Like many in the fireworks industry, Stephen Vitale is in the family business. He runs a fifth-generation company, Pyrotecnico, in New Castle, Pa. In October, he struck a surprising alliance with Nova Sky Stories, the drone company that Kimbal Musk acquired from Intel.
Increasingly, drones are lighting up skybound entertainment shows. Flocks of flying robots have created magical illusions everywhere from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to the coronation of King Charles III this spring. And the global drone light show market, which was virtually nonexistent a decade ago, was valued at about $1 billion in 2021, according to Allied Market Research.
Drone shows are in some ways the newer, hipper brand of fireworks. And they’re quieter, safer and better for the environment.
Fireworks providers like Vitale face a tough decision: Invest in the expensive equipment and regulatory clearance required to get into the drone business, or believe that demand for fireworks will remain steady even as a new type of competition skyrockets.
Change is coming. Fireworks providers bring in most of their revenue around the Fourth of July. And some of the organizers of those events are shifting to drones. Places like Salt Lake City and Boulder, Colo., plan to use them instead of fireworks for Independence Day celebrations this year, citing the reduced risk of forest fires and pollution.
But not everyone is convinced the light shows will suffice as a replacement. Galveston, Texas, is reverting to fireworks after using drones in 2022. And Reddit pages about the drawbacks of drone shows bemoan the fact that drones don’t evoke the booming sounds that fireworks do.
“Drones are much more sophisticated,” said Chris Hopkins, who co-owns Celebration Fireworks and Star Flight Drone Shows. “They just don’t have the same visceral reaction.”
Pivoting is a big investment. Hopkins invested in drones last year, eager to take advantage of the creative liberties they offered. “In the past, I could have hinted at the Demogorgon,” he told DealBook, referring to a monster in the Netflix show “Stranger Things.” “Now I can have the Demogorgon.”
It was an expensive gambit: Drones cost more than $1,500 each, and he soon learned that a good show required at least 75. Then there was the hassle of filling out a nearly 200-page application to the Federal Aviation Administration for regulatory clearance and finding people skilled at flying the devices.
Some companies are sticking with fireworks. “I know there are some companies that are doing that — I guess our philosophy is we’re going to do what we do best,” Heather Gobet of Western Display, a fourth-generation fireworks company in Oregon, told DealBook.
Gobet, who bought the business from her parents about eight years ago, has decided that dealing with the expertise, certifications and expense of acquiring drones is prohibitive. Instead, she will team up with companies that offer drone shows when customers demand them.
Besides, she has other challenges to worry about: The industry is grappling with supply chain snarls, labor shortages, an aging generation of pyrotechnic experts and costly compliance.
There’s hope for industry harmony. Drones can be used for advertising in a way that fireworks cannot — say, by displaying a corporate logo above a busy road. Many shows, like a Democratic celebration of the 2020 presidential election result, feature both drones and fireworks.
But growing competition is opening up opportunities, said Rick Boss, who runs Sky Elements, a nearly three-year-old drone show company. Larger traditional fireworks companies are looking to expand or go into new realms like drones, while smaller fireworks businesses are struggling.
“There are companies that are shrinking, maybe even stepping out of it — and so that creates opportunity,” he said. “It’s a good time to be aggressive.” — Lauren Hirsch
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Bidenomics 2.0. President Biden sought to reboot the messaging on his economic record, as his poll ratings have been stuck in doldrums despite seemingly good data: 13 million new jobs, unemployment rates for Black and Hispanic Americans at record lows and a new industrial policy to drive green investment. Inflation is a big reason, with Americans still feeling the sting of rising prices. But the Biden team believes it also needs to do a better job of salesmanship.
Ryan Reynolds and RedBird put the pedal to the metal. The Canadian actor teamed up with the private equity firm to lead a 200 million-euro ($218 million) investment in Alpine, the Formula 1 team owned by Renault. The group also included the actors Michael B. Jordan and Rob McElhenney, Reynolds’s partner in owning the Welsh soccer club Wrexham A.F.C., which has become a media phenomenon thanks to the Hulu series about the team.
