How to Make Your Masters Program the Hottest Ticket in Town by Conrad Johnson (2008)


[Introduction] We are very fortunate that Conrad Johnson is here today to talk to us about how to make your Masters Program the hottest ticket in town and I am certainly going to be interested. Conrad has been involved with Masters Swimming for over ten years that I know of and over 400 athletes had some quick words of advice for me out in the hallway, I can’t wait to hear more.

[Coach Johnson] We are just going to do a little exercise today to sort of say everyone who has a Masters team has their own cultural moment. It depends on where you live and what kind of culture the swimmers on your team live in. What sort of prevailing culture is around you. I am going to talk about a team that is basically very urban-based, a team that is largely gay and lesbian team that is also very intelligent and very witty. I just want you to think about the kind of Masters team you have and try to think about what kind of cultural moment you are looking for because you can’t be, as I told Rick before, you cannot be everything to all people. You have to be one thing in the end. So, let us give an example before I show some pictures here. We want to have a party on a Friday night and you have a big team, a hundred people team and you have people from all sorts of backgrounds: there are single people, married people, people with children, people with small children, people with teenage children, how do you get them all to come to one place.

Well, first of all, one thing to remember is that you can’t separate children from parents in the early parts of the evening, once the certain part of the evening comes – the children can leave and the parents who are single can stay or one parent leaves and the other parent will stay with the children. Try to imagine a party that is going to be from 6 o’clock and it is going to go on until about midnight on a Friday night in a large room where you can basically do whatever you want there, you can serve liquor, you can serve food. We just want to say that one of the things that we have always done is we have always created a play area and what a play area is – it is a place where the children can come at 6 and they can go over and they can play and it is professionally staffed since we hired two babysitters to run it, but what we do is we always have it in such a way that it is in a room as big as this. It is sort of in the center of the room where everybody is clustered around it, but everybody can watch their own kids, but they are not taking care of their own kids, but they can sit here, have a drink, talk to people, but they can kind of keep an eye on the kid sitting in the play area. The other reason that the kids are over there playing is that we invested in toys, we invested $200 at Toys-R-Us. We put toys there and we had all the seats like this, these kind of seats all faced in, so it was an area that once the kid was inside they couldn’t leave unless they came to this little gate. It was a well-lit space, small enough so that they could do this and then between 6 o’clock and 7:30 their kids were there, they were playing and then usually one parent took the others home and the other parent stayed.

Now all the kids of the people on the team who were already single, but who liked the children of the other team members, would also have an ability to interact with those kids and then at a certain point they would say okay, the kids are great, now let’s send them home. We even created a place where you could come in and you could park your child near the door and so we had a row of baby carriages, everyone is all clustered around, all having a nice time, but everyone in the room knew where their kid was and everybody in the room knew exactly what they were doing. We concentrated on buying toys, buying things that people of ages from 2 on up could all share, so there were a lot of pads and paper and pencils and that kind of thing, not necessarily you know game boys or anything like that. It was all about blocks, drawing and stuffed animals. We created a very common sense of the room and what was going on. If you can’t do that, then you shouldn’t invite the kids to the party, but if you don’t invite the kids to the party, the kids with parents won’t come.

Q: Has anybody here ever run a big Masters party before, so how many people were there? About 400, and all ages .This is a once a year party? Oh, at UC Davis– that is in a way an advanced example of it so anybody here ever run a large sort of dinner party for your team or anything? That is the essence of the thing. If you can bring the kids to the party that the adults are at then you will get the children – the parents with children to come, alright? If you can’t do that they won’t come, alright? The same thing has to do, and I say UC Davis, this is a team with 600 swimmers so if they have 400 people, they still don’t have everybody there. We had parties where we had 150 swimmers and we would say 130 came, plus children, an example of having the right kind of people.

So with that, I am going to show you a couple of slides and I am going to have to move over here because I have to kind of click this computer button. Now one thing that we also did was a camp every year in Florida and we did – so this is an example and this is not a really good picture, but you can get a sense of the kind of people who are on the team. This is a very mixed group of people.

[PHOTO OF FLORIDA SWIM CAMP] This is down in Ft. Lauderdale, where I was also a consulting coach. This is about half of the group that is there at the time. As you can see, there are people of all ages and people in their late 20’s up into their 60’s and they are doing their little posing here. Now, they go to Florida for a whole week in April and they spend approximately 5 ½ hours in exercise during the day, 2 hours in the morning an hour and a half at night and an hour during the day doing yoga, pilates or medicine balls and this for my group is absolutely like the most fun thing to do. You would say, “God why are you doing this on vacation,” and they say “oh God, let’s go to Florida again.” They come back from this trip absolutely exhausted because they do all this swimming from Monday through to Saturday, including a big ocean swim and they go out every night, they don’t get enough sleep, they come home exhausted.

