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The Toughest Gig in Skydiving

Written by James La Barrie

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Originally printed in issue #76 (April 2016) of Blue Skies Magazine.
This article also appears at dropzone.marketing.
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Do you know who I admire most? Those who can do something for a very long time and still be passionate about it. In skydiving, that person is the DZ owner who’s been at it for longer than 10 years. If your DZO is actively trying to improve their DZ, shake their hand because the rewards of running a DZ aren’t nearly as great as the financial, physical and emotional costs of the job.

I have a certain soft spot for DZOs. It’s a really tough gig and I think the majority of DZOs are really misunderstood. There are definitely some owners with “challenging” personalities out there who earn their reputation, but the majority don’t get the respect they deserve. The majority of skydivers can’t empathize with what it’s like to be at the helm of a nontraditional business like owning a drop zone.

The disconnect starts with perception. Many jumpers who arrive at a busy DZ turning load after load think the DZO must be in the back counting their money. Let’s clear that up right now: Very few are. If you look at the progress of lift-ticket pricing in the U.S. over the last decade, these prices should be higher—much higher. Every DZO will tell you this, but none want to raise their rates in fear of losing their customer base to the DZ down the road.

This applies to the price of tandems as well. With an influx of DZs in the market, many try to capture or maintain market share by offering prices that make no sense at all, considering the cost of maintenance. DZs charging $220 for a tandem (a recognized acceptable price) should be charging more. Considering the cost of equipment (gear prices have steadily been increasing while tandem rates have only gone down) and what it costs to properly maintain aircraft, there’s a huge disconnect between what DZs charge and what they should be charging. Add the variable of weather and how much operators lose when they’re grounded (especially on a busy weekend day of fun jumpers and students), it’s gut wrenching.

Are you catching my drift here? Ask a DZO what it costs to replace anything on an airplane; you’ll be in for a shock.

Now let’s add the aspect of stress when someone gets hurt or killed and then having to deal with the media who descend on their business, seemingly uninterested in the real details of what happened. A DZO better have a thick skin to deal with that kind of scrutiny.

To be a DZO is to be fraught with worry the majority of the time. To put it in perspective, I have a client who has run a DZ for the better part of 15 years. He’s dreamed of taking his DZ from a Cessna operation to turbine. He finally took the leap and he’s scared to death. As he put it to me, “I’m one major mechanical failure away from bankruptcy.” Ask your DZO what a hot section costs. It’s frightening.

I’m going to share a truth with you. Many DZOs feel underappreciated because their operations are compared to the one down the street that “has this or that” or “does it this way or that way.” In other words, DZOs often feel that no matter what they do, it’s never good enough. If they were to verbalize this, they’d be accused of being crybabies. Many sport jumpers are critical of the decisions DZOs make without ever knowing the financial situation behind closed doors that may have driven the decision.

I have another client who started a DZ because he was fed up with how his home DZ was run and the decisions being made there. As a credit to him, he put his words into action and started his own operation. A couple of years in and the realities have hit home. The unexpected twists and turns, emotional highs and lows have turned a harsh critic into an owner with empathy. Like explaining skydiving to someone who’s never jumped before, you can’t really explain the experience until you actually do it yourself.

Running a DZ is a tough gig. It’s tons of long hours, often thankless, where the DZO wears multiple hats to make ends meet (many are riggers, A&Ps, instructors and even receptionists) all because they love the sport. Is it any wonder that after years of holding everything together, their passion for the sport and the business can wane?

So here’s where I’m going with this. Skydivers: Love your DZ and your DZO. If your DZO is crusty, try to have some empathy—you never know what’s going on behind the scenes. If you have a DZO who has been in the game for any length of time and is still passionate about the sport and their business, make sure you take the time to shake their hand and thank them. They damn well deserve it.

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