Dalton Municipal Airport Manager Andrew Wiersma says the first time he knew the Wings Over Dalton Air Show planned for May was in trouble was Jan. 28. That's when promoter John Cowman told him he planned to cancel the show because of poor advance ticket sales.
"I was trying to salvage the show and said 'Can we put out a press release saying it's in jeopardy if we don't sell so many tickets by such and such date?" he said. "I felt like if we put that out there people would rally. He said 'No, I don't think that will work.' If he had let me know, say, two weeks or three weeks beforehand, that things weren't tracking the way he wanted, I would have done my best to get out more press releases. But he never asked for help. He acted like his team had everything under control. He never communicated to me he was counting on a certain amount of tickets being sold in advance."
Two days later, Cowman's JLC Air Show Management, based in Rome, sent the city a letter cancelling the show, saying only 158 tickets ($6,583) had been sold, well below projections. The company says a minimum of $400,000 in advance ticket sales would be needed to cover the event’s budget, and the company does not anticipate being able to reach that amount.
Council members say they they can't recall anyone saying the promoter had to sell a certain amount of tickets before Jan. 30 or the show would be cancelled.
"I've read the contract. I don't see anything like that in there," said Mayor David Pennington, who was not on the council when the council approved the contract.
The contract says either side may cancel the contract in the event of "failure to perform timely." It spells out several conditions under which the city can cancel the contract, including "if there is a significant change in the personnel or management" of the promoter or if the promoter becomes insolvent. There is no list of conditions under which the promoter may cancel.
Council member Annalee Harlan was the sole council member to vote against the agreement with Cowman. She expressed concerns about the cost to the city of providing police and fire protection for the event.
"I don't recall anyone talking about needing to sell so many tickets," she said. "I don't think people make plans so far in advance, and I don't recall seeing any advertising for it."
Council member Gary Crews said several people have spoken to him about the lack of advertising for the show.
"What people don't understand is that usually when circuses and things like that come into town, they handle their own advertising," he said.
Pennington says he was also surprised by the lack of advertising.
"As a small business owner, when events come to town people usually contact me to buy tickets," he said.
The contract says the promoter, the city and city tourism officials "will use best efforts to promote the event." But includes no benchmarks for how much advertising will run, where it will run and when it will run.
"The city had run posts about the show on our social media and the airport's Facebook page, but we had not yet started a full advertising push about the show," said city Communications Director Bruce Frazier.
Margaret Thigpen, director of the Dalton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, says the promoter "was the lead on any and every marketing effort."
"The management company designed the logo, set up the website," she said. "We were a secondary effort and had some of our marketing material designed to include the marketing material they provided as this was their show. We pushed the message from the management company through our Facebook pages, 'Dalton Events' and 'Dalton Area CVB.' We were working on billboards that would complement and fill voids based on what the management company had secured as well as additional advertisement."
Brenda Little, a press representative for Cowman, says most of the ads for the show were digital ads placed on social media and other sites.
"Digital advertising has worked for us in other air shows in other markets," she said. "It just didn't work for us this time. We've also put out press releases and (the Daily Citizen-News) has been very good about covering the event. We've had some coverage in the Chattanooga market, but not much beyond that."
In his letter to the city canceling the event, Cowman said total expenses for the show had been $21,159.29.
Little said most of that money was spent on advertising but could not give a precise breakdown.
City officials said their primary goal now is to recover as much as possible of the $50,000 in hotel motel tax funds it gave to the promoter as "seed money." The contract says anything not spent on the show will be refunded to the city.
Little says the decision to cancel the show "wasn't taken lightly" and was done to keep the promoter and the city from losing more money.
The contract gives the promoter right of first refusal to host air shows at the Dalton Municipal Airport for two more years. But some council members say they would be reluctant to move forward with future air shows.
"You never say never," said Crews. "But until we really understand what happened I can't see us moving forward."