[PHOTO OF SWIM CAMP] So this is very much an example of what can happen when you have somebody out of control. Now here is another

[FLORIDA CAMP PHOTO] so this is just sort of in the lanes, notice the TNYA cap. We take this trip

[TRAVERS ISLAND TRIP], this is Megan who was here this morning, this was at a trip up in Westchester, where they have an outdoor pool and those who live in New York City know that outdoor pools in the summertime are very rare. We take a special trip up there and we have a two hour full practice, followed by an all you can eat breakfast/brunch by the pool in this resort setting called Travers Island. It is the New York Athletic Club country club north of the city. I would say that I get between 60 and 65 people to go on a Sunday morning. Now only a fraction of people on the team have cars. We actually have one group of people go to the pool, drop their passengers off, then turn around and drive 5 minutes to the train station and pick up a train that comes in with 40 people from New York City, after a 2 hour train ride, all get put into the same cars and brought over to the country club .

[HOLIDAY PARTY PHOTO] Now this is a holiday party, which shows all these little kids here. Now that was eventually, four years ago when I took over the program. This program was about 90% gay when I took over. Now because I brought a program over that was primarily a lot of straight girls from the YWCA and we merged them together and the couples, the gay male/straight women chemistry is naturally very good. There are couples in this picture who are both gay and straight, who have kids here so in other words, this little kid right here, being held by his father also has another father in the room somewhere. This little girl is very cute and this is another parent here and then the rest of them were all straight people. This was sort of a baby boom of ’06. I also said that we had a baby boom of ’02 and where those kids are now. This is the baby boom of ’02

[HOLIDAY PARTY PHOTO #2] he is now almost 6. Altogether, between the two baby booms there were 22 kids that were born to the team, so I have 22 nieces and nephews.

[HOLIDAY PARTY PHOTO #3] is an example of a Christmas party where again, like I said, there is a play area behind where they are sitting so they came in there, The kids went to the play area and played while the parents were around this very big loft. they were able to enjoy the drinks and also provide some sort of supervision of their own kids as some of these kids are very small. Here is another holiday party.

[HOLIDAY PARTY PHOTO OF ME AND EUGENE DRESSED AS A TREE] Now this is myself and this is a tree, or a person dressed as a tree. A holiday party that began as a very family event and then, at a certain point, all the kids left and then all the single people stayed and then by 12 o’clock midnight it was all very cruisy/bruisy.

[PHOTO OF RAFTING TRIP] This is a white water rafting trip, somewhere in the Delaware Gap; what they do in detail I cannot relate, as I am always on vacation when this happens.

[PHOTO OF LISA BATEY ] This is one of our coaches going away. She just moved to Tokyo and there is her little super coach Lisa Baby Team New York door stopper that we have given her.

[PHOTO OF TEAM ON FIFTH AVENUE] This is the Team New York at the gay pride parade and you know, as you can see, they are mostly a gay team. They are going to march in Speedos and shoot the audience with water guns. The last part got very tame after 9/11. Now here is a rain storm that while the parade is going and what do these guys do? They immediately start swimming freestyle down 5th Avenue. Now, one thing I always do is never schedule for a big team anything more than once a month. I never go beyond that. Now when you figure that one event is the One Hour Swim in January, therefore, there is nothing more for that month. One is a big meet in the summertime, so there is nothing else that month. If you go through, you end up with 8 events through the year that you actually have to sit down and actually schedule for. The further ahead you can do it the better because busy New Yorkers, in one of their cultural moments, is that they commit to, they want to know far in advance, but they do not put anything in their calendar in ink until two days before so if you tell them way in advance.

So with that, I just wanted to say one more time that you are looking for the cultural moment that your team expresses. My team being an urban, largely gay and lesbian team, this is the cultural moment that we have, swimming down Fifth Avenue. This is not necessarily the cultural moment that you have. Now I have also been involved with planning activities for the Ft. Lauderdale Aquatics Masters team and in those events, they do not do anything at night because most of the people on the team already have kids, they are not going to leave their kids of all different ages alone, so they do things in the afternoons, on weekends,on Saturday or Sunday in the late afternoons and those are really good moments too for you to try to pick the kind of events that really work for your group. So what I really wanted to say is to lay out the thinking behind the cultural moment that you are looking for. I want to throw that open to any more questions or comments about looking for that kind of moment. So does anybody here have any experience doing events like this or want to say anything about it or anybody have any great disasters to talk about because I know disasters in this business are very revealing.

