August 6

My Experience as a Boogie Vendor

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.

Big O Boogie 2014

Big O Boogie 2014

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.

I took this picture as a last man standing, but at the end of the event couldn't deny the Paraclete Marketing Machine

Last Booth Standing

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.

Weekend at Delmarva

Weekend at Delmarva

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.

A big crowd for the Queen's Birthday Bash

A big crowd for the Queen’s Birthday Bash

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.

McLuvin and I pursuing sales at the distillery

McLuvin and I pursuing sales at the distillery

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.

Me and iFLY VA Beach CEO Bob Pizzini

Me and iFLY VA Beach CEO Bob Pizzini

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.

August 2

Pro Flier Sign Off

Today I finally finished out my logbook online at Tunnelflight.com making me an Official IBA Pro Flier.

Pro Flier Screenshot

I’ve had this skillset for over a year, obviously, but as the IBA lacks measurable standards, this has unfortunately been an exercise in subjectivity. I’m glad to finally have it in the bank, though. Pro flier is a title that costs a lot of money and it’s nice to finally be recognized.

Once you reach this skill set, the next step is to master your technique and look forward towards tunnel flying competitions or skydiving records. That’s what I love about skydiving — the sport still has depth to it eight years in.

Special thanks to my local Trainer Level 4, Ricardo Del Castillo, for signing off on this long term goal.

You can check out my IBA logbook here.

July 24

Virginia Dropzones Explained

As a Tunnel Instructor with a background in Skydiving, I get a lot of people with a strictly tunnel background asking me about learning to skydive. I wanted to offer my opinion on the leading dropzones in Virginia.

Full Disclosure: I work at a Tandem Only Dropzone in Fredericksburg, VA, that feeds its students into Virginia Skydiving Center (VSC). I have done pickup work at Skydive Suffolk (S2) and VSC. I made my first and second jumps at Skydive Orange (SO) in 2008, where I have friends in the management, instructional, manifest, rigging, and packing side of the business. I trained an instructor who works at DC Skydiving Center (DCSC) and have a highly valued client who is a raving fan. I have visited twice but never made a jump, but have met their instructors at the tunnel. A previous coworker and current coworker worked at Blue Ridge Skydiving Adventures (BRSA) in manifest and instructor positions and I have jumped there once and met the owner. My current boss is the previous boss of the owner of No Limits Skydiving Center (NLSC), and a previous student of mine did the first part of his A-license there. I’ve never been to either of their two locations.

TLDR: I have had meaningful connections key people at almost all dropzones in the state.

In no specific order..

1) Virginia Skydiving Center
Petersburg, Virginia

Aircraft: King Air (holds 14), Cessna 182 (holds 4)
Facilities: Hangar, Access to Airport Classroom
Landing Area: Large, plenty of options. 3-5 minute walk from hangar
Student Program: IAD or AFF
Rental rigs: Student Javelins, nice gear
Gear store: Small, offering log books, etc
Accommodation: Camping five minutes off site. Hotels are a bit of a drive.
Price of a Tandem: $259 (value option available, military/group rates available)
Tandem Video: Outside Video/Stills $125
Price of AFF:
FJC/Cat A: $355
First 8 Jumps: $1878 (8 jump program to solo, first 7 jumps end up at $1669, for comparison) (does not include USPA Fees)
First 25 Jumps: $3232 (does not include USPA Fees)

Opinion:

The Good: I find this dropzone to be so charming. The King Air is the fastest jump plane in Virginia. It also offers a 182, which is great if there are not enough people to send the bigger plane. The off site camping is the place to be at night! The last load often lands at the camp ground, swooping the pond, and people bond over BBQ. The Tandems and AFF Program are reasonably priced compared to the nationwide industry standard. Offers a budget tandem option. Jim Crouch, owner, is an industry leader in safety and training. Runs continuous education courses. Probably the best value for AFF. Offers IAD.

The Bad: South of Richmond, which is quite a ways from Northern Virginia/Tidewater areas. The dropzone is for the most part weekends only, and therefore so are the staff. Can’t always fill the King Air. Freefly scene is hit and miss.

