After years traveling the country/world as a Skydive Instructor, attending dozens of boogies, and building meaningful connections wherever I go, it came on my radar that I might be interested in the experience of being a dropzone vendor. It seemed like a fast pace occupation that would push me in the networking areas I needed to take my services to a national level. But when I pulled the trigger on the wind tunnel Flight Instructor opportunity, I pushed for a local promotional tour instead. This following report is to chronicle lessons learned during my experience as a Boogie Vendor in the midatlantic region for iFly VA Beach between 2014-2015.
1) Big O 2014, Skydive Orange
For our first ever event my team consisted of myself and Sam Carasco, with leadership from iFly VA Beach general manager, Jason Lavarias. So much learning happened during this event.
We did not have an operational tunnel at this time, but this did not stop us from making thousands of dollars in sales on our Pre-opening special tunnel time rates. I realized we differed from our vendor counterparts in that we had the opportunity to make sales, whereas most of the other skydive manufactures were merely on a promotional tour. They had a conflict of interest in that the gear stores who did the bulk of their sales would be undercut by them selling products.
On the other hand, our chief competition promoted their brand in an incredible way. Doug Barron from Carolina Turbo XP (who I had shot video of with his Virginia Tech team in 2012) led the charge as one of the cornerstone organizers of the event. Even I was jealous looking on as he put together what looked like some very technical belly dives and promoted the already famous Paraclete XP brand. The boogie rate they offered was competitive, and I knew in my heart that it would take our staff years to be able to offer the wealth of value the legendary Paraclete Instructors do to the skydiver market.
Within an hour of setting up our booth in the line of booths at the loading area, we realized people just weren’t going to walk out to speak with us. Jason came up with a new game plan right away, and we left one person in the booth while the other two headed into the hangar, where the action was happening. The strategy was to approach, approach, approach. Jason’s energy and enthusiasm was contagious, and while people might be hesitant to come up to us, they were always glad when we came and introduced ourselves. Like me, many of them had been waiting years for the Virginia Beach project to take off. The main reason people visited our booth was because we had a cooler filled with free water.
Sam decided to jump for the majority of the boogie. As we were not compensated for jumps and did not have any organizer slots, I didn’t see this as a sustainable sales strategy. (Not that he jumped for these reasons.) He did end up getting some sales through his efforts, but Doug made a lasting impression on so many more people by organizing them during the event.
If memory serves correctly, I believe we left with seven hours of sales under our belts and lots of shwag in our wake.
2) SIS Event, Skydive Suffolk
This event was the brainchild of someone else working at the iFly VA Beach. Our tunnel had been delayed at this point, and this was an opportunity to give us staff something to do. The Sisters in Skydiving event was pretty low key. The girls mostly kept to themselves, and we interacted with customers in a typical weekend situation.
One thing that worked out really well was that the school needed some help with tandems, etc. I believe I made four jumps. I had a platform to speak to customers one on one about what I “really did,” and this is a platform that I have worked with ever sense. I was able to bring my customer over to our booth and close a first time flyer package sale.
Most of the locals had already purchased hours and hours through their bulk account agreements. So we did not sell any bulk time. I believe the first time flyer package we sold was 20% off of four minutes. I found myself striking up conversations with people who came out to see one of their family members skydive for a birthday. This ground support type of person is always coming to the dropzone. They might buy a T-shirt or some food, but otherwise they are not sources of any real income. For example, I spent a lot of time talking with a 17 year old who came and sat on the ground while the rest of his family was up jumping. Through his conversation with me he saw a way he could be a part of the excitement. The biggest missed opportunity was that we were not up and running at that time.
All in all we sold about $500 worth of products that weekend. After I talked to everyone on the dropzone and realized they all had hours and hours and would not likely be buying anything, this was a good way to make the event at least break even.
This led me to think about partnerships in general and realize that by not working at iFly on the weekends I was likely to produce perhaps just as much value at the Dropzone. Furthermore, enrolling TI’s into some sort of perks program for references could really draw a lot of business. Not ever been taken seriously for pitching projects like this, I’ve since learned I can just take advantage of my cross-industry position for my own private coaching.
3) Summer Weekend, Skydive Delmarva
I knew the manager Dave from my many winters in Z-hills living next door to him on the Dropzone. He picked up many winter skydiving bums and gave them jobs up at his dropzone in Delaware, and I wanted to see it. I also knew that at only four hours away, we would be the closest place for these folks to work on their flying skills.
I put together my own solo plan for a summer weekend at Delmarva. Dave was happy to speak with me on the phone and glad I had interest in coming out to the dropzone. It seemed to me it would be important to squeeze in some sort of interaction with the dropzone before the winter came, and to reach out and give everyone an update.
Upon arrival it turned out the weather was going to be bad for the majority of the weekend. I was still able to meet about thirty sport jumpers, including reconnecting with old contacts who I had done instructor courses with in Florida. I met people who were sporting iFly gear, and it was an easy way to break into conversations. They had flown in California, specifically Hollywood, and I got to explain how our 14 foot platform would offer much more for their training needs.
In the end, even on a slow weekend, I walked out with five hours in sales. This showed how visiting a dropzone when people were there not jumping could be equally as powerful as a busy event with great weather.
