims, on these pages; but the locals in politics in Lakeland and
surrounding Polk County refused to examine their own pet project.
Heck -- we like big airshow attendance! We like
big fly-in attendance -- we're aviation press,
ferpetesake. What we don't like is being treated like
Last week, even The Lakeland Ledger, an unabashed
cheerleader for the biggest thing in Lakeland, raised an eyebrow.
Reporter Rick Rousos did a lot of homework, examining, among other
things, SnF's 2001 tax filings. He noted, "Sun 'n Fun
claimed an 'estimated attendance' of 645,000 for its
weeklong fly-in in April 2001. But Sun 'n Fun's tax and internal
records show the attendance was less than 250,000. Of that number,
86,515 actually paid to get in..."
was liberal in his estimates (and told ANN yesterday that he, "gave
them every benefit of the doubt") of how many could actually have
shown up. For instance, he counted seven days' attendance for each
of several identified groups -- volunteers (4000) and campers
(12,000) were even counted separately, although it is well-known
that a lot of the volunteers are camping. He counted 503 exhibitors
six times (each gets six passes), then seven times (seven days),
and then added a 65% fudge factor, giving SnF "35,000"
exhibitor-person-days. He counted the 1100 VIPs twice. All
this "rounding up" still gave him a figure of 242,000 for the
show's attendance, about 400,000 shy of the organization's
Sun 'n Fun profits from its high numbers,
though -- and that means somebody could be
getting fleeced. Rousos dug around a little more, and
saw that SnF had raked in some $326,000 in Polk County
Tourist Development Fund dollars since 1995 (and ANN
believes that it has found even more money), based on its
attendance figures. If we're understanding The Ledger
correctly, that smells like fraud, and it's
criminal. Additionally, SnF has been telling its legion of vendors
that the attendance numbers are huge, when they're apparently not.
That, too smells -- and the very people from whom we buy,
are being overcharged for their exposure at the
Rousos couldn't get anyone from SnF to tell him
just how the numbers were conjured up. John Burton, who has run the
show since 1999, told Rousos that, even though the show is seven
days long, he counts attendance for ten days. Why? Because
"There are a lot of people setting up for the event." Yeah -- ever
try to "attend" three days early?
Burton has met a bit of resistance from some of the
County's board. One, who runs a year-around attraction nearby, said
flat out that SnF's numbers weren't credible.
Others don't care so much. One Lakeland commissioner, apparently
content that SnF is getting public money based on questionable
numbers, told The Ledger's reporter, "So what?" Another
city commissioner, when told of Rousos's findings, said, "...the
(lowered) numers don't surprise me." ...and these are the folks who
watch over tax dollars!
It's not like that, everywhere... take Oshkosh:
Although we at ANN have also been openly skeptical of Oshkosh's
numbers, we've always cut the big airshow some slack. For one
thing, while the estimates may look a little high to us,
they're not ridiculous. Secondly, Oshkosh doesn't get public money
based on attendance, as SnF does (despite their denials,
under oath before a Federal judge).
talked with EAA President, Tom Poberezny (right),
by cell phone, between flights yesterday. He shed light on the way
the big show puts its attendance figures together. "Our numbers,"
he said, "are based on a number of things -- registrations,
volunteer numbers, vendors -- we bring all those together," and the
organization sees where the figure falls out. The EAA's process is
at least semi-scientific, with realism as a goal: "It's not based
on putting our finger up in the wind... It's based on trying get a
real number," he told us.
He explained, "'750,000 attendance' doesn't mean 750,000
different people -- our attendance is about 200,000
different individuals." Even though there are a lot of
ways to count, it's important to be realistic, Poberezny said:
"Somebody might come through the gate ten times in a given day. We
don't count 'attendance' that way. Of course, a lot of people do
stay for multiple days." That's a legitimate count. As the Prez
said, "We think we're in the ballpark."
There's another difference that's worth noting: while
Sun 'n Fun regularly gets tax money, the Oshkosh fly-in and
convention do not. That removes the Wisconson folks's
motivation to fudge the numbers. "We don't depend on outside
funding; our attendance numbers aren't tied into any public
funding," Tom assured us. He continued, in order to be precise: "We
do not receive any public funding, relative to the convention;
there is the typical FAA funding that goes to the airport
-- we, and all tenants, benefits from those improvements." Of
Vendors are Miffed...
One longtime and key player, designer and business
owner who has been attending SnF since Florida was a colony, wrote
us: "The information you gave us regarding 'padding' the Sun 'n Fun
attendance count is exactly what we, as exhibitors, have said for
years. I know of several companies who have pulled out of this
year's event because they just didn't see the 'crowds' that
Sun-N-Fun claimed. Notably absent this year will be the Lopresti
mod people, Kitfox... and probably others."
Another well-respected and long-time exhibitor (who finally has
decided to not come, after more than a decade's heavy presence)
told us, "I think the attendance issue hits the mark as to why
S&F is not a 'buying' show."
vendors (past and present) have told ANN that they are about to
seek civil damages, based on the airshow's
apparent attendance-figure-fudging; and some others have also said
that they may seek criminal prosecution.
At some point, provided the public-funding issues are not swept
away by the Lakeland/Polk County Old Boy's Club, we could
conceivably see fines, or even indictments against those who are
accepting funds under such questionable circumstances.
At the very least, those trustees of our tax
money, in government, should have to answer for their
sloppy acceptance of the SnF attendance figures (not to mention
MANY other statements of dubious veracity...).