Marketing Your Swim Club by Bob Steele (1997)


Published


I am now at Cal State in Bakersfield, a place that was made famous by Ernie Maglischo and Chuck Warner. I’ve inherited a legacy that I’ll work hard to live up to. Prior to that, after leaving USS, I have been at Wichita Swim Club. I’d like to define that swim club for you because the materials I am going to present to you are things that I tried there and things that I found out there.

Wichita swim club is the brain child of Rob Snowberger who is now running a lesson program in Memphis. He may sometime get back into coaching. It is a club owned, indoor, 50 meter pool, 25 yards wide with 2 teaching pools. There is also an above ground pool and 15 ft by 60 ft teaching pool. We run a lot of programs. There is a new YMCA one mile away. This has impacted this club. There is a racquet and country club and 2 swim clubs within 2 miles. There is an independent school next door. There is a private high school one mile away and another private school one mile away. We have worked out deals with those schools. There is a mall 1/4 of a mile away which is a great advantage for moms to have something to do while the kids are at practice. There are 25 summer league programs in the area within a 40 mile radius, which means you can get those kids, or some of them.

We had to make $1,000.00 a day for us to operate. When I first got there the operating budget was over $400,000 a year. We lowered operations about $50,000-$60,000 by economizing in many different ways. We were still faced with having to make $1,000 a day.

You have a circle of success when you create a team. That circle of success will include your swimmers, your staff, and the parents group or the institute that controls your facility or club. I think the most important regarding staff, is the people that are working for you or with you are loyal, committed, quality people. They are committed to making your program a success. In Texas and Colorado there were a lot of coaching changes this year. Some of these situations had negatives in the circle of success.

If you are in a board situation, you can control the selection of people on the board by working with the president. You might try to control that so that the people on the board are coachable. If they have a closed mind it will be difficult. You want people on your board to be people who are making more money than you. It is better that you don’t have parents of swimming scholarship kids, they have a different view. They must be dedicated givers. They must be able to separate swimmers from the swim. If you have parents that are too wrapped up in the swimmer it makes it difficult for you to work with the board. Those are the kinds of things you want to consider if you are dealing with a board that is open and asks for your input.

You can look at your circle of success with swimmers, staff and board within one circle. A better way to look at it is 3 circles. One swimmer circle, one staff circle and one board circle. The more those circles overlap the more focused your program will be.

The board has to have enough confidence in you to let you go out and create new programs to attract new swimmers. That was in my contract. I had to create new programs. They have to have enough faith in you to go out and sell the program to bring people in. With those 2 things in mind I’d like to go through what I did the last 2 years in order to help try and built that kind of solid organization.

It takes about 2 years for a program to be yours. There is so much you inherit it takes a while to overcome or to change or to support. You can never let up on marketing. Marketing is a continual thing. Recruiting new swimmers is not a Fall project. It is a never ending project. Some teams lose swimmers in the summer. They’ll lose swimmers to summer league teams. It depends on your situation on where your greatest emphasis should be, what time of year.

If you look at the market place. In Wichita we dealt with dual income, baby boomer families ages 30-47. Those people purchase 60% of all consumer goods, nationwide. 80% of the women work, 80% with full time jobs. 25% subscribe to the newspaper yet only 20% of that read it. Television is watched for about 7 1/2 hours a day. Most of these families have latch key kids or kids who come home to an empty house. That’s the clientele that we were trying to focus on. You have a short time for someone to be attracted to an ad or to your message.

It’s important for you to identify your needs with these 10 questions. I put the question down and then answered it as if I were doing this as an exercise for the Wichita swim club. You can use your own words in your own analysis, obviously we don’t all coach in the same situation.

What’s the product? We are only looking at entry level swimming because they are the kids we are trying to attract to our program.

How much is it worth? In our case, the Aqua Bears is the entry level squad. We had one team and 9 squads within that team. Each coach had squads they worked with, within the team. The Aqua Bears paid $40 a month. The Gators paid $50.00 a month. How much you charge depends on your economics, the competition and what they charge, and the quality of your staff. The biggest single factor that creates the team is convenience. Jimmy Halliburton went to St. Louis and when he got to the Rockwood Team he had about 60 swimmers. He created a convenience oriented program for age group swimming and within one year it was up to 200. If you can cater to families for convenience your squad or team program will blossom.

What are people in your area willing to pay? If you are in a blue collar area maybe they will only pay $20 a month. You have to sort that out. Is your program competitively priced with other teams and other sports with similar staff?

