H.E. “Gene” Vogt, the man who sold Lake Havasu City to the world, passed away from natural causes on July 27 at the age of 92 at his home in California.
He is survived by five children, nine grandchildren and two great-granddaughters. He wanted to be a commercial airline pilot. Instead, he became a phenomenal salesman.
When Lake Havasu’s Founder Robert P. McCulloch contracted the Holly Corporation to sell the 16, 640 acres of empty lots, Holly sent their top gun, VP of Sales Gene Vogt to do the job. He developed a unique marketing plan, which included “the giveaway vacation” and “two-man” sales teams to sell empty lots filled with rocks as the American Dream--Havasu-style.
It didn’t take Vogt long to set up 37 offices in Midwestern and Northeastern cities such as Des Moines, New York, Boston, Cleveland and Chicago. The print ads enticed prospective buyers with tempting phrases such as, “Come to Lake Havasu City! —where Opportunity is Growing, and the Living is Fun—where Hundreds TODAY are Building their Futures—in a Land where Each can see His own Opportunities!”
The pitch included an offer hard to refuse for those dwellers in the tundra who suffered through harsh winters of cold, clouds, snow and ice. “We have a program for flying you there from certain cities of the nation—round trip, all expenses paid. Flights—both one-day and overnight—are made in giant multi-engine airliners under the command of million-mile pilots.”
Vogt is credited with implementing the first “giveaway vacation.” The concept is to offer an expense-paid mini-vacation followed by a heavy sales pitch. This technique now is a favorite marketing tool used to sell condos, time-shares and ski chalets. The “giveaway vacation” was unheard of in the 60s, until employed in Havasu. The idea of using free airline flights was a natural offshoot of McCulloch’s passion for aviation. Vogt also had a pilot’s license and owned a plane.
Vogt folded the tactic into a comprehensive sales strategy. Beginning with five Lockheed Constellations, then adding Electras, all previously part of TWA’s fleet. Each carried 80 passengers, usually 40 couples. Charter airlines operate under an FAA-Part 91 certificate. However, Lake Havasu Airlines had a license to be a “Commercial Operator for the Carriage of Passengers and Cargo,” the same certificate awarded to commercial airlines like United. That was a big deal.
Clients were treated to a night in the Lake Havasu Hotel or the Nautical Inn and given tours in 40 white 4-wheel drive jeeps. The friendly and enthusiastic sales reps—hand-trained by Vogt—were required to purchase the vehicles with their own money. Vogt wanted to keep the local Jeep dealership in business.
Another unique marketing tactic employed by the master salesman was assigning two salespeople to each prospect, a “generator” in the buyer’s city and a “closer” in Havasu.
Vogt trained the sales teams with the simple goal of getting “the right people on the planes.” That meant finding serious buyers—not just folks looking for a freebie—who could afford to purchase lots.
“It was a complex system, but a simple system requiring a disciplined sales team to identify those just looking for a free trip from those who had a genuine interest,” Vogt explained.
When the sales flights landed, the flight attendants were instructed—even in bad weather or scorching heat— to open the cabin door and say, “It’s another BEAUTIFUL DAY in Lake Havasu!”
It’s been estimated that by the time the free flights to Havasu ended, about 137,000 people were flown to the city for the giveaway vacation and sales pitch. The VP of sales estimated that his team sold lots to two out of every three couples who deplaned at the Site Six airport—a 67 percent closing ratio.
This high success rate depended on the generator and closer doing their jobs. The commission was ten-percent of the down payment and shared among those who worked on the deal.
Vogt’s daughter Dayna, a retired flight attendant, remembered a trip with her father and brother Erik. “He took my brother and me to the Lake Havasu Airport in the 60s to ‘see the funny people arriving in fur coats!’ We toured the Constellations, and that love of flying took hold in my 39-year airline career.”
The selling of Havasu took many years of hard work. Gene moved to the Briggs Apartments and usually worked seven days a week while his wife Nancy and children Dayna, Erik, and Melanie stayed at their home in Glendora, California. His workaholic ways put too much stress on their marriage, they divorced, and he spent little time with the children.
After finishing the work in Havasu, Gene sold real estate in Fountain Hills, Arizona and later oversaw a 22-year project in Australia. He worked until age 81 when a stroke finally forced him to hang it up in 2011.
When Nancy and her second husband went to a sales presentation regarding a condo in coastal Mexico about ten years ago, the speaker explained that “the giveaway vacation was the brainchild of Gene Vogt of the Holly Corporation.”
Gene said Robert McCulloch was “the real deal,” and he “had a lot of respect for C.V. Wood.” When asked if he had a message for Havasu’s current residents, he said, “If anyone found my wallet, which I lost in 1969 when it fell off the boat Playtime Nightly, please give me a call.”
Dayna asked her father several times, what he thought was his greatest accomplishment. The answer was always the same, “learning to fly and getting my pilot’s license.”
To everyone else, Gene Vogt will be remembered as “the man who sold Havasu to the world.”
The family set up a Go Fund Me Account in Gene’s name to EXCEL Alaska/CKT Flight School and Pre-Apprentice Program. It assists young pilots without any other resources to get the funding necessary to get their licenses and jobs in aviation.