The Supreme Court has a big week. The court made a series of major decisions: It struck down affirmative action at universities; it backed a business that refused to provide services to a same-sex couple despite a state law that forbids discrimination against gay people; and it rejected Biden’s proposal to cancel at least some student debt, imposing new restrictions on presidential power.
Weekend wins. As people’s schedules changed during the pandemic, consumer spending shifted away from weekdays to weekends, according to The Economist. The reasons: Fewer workers are going to the office and going out after work, and many restaurants, bars and clubs shut for good during lockdowns.
The never-ending Aperol spritz summer
For many Americans, summer holiday weekends mean cold beverages at cookouts. Beer is the stereotypical go-to choice, but sales by volume have been declining. What has become more dominant? For many, an Italian cocktail called the Aperol spritz.
Over more than a decade, the drink, with its signature bright orange hue and slightly bitter bite, has outlasted countless rival drinks of the summer and pandemic lockdowns. Its enduring success is a testament to how clever marketing and adroit navigating of trends turned an obscure Italian aperitivo into a staple for urban millennials.
A primer on Aperol. Created in 1919, the beverage had largely been confined to northern Italy until 2003, when Campari Group bought Aperol and began to roll out a meticulous marketing campaign. The company quickly homed in on the spritz — a simple cocktail with an easy-to-remember recipe of three parts sparkling wine, two parts Aperol and one part club soda — as the vehicle.
Those efforts have paid off handsomely for Campari. Aperol accounted for 21 percent of the company’s €2.7 billion ($2.9 billion) in revenue last year, and grew 28 percent globally and nearly 50 percent in the United States alone.
Experts chalk up its success to a number of factors, beyond wall-to-wall marketing:
The rise of low-alcohol cocktails. After decades of what Spiros Malandrakis of the research firm Euromonitor called “high-energy” going-out drinking (read: shots), Aperol is a relatively lightweight 11 percent alcohol by volume.
The ease of making it. “It’s a very forgiving cocktail,” even for home bartenders, said Julie Reiner, a co-owner of the New York cocktail bars Milady’s and Leyenda.
Aperol’s inherent attractiveness on social media. “The orange hue looks so good in Instagram feeds,” Malandrakis said — and its association with European glamour is reinforced by the likes of its prominence in HBO’s “The White Lotus.”
Aperol’s success stands out in the fad-driven cocktails industry. Remember when hard seltzers like White Claw were the talk of the town? Or how Dirty Shirleys were last summer’s must-have drink? Those concoctions may have faded, but Aperol’s appeal has not: Campari said sales in the first quarter were up 33 percent from a year earlier.
That has led to a surge in sales of bitters more generally. The category sold 487.8 million liters’ worth last year, according to Euromonitor, up 30 percent from 2012.
The Aperol spritz’s popularity has helped turn an entire range of cocktails — many of which follow the blueprint of the original drink but substitute in other ingredients — into must-haves at bars.
“For a brunch menu, you’ve got to have a spritz,” Reiner said. “It’s a category that’s just growing, because people like it.” (When she reopened Milady’s last fall, she created two cocktails: a martini riff and a take on an Aperol spritz that uses ruby-colored sparkling Lambrusco instead of Prosecco.)
Aperol is likely to have legs for some time. “I don’t see it going anywhere for three to five years at least,” Malandrakis said, while noting that tastes will eventually change.
Campari continues to have high hopes for its best seller as well: In February, Robert Kunze-Concewitz, the company’s C.E.O., told analysts, “We’re only at the very beginning of a very long Aperol runway.”
Which BBQ ingredient is an inflation anomaly?
Ingredients for your Fourth of July cookout are more expensive this year. While inflation has come down from its 2022 heights of about 9 percent, prices remain high: On average, prices for grilling favorites are about 31 percent higher than they were four years ago, according to the “BBQ index,” a report by Rabobank’s market research unit, RaboResearch. But there is one exception. Which of these items costs about as much as it did in 2020?
Find the answer below.
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Quiz answer: It’s the tomato. The U.S. market has seen a surge in tomato imports, particularly those grown in Mexico, said Almuhanad Melhim, an analyst who focuses on fresh produce at the RaboResearch. That has brought down prices.
The item with the highest price increase? Burger buns, whose prices were sent soaring by an increase in wheat prices after Russia invaded Ukraine, and remain high.