Knowledge and Networking
USPA's 2019 Drop Zone Operators' Conference
Every two years, USPA brings together drop zone owners, operators and staff for a day full of presentations and discussions on all the latest important issues for DZs. This year, USPA held its 2019 Drop Zone Operators’ Conference February 3-4 in Dallas, Texas. About 100 DZOs, speakers, Federal Aviation Administration representatives and sponsors met to share information on everything from safety to marketing to keeping young jumpers in the sport. In addition to education on a variety of topics, the biennial conference gave DZOs the opportunity to connect with each other, exchange ideas and share all that they have in common.
Held in conjunction with the USPA Board of Directors winter meeting and the Parachute Industry Association Symposium, this year’s conference kicked off Sunday evening, February 3, with introductions and a welcome reception. USPA President Chuck Akers and Executive Director Ed Scott welcomed the attendees and gave everyone a chance to introduce themselves to the group. Everyone then had an opportunity to mingle over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres at PIA’s Super Bowl party.
Monday morning got off to an early start, with Scott and USPA Director of Government Relations Randy Ottinger giving a brief presentation on the work USPA has been doing on behalf of drop zones and skydivers. Scott told the group about the continued growth of USPA and skydiving, and Ottinger discussed some important airport access issues he’s been working on behalf of DZs.
Next, Michael Wadkins, the chair of USPA’s Safety & Training Committee and an active instructor certification course director, talked about the value of USPA Coaches. He offered suggestions on how DZs can incorporate coaches into various stages of student progression. He also talked about how coaches can mentor students and how DZs can help coaches continue to grow the sport.
USPA’s new director of safety and training, Ron Bell, then discussed the importance of incident reporting in helping the sport continue to improve its safety record. While 2018 had the lowest number of U.S. fatalities in recorded history, USPA still receives few reports on non-fatal accidents. These reports are crucial in allowing USPA to identify dangerous trends in the sport in order to focus training programs on preventing similar accidents in the future. Bell implored DZs to submit incident reports for all accidents at their drop zones.
Next, Greg Windmiller talked about canopy training and progression for students. Windmiller is a canopy piloting national champion and world record holder and now conducts canopy courses around the world. He offered tips for DZOs to improve training throughout student progressions at their drop zones and to make students safer canopy pilots as they continue in the sport.
D.J. Marvin, who runs The Rating Center instructional ratings school and the mentor program at Skydive Spaceland–Houston in Rosharon, Texas, talked about mentor programs for DZs. He explained how the program at his DZ not only keeps new A-license holders in the sport, but also makes them part of the drop zone community. He described how a mentor program can help new jumpers become safer, more knowledgeable skydivers and eventually turn mentees into mentors, allowing DZs to grow their fun-jumper community. One attendee commented, “It’s great to learn new ways to keep students interested and involved in the sport. We need to do a better job of training our lower-time fun jumpers.”
Next, Tom Noonan, tandem program director for United Parachute Technologies and a tandem instructor examiner, gave reports from the field on some of the common problems tandem instructors are currently experiencing and offered suggestions on how to fix them. He stressed the importance of continuing to keep tandem instructors performing to the standards that they were required to meet during their rating certification courses.
After lunch, James LaBarrie, owner of marketing agency Beyond Marketing and a former DZ manager, gave a presentation on how DZs can excel in a competitive marketplace. He talked about how online reviews have become a DZ’s most valuable marketing asset. And he described a three-tiered marketing strategy of increasing site traffic, telling your story and exceeding expectations to become the obvious choice for consumers. One attendee described his presentation as “a new and refreshing point of view with ideas that can be implemented at my DZ.”
Next, Jeanice Dolan talked about worker classification and workers’ compensation. Dolan is a DZO and a certified public accountant who specializes in employment tax and litigation support and has defended DZs in employment audits. She described the differences in worker classification between employees and independent contractors, the pros and cons of each and what happens when a DZ gets audited. She offered advice on how to comply with worker classification regulations and explained some of the legal requirements surrounding workers’ compensation. This proved to be a very hot topic for DZOs, as more states are scrutinizing and auditing drop zones.
Kat Swain, the senior director of Unmanned Aircraft System Programs for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, then discussed the increased use of drones and their place in the airspace system. She explained regulations related to drones and considerations for their use at drop zones.
The final session was the DZO Roundtable, one of the most popular and fun parts of the day. Attendees suggested topics for discussion, and then the floor opened up for everyone to exchange opinions and ideas. With so many issues that only DZOs can relate to, the roundtable provides a rare forum for them to share information and ideas on how others in the same boat are dealing with their challenges.
One DZO described the day as “one of the best conferences I have been to. Please always have this conference. I loved it.”
The conference offered a full day of learning new information, sharing common challenges and networking with other DZOs. Everyone left with new ideas to implement at their drop zones and a renewed feeling of community with other DZOs who share their passion and love for skydiving.