How Giving Away Free Memberships Can Secure a Club’s Future (GRP)

Sailing clubs and yacht clubs aren't (or at least, shouldn't be) about making money. They aren't businesses in the normal sense, in that their primary focus should be about providing for their members, not achieving a profit.

They are about building long memberships with valued members. So how can they go about achieving this?

CLV and Sailing

One of the buzzwords (or should that be buzzphrases?) in marketing these days is 'customer lifetime value' (CLV). Most of you probably know, but for those that don't, it describes the value a customer represents to a business over the lifetime of their interaction with that business.

Or to put it another way - how much money a business will make from a customer over the months, years or decades that they are an active purchaser.

Understanding a customer's lifetime value helps a business make decisions about pricing, special offers and so on, and it enables a business to take a longer-term strategy when making these decisions.

A Sailor's Lifetime Value

A sailor's lifetime value to their club is about more than just the annual fees they pay. It is about the experience, enthusiasm, friendships, knowledge, and all the other skills and traits that they bring to the club. We lose these things when we lose a club member.

A big reason that young sailors drift out of the sport in their late teens or early twenties is that they don't have the disposable income needed to fund sailing now that their parents no longer pay for them.

This makes sense. Starting salaries can often be very low (or even non-existent for internships, etc.), and with little or no dispensable income sailing just isn't possible. Also, when starting out on a career, young people are often expected to work long hours, making free time a premium. You can see how sailing might start to be less important than some other activities - it is comparatively expensive, and possibly less social (there are fewer people of the same age group going to sailing clubs, because everyone in this age group is facing the same problems).

Take a look at Tillerman's comment (below the line in this article) on why he didn't take up sailing until his 30s:

"From the age of 10 to my early 30s I had this urge to take up boating. I really couldn't afford to spend even $1000 on a boat in those years. Once I had got established in my career and bought a car and a house and got married and had a couple of kids I was finally at the point in my early 30s where I had a little disposable income to spend on boating."

But what if clubs took a longer term view, a CLV view?

I would propose something like this:

A member would be entitled to three years FREE membership once they:

  • have been a member of the club for at least three years previously (normally as part of a family or junior membership)
  • are under 25 years old

The reasons for doing this are many:

  • it removes one of the biggest barriers to retaining membership - money
  • it gives the sailors a chance to choose when they use their free membership. For instance, if they go away to university for three years, they may not be around enough to use their free membership. But if they move back to their home town after college, they can then trigger their free membership to get them back involved in the club

Some people will argue that there will be members of clubs that would resent these free memberships, as they are paying their full subs. The first thing I would do would be to send out an anonymous survey to find out the general feeling and get an idea as to what objections might exist. Some common objections might be:

  • that it is unfair on paying members that didn't have the chance to avail of such a scheme.
    Things change. At the end of the day, clubs need to start being innovative if they want to increase participation and lower the average age of members.
  • That it is unfair on paying members that the free members have the same level of club benefits
    My own reaction is "So what?". But, if this really is an issue, you could introduce some adjustments to the free memberships.  For example, they could do twice as many Race Management or rescue duties as normal members; or, they have to offer a certain number of voluntary hours for club maintenance, bar work, or whatever other voluntary jobs need doing at any particular club

Whatever the objections, the benefits are obvious. More boats on the water; a younger, more vibrant club; some loyalty and commitment from the members; a more diverse membership; a real sense of goodwill towards the club from young members; an image that the club is about the members and the sport, not the money; the list goes on.

I would far rather have

  • a 22 year-old that knows how to sail not paying any club fees and sailing than
  • a 22 year-old that knows how to sail not paying any club fees and sitting at home.

If we also encourage these young sailors to save a small amount each month to contribute to their sailing in the future, then by the time their three free years are up the shock of paying subs again won't be too bad at all.

By the time these sailors have used up their three free years they'll be heading towards their mid-twenties. At this stage they will likely be in a better financial position, and they'll have a sailing habit well established. The chances of them being a member for life are much, much greater, especially if they are not alone: if most of their peers that they learnt to sail with have also continued to sail at the club then they will have built a tight social group by the time they are required to pay for their membership.

One final thought on this. There is much debate about how much it costs an organisation to get a new customer, as opposed to how much it costs them to retain a customer. Whatever the correct figure, it would seem that a chunk of money that clubs put towards trying to advertise for new members might be better used trying to retain the members we already have, especially the young ones.

6 thoughts on “How Giving Away Free Memberships Can Secure a Club’s Future (GRP)

  1. Interesting idea.

    But does it go far enough?

    What about people like me who are attracted to sailing but weren’t lucky enough to have parents who sailed and so was never a family/junior member a yacht club.

    And what about the people who were junior/family members of a yacht club but who are now living in a different part of the country after college? In my own family, I, my wife and both our sons settled in new areas after college and that is quite a common pattern. To be fair, my wife and I didn’t know how to sail when we were 22, but both our sons were very good sailors at 22 and would have been excellent people for a yacht club to recruit.

    And the other issue is cost of boats. Are you in favor of yacht clubs providing a fleet of club-owned dinghies to attract new young members who know how to sail but can’t afford to buy a boat?

  2. All good points, and several of them will need their own posts.

    On the issue of people moving areas after college, I’d love to see clubs share the free memberships around – so, if a sailor moved area after college, then they could join another club and still get their free membership. Whether this is remotely feasible is another question – it would take some good cooperation between clubs, but if it kept good sailors like your sons sailing then it could be worth it.

    • Why complicate it like that? Why not just offer 3 years of free membership for anyone who has racing experience and is under 25? Get an influx of good young sailors and you have 3 years to get them hooked on your club.

      • Fair point. I think it would be a harder sell to the club and/or members, but essentially it makes sense. I’d like to see how people feel about existing young members getting free membership alongside how they feel about a completely new young member getting free membership. Perhaps we’d all agree that there’s no real difference.

        There’s also the issue as to what counts as racing experience, but I think that’s probably resolvable with a bit of thought.

        • Well presumably all new members go through some sort of vetting/ selection process. So the membership committee can just use their discretion to choose young sailors who really do have solid racing experience based on their resumé.

          Perhaps it would be more palatable to older members to limit the number of free memberships at any one time.

          And going back to the question as to whether those folk should previously have been family members there, you can always give preference to former family members but still have some new blood too as long as that doesn’t exceed the “quota.”

          • It does seem like it is a workable idea, doesn’t it?

            I’ve mentioned it in brief to a committee member, but their reaction was uncertain – it is a bit of a leap for a club to take.

            I think I’ll put together something more concrete based on this discussion and see what they think. It could be a useful selling point to potential family members as well as benefiting existing members.

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