NEWS IN FOCUS: Skydiving market hots up - The latest entrant in the parachuting sector is aggressively going after charity clients. Claire Sames looks at the fallout

CLAIRE SAMES

After years of having the charity parachuting market pretty much sewn up, the skydiving agency Skyline has a new competitor. Skydive Unlimited has been running a skydiving practice for five years but, during the past six months, has been vigorously courting Skyline's best clients.

Clearly, given the results so far, some of them feel it's about time.

The first to jump ship was the learning disability charity Mencap. Others that have signed with Skydive since then include the British Wireless for the Blind Fund, Galloway's Society for the Blind and the National Blind Children Society, with more on the way.

Skydive Unlimited's founder Andy Parkin says: "Until now, there weren't many skydiving agents offering this service to charities, which is why we decided to go down this route."

With Skyline, 800 people jumped for Mencap last year, which raised £110,000 for the charity. The charity is aiming for 1,000 people this year through Skydive Unlimited.

Skyline is confident it can cope with the loss of custom. Siobhan Dillon, Skyline's joint director and founder, says: "We've grown to understand the parachuting and charity market. For charities, the most important thing is building trust. Mencap wanted to try another supplier. We'll continue to place outstanding jumpers from last year and will pass on any enquiries. We have no worry in terms of the competition, although Skydive Unlimited has approached a lot of our clients. We're extremely well established, so good luck to them."

But, significantly, Mencap changed agencies because it felt it could get a better deal. "I'm hoping to convert more of Mencap's enquiries into sales,

says Parkin.

Catherine Rushworth, Mencap's national events co-ordinator, says: "Skydiving is one of our most successful fundraising activities. Now we're hoping to offer a better service. People don't realise how easy it is to skydive.

They just need to get over their initial fear. We have to convert more enquiries to get more people to jump. Skydive Unlimited was keen to work with us and we decided to change to them as they have instructors answering the phones."

Skyline has been persuading people to take the plunge for more than 10 years. The agency has 900 charity clients, which accounts for 90 per cent of its business. Clients include Mind, Childline, Breast Cancer Care and the National Deaf Children's Society. It organised more than 7,000 jumps in 2001, generating £1.96 million for the skydiving centres, £420,000 in agency fees and more than £3 million for its clients, £1 million of which was for the mental health charity Mind.

With the majority of skydiving agents, a donor has to raise a minimum of £340, which effectively allows the donor to jump for "free". Out of that amount, £280 is the jump centre fee, which covers the plane hire, fuel, equipment, training and instructor fees. Approximately £60 goes to the agent and anything raised over this amount is donated to the charity.

There is a third agency on the scene, Fliteline, but it has an exclusive deal with Cancer Research, for which it arranges around 5,000 jumps a year.

The Red Devils display team also organises a limited amount of charity skydiving. It has a relationship with the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) and invites other charities to contact it.

Skydive Unlimited has four skydiving instructors answering the phones and a total of 10 staff, compared with Skyline's 20 employees, four of whom are fundraising agents who have skydived once.

Parkin feels that this point of difference is an important one. "Skydiving is what I do for a living: I've done more than 3,000 jumps in my time and I'm a qualified tandem instructor,

he says. "It's my hobby too. When people are scared they'd prefer to speak to a skydiver rather than a phone agent."

Dillon is less convinced of this point: "We put charities before parachuting. You don't necessarily have to be a parachuting expert, although every person at Skyline does a jump at some stage."

She adds: "Our fundraisers are dealing with how to raise sponsorship and aim to secure a 100 per cent jump rate. They call participants every week until they've managed to do their jump. (Weather conditions are usually to blame for jumps not taking place.) Our fundraisers may have to call a participant six or seven times before a donor makes their jump - it's hard work."

In a bid to win clients, Skyline is also set to offer donors incentives to skydive for charity, including a £60 voucher off a particular leisure activity for those who raise £500 or more. In contrast, Skydive Unlimited is less interested in offering incentives and more focused on building up its customer base.

The agency is also developing a business relationship with the Red Devils, which could prove useful to charities.

For example, a charity could run publicity stunts or events at Red Devils displays. Parkin says: "We have a business relationship with the Red Devils as well as a personal relationship. They're friends, colleagues and fellow skydivers. If I needed a favour, I'm sure they'd do it for me."

Skydive Unlimited is also set to join forces with Sky Science Powered Parachutes, run by a former Red Devil, Alan Hewitt. The merger will form the Adventure Sport Company, which will act as agents for skydiving and other fundraising activities such as skiing, surfing and scuba diving.

This may open up a whole new area for donors and charities alike.

CHARITY SKYDIVING FACTS

- Cancer Research UK has an exclusive contract with skydiving agent Fliteline, recording an average of 5,000 tandem jumps a year.

- RNIB has a skydiving relationship with the Red Devils.

- Mencap holds the world record for the most tandem jumps in one day with 106 jumps.

- Mencap raised £110,000 from tandem skydives in 2001.

- Skyline organised more than 7,000 jumps in 2001, raising more than £3million for charity.

- Donors have to source a minimum of £340 to pay for the charity skydive.

- Skyline and Meningitis Research plan in June to attempt a new British record for tandem skydives. The charity hopes to raise in the region of £50,000-£60,000 from the event.

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