This January marks Aquatic Adventures’ 20th anniversary. Staying in business for 20 years is an important milestone for any company. Operating a dive center in the Midwest for 20 years where the dive season only lasts for 6 months makes this an even more monumental accomplishment.
So how did Aquatic Adventures get to where we are now?
Well in December 1999, the founding members (Sally Keppert, Brian Hale, and I) put together a business plan while sitting around the kitchen table in my condo in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. The plan called for starting a dive center in the Milwaukee area that excelled at customer service and focused on extending dive training to families. At the time, scuba diving in the Milwaukee area was heavily dominated by adult males, and we felt that a dive center that was family-friendly would set itself apart from the competition.
Our focus in the early years was on dive training. I had run a business called Learn to Dive that allowed me to teach scuba at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, and that business was folded into Aquatic Adventures when we started up. We also purchased the assets of Hi-Lo Scuba. Hi-Lo Scuba was the first dive center founded in the State of Wisconsin. Unfortunately, tough economic times had put them out of business.
Hi-Lo Scuba had a very small retail location in Elm Grove that afforded us a classroom and place to store equipment. While the sales floor was very small, it allowed us to start selling masks, snorkels, and fins to our students. This helped to ensure that our students would stick with the sport beyond their certification dives, and it was the start of our retail business.
For our first three years, we operated out of the tiny store in Elm Grove. Our revenues in those days were dramatically slanted to dive training, but these humble quarters allowed us to establish processes and business practices that would benefit us later.
Then in 2003, our landlord believed that a larger business was going to rent out most of our mall. We were asked to move to smaller accommodations that were not going to work for us. So we began looking for another location. Eventually we found retail space at our current location.
After about three months of construction and a challenging move, we found ourselves in Brookfield. We had a classroom that was part of our store, a spacious sales floor, room for our growing service business, and an easily accessible compressor room where customers and employees did not need to haul tanks up and down steps.
Brookfield did come with its own set of challenges. Within 2 months, our business tripled in size. Instead of getting 20 or 30 walk-in customers a year, we had 20 or 30 walk-in customers a month. Customers were signing up for classes and purchasing merchandize at a rate we were not prepared for. To accommodate this growth, we needed to invest in far more rental equipment, hire more instructors, and expand our retail inventory. Fortunately, we persevered through these changes, though our growing pains were never as severe before or since.
Then came the tough years in the dive industry. In 2005 and 2008, economic downturns wiped out many businesses, but they were particularly difficult years for dive centers. People did not have the kind of discretionary income that allowed them to take scuba courses or to invest in large amounts of scuba equipment. Dive Centers with significant debt did not survive.
The years following 2008 began to see other changes that challenged both the dive industry and Aquatic Adventures. Online retailers began undercutting equipment sales, and eLearning completely changed how scuba was taught. These changes forced us to rethink our processes and find new ways to stay relevant to customers.
Aquatic Adventures survived these challenges for several reasons. We have benefitted from a core group of employees that believe in our mission and are dedicated to promoting and sharing the sport they love. We have great customers who support local business and understand that diving is first and foremost local. And we have leaders who pay attention to changes in the economy and changes in the dive industry and are vigilant in looking for ways Aquatic Adventures can provide the absolute best products, services and dive experiences for our customers.
Today Aquatic Adventures is one of the biggest dive retailers in Southeast Wisconsin and Northern Illinois. We have incorporated online training into our core classes and strive to make our training both thorough and convenient. We currently employ more than 20 people and more than 10 scuba instructors who are dedicated to safety and to bringing diving to all people regardless of age, sex, race, or socio-economic standing.
We do not know what the next 20 years will bring, but as long as we continue to have customers and employees who believe in us, there is no question that the next 20 years will be as exciting as the first.
Thank you to everyone who has made Aquatic Adventures the greatest dive center. DIVE ON!