ModAero, an Ill-Fated Attempt at a New Aviation Event

Indie band American Fangs rocks out for an empty field in Conroe, Texas, at ModAero NextGen Aviation Festival. Courtesy Sam Weigel

Flying is a tough enough way to make a living sometimes — but for real economic desperation, try starting and running an aviation business. It’s a costly, unstable industry in which margins tend to be razor thin in even the best of times. The difficulty of consistently squeezing a profit out of things that fly is evidenced by the long list of airlines, charter operators, aircraft and equipment manufacturers, FBOs, and flight schools that have gone out of business over the years. The vexing thing is many of the failed ventures had good ideas and quality products but failed due to poor timing, ruthless competitors, inadequate funding, poor management or just plain hubris. A few good ideas never really made it much past the drawing-board stage but were hyped as though they had, and in these cases, the collapses were particularly spectacular. Names like Jim Bede are still hotly controversial throughout aviation, even many years later.

I recently had the dubious honor of watching, up close, the downfall of a potentially good but ultimately doomed idea. ModAero NextGen Aviation Festival was the brainchild of Brian Columbus, youthful publisher of the Atlantic Flyer News. His idea was to put together a new aviation event that would bring together younger pilots and nonpilots alike by marrying fly-in staples, like underwing camping, aircraft displays, vendor booths, forums and speakers, with a career fair, drone racing and a three-day music festival. It was held at the Lone Star Convention Center in Conroe, Texas, March 16 to 19 of this year.

My involvement with ModAero came about when Brian asked me to speak at the event. Now, mind you, I’m not much of a public speaker and never have been; like Dirty Harry said, a man’s got to know his limitations. But as I looked through ModAero’s slick website, I had to admire Brian’s vision. I wanted it to succeed. The target demographic has considerable overlap with my column’s readership. The concert lineup looked good and included several aritsts I wanted to see, like the Hi-Yahs and Robert DeLong. So I told Brian I would do it; he penciled me in for a main-stage presentation on Friday, March 17.

I spent the week before ModAero writing my speech, crafting a 40-slide multimedia presentation to go with it, and honing my delivery. I flew into Houston the afternoon prior, on ModAero’s first day, and decided to stop in at the convention center to get the lay of the land. The first sign that things had gone horribly wrong was when I was able to find parking in the first row, only yards from the entrance gate. I walked inside and the place was virtually deserted. About 20 aircraft, most secured and unattended, were scattered across a few grassy acres with a similar number of vendor and exhibitor tents. A few idle sales reps sat beneath their canopies, seeking refuge from the Texas sun and surveying the mostly empty grounds. Nobody was at the ModAero welcome tent or the large festival-style main stage piled high with speakers and musical instruments. The large Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association tent at show central looked a bit alive, so I headed over there. Polo-clad rep Pat Brown met me at the association’s pretty Yellowbird 152 and introduced himself. “Where are the crowds?” I asked. Brown gave a wry smile. “They’re, uh, a little light. First year and all.” I asked why none of the scheduled presenters were on the main stage. “They moved it inside,” Pat said, waving toward the nearby exhibition hall. “Weather, they said.”

I walked inside the dim hall; it too was mostly empty. There was one sad little row of exhibitors, mostly flight schools and a couple of desperate regional airlines giving out swag and applications to anyone who looked like they might have 1,500 hours and a pulse. Off to one corner was a portable stage with A/V equipment on it and 50 white plastic chairs arrayed in front. Half were presently occupied. I sat down and listened to one of the Boldmethod CFIs give a presentation on maintaining currency. It was good and everyone clapped afterward, and I thought that perhaps a smaller crowd would be just the ticket to a nerves-free speaking debut.