Who is your public? Is it two parent families with solid values? Wichita is a fairly religious community with great Christian values. There are a lot of private Christian schools and 3000 families that home school their children. It’s a very conservative spot. The parents do a lot with their kids. The average family size is 3 children.

What is your condition with the public? This is a team that has been in existence for 42 years, it’s the only real USS team. There is one other USS team that has just started. The community is very aware of the Wichita swim club. It has a great facility and great parent boosters and has had great swimmers. Two Olympians and 4 national swimmers have come out of this program over their history. It has a big pool for multiple use which helps promote what ever the product may be to the public. The public is familiar with the pool. The public needs to know that the pool can have multiple use. In one evening in the spring from 7:00-8:00 in lanes 1-4 we had special Olympians, in lanes 5-7 we had the Sharks, in lanes 7-8 we had water walking, in lanes 9-11 we had master swimming, in 12-17 we had scout canoeing, in 18-19 we had synchronized swimming, in lane 20 we had Aqua Bears and in lanes 12-20 underneath we had a scuba group. That is multiple use. Multiple use is important and the publics understanding of that is critical. Sometimes the public will have the wrong message about your club. We had one summer league coach who would never give us his roster because we were the place that told kids if they came with us they would be an Olympian or get a scholarship. That’s a bunch of junk. Rob never did that, the assistants never did that, and in the two years I was there I never did that. Yet this one summer league coach had given that thought to people and it was difficult at times to get kids because he wouldn’t cooperate. The public thought there was an annual fee because with most clubs there is. We had no annual fees, we only had program fees.

How to get the public to your pool? Regularly on Saturdays or Sundays from 2:00-5:00 we would put a sign on the street for open house. We would leave the sign up all week. You can make your own signs. Use foam board and print your message on the foam, then take a rod and tape the board to it and stick it in the ground. The weather and the sun will not bother it and it’s a great way to promote whatever you want. We would have regular demonstrations for school age kids. My wife would go to schools and do assemblies. We would have Friday practice as bring a buddy day. We would make it a fun practice trying to attract kids. We would have fun days when we would play water polo. We had a dinner water show for the general public where we sold dinner seats on pool side for $40 a plate. After we had a silent auction and tried to bring in people who didn’t know who we were or what we were about. It was about a $4,000 fund raiser. We had a lot of prizes all the time for different things — generally not performance related, but fun things. We had coupons. The realtors had our team brochure which had a map on how to get to the facility.

You need to have the confidence of the realtors. You need to create your own plan on how you’re going to sell your facility. How will you follow up and track your marketing? How will you know what brought people in? You need to structure that to know what your effectiveness is through a parent survey or a parent evaluation form at the end of a session. When people call in ask how did they get our number. You can do surveys in billing. You need to know what prompted them to find you so you know what works.

Team membership: why members join the club. Members join a club first because of convenience. Convenience is a big thing. Price is the next thing followed by location. The times that are available to swim are next. We had a lap swim that started at 5:30 am and went to 8:30 pm, except from 4:00-6:00 when we had our biggest team training group. We would give up lanes on Saturday for lap swimming people because that was a source of $30 a month per person.

The quality of your staff. This was a difficult thing in Wichita. We had a great staff but if someone left it was very difficult to find somebody that could take their place. That’s where you come in and create a video of what your team does for an education program for new staff members so that they will know how they fit into the program and fit 207 into the progression of skills.

The safety of the club and the neighborhood that the club is in, and parking are critical. There is a great facility in New York that people have a hard time getting to and I’ve heard that makes it difficult on a team situation.

Their first impression is important, whether it’s on the phone or visiting the team. The kinds of service you provide is important. If you have a lessons program the quality of the teachers is important. We would provide programs from entry level to advanced swimming and try to have consistency in a normal progression. Whether it was from the lesson program up or within the competitive program.

Members don’t join a club because of a poor fit. They feel these people are better than them, that’s difficult to overcome. If you have a family that’s on scholarship and they don’t feel comfortable with the parents that are in that group, that can be hard to overcome. Poor fit, and first impression is important. You need a track record of success and a history of success. You must make that person feel that they are somebody when they walk in the door.

You need to give basic instruction to the person at the door when those parent walk in for the first time. They must have material ready at the door and present them properly. They must be able to register people on the spot. You can’t hope they will come back and give you $120 a month to coach their kid, you need to get that $120 right off the bat. If they started in the middle of the month we would charge the full amount the first month and then prorate the second month. That way we would have a commitment and the money in the first month.

