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What exactly is a dive agency…

AND WHAT DO THEY SELL?

You could be a certified diver with a couple of dozen logged dives, or even have years of experience diving tonnes of exotic spots around the globe, but the chances are that if your great aunt Mildred — the nice one from Brighton — asked you to explain what a dive agency is — what it does: and what exactly it sells — you might not be comfortable answering. Well, you might be happy to answer initially but later you’d feel guilty when you realised you’d supplied her a dodgy answer. Don’t fret, there are a few people who actually work full-time in the dive industry who’d have trouble responding intelligently to that one!

The most obvious mistake that folks make, including great aunt Mildred and a lot of people like her, is thinking that a dive agency ‘does’ diver training. They do not. When a student signs up to become a diver, the scuba instructor, the man or woman who’s going to teach them, doesn’t work for the agency.

Dive agencies do a few things but teaching is not one of them. That’s the job of dive instructors, and they are employed by local dive shops or dive resorts, and not the dive agency.

A dive agency is more like a sort of lending library or publishing company. They sell books. Books about diving. Mostly. (We’ll get into the nuances a few paragraphs down.) But essentially, dive agencies pay “subject matter experts” to write books about all things related to diving, and then they charge a fee for people to read them. Some agencies actually sell printed books… really old-school. However, most sell eBooks. So, their library is virtual rather than some sunny alcove in a vast book-lined athenaeum with potted aspidistras, overstuffed leather chairs, and side tables supporting cups of tea and dainty plates of cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off.

It follows then that dive agencies make their money primarily from selling library access to the dive professionals who actually do the teaching. Occasionally they may sell directly to student divers, but most of the time an agency’s primary customers are dive pros. It’s important to understand these ‘reading’ fees are modest. eBooks are inexpensive, and in fact represent a small fraction of the cost of a diving course. For instance, an agency makes fewer than $30 from a typical open water class regardless of what the student pays to take the class. The agency fees for a more advanced course, let’s say on a rebreather, nets an agency a little more, perhaps $100, but that is still a fraction of the total cost of learning to dive a rebreather. The bulk of the money, and in fairness, the bulk of the work goes to the shop or instructor. For example, an experienced CCR instructor would charge a student more than $1500-plus for a course that would take a week to deliver. Big difference.

But it’s not all pennies and pocket lint for an agency. Firstly, there are obvious economies of scale. A dive shop or instructor certifying 200 basic students a year could be doing very well, but one of the so-called Big Seven agencies will issue thousands and thousands of this type of diver certs every year.

And there are other “products and services” that an agency sells.

Dive agencies, and there are dozens of them around the world, also police the way diver training is delivered. And this, indirectly, is what makes them money.

Dive agencies charge its members — instructors and dive centres — money to be part of their business network. This includes marketing and promotion, but the main ‘product’ is the assurance and protection that comes from those ‘policing’ duties. An intangible but a vitally important one.

The way each agency administers this responsibility varies a lot from agency to agency. Some are more strict and on the ball than others. But a common thread is they each publish standards — detailed outlines, a framework — that instructors are required to follow when they are teaching students. These standards make it clear, how to teach, what to teach, how to maintain control, and give tips on how to prevent things going pear-shaped.

And it’s the agency’s standards that must be met in order for a student diver to be “certified.” You sometimes hear people refer to diver certifications as a dive licence but a diver certification isn’t really a licence. Not in the legal sense of the word. It just tells whomever is interested that the diver has completed such-and-such course and satisfied the course’s published standards. Certifications, certainly those from the major agencies, are recognized by dive operations globally. And a certification card — digital or physical — is required to rent dive gear, buy a gas fill, get onto a dive boat, have access to a dive site.

So, dive instructors and dive operators pay fees to an agency to plug into those standards.

Most agencies charge dive instructors an annual subscription — usually a few hundred dollars — to be a member. RAID is unique in that it offers its professional members Zero FEe-Membership. As long as they stay active and certify a handful of students each year, membership fees are waived. We still offer full support to our members, and our students, but RAID’s cost of doing business is kept low — our shareholders are divers not venture capitalists — and we serve a growing market.

So, what to tell great aunt Mildred?

Unless you enjoy watching someone’s eyes glace over, the suggestion is to tell her that dive agencies are in business to keep divers safe, active, and happy.

You know a little more than that now, but the best message is that simple one.

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