Another happy customer: Tandem master Scott Wingate, who's been 19-plus years with NZONE, showing a client the sights

In a milestone that flew under the radar, Queenstown’s NZONE Skydive — currently in a tailspin due to border closures — recently turned 30. Original co-owner and general manager Robynne Williams and current gm Clark ‘Scotty’ Scott reflect on the business’s growth and on what’s changed and  what’s not with PHILIP CHANDLER

Amidst Covid’s decimation of the tourism industry, one Queenstown operator, at least, had something to crow about last month.

NZONE Skydive — an attraction that’s helped cement the resort’s reputation for daring adventure — turned 30.

With general manager Clark ‘Scotty’ Scott admitting they’d be lucky to have a quarter of the business they had pre-Covid, celebrations have understandably been muted.

The death of American client Tyler Nii, who plummeted into Lake Wakatipu two years ago, also dented the company’s perfect safety record.

However, NZONE’s otherwise enjoyed a stellar run.

It’s particularly a tribute to founders Robynne and Lindsay Williams, whose contribution was recognised when current Aussie owner, Experience Co, bought them out for a head-turning $17 millon in 2015.

Robynne says after her husband, who’d got into sports skydiving, visited Queenstown with a friend and saw how rafting and bungy had taken off, they took the plunge and started New Zealand’s first tandem skydiving operation.

From day one they flew clients, initially in a leased Cessna, from their current Remarkables Station landing strip, south of Jack’s Point, although their first base was Wakatipu Aero Club’s airport building.

‘‘It’s very unique within NZ having the facility we do, with the residential populace getting more intensive around us,’’ Scott says, ‘‘however it’s consented.’’

Robynne says the early days were ‘‘very, very basic’’.

‘‘We’d pull the van up and get the rug out the back and the zip-zap machine and T-shirts.’’

Despite the lack of advance bookings, Robynne says business ‘‘took off much better than we’d ever thought it would’’, proving especially popular with 18-to-35-year-olds.

A highlight was taking delivery of a Cresco aircraft, as it increased capacity.

In the early days, attracting qualified tandem skydivers was challenging.

‘‘I’d stay up to some ungodly hour to try and make a phone call across the other side of the world to talk to someone who only just understood English.’’

Robynne’s proud their distinct branding, including the ‘embrace the fear’ lgo, was kept on by the new owners.

Another highlight was winning NZ tourism’s supreme award in 2007.

‘‘Opening the Shotover Street store was a big decision at the time as we took on a lot more overheads, but that worked.’’

They also established NZONE in Rotorua, which they later closed, and Glenorchy.

Robynne recalls a visit from American Ted Strong, who invented the tandem system for the sport of skydiving.

‘‘He had never thought it would be used as a joyride.’’

Recalling 30 years: Original NZONE general manager Robynne Williams with her successor, Clark ‘Scotty’ Scott

Scott believes ‘‘in the local tourism sector this business flies under the radar, slightly’’.

‘‘I don’t think other operators quite realise the size and magnitude and volume of customers we have.’’

He confirms jump numbers are now well over 350,000.

From what his staff have gleaned, NZONE had, pre-Covid, ‘‘probably the busiest tandem-focused drop-zone in the world’’.

The numbers of jumps the tandem masters have completed are world-leading, he adds.

Till he was injured in a training accident, Sasa Jojic, for example, had more than 29,000 jumps to his name.

Since the Aussie buy-up, the company had also bought the country’s second-biggest operation, Wanaka.

Under Experience Co, Scott says ‘‘we’ve taken it from the great business it was, and taken it a long way to the next level’’.

‘‘We’ve had the ability to put on additional aircraft to support us, we’ve expanded the shop in town and we’ve bought a new fleet of buses.’’

Technology-wise, software that staff had written means photos and edited video footage of a customer’s experience can be sent to their phone within five to 10 minutes of them landing.

Pre-Covid, almost 200 staff were employed across Queenstown, Glenorchy and Wanaka in a very labour-intensive operation.

However numbers had since plummeted, mainly through attrition, though there’d also been ‘‘a number of redundancies’’, Scott says.

‘‘Over 90% of our customer numbers were international.

‘‘The Aussie bubble would go a long way to saving a large number of tourism businesses, including ourselves.’’