Customer service is what keeps customers coming back. There is a moment of truth in every program, this is what you do or what your staff does that exceeds the members level of expectation. There is a moment of misery when that expectation is not met. If there is a moment of misery usually 10 people will hear about it, but if there is a moment of truth only 1 person hears about it. That is how things snowball in a club. Remember moments of truth and moments of misery.

You must know the competition. Get their mailers, get their flyers, get their fees, get their coupons, get their mailing lists, get their schedule. Don’t steal their swimmers, but you can see at meets what their swimmers are doing. You also have to tell your parents not to bother their swimmers. You want to work hard to maintain an advantage and beat those teams without hurting your own kids.

Accountability for sales. Ask those people what brought them to your club, then monitor the success of recruiting programs. In our situation the best recruiting program we had was a free 4 day clinic each fall. We would send out post cards to the summer league teams, the post cards would be USS post cards. We would invite them to the clinic. On Monday we would do freestyle, Tuesday backstroke, Wednesday breaststroke, Thursday butterfly. They were being assessed at that time as to what team they would fit into. With 9 squads the coach would stick with the same kids and be familiar with those kids at the end of the fourth day. We also ran USS sprint star during the fall clinic. The kids could get their time on Monday and Thursday on a swim and then if they went faster on Thursday they could beep the horn 4 times. That was the most successful recruiting program for the Wichita swim club.

Survey cards in our monthly billing and at the end of each session helped us be accountable for sales. If your kids are in lower level squads have a form that the parent can fill out that assess how the coach worked with those kids. That helps the coach and makes the parent feel they have some input on effecting the program and change. The teachers that were ineffective were gradually weeded out. The ones that the parents couldn’t evaluate well would get less and less teaching hours. Because coaches are hard to get, we would try to help the coach first.

You must charge the staff for responsibility for recruiting and have a time line. Have a time line and have them report back to you on the success of their contacts. Whether it’s securing mailing lists or team rosters, or attending summer league meets and watching talented swimmers. Jim Woods from Berkeley Aquatics told me that his staff would attend or run 30 swim camps a summer for summer league teams. These were 2 or 3 hour summer camps.

How will you sell your product? You can fax media releases weekly on any subject. If you have any swimming parents who have a writing background, have them interview your kids and type up a human interest story. Fax that story to your neighborhood papers and your main city paper. Your main paper will send someone out to redo the story but at least you would have tipped them off and get their attention. We had a 10 year old in my Dolphin training group who only had one leg. He took part in the national special Olympics program so we had a story done on him and sent it to the media. The TV came and did a great story and interviews all at pool side all about Jerod Perry and his participation. We had a family of 3 great breaststroke swimmers. The 13 year old placed at Juniors this summer in 100 breast. We had a story about the family. Pick out those angles and fax the story to the media people and see if they pick up on it. If they don’t have the parents call and ask if they got the story and see what happens.

See if any parents work in advertising or a related field. We have a parent who put together a media book for us that had the fax numbers, phone numbers, and addresses of all the possible media outlets. That helps. The most important thing in advertising is to minimize your words, be as bold as you 208 can.

Use key words and keep it simple. You can advertise in the yellow pages. You can list it in different areas, swimming instruction, swimming pools private or swimming pools public or under clubs. If you put it under clubs you might end up with night clubs. Check your yellow pages and see how they are set up. We had 2 yellow pages and they compete with each other. You become the negotiator on things like this. You might play one against the other.

The daily news: Pick the section that mom reads. Mom is the one that is going to decide what activities the kids will do and will bring them there. Hit the food section or lifestyle section whenever it occurs. Check for not for profit rates if you are a non profit, there are different rates. You have to go down and sit with the sales person for the paper so you can figure out what is best for you. They have special sections where you can get 12 inches of copy for $229 a month. Those come out weekly with different subject matter as a focus.

Monthly newspapers, neighborhood papers. They are 1/3 the cost, but you need to check who they deliver to. They may not be getting to the people you think. You have to pull a city map out and plot where the competition is. Plot on the map where the people in the community live that can afford your program. Where do people live that don’t have competitive teams close enough to get their kids to. You might be better off advertising in an area 40 miles away because they don’t have a team. I think the best thing is a thing called market movers. We put market movers in on a seasonal basis. You can identify with that sales person the zip code you want to appeal to. We hit a community that was filled with physicians and lawyers and white collar workers in the aircraft industry without pools. Then we hit another one that had summer league teams but no year round team. Those were the 2 places we had market movers blown into their newspaper. It is a separate sheet that the newspaper will print for you and they will blow them in. We had 5,000 8 1/2 x 11 sheets blown in for $250-$350 a printing. They will give you so many over runs that you can use as flyers for your program. That is a great way to find families. Never pick a Sunday for advertising because it is filled with trash. Pick a day when there are no other supplements and people open their paper and your sheet falls out. You don’t have to hope they are looking for an ad down in a corner of a section. The one we use was red ink on white paper, it falls on their lap and they read it. We would also include a coupon with that marker mover. We ended up having grandparents that would get it and they would buy their grandchild $40 set of lessons or Aqua Bear experience for $40 and give it to them for a gift.