Q: These were social events that you were planning, but does your team for example attend meets?
A: Yes, they do. This is a social event calendar we are talking about and this is competition calendar aside from the big summer meet, this is really apart from the social calendar. Now, one of the things that we don’t do is we don’t do a lot of meets. Even though it is such a big team, getting this size group of people to one place, especially in New York City, where not a lot of people have cars. Some people living in the suburbs like Long Island and for you living on Long Island, you can just drive there. For us it is a big deal to get out there, so we tend to plan more elaborate transportation to meets. Everything is open to discussion and if somebody says to me well I know we have 25 people going so can you “loan” me the coach, so of course I will go. We try to do this apart from the competitive calendar.

Q: Between the schedule you are saying and the seasonal things earlier, you seem to have a lot of social events, I think it is fine because they tend to do less of those organized social events because for 9 months out of the year we are competing every two weeks. During the summers we will do ocean swims once a month. What is interesting is while certain people do more social events, they can only give so much of their time to this social group, they have other friends and family and so on and so forth

A: Well sure, people do and you have made an obvious decision that what your cultural moment involves, and whether or not it is right or not is different. That every two weeks, you are going to go to an event. Now that might be 24 events through the year or something, but we have made a decision that that is not what we are going to do, but we will go to meets in force and when we show up in force you know we clean up.

Q: Several teams in our area can do that, but we are a really tiny team, but it seems that a majority of the group wants to compete. We are a small group you know, like 10 swimmers – 9 swimmers.

A: And where are you located?

Q: Los Angeles. What I was going to say, we don’t do a lot of the group social things, but we will be tight in the competition. We, you know, have about twenty people, they may not have a coach, so they don’t get to see them very much so when we go to a zone meet and they bring 45 people, we will make the effort to say ahead of time say Saturday night at 7 o’clock; so then we are there and will try to have a great atmosphere. In San Antonio we just don’t. We take advantage of the time when the people are together. We also tie it in by the postal swim or something like that, we will do it, instead of doing, we will just say Saturday morning we are supposed to swim, we are going to meet a 11 at the pool, everyone brings food , then we swap off and have a big breakfast and stuff like that and that works well for our group too because we have a lot of parents. A: No we do the postal swim. We actually do on three different days. We actually run nine heats per day for three days in order to fit everybody in so every day is like a big convention but again – go ahead.

Q: Most of the folks that are on our team are married and have a couple of kids. We attend X number of workouts a week so they like our schedule. I also work with planning the events, they are into it, a lot of holidays. They like the holiday parties. They like to have a summer party. They do miniature golf. There are a lot of young people that are single and then I also work with them too. Yes, very much like our team. They have got fund raisers and garage sales. They do age awareness stuff. They patronize certain places as a group and they get a kickback on sales. They go on rafting trips, they go skiing. They go to the National Championships every year in force, I mean, there are big numbers that go, but you know, the social scene is huge. Speaker: Now the first team we talked about, the team where everybody is married and they can’t do it, have you ever thought about doing something with that group? A: You mean like a happy hour? It would have to be a Saturday, yeah. That would be the only way I could get away with it. The problem would be: we are pretty spread out so and their time, everybody is too busy. It is just tough to do it. The majority of my team is let’s say, 28-50 so they are in the house with 3-4 kids, the kids play soccer, unfortunately they are not swimming.

Q: My team is very family-oriented as well, in fact mostly of the same age group and so every holiday like Labor day, Memorial day, 4th of July, I have a swim practice that we start later in the morning, at 10 o’clock so that they can sleep in. My husband watches the kids. It is a fenced pool and I let each person pick a set that they want to do and the entire team does the set, depending on how many people there are and how many yards we can do. Then we have breakfast afterwards there at the pool.

Speaker: At the pool?

A: Yes, bagels you know.

Q: Is the pool covered over?

A: It is an outdoor pool, but it is enclosed and then the kids can jump in the pool afterwards, and then swim with their parents for a while.

Speaker: So, how many people on your team come to that event?

A: It is quite big. Speaker: She grasps her cultural moment. That is what she did with her very family-oriented team. When you said a happy hour, I think that the problem is that it is around alcohol. I would look at what she does. I think that is a really good idea. If I was to think of trying to do something on a holiday, in the late mornings, let them sleep in, then get there, where the parents and the children do something together. Because I always felt that if you took care of the spirit on the team, the team mood the team psychology, that the competition would take care of itself and if you paid attention to the morale of the team – made it a psychologically safe and nurturing place, the competitive process would happen on its own. It is not like an age group swim team, approach them. Ask them if you want to do something together. That is what it is, because Masters swimming is about, in the end, the enemy is not us, the enemy is out there. It is the unfit America – that is the enemy.

