Chasing a dream takes guts, determination and vision. Rigo Vargas of St Thomas Flyboarding is one high flying example of someone who did just that and now works in paradise. We know you can’t just throw a switch and have everything simply work out so we connected with Rigo to talk about his business and what it’s taken to make Hydroflight his full time gig.
H2RO INTERVIEW WITH RIGO VARGAS
H2RO) Hello Rigo, please share with us your personal and business background and how you first became involved in Hydroflight?
I am kind of old for this industry so I’ll try to give you the cliff notes. I was born and raised in Northern California and have lived there my entire life. After a lengthy college career I spent most of my professional life as a sales manager in the home improvement industry.
I first learned about hydroflight when we were on vacation in Playa del Carmen Mexico in early 2014. While searching for stuff to do I came across Flyboarding and when I saw it I honestly couldn’t believe it was real. I immediately Googled it and as you’d expect I was instantly wowed by the Devin Super Tramp video shot in Hawaii. Needless to say I went out and took my first flight there and instantly fell in love with it. I couldn’t wait to get home and buy my own (we already had several Jet Skis) and then I discovered how much they cost. Knowing the wife wasn’t going to Ok that purchase I found myself searching for a rental operation in my area so that I could at least rent again but couldn’t find one, not even in Lake Tahoe which surprised me. That’s when the light bulb went off and I realized there may be a small business opportunity for me. I convinced my wife that if I bought my own setup that the rental business I could generate on the weekends would pay for the equipment and that’s how NorCal FlyBoard was born.
H2RO) Prior to making the decision to dive completely into running a full time Flyboard Business what research, preparations and steps did you initially take to ensure it was the right fit for you?
If there was ever any doubt in my mind that “everything happens for a reason”, this experience eliminated it. The opportunity to get into this full time actually came about five months after I started the NorCal business, which hadn’t produced thus far and I still had my full time (and lucrative) sales career. Then one day the stars decided to align because within a 2 day period I found out that the primary resorts I was working with in Lake Tahoe had turned down my proposals, an opportunity came up to run a Flyboard business in St. Thomas, and my employer announced a reorganization that would be eliminating my position. Even though my company offered me another position (a lateral move), when I found out that there was an opportunity in the Caribbean, and St. Thomas of all places, I felt like it was something that HAD to at least be considered. After asking a million questions about the island I spent some time calling the resorts and even some of the cruise lines to gauge what future expansion would realistically be possible. The last step was to actually go to the island and see things for myself, because I honestly expected to find some kind of “catch”. After failing to see a real downside I moved forward and the rest is history.
I think one of the biggest hurdles initially was getting people past the perception that this was an “EXTREME”, and therefore difficult and dangerous, activity. So many travelers had a “no way” attitude about trying it themselves, especially the girls and a lot of guys if they were over 35-40 years old. Getting rid of that stigma has taken time but we’ve done it with a number of changes to marketing. So many operations I saw used images of guys like Damone Rippy and Ben Merrell on their websites and materials. Even though they’re great guys and they look cool, the reality was that they don’t help 45 year old, 240 lb. John Doe get the courage to try it. We started to put “normal” people in our marketing images and demos. We would have the girls on our team do our demos (no backflips, etc) and we put images of previous guests on our brochures and advertisements. That was one of the keys to the early success. Another big hurdle was, and still is, the coast guard requirement for instructors to have a captains license. Fortunately I was able to take an online course but it was a lot more difficult than I expected. Fast forward to today and it’s still difficult to staff because even with many available captains around, reliability and affordability always makes it a challenge.
H2RO) Before we explore your very exciting relationship with Royal Caribbean and Disney cruise lines what are some of the other successes you’ve enjoyed? What are some of the decisions that you’ve made which you feel have made the most positive impact on your business?
Well I don’t know that I would call them “successes” per se but we’ve been fortunate enough to win “Best Watersport” on St. Thomas for the last 2 years and we’ve also maintained a top 20 ranking on Trip Advisor out of over 200 activities that we are ranked against. Our review quality is second to none for our island which we take a lot of pride in.