4) Queens Birthday Bash, Virginia Skydiving Center
I also organized this solo event at Virginia Skydiving Center. I had contacted Jim Crouch in the past about working there, but it didn’t seem to have the business I would need to make a living. I still wanted to see the place, and at only an hour and a half from the tunnel, it seemed silly to me that no one had reached out to this dropzone. No one at Virginia Beach really knew much about it, even though it was headed by the Director of Safety and Training for the entire United States Parachute Association.
I had missed their biggest event of the year — Crouch Fest. But they also were going to do something for Carol Clay’s birthday. The event was called the Queen’s Birthday bash. I had heard stories about Carol Clay from my time in California. My friend Mike, who himself now had 10,000+ jumps, had told me about how when he was an up and coming jumper in Virginia, Carol had taken him up for a few RW belly jumps, and he was still in awe that someone with so much experience would take the time to give attention to people so new in the sport. Carol still does this sort of thing and many of my contacts through VSC since then have similar stories.
Even today I still see remnants of my first trip to VSC at the dropzone. People are using the iFly VA Beach pull up cords that I left and they are still around the packing mat. I also got to meet many people who had traveled for the event such as people from North Carolina that I had jumped with in the past.
As it was mostly older jumpers at the event, many of them were not terribly interested in purchasing wind tunnel time. Their reason for skydiving mostly had to do with nostalgic bigger ways than our tunnel could accommodate. I also met a jumper who told me about his daughter who would eventually go on to be my coworker and who I would teach to sit fly at the wind tunnel.
Although I left with no credited sales, I found out later that many from the dropzone had heard my message, taken my literature, and went on to buy a number of hours at the bulk rate prices before our tunnel opened. One account was over five hours and others bought single hours.
5) SIS Event, Skydive Orange
Once the tunnel was opened I didn’t have the same leisurely time to put into marketing to dropzones like I did before. I was working all the time and felt guilty even taking a single weekend day off every two months. Although I still probably made 50 or so jumps at Suffolk, compared to my previous lifestyle it felt like my jumping dropped to zero.
The following events were planned instead by people who had been hired to do these sorts of things. At this point I started getting sort of annoyed that people who didn’t have the resources I had were running these events, but I can’t say they did a bad job, either.
This was the first event with no involvement from me, although I was asked to attend. The SIS event was mostly weathered out. Our CEO did get our marketing girls up in the air on tandems, which was really neat to see. Many jumpers decided to go visit a distillery, so we ended up tagging along with them. I met Kevin Gibson for the first time, and he helped me put together my first tunnel rig.
I’m not sure what, if anything, was sold this weekend. It was mostly led by the ladies, who had no skydiving background. They did well, but had a lot of learning going on. I must say they learned quickly, and watching them reminded me of my first event.
6) Big O 2015, Skydive Orange
The last event I did with the company was the next year’s Big O event at Orange. We rolled out a 10 minute block with coaching at a special rate, and sold a little bit over an hour of that. It was really cool meeting people, hearing their challenges, and then later coaching them — although there was no guarantee that I would be the one working with them. We also tried to sell FTF packages, and retail for the first time, although I’m not sure how successful that went. My big takeaway from this event was that the novelty factor of our tunnel was down, and we would have to start working hard to provide more value in order to make sales. Many potential customers admitted while they liked what they were hearing, they had budgeted about $500 for the boogie, and did not have the left over cash. For this reason some of our buy-it-now efforts failed. Listening more to customers, I realized they also were saving for boogies later in the season. It became clear to me that getting in to early events in the season, people would be more likely to have excess cash from saving through the winter, before hitting the boogie circuit hard.
I got to speak quite a bit with Brad Cole who was representing Vertical Suits about his traveling boogie tour for Skyventure Colorado, which I had ran into at a Moab Boogie in 2011, and took a lot of notes. While he had a lot of great information to pass along, it became clear to me that it was a serious undertaking. I really had a lot of admiration for the work he did putting that tour together.
I did do some jumping this boogie. There were no real results in sales, even a year later when I relocated to iFly Loudoun where many of the people I jumped with live. To earn people’s trust this way takes a lot of time and money, and there’s still no guarantee you’ll be popular by the end. There might be some situations that professionals might shy away from, but would be necessary to become initiated in a community like Orange.
In conclusion, being a vendor was an awesome experience. I sold some time here and there, learned a lot of techniques to sell more, but ultimately didn’t make a lot of money doing it. Indeed, it was a sacrifice over other higher value things I could be doing with my time. I can’t say I was on a lot of awesome jumps because of it either. But I did network and get to know a lot of people, and can say I’ve interacted with the majority of the major players in the Virginia area. Meeting people in general was my main focus, with the goal of selling enough to make it a sustainable practice that I could legitimately pitch was a good idea to do again in the future. Looking forward, I realized that a dream of being a boogie vendor is a risky venture if you don’t align yourself with a company, however you also work very hard and limit yourself from earning what you are actually worth. While strict promotional tours have value, it’s nice to also say you made a profit along the way. At the end of the day I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t a lot of fun. I’m pretty typical of many long term skydivers in that I stay becomes theres something about the community that I love, and its adventures like these that refresh me when I get focused on the negative aspects of our sport.