Q: We have something similar to her team, on our holiday training day we will have, like on the 4th of July, a workout, actually, the workout is actually cut in half and the second half of the workout we do inner-tube water polo and those are the biggest workouts, you get the biggest number of swimmers at those workouts because they just love getting into water polo and you can see that competitive spirit.

Speaker: So again, you see the cultural moment there. Because again, when you want to make the team grow, you still have to figure out how to make it the place to be on a Friday night. How to make those people come so what I did here was to try to merge the family party with the “swingles” party. Now, that happens maybe three times a year, Christmas time, something in the summer and something in the spring. Because all the work that goes into that is enormous. I had at the YWCA a whole room where I used to store things like coffee machines, trays, baskets, I would order more stuff each year. Now I have it in my basement of my building and I go down there and I say “oh my God, look at all this stuff. I mean 8 coolers, after a while I was ready to open a catering business. That is what happens when you are good at something. You begin to collect things.

Q: I just want to tag onto what he said back there on our team in Denver, we have done a pretty decent job with sponsorships so we have actually a preferred spaghetti supplier to the team and a pizza supplier so we actually have in our calendar, every Friday night we go as a team to dinner to these places that are sponsoring so this year we will get probably over $10,000 worth of sponsorship money which is directly given to the team and then we will go out and get a discount at the place and invite the family in on our calendar and say Friday night, we are going to Woody’s Pizza Place, so people will show up for that and the same thing, a Starbucks supported us so we would do a Saturday morning event then everybody heads to the Starbucks place. They give us coffee for our meets. They give us the day-old stuff to give away at the meets. It has been really something and we have made a lot of money off of it, so when he said they patronize the same places, you can really leverage sponsorship stuff and plan your events at these restaurants.

A: Now also in this room here, I mean, this is a sign of we thought sponsorships loved to sponsor things that are tangible and so we got backstroke flags, lane lines, the stanchions that go in the deck they want their name on it? Sometimes yes, but sometimes not. They just like to know that it is going towards something rather than a general fund so if you can make it specific, but we did because we got Toyota to sponsor our little summer league club, a local Toyota dealership. We actually put a sign up on the snack shack for the summer. That was one of the things that they got and then they can sign up again next year if they want to, but it was really good with Toyota because when we have swim meets and stuff, they would give us one of their tricked out Toyota Tundras with all the wrap signage on it; you could just drive it right to the front of the pool.

Q: I have a team where there are six teams within 2 or 3 miles of my team and so people kind of go where they are closest, but my team is an average maybe 34 years old, so it has grown from younger swimmers to swimmers, God knows, older and less inclined to be together, so it is really hard to get these people together. We got some young ones in there, but a lot of these people have stayed with the team the whole time. Speaker: Just out of curiosity, where is your team?

A: It is in Palo Alto. Yes, go ahead.

Q: I started this, an idea I got from a clinic four years ago, but just getting the families together, I pick a day when the pool is closed like January 1 and we are not having practice, the diving boards are open and the deck is open, bring your family, bring the kids, bring your grandkids, bring friends because it gets more people who can kind of see what the facility is like. We just have pizza parties and then expand on it, and try to get more people. Actually with the age group team, we give out most inspirational swimmer of the year award and one of my Masters swimmers gave it to his own kid on the team. Everybody likes to get awards so this year, we gave out Most Inspirational Swimmer of the Year and then Rookie of the year to the swimmer that started as an adult and stuck with it. Speaker: See what he has, is you want to have awards that have a certain credibility, they can’t be best swimmer of the year, unless you give it to the person who comes in at entry level and worked really hard to become the best swimmer. If they don’t have credibility then the people won’t value them, but if they have some credibility like a rookie of the year, that sort of thing, that really works well.

So, anybody else have any ideas out there? Let me just give you some other examples of things that we have done. One is the beach trip. Now, for most of you going to the beach, is not a big deal if you live on the coast. If you live in Illinois it is a really far trip. and all of that kind of stuff. We have actually Au Bon Pain, a store packed lunches for us. We handed them out at the beaches. The other thing was the ocean swim, when you talk about going to open water swims, there was always a focus in the middle of the summer that was for open water only and it was an example where people tried to take – you know – we tried to get everybody who had never been to an open water swim to come to that event. It was always an event that had good credibility, it was a good organized meet, 1 mile, 2 miles, all the first timers would come and we would partner them up with someone else on the team to bring them out and be there, sort of their liaison or escort to open water swimming. We got a lot of people who continued to do that. I mean, we went from 30 one year, to 60, to 90.