2) Skydive Orange
Orange, Virginia

Aircraft: Twin Otter (holds 22)
Facilities: Brand new main hangar, club house hangar, showers, class room, nice training aids
Landing Area: Large. Right next to hangar. Has a ditch right through the middle. Other options available.
Student Program: AFF
Rental rigs: New
Gear store: On site gear store, probably the best in Virginia. Carries helmets and Audibles.
Accommodation: Club House Hangar, camping. Hotels in town.
Price of a Tandem: $270 (Cash Discount available: $15)
Tandem Video: Outside Video/Stills $125
Weight Limit/Tax?: $35 every 10lbs over 220
Price of AFF:
FJC/Cat A: $430
First 7 Jumps: $1840 “cash price”, not including USPA membership
First 25 Jumps: $3620 “cash price”, not including USPA membership/license fees, altimeter/goggle rental, or packing class

Opinion:

The Good:
Strongest Dropzone community in Virginia. Brand new facility. Twin Otter Aircraft. Strict A-License plan. Excellent training aids. Old hangar for camping. Rigging loft. Best gear store in the state. Popular boogies. Open more days a week than any other dropzone. Runs continuing education courses. Larry Lieber, dropzone manager, has a background of visiting A LOT of dropzones as an Icarus representative, and has a worldclass network in the skydiving industry. Kevin Gibson is possibly the best rigger in the state.

The Bad:
Most expensive dropzone I’ve seen in the U.S. for tandems and AFF. Misleadingly advertises “cash prices.” Doesn’t always have the business to justify a Twin Otter. Lacks a 182.

NOTE: I received feedback from a reader which I’d like to add. He mentioned that in practice, altimeter/goggle rental is not added on to the price of a skydive after the coach jumps. The website seems to point otherwise. In my experience I made a jump there last weekend and was able to borrow goggles and an altimeter at no charge when I asked a friend on staff.

He also wanted to point out that upon graduation Orange gives six free skydives as a graduation incentive. This is advertised as a $600 value. I asked him how much gear rental was once you have your A-license, and he said $35 per jump or $100 per day. A jump ticket on the credit card is $27. I asked about the extra $38 to no reply.

3) Skydive Suffolk
Suffolk, Virginia

Aircraft: PAC 750XL (holds 13), Skyvan (holds 22)
Facilities: Main Hangar, Military Hangar
Landing Area: Best in Virginia. Wide, Long, unobstructed
Student Program: AFF
Rental rigs: Recently Updated
Gear store: Primitive, mostly T-shirts, etc
Accommodation: Close to Suffolk, VA
Price of a Tandem: $249 (Student/Military Discount Available, $10-$50)
Tandem Video: Handcam video/stills $100, Outside video/Stills $125
Weight Limit/Tax?: Fee over 220lbs
Price of AFF:
FJC/Cat A: $325
First 7 Jumps: Not listed
First 25 Jumps: Not listed

Opinion:

The Good:
Lead Instructor Tom Deacon is a world class instructor/examiner and manager. Awesome, well rounded PAC aircraft. Offers world class military accommodation. Has two turbine aircraft. Home DZ of iFly VA Beach Instructors. Runs continuing education courses. Offers excellent AFF/Wind tunnel combination training.

The Bad:
Has a hard time keeping experienced instructors as they are not a super busy facility. It is uncommon to see the Skyvan fly civilians. Sport jumper skills are still developing, made up mostly of transient military jumpers without a civilian skydiving background. Lacks a 182.

4) Blue Ridge Skydiving Adventures
New Market, Virginia

Aircraft: Navajo (midsized aircraft), Cessna 182
Facilities: Small Hangar, Classroom
Landing Area: Medium Sized
Student Program: AFF, IAD
Rental rigs: Don’t know
Gear store: Don’t know
Accommodation: Don’t know
Price of a Tandem: $250 (Cash discount available, Groupon available: $359 for 2 or $179.50ea)
Tandem Video: Unspecified, $120
Weight Limit/Tax?: Fee over 220lbs
Price of AFF:
FJC/Cat A: $395
First 7 Jumps: $1775, not including USPA membership
First 25 jumps: $3665

Opinion:

The Good:
Scenic dropzone in the Shenandoah Valley. Clean. Close knit family atmosphere that is very welcoming to outsiders. Very competitive Tandem pricing for two jumpers through Groupon, although these deals are not always available.

