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Air shows are flying high on the wings of spectator and sponsor interest.

Last year, some 450 such events were held across North America, drawing 26.3 million spectators, according to the International Council of Air Shows. The Jackson, Mich.-based group estimates the 1995 audience should rise nearly 3% to 27 million.

Sponsorship dollars have soared along with the events, said Jim Andrews, VP-editorial with International Events Group, Chicago. The sports and event marketing consultancy lumps air shows into the festival marketing category, where U.S. and Canadian corporations spent $382 million in '94, up 15% from '93.

At the inaugural Shell Air & Sea Show in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., this month, 29 corporate sponsors ponied up a total of $2 million in cash and in-kind services to get their names before an estimated 800,000 spectators over two days. Sponsors included Coca-Cola, Kodak, Anheuser-Busch's Budweiser, Bombardier Sea-Doo, Wellcraft boats and McDonald's, along with a host of local marketers, most of which were bonded by cross-promotions created by event promoter Mickey Markoff.

"Promotion is just one ingredient," Mr. Markoff said. "They have to drive sales."

Face-to-face with spectators

By getting involved in air shows, marketers are buying a "more tangible presence" in the community, Mr. Andrews said. The face-to-face contact with attendees provides a chance to conduct sampling and couponing, and develop a bond.

On the downside, popularity means the possibility of an air traffic jam of sponsor clutter, Mr. Andrews said, citing the 1992 Chicago Budweiser Air & Water Show, which drew more than 2 million spectators but also 89 corporate sponsors.

Civilian interest in military aircraft is often the engine that lifts an air show. Even with shrinking budgets, the military is putting on its own shows as well as attending civilian-sponsored events, said Maria King, president of Special Events Network, Cherry Hill, N.J.

The Navy's Blue Angels and the Air Force's Thunderbirds are booked solid during their 39-week schedules, said Navy Cmdr. Mike Manazir, who schedules both teams.

Defense cuts have left would-be corporate sponsors in a catch-22 situation. The Navy and Air Force teams can meet roughly one-third of the requests they receive, and military rules restrict corporate sponsorships on military bases.

Vintage planes popular

In Columbia, Mo., promoters running the seventh Memorial Day Weekend Salute to Veterans Celebration have discovered that civilian-owned relic military aircraft also draw to crowds. This year, 100,000 are expected to see craft from corporate sponsor McDonnell Douglas Corp., as well as the Thunderbirds, the Army Golden Knights parachute team and more than a dozen aircraft from both world wars, said event Chairman Mary McCleary Posner.

Along with aircraft, attendees also come for the chance to see veterans from Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Korea and more recent conflicts.

"We allow them to see heroes," she said. "These are ordinary people who did extraordinary things."

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