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Thu, Mar 27, 2003

Are Sun 'n Fun's Attendance Numbers 'Fudged?'

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 idiots.

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..."

Rousos 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 official report.

Uh, oops...

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 show.

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).

We 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 course.

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."

Some 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...).

FMI: www.sun-n-fun.org; Ledger article

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