The Bad:
Not a lot of sport jumpers. Still very much a growing dropzone. I’m personally not a fan of the Navajo. Located right next to a chicken farm.

5) DC Skydiving Center

Aircraft: Pac 750XL
Facilities: Semi-Outdoor dropzone
Landing Area: Medium Sized
Student Program: AFF
Rental rigs: Mirage RTS
Gear store: No
Accommodation: Don’t Know
Price of a Tandem: $299 ($159 Groupon occasionally available)
Tandem Video: Handcam video/stills $198 (Cash, Military, and Student Discounts Available)
Weight Limit/Tax?: Fee over 200 lbs, 240 limit – but call anyway..
Price of AFF:
FJC/Cat A: $410
First 7 Jumps: $1840 “cash price”, does not include USPA membership or altimeter/goggles rental
First 25 jumps: $3820 “cash price”

Opinion:

The Good:
Cheapest tandems in the state if you go through Groupon, although these are not always available. Offers AFF. Tandem instructors perhaps the most current jumpers in the state.

The Bad:
High volume. Limited facilities. Video upcharge is pricey. AFF program is new and expensive. DZ will generally not be open if there are no tandems on the books. (I’ve shown up 2-3 times without calling and no one was there on Friday evenings, etc.)

6) No Limits Skydiving Center
West Point, VA

Aircraft: Cessna 182
Facilities: Unsure
Landing Area: Unsure
Student Program: AFF
Rental rigs: Unsure
Gear store: Unsure
Accommodation: Unsure
Price of a Tandem: $220 (birthday, military, and group discounts)
Tandem Video:
Weight Limit/Tax?:
Tandem Video: Handcam Video/Stills $85
Price of AFF: Not Posted

Opinion:

The Good:
I can’t say too much about this place as I have not been there. I only know what I’ve heard from trusted sources. I imagine the views are amazing, as it is located just on the York river. There used to be a major dropzone here but it rebranded as VSC and the community moved to Petersburg. There’s a lot to like about jumping a 182. They also have a second location in Victoria, VA.

The Bad:
Again, not much to say on this topic as I have not been there. As far as I know it does not have a sport jumper community and in 2012 I had met their first and only AFF student at the time — who knows if they have continued to produce other students. Does not offer outside video.

7) Fredericksburg Skydiving Center
Fredericksburg, VA

Aircraft: Cessna 182
Facilities: Simple Hangar, Access to FBO with restaurant
Landing Area: Small, Tandem only
Student Program: Feeds into Virginia Skydiving Center
Rental rigs: Tandem Only
Gear store: No
Accommodation: Less than 10 minutes from downtown Fredericksburg
Price of a Tandem: $219
Tandem Video: Handcam Video/Stills $100
Weight Limit/Tax?: 230 for men, 200 for women
Price of AFF: Feeds into Virginia Skydiving Center

Opinion:

The Good:
This is the closest you can get to D.C. to Skydive. We are located just off I-95, minutes from downtown Fredericksburg. We jump over a historical battle field. Very competitive price for a non-groupon dropzone. Amazing on site restaurant.

The Bad:
Tandem only. We are in the process of developing the facilities. Does not offer outside video.

In Summary:

Best Value Tandem: FSC
Best Tandem Deal: DCSC Groupon (not always available)
Best Value FJC/Cat A: S2
Best Value A-license: VSC
Newest Equipment: SDO
Most Current Tandem Instructors: DCSC
Most Luxurious Facility: SDO

July 24

Is Groupon Killing the Skydiving Business?

