It’s interesting, and a little humbling, thinking and talking and writing about a product/service/experience for which ones own lens is truly unique. I would estimate probably around 50 but certainly less that 100 people who have ever lived have my share of experience of an activity that has been performed by around 4 million people (a little ironically perhaps, more or less the population of New Zealand).
You’d probably never guess, but I’m talking about bungy jumping.
At this point, I’d guess that half of you are intrigued, the other half horrified. For those of you who haven’t jumped, I’d guess that half of you would be keen, given the opportunity, the other half ‘never in a million years’. I’ll also allow for a few ambivalent ‘whys’.
I had no idea the impact my first jump, off a kind of random structure over a parking lot (the pool hadn’t been built yet) off the Las Vegas strip, would have on my life.
My Life in Bungy:
1994 – First jump, Las Vegas, USA
Dec 17, 1995 – Married Colin Basterfield on the Bungy Tower in Las Vegas, with friends and family watching on the platform. The Reverend JC Cunningham performed the ceremony, and when he pronounced us husband and wife and said ‘you may kiss the bride’ we fell backwards from the tower. I also met AJ Hackett, the father of commercial bungy on my wedding day.
1996 – 2003 Approximately 75 additional jumps, including Heli-Bungy, and a full-moon jump from the Verzasca Dam a la James Bond in Goldeneye, and an illegal ‘raid jump’ from the beautiful Pont de la Caille outside Geneva.
*Special Event – My husband Colin jumped from one millennium to the next, at midnight on Dec 31 1999 from the Nevis High-wire in Queenstown, New Zealand
2003 – 2005 Serve as AJ Hackett International’s Managing Director, responsible for the operations in Cairns, Australia, Macau, China, Bali, Indonesia, Acapulco, Mexico, Las Vegas, USA Normandy, France as well as development projects in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Germany. I approximate an additional 300+ jumps during my years with the organization.
2005 – Became the first woman to bungy jump from the highest suspension bridge in the world – The Royal Gorge Bridge (956ft) in Colorado, USA
I set that context to make clear my perspective on what bungy jumping is, who it’s for, and the kind of customer we are trying to create.
Commercial Bungy jumping was inspired by the Vanuatu ancient land diving ritual, in which young men jump from tall wooden platforms with vines tied to their ankles as a test of their courage and passage into manhood.
And for some, that is still what it's for – a rite of passage. Over the years, I’ve spoken to hundreds of jumpers, asking the ‘why’. Answers range from ‘looks like fun’ to ‘it’s a dare’ to ‘well, it’s just something you gotta do in New Zealand’.
Some have much more profound reasons. Some jump to celebrate recovery. Some jump to celebrate a letting go, or a coming together. Many people jump simply as a personal challenge – taking that specific decision to subvert the lizard brain and take a leap into the unknown.
Whatever the reason, the who and the why meet at one specific moment. The moment you step or jump or run off that platform is the same for everyone, regardless of the why, regardless of world view. It’s a choice.
That’s what it’s for. The choice to go against all human instinct, and leap into the void. No one ever gets pushed.
The minor exception maybe the drunken Aussie at the 66 Club in Bali, who has medicated his lizard brain into submission with alcohol. And I have, once or twice, seen someone so frightened that they literally shook themselves off the platform. Because no one is ever pushed, those are the only examples I can think of where it’s a choice, but not the pure experience.
The design of the experience is fundamental. Your first glimpse of the bridge or platform, to the process of signing in, being weighed, having your weight written on your hand with a big black marker. Arriving on the jump deck, music pumping, seeing the looks on the faces of those jumping before you as they are being tied up, watching as they do that awkward, tentative wiggle (needs must if you have a foot –tie) to the edge. Listening to the countdown, wondering if they are going to spring forward or lean back…… Your name is called, and it’s your turn. It’s a ritual. It’s designed that way.
I think the scariest jump is the face-to-face elevator. Facing one another on opposite platforms, you lock eyes with the other jumper, and the countdown begins – 5,4,3,2, - on 1 you bend your knees in unison, then spring sideways together, holding eye contact all the way down. Even for me, just typing that out gave me a slight squirt of adrenalin!
To combat market myopia, AJHB has diversified in some locations – with bridge swings and giant flying foxes and mast-climbs and sky-walks. Some of these activities serve as the ‘gateway drug’, but even after over 25 years, the real business remains bungy.
Because there are opportunities to jump literally all around the world, (though obviously not all with AJ Hackett bungy, who, incidentally, has never had a fatality) the primary worldview of jumpers varies wildly. When we brought bungy to Macau, China for example, we really were not sure what the response would be, because there was no precedent of personal challenge activities. It was a very cool experience, literally making a market.
For the first 2 or 3 years, the majority of jumpers were not mainland Chinese, rather western tourists or from Hong Kong. That’s changed now, and the majority of jumpers are from mainland China. One of the characteristics of Chinese that I’ve experienced in business is the importance of maintaining face. I hear from my ex colleagues that a lot of that mindset plays into why many young men jump. But that’s not specific to China – I’ve certainly seen that peer motivated behaviour everywhere.
The outliers fascinate me, because I guess perhaps in a way I’m one. Men and women in their 90’s. Paraplegics. Pretty much anyone who can arrive at the platform can have a go. And despite urban legend, your retinas will not detatch. It will not put your back out. Unlike skydiving, there is the sensation of ‘ground rush’ that makes it more immediate, and I think scarier. But besides taking the decision to jump, you don’t have to do anything. It’s not like base jumping or your first solo parachute – there is no skill required. The only thing you have to do is decide.
The most common reaction I hear after someone has jumped is ‘wow – if I can do that, I can do ANYTHING’. Other common reactions include ‘well, that’s one off the bucket list’ and ‘when can I go again!!??!?’.
Those are the types of customers bungy creates. All of the reasons for engagement, all of the reactions are fit for purpose for the individual. That’s what makes a great product and experience, and that’s what defines a market. Just like the iPhone and the Tesla, it’s not for everyone – but it’s for everyone who is open to putting their toes over the edge, leaping into the unknown, and being changed.