SESSION II | Sunday 2 February 2020 | 10:30 - 11:30 | Santa Clara | Panel Discussion |
That the inventor of the vertical wind tunnel for the purpose of human flight, French Canadian Jean Saint-Germain, had primarily a sports-focused application in mind for his Aérodium cannot be put in question. After all, he was an accomplished skydiver himself, he ran two parachute schools and he sought to improve the training of his students in advanced freefall skills.
That the installation could also be used to thrill and entertain the public at large – much like an amusement park attraction – may well have been a secondary consideration for Jean. But it was certainly not for Marvin Kratter, the real estate maverick and investor who bought the patent off of him in 1980.
Kratter had demonstrated an affinity for sports and sports venues, as well as plenty of savvy for business, with lucrative deals involving MLB, NBA and NFL franchises. Best known as the owner of the Boston Celtics and the Las Vegas Golf Club, Kratter ambitiously envisioned 100 franchises within one year of opening his flagship right off Las Vegas Boulevard in 1982.
A second tunnel did open later that same year – and even under the same name – in Pigeon Forge, but the construction was based on an independent deal struck between Saint-Germain and Tennessee investor Les Thompson.
With the two wind tunnels operating in two touristy locations, their commercial viability was put to a conclusive test. All emphasis needed to be put on first-timers, i.e. a walk-in clientele eager to taste flight after a short briefing. Targeting experienced skydivers to hone their skills in a wind tunnel could not have produced any significant impact. For two reasons: the airflow in both tunnels was not of sufficient quality to allow for proper freefall training – and the membership of the United States Parachute Association stood at below 20,000 throughout the entire 1980s.
Impossible to estimate the profitability of either operation, but it is rather revealing that the successful franchising never substantiated. At the same time, both facilities continue to operate in Las Vegas and Pigeon Forge through today.
A lot has happened over the past 40 years. Above all, the airflow in the second- and third-generation wind tunnels has improved to the extent that Alan Metni, the Chairman of iFLY, was able to sum it up perfectly: "It’s not even a simulation of free fall. It is exactly like a freefall. It’s almost like a treadmill for skydivers."
iFLY is the market leader in indoor skydiving. It owns, operates and franchises nearly 50% of all the tunnels built, or under construction, around the world. It employs more specialist manpower assigned to analyzing the industry dynamics and to developing new marketing concepts than the competitors.
Simon Ward, the International President at iFLY, provided a brief analysis of indoor skydiving from his perspective.
While of utmost importance to the overall business, experienced skydivers account for no more than 15% of the latter. When it comes to the first-timers, indoor skydiving has a much better retention (repeat) rate than skydiving outdoors: 15% vs. 1%. Repeat indoor customers are flying 36% of the total hours at iFLY. How can this figure be increased further? By creating a sport that brings the repeats back regularly to tackle new challenges!
Sport matters! Session II looks at different options to make a challenging sport out of a first-flight experience. Is it just a once-in-your-life experience or can it develop into a sporting passion and lifestyle?
Excerpts from the 2016 Annual Cambridge Marketing Lecture held by iFLY's Simon Ward at St. John’s College. Courtesy of the CAMBRIDGE MARKETING REVIEW.
Panel discussion involving three to four panelists with huge experience in running wind tunnels and similar facilities. One moderator.