Oshkosh to lose $170 million from AirVenture cancellation

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Joseph Schulz, Managing Editor

Each summer, over 600,000 aviation enthusiasts descend on Oshkosh, boosting the local economy. This year, however, there will be no visitors roaming the streets and no additional revenue for businesses still reeling from the pandemic.

In early May, EAA announced it was canceling its signature AirVenture event, planned for July 20 to 26. Instead of AirVenture, EAA will host a virtual Spirit of Aviation Week from July 21 to 25. 

Economic impact

AirVenture injects roughly $170 million into the Fox Valley Region each year, according to a 2017 UW Oshkosh study

The study found direct spending by AirVenture visitors and exhibitors totaled $121 million in the Fox Valley, creating additional spending of roughly $50 million for area business. 

Without that spending power, area businesses will likely suffer, as service providers, vendors and contractors who work directly with EAA will all be negatively impacted, according to Greater Oshkosh Economic Development Corp. CEO Jason White.

“Imagine having your restaurant full for days on end before, during and after AirVenture, versus now, where every other table must be closed off due to social distancing,” White said. “Imagine being an equipment rental company and having no vendors to lease to. Imagine servicing a portion of the 30,000 planes that land or take off that week, but now having no income from that activity.”

The lost revenue from AirVenture’s cancellation comes as some small businesses in the area are already facing a dire financial situation.

Pandemic hits small business

For example, Oaks Candy Corner closed its Waugoo Avenue location this month. At the same time, the owners of Parnell’s Place and Beachcomber Bar & Grill both announced they intend to sell their respective eateries.

White says companies that were struggling before the pandemic are typically the ones struggling the most to keep the lights on right now.

“That’s why it’s always important to maintain the fundamentals of your business in good times,” he said. “Sadly, I do expect more businesses to fail in this environment.” 

Local bars and restaurants, in particular, have had a tough go of it, as they were forced to close for dine-in service back in March, and are now limiting capacity to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

“2020 is going to be a very trying year for everybody,” said Steve Lawler, the owner of Red’s Pizza & Catering on Oregon Street. 

Red’s had to cancel 14 caterings as a result of AirVenture’s cancellation, many of which were the restaurant’s biggest of the year.

In addition to losing caterings, Lawler says the company will also lose income generated by its food tent on the EAA grounds during the week-long event. 

He declined to provide an exact figure for lost revenue from AirVenture’s cancellation, but described it as “significant.” 

“It’s definitely going to impact the business, but it is what it is,” Lawler said. “There isn’t much we can do about it, everybody’s pretty much in the same boat.” 

La Sure’s Hall Banquets & Catering has also taken a financial hit. Owner Bob Heisler noted the business usually does 50 to 60 caterings a week during the summer but is only doing one or two a week this summer. 

For a few months, he said the business was operating with only 3% of its usual income. When EAA canceled AirVenture in May, the company lost 10% of its revenue for the year. 

“If we hadn’t been in business for 45 years, we’d have been closed,” Heisler said. “July is going to be horrible, but at least it’s better than 3%; we might have 5% or maybe even 10% of our normal income in July.” 

Restaurants aren’t the only businesses hurting, as the lodging industry has also taken a significant hit. 

In mid-March as COVID-19 began to travel through Wisconsin tourists began calling to cancel reservations, according to Amy Albright, executive director for the Oshkosh Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Canceled bookings continued into April, only to crescendo in May with the cancellation of AirVenture, as the UW Oshkosh study found that lodging accounts for roughly 35% of all visitor spending during the event.

“The events in Oshkosh are a vital part of our tourism economy,” Albright said. “Certainly the cancellation of AirVenture, which is our biggest event, had a huge impact on our hotel and hospitality industry.”

That impact isn’t limited to Oshkosh and the Fox Valley, as it’s also being felt in the tourist town of Green Lake. 

Since March, the Green Lake Inn has lost roughly $39,000 in canceled bookings, of which $11,000 can be attributed to AirVenture’s cancellation, according to owner Linda Gaffney.

“I’ve been getting more phone calls, but I don’t know if I’ll get enough to be able to pay my taxes, insurance, utilities, advertisement bills and website bills,” she said. “There’s no way I’m going to make it through this summer unless something drastic happens.”

Planner’s perspective

AirVenture’s impact wasn’t ignored by event coordinators leading up to the cancellation, as it was continually in the back of their minds throughout the planning process, according to EAA Vice President of Marketing and Communications Rick Larsen. 

“We’ve talked at length about the positive economic impact the event has on the region,” Larsen said. “We’re aware of the struggles, whether it’s hotels and restaurants, or anybody else that’s being impacted by COVID-19. The cancellation of AirVenture adds to that.”

While coordinators were concerned with the economic costs of canceling the event, Larsen noted the organization ultimately decided the health risks of hosting the event were too great.

Leading up to the announcement, he added EAA members were reaching out to the organization, expressing concern about being in contact with a large group of people from all over the world. 

“Our membership and our volunteers certainly skew a bit older, and those were the folks expressing concern,” Larsen said. “We had to make a decision based on what was best for our volunteers, members and exhibitors from a safety standpoint.”

Moving forward

He noted Spirit of Aviation Week aims to keep members engaged by “offering a lot of the things EAA is known for” digitally.

While the event seeks to keep the community connected, it will not directly benefit the local economy the way AirVenture would.

“It’s not intended to,” Larsen said. “We realize that when the event is not happening, there’s a direct impact on the community.”

Though EAA has already announced dates for AirVenture 2021, its future largely depends on COVID-19’s future, as a vaccine remains at least a year away.

The organization is currently working to establish best practices for hosting an event of that magnitude amid the pandemic. 

“There will be elements of it [next year] that probably will be different from prior years in terms of making sure that we’re implementing best practices,” Larsen said. “Even if we get a vaccine, that doesn’t mean everybody will participate in getting it and that the virus completely goes away.”

In the meantime, White says the best thing residents can do is adjust their spending patterns to support small businesses. He encourages companies to apply for any financial assistance available before deciding to close. 

“We’ve been trying to promote and advocate that companies go after all the assistance that they can that’s out there right now,” White said.