As I've said before, sailing clubs are not businesses - certainly not in the normal sense. But we can learn quite a lot from business. One such lesson is knowing who our "customer" is, and who we want our customers to be.
There's been a fair amount of comment about how sailing has an ageing demographic, which would suggest that our current customer is in the 40+ age range. These are great members to have - they're experienced, have decided that sailing is their core interest, and, of course, they tend to have disposable income. We're lucky to have strong membership in this age range.
However, most of the talk around this subject focuses on kids, and particularly on how to keep kids in sailing. The drop off at around the mid-teens is dramatic, and if we can stem the flow then our demographic would look a lot more balanced.
And so a lot of the discussion is around how we can make sailing more fun for kids (I've written a little about this in a previous post).
But are these our real "customer"?
Well, it depends on your point of view. Because, as any good business knows, if your market is children then your customer is both the child itself and their parents.
The parents are often the people that decide to take their kids to a sailing club. They are the ones who part with the cash. They are the ones who ensure that the kids turn up week after week. And so they are our customer too.
But how many parents don't sail at all? My experience is that they number is alarmingly high, and this matters a lot in a sport like sailing.
Unlike soccer, or basketball, or athletics, sailing can be comparatively expensive, and so kids often need financial support from their parents beyond their teens. And if the parents don't sail then the kids can easily drift off into some other activity that they can finance themselves.
On top of this, it can be easy to drop the kids off to a summer camp for a couple of weeks each summer, but when it comes to organising children to go sailing every weekend, year after year, parents that aren't involved in the sport (or at least in the club) will soon tire of the chore. And so we lose sailors.
My view is that we should always take the long-term view. How often do we say that sailing is a sport for life, for 7 year-olds and 70 year-olds?
With that in mind, here's a few thoughts.
Offer a Discount on Beginner Adult Courses
For parents that have kids enrolled in a sailing course, we should offer a big discount on a beginner adult sailing course. Let's do everything we can to encourage the parents to learn how to sail
Temporary Family Membership
Let's offer temporary family membership to people that have their children enrolled in a sailing course, and encourage the parents to sail whenever possible. Highlight the benefits of learning alongside the child, and of reinforcing their learning by practising their skills with a parent. Maybe even offer a free or discounted adult beginner course for people that have a child doing a course - something to ease their path into sailing.
The temporary membership might give the family access to the club, but no voting rights or other such perks. And, if they enjoy it, then hopefully they'll join up fully the following year.
Include Family Sailing
It would be nice, as part of whatever course the kids do, to have a family race or two. This would mean a parent or parents would sail with the kids, thus almost forcing the parent to sail. What parent is going to refuse? Do it on an occasional weekend during the course and bingo, you have a family that has sailed together.
But what about the parents that really, really don't want to sail? Not everyone loves the smell of a damp wetsuit (the weirdos).
My view is that we need to make the club a place that these people want to go, even as non-sailors. This can be tricky, as clubs can be reluctant to diversify. There is a school of thought that goes along the lines of:
we are a sailing club and sailing is what we provide for. If you don't like sailing and want to do something else, then go and find somewhere that provides for the thing you want to do.
I have a reasonable amount of sympathy for this point of view. But what if we can find common points of interest that are sailing related, but appealing to aqua-phobes?
- Provide fitness classes at a time that non-sailing folk will be at the club
- Have the bar or galley open, a TV on, books, newspapers and magazines to read.
- Set up a nautical book club
- Survey parents as part of the kids enrolment and find out what their interests are - can these be linked to sailing in any way, and, if so, how can the club leverage this knowledge?
I'm absolutely certain that there are many, many far better ideas than this, but the point stands: if we can interest non-sailors (or reluctant sailors) in the club then the passionate or interested sailors will sail more and for longer.
It's got to be worth getting to know all our "customers".