ModAero's slick website showed promise. Flying

Back outside, I belatedly spied the Diamond DA62 thanks to the crowd of six admirers milling around the sleek Austrian twin. This is the only example of the type in North America, and it was nice to look it over in a relaxed environment. Eventually I drifted over to the beer tent; a local craft brewery was selling cold tasty suds at $4 a can, a real airshow steal if I ever saw one. I ended up sharing a picnic table with two aircraft sales reps and a young man about to get out of the military who was trying to get hired as a pilot. He told me he had attended the previous day’s career fair. His pre-purchased $75 ticket gained him and about 20 other applicants the chance to speak with junior recruiters for five regional airlines. Worse, he had paid $30 extra for a “power lunch” that turned out to not actually exist, and no refund was forthcoming. The sales reps had their own tales of woe. Exhibition space was running around $2,000 per airplane, and they had been told that 800 aircraft were expected to fly in for the event. Indeed, detailed Oshkosh-like arrival instructions had been posted to the ModAero website. Yet airplane noise was almost entirely absent from the convention grounds.

While we were talking, the first band of the night started playing on the main stage. It featured a Dallas-based blues guitarist, and he was actually really good. But absolutely nobody was anywhere near the stage; the only audience was the two dozen of us sitting a hundred yards away drinking beer. We gave a little embarrassed clap every time the band finished a song, and they carried on as though playing for a full house. It was amazing. Subsequently, American Fangs, an indie-rock band in the SXSW mold, took the stage. They too were pretty good. But now the small remaining audience was rapidly filtering out of the gate as daylight faded, and the four at my table decided to follow suit and adjourn to a nearby dockside dive for drinks and dinner. We left American Fangs to rock out for an empty field.

ModAero’s attendance wasn’t any better the next day. I hung out at the exhibit hall stage for a few hours, listening to the various presentations until it was my turn. My audience turned out to be all of four people — including the speaker before me and the speaker after me. For 28 minutes, I earnestly held forth on the importance of “keeping the fun in flying as a professional pilot” to a NASA astronaut trainer, an aviation insurance broker and two eager-faced kids who at least looked like my target audience. They were a good crowd, listening with rapt attention, pretending to laugh at my jokes and flattering me with applause at the talk’s conclusion.

There was one presentation after mine, and then a ModAero volunteer approached the stage to announce that the beer tent, as well as that night’s concert featuring the Hi-Yahs and Robert DeLong, was hereby canceled “due to weather concerns.” I’d actually been considering staying a second night to catch the concert, but no beer and no music was too far a bummer. I bounded out of the hall into bright sunshine, past the empty vendor tents and deserted display airplanes, and out to IAH to catch an evening airline flight home to Minneapolis.

For being what I had thought was a pretty decent idea, ModAero turned out to be a pretty spectacular bust. More than one exhibitor was spitting mad, and I subsequently heard terms like “scam” and “con artists” being bandied about. I’m a bit more charitable. Yes, ModAero’s website included wildly optimistic claims like “200 display aircraft” and “more than 100 employers” at the career fair, but I don’t doubt that’s what Brian envisioned, worked toward and hoped for. There were some basic flaws to his plan, though, starting with holding the event the week of spring break. Convincing broke college kids to give up their sunny beach week spent cavorting with bikini-clad coeds in favor of attending a nearly all-male aviation event in suburban Houston is a pretty tough sell. Other failures included holding the event at a convention center instead of the adjacent airport where manufacturers could at least give demo rides, and not publicizing the music festival to the nonaviation public. The whole event seemed rather underpromoted. There appears to have been an “if you build it, they will come” mindset. That’s simply not the case.

I give Brian credit for at least trying and putting in the Herculean effort required to launch a new event. I’m sorry it didn’t work out like so many other good ideas in aviation have not. I feel especially bad for the exhibitors and vendors who put their limited time and marketing dollars into what turned out to be a total bust. Theirs is a tough enough business without such missteps. As for the future of ModAero? I think with some tweaks it could be a viable event, though Brian was coy when I asked about it after the show. Nothing would surprise me. Spectacular failures have been a constant feature since the dawn of aviation — but so have audacious comebacks.

Sam Weigel has been an airplane nut since an early age, and when he's not flying the Boeing 737 for work, he enjoys going low and slow in vintage taildraggers. He and his wife live west of Seattle, where they are building an aviation homestead on a private 2,400-foot grass airstrip.

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