Thought Leader Profile of Simon Ward, CEO of iFLY
“We live in an experiential age. What people experience, they want to experience further.”
That observation by Simon Ward, who heads iFLY, the world’s biggest group in the indoor skydiving business, goes a long way to summing up the continuing transformation of the sport and leisure sector. Indeed, his own personal journey into indoor skydiving is a pretty good illustration of how sport, media and technology have come together to push a wave of innovation.
Not too many years back, Simon was the Commercial Director of the GRW Group, the UK’s leading commercial radio network. Skydiving was his sport and it gradually turned into a parallel career as he became a renowned freefall photographer and cinematographer. In 2003 a serious accident brought his active sporting career to an abrupt end. During months of rehabilitation he reassessed his future direction in the sport – and hit on indoor skydiving.
He soon embarked on the project of building a vertical wind tunnel, which opened in 2005 in Milton Keynes, about 40 miles from London. A second one was opened in Manchester in 2009. Simon sold his company three years later to the world’s largest operator and franchisor of wind tunnels based on proprietary technology, which rebranded as iFLY. He has been involved in most aspects of the business, from raising the finance, building, buying, selling, and operating, all on a large scale. He recently moved to the headquarters of the company in Austin, Texas, to take over the reins as CEO.
He likes to say that commercial radio and the business he is in now are similar − “they are both selling airtime.” He adds: “We are selling perishable inventory and that needs careful management.”
Let’s get a sense of what large scale means.
A wind tunnel for indoor skydiving is not something you just put it into an existing building. Each one is a construction project of its own. They cost in the region of $7-12 million each.
iFLY has built over 85 tunnels and owns about 45 of them. Five of them are built right into cruise ships under a deal with the Royal Caribbean line.
This year, one of iFLY’s customers will open the world’s biggest wind tunnel at Yas Marina in Abu Dhabi, a whopping 32 feet in diameter. By way of comparison, the diameter of the first tunnel that Ward built was 12 feet and 14 feet is probably standard.
So, indoor skydiving might not have a lot of name recognition yet but clearly it is already ‘a thing’ − and a big one.
However, Simon is the first to admit that it is early days. Asked how long it took for the indoor skydiving business to get off the ground, he replied: “I’m not sure we have traction yet.”
This is where the intersection with sport in the classic sense comes in.
Indoor skydiving, which comes under the auspices of the World Air Sports Federation (FAI), definitely aims to develop as a sport as well as a leisure activity.
But why is being a sport important?
In short, the answer is repeat business.
A lot people will try indoor skydiving once or twice for the experience and that will be it. Over three-quarters of iFLY’s current customers are first-time fliers. Although the percentage of up to 25% of returnees (including skydivers) is much higher than for skydiving outdoors, the aim is to boost that figure.
Competition, clubs, the path to improvement, the things that sport is about, will help to bring them back. In a word, sport is about increasing engagement, a mantra in the marketing world these days.
Simon makes the comparison to Topgolf. “It’s in the sweet spot between sport and leisure, although Top Golf will struggle to attract the pros it will encourage first-timers to try golf.”
Another, and better, parallel would be climbing and indoor climbing. People have always climbed outdoors. Indoor climbing began as a way of replicating that as an experience and then very much took on a life of its own s a sport with different disciplines – and it will be part of the Olympic Games in Paris 2024.
“It’s about finding the sweet spot between sport and the experience of fun and excitement,” Simon said. “We don’t want to lose the experience element.”
The activity of indoor skydiving itself is only part of the story. It’s the product. Simon is absolutely dedicated to using innovation in selling it. He looks at growth predominantly in terms of digital marketing and is such an expert in the field that he was invited to deliver the Annual Cambridge Marketing Lecture at St. John’s College.
“Our marketing is all about the internet,” he said. “Fundamentally we are an e-commerce company.”
Simon will be a featured speaker at the FAI’s first Indoor Skydiving Global Summit from February 1-3, 2020, in Castelló d’Empúries/Empúriabrava and Roses on Spain’s Costa Brava, an area which has hosted numerous FAI World Championships and World Cups in Skydiving and The Wind Games in Indoor Skydiving since 2014.
By Jay Stuart