Leadership at many established dropzones often moan about Groupon and its effects, “killing the skydiving business”. In my extensive tour of dropzones I’ve stopped and worked consistently at nine of them. Of those nine, three have been heavily Groupon based, five have been negatively effected by Groupon, and one has escaped the effects of Groupon in their region. I’d like to think I can shed a little light on the topic with my view of the Groupon issue for those who don’t know much other than what their traditional style dropzone has told them.

The traditional style Skydiving business set up looks like this: An owner hires an office manager and an school manager. They have a large airplane such as a caravan or a twin otter with a full time pilot or two, and a Tandem/AFF/Video staff of a number of full time and part time independent contractors. They have 6-12 tandem rigs and a number of student rigs. They might even have a rigging loft, restaurant, or gear store, ran either by independent people or managed by the company as its own department. There are a number of parachute packers around as well, and there might even be a full time mechanic.

The school manager makes sure there is enough staff to make operations work for each day the school is open with the goal of making the least amount of loads possible. The office manager is overseeing manifest staff who answer the phone, take reservations, and check in customers.

A customer’s interaction with the business goes like this: checks out website, calls and makes a reservation for a tandem (which is usually over $200), shows up and checks in with manifest staff, is ushered into a waiting area, is called by a instructor/videographer who briefs the customer, gears them up, takes them for a jump, and completes the order.

Expenses includes the following: Cost of website, person answering phone, person who checks in customer, tandem instructor/videographer, rigging/packing, pilot, fuel, airplane/mechanic fees.

Assuming a different person is paid for each of these elements, we have the following 12 bringing this tandem skydive to the customer, and each are a cost of doing business:
Webmaster
Phone answerer
Office manager
Manifester/Tandem Checker inner
Managing Instructor
Tandem Instructor
Videographer
Rigger
Packer
Pilot
Groundcrew/Ramper/Airplane Fueler
Mechanic

Some other people who the customer might interact with, (bringing our tally up to 14,) include:
On site food provider
Gift store clerk

This infrastructure is necessary to build a large “lifestyle” dropzone like many people have come to associate with “the business of skydiving.”

For years the $100ish margin the owner kept after paying out all these people was enough to build their bigger dreams that skydivers love: New hangar, nice bathrooms/showers, camp ground, large/second airplanes. 40 tandems on a Saturday translated into $4,000 margin to apply towards building this “escape from the real world” park for adults. 200 tandems in a weekend was $20,000 towards the empire. And I’m not saying it’s bad to reinvest in your skydiving community — I can’t think of a better dream.

These businesses also to a lesser extent produce revenue from video sales and the AFF school. Their rigging/food/gear store, businesses will also make money, and special events like boogies and continuous education classes offered from time to time are also a source of income. But nothing touches the revenue that the tandems produce.

Despite having hundreds or thousands of first timers walking through the door every year, the lifestyle dropzone will retain less than 10% of its customers as return customers. Also, skydivers will pay about $25 a jump ticket. If we use $7 as a baseline for jump ticket margins, 10 sport jumpers making 10 skydives will net the business an extra $700 for their 100 jumps.

For the most part, these lifestyle dropzones subsidize the true cost of jump tickets for their sport jumper population. It is their mission after all, and they look for ways they can give more to the community. It is a beautiful thing, and coming up in this atmosphere is the reason I have a successful career behind me.

Now let’s turn our attention to a Groupon dropzone. Their mission is different. Usually they are opened by a tandem instructor who, tired of squeezing by year to year on less than $30,000, saves enough to purchase a Cessna and two tandem rigs. This tandem instructor has started at a lifestyle dropzone, moved to a place where he could do 12+ tandems a day 5+ days a week, and realized he could be taking home even more if he was the owner. He increased his pay to $50,000 a year, but is ready for the next milestone.

By outsourcing web advertisement and the large office of manifest to groupon, he can cut major costs in the first stages of customer interaction. A place holder webpage gives basic directions and directs to the phone of a tandem packer who also has basic waiver responsibilities added to their job description. The phone may or may not be picked up, but is mostly used to communicate with customers who have already paid — not to generate sales.

