The man who sold Lake Havasu City to the rest of the world

March 19, 2019

H.E. “Gene” Vogt knows, more than any other living person, how the empty lots were sold on the 16,640 acres of desert acquired by Lake Havasu City Founder Robert P. McCulloch. As vice president of sales for the Holly Development Company, Holly was in charge of selling them.

McCulloch Properties, Inc. purchased the Holly Company in 1964 to take advantage of their licensed real estate professionals who were the leaders of the pack when it came to selling new communities in Southern California. They were considered the best at selling properties and their leader was Gene Vogt.

It didn’t take long to set up 37 offices in Midwestern and Northeastern cities such as Des Moines, Chicago, Cleveland, Boston and New York. The print ads in those cities sold the American Dream, Havasu-style. “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 frozen tundra dwellers who suffered through harsh winters. “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.”

Offering an expense-paid mini-vacation followed by a heavy sales pitch, Vogt invented what is now known as “the giveaway vacation,” a favorite tool to sell time-shares, retirement communities and ski chalets.

This giveaway vacation was unheard of in the 60s and in addition to that, no one had considered using free airline flights to lure prospective real estate buyers until Gene Vogt employed the tactic.

He began with five Lockheed Constellations, previously part of TWA’s fleet, that carried 80 passengers each, usually 40 couples. Charter airlines operate under an FAA-Part 91 certificate, but Lake Havasu Airlines had the full professional certificate that airlines like United or American receive. That was a big deal in those days.

The clients were treated to a night in the Lake Havasu Hotel or the Nautical Inn and given tours in white 4-wheel drive Jeeps by friendly and enthusiastic sales reps hand-trained by Vogt to paint a dream that included plenty of sunshine out of a pile of rocks and sand.

The Havasu salespersons were required to

purchase the white jeeps with their own money to give the tours. Vogt wanted to keep the local Jeep dealership in business.

A third strategy, also unique, was assigning two salespeople to each prospect. A “generator” in the buyer’s city and a counterpart in Havasu who was called the “closer.”

Vogt hired and trained the sales teams with the simple goal of getting “the right people on the planes.” That meant finding clients who could afford to buy a lot and who were serious about purchasing land, not just in getting a freebie.

“It was a complex system, but a simple system, requiring a disciplined sales team to be able to identify those just looking for a free trip from those who had a genuine interest,” Vogt explained. “If they drive a 20-year old car and live in a hovel, don’t put them on the plane.”

The VP of sales estimated that his team sold lots to two out of every three couples who deplaned at the Site Six airport. This high success rate depended on the generator and closer doing their jobs. Ten-percent of the down payment on a lot was available for a sales commission and divided up among those who worked on the deal.

Sometimes a salesman sold the wrong lot or property that had already been sold to someone else, so Vogt had to clean up a lot of these honest errors. 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 city was populated and fulfilled the prediction Gene made to his wife Nancy when they flew over a bare patch of land. “One day there will be a city there.”

Nancy recalled that 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!”

The selling of Havasu took many years of hard work. Gene moved to the Briggs Apartments and usually worked seven days a week while Nancy, and children Dayna, Erik and Melanie stayed at their home in Glendora, California. On the rare occasions Gene came home on weekends, McCulloch would call him at home.

Dayna Vogt, a retired flight attendant, remembered a trip with her father and 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 own 39-year airline career.”

The successful selling of Havasu came at a cost. Gene and Nancy divorced.

After his work was done in Havasu, Gene sold real estate in Fountain Hills, Arizona, and later on a 22-year project in Australia. He worked until age 81 when a stroke finally forced him to hang it up in 2011.

Gene observed that 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.”

About ten years ago when Nancy and her second husband went to a sales presentation regarding a condo in coastal Mexico, it was explained that the concept of “giving away a vacation in exchange for sitting through a sales presentation was the brainchild of Gene Vogt of the Holly Corporation.”

Dayna has asked her father several times about what he thinks is his greatest accomplishment. “He answers the same every time I ask: getting his pilot’s license.”

To everyone else, Gene Vogt will be remembered as the man who sold Havasu to the world.