Q: When you talked about some of the fund raising that you have done.

A: The fund raising that we do is largely for two reasons. One is because every year we do a community based effort; there is an organization in New York called the AIDS SERVICE CENTER and it does a lot of community work for people with AIDS and HIV. They just recently named a room there where they give out the clothing to people who come in off the street , who are going out for interviews for the first time. The AIDS SERVICE CENTER just gives the clothing away. They named it the Team New York Aquatics clothing room, because we gave them so many things from closet cleanouts over the years. Our One Hour Swim, it goes almost entirely to that group, about $50,000 over the past four years. Now the other kind of fund raising thing to do is to do something where we keep the money. This is to support the community work we do, and a scholarship fund for our team. Now we do a couple of things, most of them have to do with bars. We do an event held at a country dance bar in New York that gives us the night, where they have people there who help teach country dance and we get, everybody pays $10. Then we get the entire gate that comes in. You pay $10, to come in and then you buy drinks yourself and we get all the $10 cover charges, this is something where we are very much organized. Nobody wants to go a fund raising dance where there is no real purpose to it. So, we go and we want to teach people something that they want to learn. Another event that we do is with other businesses in the areas like, a brunch thing in restaurants and what we will do is they will give us a discount, good old fashioned kick-back on the fees stuff. His idea was very good to get the day-old Starbucks. In New York I think Starbucks has a thing where they give the day-old stuff to somebody else to one of those, hunger collection organizations. I don’t know if we could do that, but the idea made my mind tick. We have been going to Whole Foods almost every morning, it is near one of our pools; we bring a whole table in there every day and with that we have not approached them to sort of say, well, would you help to sort of sponsor us. We approached them first because we had a couple of swimmers doing the Around Manhattan Marathon swim in the summer time and we were trying to get them to give us some support for that and the only reason they said no was because we came to them too late. So we said to them well, if we do it next year, come to us now and then we will be ready for next year. You know, even with all the economic hard times, they like doing that kind of sponsorship.

Q: I don’t know how much money you are raising, but what are you doing with the funds? Are you using it to off-set the swim costs of the team?

A: Yes, part of the problem is that we have to provide a certain amount of scholarships because our program, being very expensive and so we have one of the people in that photograph, on the right side of the screen, in fact, I could probably show it to you, he died recently and so now the fund is named after him. In September of last year and by Christmas time he was dead; he had a very virulent kind of kidney cancer and he was a coach for us for many years. His name was Paul Fortoul and so the Scholarship Fund was named after him and the minute we announced it, that it was going to be called the Paul Fortoul Scholarship Fund, hundreds and hundreds of dollars walked in the door because the people knew him and how much he meant to them. What it does is it allows us then to then do community events where we can pay people to do things. Like if we collect money for the One Hour Swim, for instance – my time, I am a professional coach. I can’t, if you are a professional coach, I mean, you give away a certain amount of time for free in your business, right? I already give away a lot, so I can’t be asked to do any more than that without being paid for it. So I am willing to do one hour of swim work, but with the understanding that I will make only half what I usually make, but that is what it goes for. I always tell people, I say listen, we have to get work done for these events and we can pay me, so as to be accountable, but we have to raise money for it. Again, the scholarship fund for this guy, thousands of dollars came because of the volunteer labor, about 4,000 dollars a year in 2009.

Q: That is to bring the people into the program?

A: Not like scholarships like for kids, no, for people in our program and yes, you have to fill in an application and you have to say what it is for, and then there is a little bit of an implicit quid pro quo in your coming into the program and then having to do something for it you know? Like you apply for a scholarship and you never show up; well, you are never going to get it again. But if you get the scholarship, you come all the time and you are part of the swim, you know part of the team, then you will come back again in the future. So that is basically the way that we do things. Alright, so with that then I am going to just call it a day there. Everybody looks kind of sleepy from lunch and we will give a little bit of time for Susan to get ready for her thing and I just wanted to say also that this morning, I didn’t say this, that Susan worked with stuff that had to do with swimmers in the water and so was I talking about swimmers out of the water. Well now she is talking about another thing, which is the empowerment of women in the sport and if you noticed, I brought two coaches to this meeting with me, both of them women. I am very much believer in getting more and more women into this sport. It is the future of Masters swimming, well then, that is all the more reason why you know, we are on the way.

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