I think the most notable positive impacts have resulted from paid advertising, and financially involving my team in our success. When I started this I found that most companies did a lot of their own work to get their brands out there, which is totally understandable because advertising isn’t cheap, and I was no exception but after a while I knew something had to change to grow sales. I had a really hard time biting the bullet and spending money on true paid advertising, especially given that TripAdvisor was our #1 source for clients and is free. But, once we got into the local travel magazine, sales revenue as a direct result of that ad took a big jump. I also made the decision to incentivize my staff, especially my manager, through profit-based bonuses. I found that even though they were already a great staff, they started looking out for the company’s best interests even more which allows me to be relatively stress free when I’m not there.
H2RO – b) Almost like profit-sharing, that’s something that might get the attention of other rental operators. On that note, are there any procedures, systems, equipment that you think are essential to your daily operations?
Essential might be too strong of a word but I’d say there are number things that definitely make things run better and/or smoother. First and foremost is the use of an instructional video. When I first got to the island I was actually opposed to it because I didn’t want to lose the value of that one on one interaction that you have with your guest as an instructor. That interaction isn’t just essential for the customer experience, but it also gives the team a chance to earn a gratuity. It only took a few grueling days on the water though to realize that the quality of that interaction goes down quickly when you’re tired, hungry, etc and you start rushing and/or forgetting important things that the guest needs to know. So we basically created a hybrid experience by shooting an instructional video with underwater footage. The guests learn everything they need to know about safety and flying from the video, and then we follow that with additional, but simpler, one on one content from the instructor to preserve that part of the experience. Even though it was originally intended to relieve the instructor from having to say the same thing over a dozen times a day, it turned out that the underwater footage was a huge benefit given that people retain so much more visual content than oral content.
We also use the Liquid Force Domain wakeboard bindings. They are an all-velcro and open-toe binding that we use on all of our units. This really helps us move through our busy days without delays because we can often avoid changing any boots which is big when our cruise ship tours are in, the deadlines are pretty firm with them. We’re considering switching to the Hyperlite System bindings that PowerFly sells to improve efficiency further yet.
H2RO) One thing that sparked our interest in you is your pioneering efforts when it comes to working with the major cruise lines. You had mentioned to us Royal Caribbean and Disney. What is the relationship, how did you secure it, and where do you hope it all leads?
The Cruise lines are definitely the whale that everyone in a cruise destination wants to land, and their potential was the primary reason I was willing to take this leap into the industry. There are 2 MAJOR hurdles to getting in with the cruise lines, the first of which is just getting an opportunity to speak with them. The process is very cumbersome and the decision makers are extremely well insulated. The 2nd hurdle is approval with risk management. You may already know that this is a really ugly word that probably makes most of my fellow rental operators cringe. It all started with Royal Caribbean. With a lot of digging and phone calls I somehow got the email address and phone number of the shore excursion manager for the company. After about 8 months of emails and a number of phone messages they actually emailed me back expressing their interest in our activity. Believe it or not this was the easy part. I won’t bore you with the details of the endless hoops we had to jump through before they would even send a team for a site visit, I’ll just say the key to it all was the insurance data we were able to provide. We sent them third party information that showed there had been no claims to date INDUSTRY WIDE with our insurance company. They then sent a group for a site visit and flight demonstration which went extremely well (they even asked if I would open a location on their private island) and it was smooth sailing (finally) after that. Little did we know just how vital this process was going to be because I heard later that once you get one of the cruise lines, the rest tend to follow. This turned out to be true because as mentioned, we’ve since added Disney and Carnival Cruise lines (as of a few weeks ago). We didn’t have to do 1/10th of the hoop jumping that we did for RC even though like RC we were the first hydroflight company that they had worked with.
Royal Caribbean has provided about 1/3 of our volume in 2016 so my hope is that adding these next two companies (along with eventually adding Norwegian) will take the business to a level that provides me the kind of living that I made in my previous life. Fortunately my quality of life is already much better regardless 🙂
H2RO) I’m curious what you see as the biggest challenges to our industry over the next few years and what you would like to see happen to ensure we overcome them?
Unfortunately we face big challenges in the industry and I’m not certain that there are any obvious solutions. One of the biggest challenges is going to be growing the sport and activity (shocker right?) I make a point of separating those two words because they are without question two different things in my opinion. What we do in St. Thomas is an activity but what we’ve seen in places like Dubai and Louisiana is a sport.
