If you notice me smiling more broadly than usual, it’s because I’m relieved. Our annual Wichita Aero Club Gala, held this past Saturday, was a huge success. Record crowd. Awesome speakers. Terrific vibe.

This was my fifth time co-chairing the event. I’ve been there from the get-go in 2009. Even though I managed and supported events early in my career when working for Flexjet and Bombardier Learjet, the gala has been an education for me. Here are some things I’ve learned that could benefit you, too.

Be Willing to Change Your Plan

Our first gala came on the heels of the worst recession since the Great Depression. The inaugural event actually took place during widespread layoffs. Rather than hosting a black-tie event as originally planned, we encouraged guests to put funds they might have applied to their wardrobe toward a gala auction. As a result, the club was able to present almost $32,000 to the United Way of the Plains Laid-Off Workers Fund.

Russ Meyer at Aero Club Gala
Wichita Aero Club Trophy Recipient and Cessna Chairman Emeritus Russ Meyer spoke about both industry and career highs. There was a time, he said, “If you were anyplace in the world, if you looked up and saw two airplanes flying, chances were 50 percent that one of them was a Cessna.”
Photo credit: Jeff Hetler, VMG LLC

Serve a Greater Good

While business aviation has certainly not fully recovered from the downturn, the last four galas have focused on advancing the industry through education initiatives. At the gala, we announced a second Wichita Aero Club scholarship. The newly formed scholarship honors the late Dean Humphrey, a beloved, longtime Cessna team member.

Change Things Up

Try something new. The challenge with an annual event hosted at the same venue is to find ways to make it fresh. Each year, we try to add a new element to get people talking and make them glad they came. We talk to people during and after the event to get a true feel for what we want to retain – and what we might want to change next go round. Whether it’s the placement of the registration table to ease congestion or ditching the after-party dance floor for live music only, adjust if something’s not working.

Aero Club Shrimp Buffet
A beautiful ice sculpture of the Wichita Aero Club logo not only served as a striking centerpiece, but it kept the cocktail shrimp fresh and cold.

Build on Your Wins

When people are still talking about elements of the evening months later, listen closely. Make sure you address any negatives and that you build the favored elements into next year’s plan. You don’t want to disappoint new attendees if they expect the event to be a certain way and it isn’t.

Add Worker Bees

Seek out volunteers who will be there in more than name only. Our gala committee started out as a group of three five years ago and has nearly tripled. Committee members donate countless hours of personal time. Even after full days at their offices, they still find the energy and enthusiasm for evening and weekend planning meetings. They’re totally vested in the event’s success.

Take Time to Celebrate

This year we honored Cessna Aircraft Company Chairman Emeritus Russ Meyer. Industry VIPs Ed Bolen, President of the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), and Pete Bunce, President and CEO, General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), were among those who traveled great distances to be there. Bolen, who presented the trophy, spoke from the heart, sharing personal anecdotes illustrating the impact Meyer has had on the industry.

I’ll close with one of Russ Meyer’s best quotes of the night. He said, “I promise you this: If I were 25 years old today, I’d pursue a career in this industry in a heartbeat.” That alone, for me, made a good night great.

Aero Club trophy
NBAA President Ed Bolen; Wichita Aero Club President Dave Franson; Greteman Group VP and Gala Trophy Chair Ashley Bowen Cook; and ADR President and Wichita Aero Club Board Chairman Patrick Tuttle share a moment.
Photo credit: Jeff Hetler, VMG LLC

Wichita Aero Club Trophy Recipients

2013: Russ Meyer, Chairman Emeritus, Cessna Aircraft Company 2012: John O’Leary and Airbus Americas Engineering 2011: Jeff Turner and Spirit AeroSystems 2010: Velma Wallace, wife of the late Dwane Wallace, Cessna Aircraft Company

* This article was originally published in the January 30 issue of BlueSky Business Aviation News.