At its most basic, APEX has always been about relationships – the ones that built it, the ones that nurtured it and the ones born out of cocktails at its networking parties.
On the front page of a 1983 issue of the Airline Entertainment Association (AEA) newsletter, then-president John N. White writes, “It’s become very obvious that the airline representatives, vendors and suppliers want the AEA to be a truly business and professional organization: an association with a conference that abandons the social aspects of many similar groups…” In the following newsletter, he puts it even more bluntly: “If you’re attracted to lightweight conferences that are heavy on the social… you ought to let this one pass.”
Until the year before, AEA conferences stressed socialization, with themed costume parties in the evenings – think Western hayrides and Hawaiian luaus – and golf and tennis tournaments during the day. But at the 1982 conference in Phoenix, several of these gatherings were dropped from the official agenda and the closing event became formalized as the gala banquet, a much-loved black-tie function that went on until 2006.
ALL THAT GLAMOUR
Despite White’s insistence that the conference continue on a more sober, professional path, the ’80s and ’90s are remembered by members as a time of revelry and downright swanky affairs. In 1989, the year the conference was held in Basel, Switzerland, then-president Italo Poli, of Swissair, was intent on making it one to remember with a riverboat cruise up the Rhine and a visit to the FeldschlÃ¶sschen Brewery. Bryan Rusenko, a member of the APEX Technology Committee, recalls, “There was just an amazing amount of treating us like royalty. Italo really made sure that we got the highest protocol.”
At the 1991 conference in London, there actually was some royalty. That year’s president, Mark Horton of British Airways, raised the bar with a champagne welcome reception at the House of Commons and Avion Awards bestowed by His Royal Highness Prince Edward at Grosvenor House. “It was a glittering affair and one of the most memorable conferences to date,” says Steve Harvey, VP Client Services at Global Eagle, who’s been attending the conferences since 1981.
Even with this seeming extravagance, the headlining finale, the gala banquet, still lacked the verve of a Hollywood blowout, which some members believed would be suitable for an industry so rooted in show business. Kent Harrison Hayes, who attended his first conference in 1988 and was on the association’s board of directors from 1992 to 1998, says, “The glamour of the entertainment industry seemed to be missing. The only thing I remember them having was a small platform that the president stood on with a microphone.” During his stint on the board, Hayes managed to veer the gala in the direction of a Hollywood-style award show.
At the time, there was also a program that allowed conference delegates to travel with their spouses, who would enjoy off-site activities during business hours. (An advertisement in a 1987 issue of the association’s newsletter promises spouses a trip on a DC-3 spent “sipping champagne and nibbling on a chicken leg,” for instance.) During the evenings, spouses would attend the networking events, something Rich Salter, a longtime member of the APEX Technology Committee, says really helped with business. “Bringing my wife was especially useful given that there were a lot of women running things on the content side and the airline side.”
It was under such festive circumstances that airline delegates finally crossed paths with their counterparts at other carriers and vendors became acquainted with their competitors. But given its lack of precedence, mingling with competitors was frowned upon. AEA co-founder Cindy Tarver recalls her “boss would get apoplectic if I deigned to say hello to, for instance, John McMahon [at Inflight Services at the time], who later became one of my best friends in the industry.”
Peter Daniello, who began attending the show in 1981, with Trans Com, and continued until retiring in 2012, explains that the rivalry wasn’t about disliking each other as much as it was similar to the competition you’d get between two baseball teams. “Think of it like the Giants and the Dodgers. We just didn’t sit on the same side.”
But when the workday was over, the rigidity thawed. On one occasion, Daniello recalls heading into the hotel jacuzzi following cocktail hour. “Lo and behold, weren’t some of our competitors in there, too. That started some dialogue, and led us to thinking, ‘These people aren’t that bad after all.’ To this day we have a very good friendship. There’s no question the association and its social events had a hand in helping us get on a talking basis with our competitors.”
“A lot of business can be done without actually mentioning the word ‘business.'” €” Leigh Mantle, Formerly of Inflight Productions
After-hours camaraderie was also key to deepening bonds with clients, says Leigh Mantle of Inflight Productions, who attended the conferences from 1987 to 2018. “I’m a big believer in the fact that you can get a lot of business done without actually mentioning the word ‘business,’ and the evening get-togethers were brilliant for that,” Mantle says. “When you would go to the event for the whole week, you couldn’t just talk business 24/7. If you enjoy entertaining and being with people, you can open up doors that you maybe haven’t opened before.”
And sometimes, no matter how unconventional it may seem today, business took place in the most informal of circumstances. “My first ‘conference’ was in Palm Springs, where meetings disintegrated into pool parties with large quantities of beverages being consumed,” says Linda Palmer of Walt Disney Studios, who served nearly 20 terms on the association’s board of directors in the time between 1985 and 2012. “It was an era when this sort of behavior was the norm.”
Michael Manstein of Lufthansa, who began attending in 1986, similarly writes in Avion: “The networking was as valuable to me as were the scheduled appointments. Even sipping a glass of champagne by the pool at night with new acquaintances produced interesting conversations: ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have an individual screen for each passenger?’ ‘Can’t something be done about the horrible quality of the audio system?’ … ‘Can advertising really pay for all those investments?'”
CHANGE OF SCENE
As the years went on, the frequency and size of networking events gradually diminished, giving way to larger exhibition floors and a generally more buttoned-up attitude in their stead. Global Eagle’s Harvey describes the first 15 to 20 years of the conference as “under the radar,” with airline IFE managers putting in requests to attend, and superiors doling out approvals without having more than a vague notion that the event had something to do with putting movies on planes. “It was a little closed family affair, so we could more or less do what we wanted on these occasions,” he says.
But with the advent of seatback screens, IFE became a bigger-budget item and airlines began paying millions of dollars to deck out their aircraft with hardware that could screen hundreds of movies. “Suddenly people like chief executives were paying attention, even attending themselves,” Harvey says. Palmer also points to increased attention from upper levels of airline management as a catalyst for the change. “That radically shifted the culture,” Palmer says. “As fun as the early days were, money talks and it was timeto change.”
“As fun as the early days were, money talks and it was time to change” €” Linda Palmer, Formerly of Walt Disney Studios
According to West Entertainment’s Rick Warren, who began attending the conferences in 1993 while working with Sony Trans Com, another major cultural shift took place once the association expanded to encompass a wider breadth of industry players beyond IFE, eventually being renamed the Airline Passenger Experience Association in 2010.
From the early-’90s until then, it really was a content and entertainment show, with comedians like Paula Poundstone and even the Beach Boys making appearances to drive that home. “Once the focus was more on the technology, it became less of a Hollywood show, and that hurt it a little bit in terms of the networking,” Warren says. “But it also meant the show had gotten bigger and better, especially in terms of high-quality airline attendance.”
The general consensus seems to be that rather than a clear departure – despite White’s explicit attempt at one in 1983 – exchanging stories over beers and fraternizing over tee time never really ended; it’s only evolved. “Some of the initial hijinks of the early days are no longer there, but it’s like growing up, really,” Harvey says. “The first few years it was like a newborn baby, people trying to figure out what it was all about. Then we had our toddler years and our teenage delinquent years, and now we have become responsible parents.” But parents still play golf together and listen to the Beach Boys – it’s just not on the official agenda.
“Social Club” was originally published in the 9.4 September/October issue of APEX Experience magazine.