The owner is the managing instructor. He may have one other partner working with him. His 182 takes two tandems at a time and they go to lower altitudes. The lower operating cost of the airplane increase margins, and this instructor through his work in the industry has realized that full altitude jumps for $100 extra are a much harder sale. He will offer them to those who ask, for an up charge, but knows the highest value task he can do rests in the volume of jumps he can make.

He has maybe worked as a videographer and realizes how replaceable they are. He has seen many selfish videographers not become multirated, choosing to keep the easy job, and despite this non-team-player attitude, be treated as equals to those multirated instructors who have $3,000+ more in training investments and often times have the exact same video helmet set up. He has seen videographers lose canopies or not be able to work for other reasons, and he can replace them with his Gopro action cameras. Their $100+ videos were a hard sale anyways, and he can focus again on high value tasks — shooting volumes of lower quality videos for lower prices, while increasing his own margin. One of his packers will also double as an editor, and can therefore bring home more money themselves.

In the ideal situation the owner/manager is also a rigger, and does his own rigging during the winter or at night during the busy seasons. This can be delegated to an appropriately rated packer. Being a pilot/mechanic also helps, but is not entirely necessary. Often times these skills can be hired in the same person.

The facility will have the lowest overhead possible. Usually these outdoor or semi-outdoor dropzones are the most charming — unless you actually prefer spending a beautiful day inside a hanger for an outdoor activity.

So a customer interaction in this business goes through these people:
Groupon
Manifester/Packer/Rigger/Video Editor
Pilot/Mechanic
Instructor/Manager/Handcam Videographer

So with the right team the tandem skydive can be delivered to you with only three people and the help of the outside business.

As an instructor/owner making money off the instructor pay, handcam pay, rig rental, airplane slots, and potential tips or up sales, what do you their personal margin is?

Are you surprised it can be at or above $100?

Needless to say, the operator who can do 40 tandems in a day at $100 margins is going to be better off than the one who does five at the same margin.

But the “lifestyle” dropzone does some things way better than the Groupon dropzone, and it is in this that they need to focus their energy. They provide a better customer experience.

They run an AFF Program
They offer continuous education
They change lives for the long term
They create an inspiring community
They document with incredible video
They solve sourcing issues for sport jumper equipment
They provide hard to come by rigging services
They feed the hungry (by creating many jobs)

This should be the focus of the lifestyle dropzone.

It has been the wish of many owners that I have met to raise the price of their sport jumper tickets or downsize their airplane. But they know that if they did that, they would lose their community. And their community is what they work so hard for.

They don’t understand that they just trim the fat, and that the best of their crew will stick around because there is depth to these core fan’s love for their operation. These community members are a breathing part of the dropzone. This close inner circle has brand loyalty and commitment to the business, for whatever reason.

To downscale is not such a terrible option.

But to maintain the current system that prizes the sport jumper, the money lost from tandems will have to come from somewhere. Either the sport jumpers can agree to start paying more for all the value they are offered, the business can turn to its strengths with higher margins in mind, or we can continue with the business accepting lower margins and cannibalizing itself. I see events like canopy courses, which bring people in from two states away, and I wonder why these community events aren’t offered every weekend. I wonder why organizers and sport videographers aren’t always available and on payroll, so that as a consumer I know I can go out to a dropzone and be a part of a skydive that is worth money because it is quality and recorded. Indeed, only the ignorant feel a $25 solo or zoo dive is worth more than a $35 well executed/beautifully planned/documented jump.

I have to conclude these concepts are not popular because the market doesn’t want to pay for it. At the end of the day, the typical sport jumper community is just the same as the community of tandem consumers who are purchasing Groupons. They just want to jump out of an airplane for as cheaply as possible. And it’s just not sustainable for a large group of people with this mindset. So at the end of this analysis, I have to disagree. I don’t think Groupon is cannibalizing the the skydiving industry — I think the skydiving industry cannibalizes itself.

As a side note, there are still many places outside of the U.S. where Groupon is not influential in the market. I see these businesses making 200+ margins with the older business model. Unfortunately, they often do not have the volume of customers or population to easily create a community, and also lack the competition that spurs worldclass growth.

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