Darcy Brewer | Crain's Sacramento

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Darcy Brewer

Background:  

The California Capital Airshow is a nonprofit best known for its two Mather Field-based events in spring and fall that feature some of the finest displays of aircraft and piloting skills in Northern California. Darcy Brewer has served as executive director for 10 years and has helped CCA evolve based on what attendees want.

The Mistake:

Ten years ago, I was the one who ultimately decided what direction the Capital City Airshow should go. I should have asked the public what it wanted, because they are the ones who ultimately make the event a success or a failure.

When I started designing a show, I, along with our team and board members, made the decision to be the guiding light. I’m a pilot, so I thought I knew what was cool, what was colorful, what was inspirational, and what was patriotic. I knew what the public would most enjoy. And everything seemed great year after year.

But a few years ago, we had a bad year, attendance wise. At the same time, the world was changing when it came to social media. People now express themselves whether you want them to or not. That’s when we began to learn that there were some decisions we’d made that people weren’t happy about, and items that needed to be changed that we had never considered before.

The reality is, all of those years, I should have been asking the people who attend – the people here who purchase tickets, and the families who come from near and far – what they wanted to see. For public perception to change, we had to ask the hard questions about what attendees liked and didn’t like.

Being willing to hear the good, the bad and the ugly has definitely changed the way we do business.

 

The Lesson:

Instead of assuming you know what people want when providing a product or service, imagine if you had access to the data provided by those customers, or prospective customers, and you can actually ask them what they want?

Now, everything that we do has an assessment to it. Ninety percent of our ticket holders buy tickets online and get them via email. We use their email addresses to send an assessment survey a few days after the event. About 20 percent to 30 percent participate.

We’re opening ourselves up to their honest critique – these are not yes or no questions. We’ll ask, “What did your kids think?” or “What can we improve?” We want opinions on how we can best serve our community. We’re a nonprofit – that’s what our mission is. People have a right to help drive us.

We watch those responses very closely. With more avenues for people to share pictures and comments, and have it go viral, you definitely need the points of view of spectators.

Also, we do the assessments with everybody. Our board members are allowed to vent and provide kudos, as well as our 130-plus volunteers. I can’t talk to them all. I try. But how do I know that we’re serving them well, when they’re giving us an entire weekend in 95-degree weather? What can we do better for them?

Of course, we can’t do everything people ask. We end up with about 150,000 words of narratives to filter through. We use tags and keywords to find out what the top 5 or 10 things are, and these are the ones we focus on at first.

We also can’t afford it to do it all as a 501(c)(3), but we can do a little bit every year. Maybe it will be 10 years before we meet the majority of the sensible requests. But you do it gradually: a few this year; next year we’ll tackle these, and so on. And you monitor what people think of your changes.

We also can’t do it by focusing on social media alone. People have vocally mentioned concerns about some things, and upon looking into it, we found they were completely right. I will pick up the phone and call these people and say, “You are right. We don’t want to make that mistake again. Would you consider coming back next year, after we’ve implemented some of the suggestions you’ve made, and be a secret shopper?” Some of them really like the idea and take part in it.

And, to a degree, we follow some of the best practices of other, older airshows.

Since we started doing all of this three years ago, we have families who keep them coming back and stay longer throughout the weekend. Being willing to hear the good, the bad and the ugly has definitely changed the way we do business.

 

Follow the California Capital Airshow at @calcapairshow.

Photo: Darcy Brewer | Courtesy of California Capital Airshow.

Do you have a good story you’d like to share, or know someone we should feature? Email jscheibel@crain.com.

And be sure to sign up for your local newsletter from Crain's Sacramento.