The easy answer is that the survival of both is going to depend on money that comes from a growth in popularity. Many, however, believe that hydroflight has peaked or is peaking in popularity right now and yet others hope that most people who own a PWC will eventually own a hydro device. I don’t see that happening even if equipment prices were cut in half but equipment ownership and rentals on the mainland ARE going to have to become more affordable if we really want to see how far this can go. That is what is going to bring people back again and with friends. The ACTIVITY has to become more “normalized” from a rental standpoint, so that it’s more like renting a Jet Ski and less like going Parasailing, which typically only happens on vacation about once or twice in a lifetime for the average guest.
The SPORT however has some completely different challenges, although equipment affordability can be helpful here as well. Events have to be made more interesting for the average viewer if it’s going to become anything beyond a gathering of industry friends when competitions come around. There’s a lot of ways to do this but we can start with improved commentary and a complete format overhaul.
H2RO b) What does that look like in your opinion?
Well, I haven’t put a ton of thought into it but I would start by modeling the format like other competitions that have similar principles. Think skateboard half pipe, gymnastics floor routines, and even figure skating. This might sound like completely unrelated sports but they all have some key things in common with how this sport is executed. They all have key trick elements, they are all timed similarly (less than 3 minutes), and the average viewer has no clue what is going on because they are not mainstream sports. However when I watch those other sports, I am engaged because the commentators are usually doing one of two things…. They are either telling me something about the athlete (how much they trained or something about them off the field), or they are telling me what trick the athlete is about to attempt and how spectacular and/or difficult it is. In either case they have my attention and it keeps me from losing interest during downtime and between tricks.
So you feel the competitions should have pre-planned routines so to speak?
Yes I do. Not only does it give the commentator/analyst the opportunity to talk more about the athlete and their upcoming trick, it also should make it easier to score since the judges will know what is coming and thus, what to look for. To be fair though, I am not a pro rider so I don’t know how difficult it may be to do it this way.
Interesting thoughts. How do you feel the industry can best utilize ideas from people like you along with other operators and athletes?
I hate to beat a dead horse here but the best way to at least take steps toward making improvements and finding the ultimate solutions is to get together and figure out how we can approach each problem as a community of owners, renters, and athletes. (i.e. the much discussed “association”)
What about the manufacturers?
I think that any owner, employee, etc of a manufacturer should certainly be a member of any association but I think the groups’ leadership should be free of any potential conflict of interest that a manufacturer may have.
On that note, we recently ran a story on the “Hydrofight” that exists in today’s manufacturing climate. Did you get a chance to read it?
Ummm yeah that… Obviously that’s a very touchy subject and I don’t have your security clearance so I don’t know all the behind the scenes stuff, but based on what I do know, I don’t think there is a great solution there either. It’s easy for me to say open is best for us end-users but at the same time I’m not the one who’s invested years of my life and God knows how much money to create these devices. If I were, I would have a totally different perspective so I can totally understand the manufacturers’ positions as well. My guess is that the fight may not end anytime soon, especially if there’s no middle ground to land on.
H2RO) Any funny, work related stories? If yes, please share, if not got any good jokes?
We recommend to all guests that they wear swim shorts. Women’s bottoms come down so often that we actually tell any female guests ahead of time “just so you know, your bikini will probably come down and when it does, the instructor will be staring right at you along with everyone on the beach”. Doesn’t matter, pretty much all of them still go in their bikinis.
Send us some customer GoPro footage and we’ll embed it here 😉
H2RO) In case our readers haven’t been completely sold yet on your location take a moment and share why we should all be jumping on planes and heading to St. Thomas immediately?
The USVI (United States Virgin Islands) is fantastic. Our company alone has been featured three times on national TV (HBO, CBS Sports, Travel Channel) and I am sure it is due to the location. Like most Caribbean locations the amazing beaches are white and fluffy and the water is so ridiculous that it looks fake. We have a handful of great features though that you don’t get from a lot of other locations. Island hopping is great. From St. Thomas you can hit St. John, Jost Van Dyke, Tortolla, and Virgin Gorda all in one day by boat. Unlike places like Cancun and the Bahamas, we are not flat. There are some great hikes and zip lining with ridiculous views of the surrounding islands. It’s not just beaches and snorkeling. Lastly, because it is US Territory, it is very easy. No passport, no currency exchange, just get on a plane and come have fun!