Ron Kipp, tourism icon, dies

Ron Kipp

Ron Kipp, one of the biggest promoters of Cayman Islands diving over the years, has died. He was 79.

Kipp, who died on Monday after a long illness, was the owner of Bob Soto’s Diving for two decades. He was known as a dedicated promoter of diving here in Cayman, throughout the Caribbean and worldwide. He not only marketed diving, but helped to organise the industry by creating a local scuba diving association and, eventually, helping to establish the Cayman Island Tourism Association.

Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell called Kipp an “icon of the industry, globally recognized and known”.

Cayman’s dive industry, Kirkconnell said, benefitted from Kipp’s business expertise. He used that expertise to benefit other dive operators.

“He was one of the initial founders of the old Cayman Islands Sports Operators Association,” said Rod McDowall, operations manager for Red Sail Sports and one of Kipp’s early employees.

Part of what the association did, McDowall said, was establish standards for the industry, which meant convincing all the operators to work together.

“It was a pretty difficult thing to do,” he said, but it paid off. “Those standards were adopted throughout the Caribbean.”

It was part of the reason Kipp was inducted into the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame, which is based in Cayman, in 2012. Among his many other awards, he was one of the honourees at 2017’s Heroes Day celebration. A graduate of the University of Tulsa and a US Air Force veteran, Kipp spent the first part of his career on the business side of IBM. His stepdaughter Kristin Emond said Kipp caused a stir with one of his bosses in 1980 and was told he’d be transferred. Instead, she said, he quit.

He had been introduced to diving in 1971 and had been certified as an instructor. When he heard that Bob Soto was selling his dive business, Kipp and his soon-to-be second wife Kathleen moved to Cayman and bought it. He ran the outfit until 2001 when he sold it.

Along the way, Kipp helped turn a shallow spot in North Sound frequented by stingrays into one of Cayman’s most popular tourist destinations, Stingray City.

In his 2013 book, ‘From “Big Blue” to the Deep Blue,’ Kipp recounted how Pat Kennedy, one of his boat captains, and Jay Ireland told him about the spot in 1987. Divers loved the experience. At Kipp’s invite, Skin Diver magazine did a piece on it, drawing international attention. Kathleen Kipp trained stingrays to swim through a hoop.

“I marketed the hell out of it,” Kipp wrote in the book. “And visitors to Grand Cayman have been enjoying it ever since.”

“Ron was a marketing genius,” said Suzy Soto, Bob Soto’s wife. “He did Scuba Bowl in September when it was slow season.”

September and October were typically dead months for diving operators, Emond said, but Scuba Bowl changed that. Kipp worked with Cayman Airways and the Holiday Inn to put together attractive dive packages.

“Multiple dive operators would bring people down from around the world,” she said. “You had 15‑20 boats pulling up to the Holiday Inn to take people diving.”

At the annual Diving Equipment and Marketing Association’s convention, Kipp corralled all of the Cayman operators into a Cayman pavilion, where everyone dressed as pirates.

His work drew widespread attention in the industry. There are pictures of him and Kathleen with Jacques Cousteau.

“Jean-Michel Cousteau was here at the house all the time,” Emond said.

When ‘The Firm’ was shot in Cayman in the early 1990s, Kipp helped with finding locations and as an advisor on the diving scenes. He was Gene Hackman’s double and took cast members diving in their off hours.

“It thrilled him to have Tom Cruise having a drink at our house,” Emond said.

Not everything always ran smoothly, however, she said. Kipp also ran a glass-bottom boat tour, which frequently got guests closer to the water than they might have expected.

“The glass-bottom boat sinking off the Lobster Pot was a regular part of my childhood,” Emond said.

Brad Nelson, who worked for Kipp from 1988 until 2001, owns Cayman University Divers. He says it’s the only dive operation in the world where divemasters can talk with the divers underwater.

“It was all inspired by Ron Kipp,” Nelson said.

Kipp, he said, was a serious businessman.

“But he had a good sense of humour and he was a fun guy,” he added.

Red Sail’s McDowall recalled how Kipp worked hard to forge a cohesiveness among his staff, whether an organised group event or casual drinks after work.

“He made a conscious effort to make sure they were doing things together,” McDowall said.

Emond said her father would not accept no for an answer.

“He told me no is a negotiating point,” she said. “He taught me you can fight with someone and still love them and respect them. He fought with everyone. He would force feed you into doing his will and, at the end, he would buy you a drink and call you his friend.”

That drive lasted until the end, she said.

“My dad couldn’t die until I had my tree trimmed,” she said. “He was after me for six weeks to trim the tree outside my window. Twenty-seven minutes after it was trimmed, he died.”

Besides his wife and stepdaughter, Kipp is survived by three sons from his first marriage, Stephen Kipp, of California, Thomas ‘Brad’ Kipp, of Ohio, and Jeffrey Kipp of Colorado.

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  1. It would be very interesting to see a list of all the people who Ron Kipp and Bob Soto before him imported to Cayman so that you could see how Bob Soto’s Diving, Ltd positively affected our islands far beyond their well known accomplishments in the tourism industry. Many of their ex-employees are still here and have made significant contributions to our adopted country. Kipp hired me straight out of college in 1983 whereupon I truly enjoyed three exciting years driving his boats, teaching and guiding scuba tours and making underwater images. He was fair and considerate, with a big heart for the marine environment. He knew better than most, just how economically valuable maintaining our marine attractions are to the entire tourism industry here. May we all help to carry that torch and may God rest his soul.