Direct mail projects. You can hit 3000 families targeted by zip code for about $300-$500. We had a large card printed with information about the swim club services. That card was sent randomly to families in the zip code area that we wanted to target.

Television is appealing but it can be costly. See if any of your team parents own companies that advertise on TV. Go to those parents and ask to tag the last 10 seconds of their ad. The TV or radio station will come out and do some creative advertising and they can tag it onto the last 10 seconds. All they need to do at the end of their advertising is say that Johnson’s Garden Center supports the Wichita Swim Club. It is a great way to slip screen on someone else’s dollar. Cross marketing is something that works well it just takes a little creativity. Direct mail works. They can tell you how many families are in a zip code, what their ages are, and how many kids they have. It’s all computerized, they will sell you the list. USS does the same thing. You can ask USS for 9 and 10 year olds in the state of Maine and they can tell you. They charge .08 a label and .13 for an envelope up to .32 an envelope and they will target it for you.

Focus on the customer or the parent. You want to give your name, your location, the uniqueness of your program, the urgency of becoming involved and some kind of value statement that emphasizes the quality of your product. Have some kind of catchy slogan. Our slogan this summer was “Save a spot call Scott”. Scott Berry was our recruiting coach this summer and we thought Save A Spot was simple. Wal Mart spends 40% of its money on TV advertising dollars. The major auto firms spend more money on TV than any other outlets combined. The important thing in creating a TV message is what they call 3 4 frequency. 3 times a day 4 times a week, you’re buying 12 ads a week to impact people. You want to try to get people while they are most likely to have the TV. That 3 to 4 frequency is in your face, you can’t evade it. You are going to hear it whether you want to or not.

Archie Harris ran some swim camps and he said “I was never a good coach but my swimmers that ran my camps bought me fame”. Everybody knows Archie for what he is, a big fun loving guy and he bought fame. You can buy that kind of fame. If you are just starting a program it’s important to buy fame.

Look for seasonal or special sales. The radio stations may have a Christmas special that gets your message out and also gives you couponing in a special envelope or catalog. They will work deals to get your ads. They can do bar coding so you will know where the message came from or where they got that coupon.

Telemarketing. You can get parents on the phone and call summer league kids. We’ve gotten the rosters of the summer league teams and our coaches will sit down and address USS cards to those kids. Then we will have our parents come in and sit at the phones and call the families and ask if they thought about the Wichita year round swimming. Sometimes summer league parents in our area didn’t want kids to participate in the year round program because they would get too good for the summer program. If you’re an A level swimmer you can’t swim that stroke in the summer again. We would have to talk them into it, swim another stroke.

You can rent a booth at festivals. In Wichita they had a thing called Kid Fest. This was all kinds of activities for kids. There is a home school convention for parents of home school kids. There are newspapers for kids coming out now. These newspapers are starting to take off in cities around the country. I know about 6 or 8 cities where they have publications that focus on activities for kids.

We have kids have a poster contest with the kids on the team. The posters then can be used around the community in businesses for advertising.

School assembles. We would hand out flyers. We would make them available to the school through the teachers or the office. These flyers would be distributed throughout the schools. At Wichita we would distribute 40,000 flyers throughout the schools. Then a new administrator stopped that and we had to go to each principle and get their permission to distribute the flyers. Being a private club that was difficult. That’s why my wife went around and made presentations in 12 schools to try and soften things up. She had a great routine. She would have USS videos to show the kids. She would do an Olympic games questions and answers. Right after the Olympic games I went to the first school with her. These are kids who know nothing about competitive swimming. For the most part they are kids who have been bused to the school. One of the problems with the USS video is that there aren’t any minority kids in it. There is only one. If you have kids who are bused in you have to be careful when showing that video or how you answer the questions. My wife’s answer as to why there aren’t more minority kids in that video is because we need you. We don’t have enough minority kids in swimming. She would finish with Make a Swimmer. She had a drawing and the 3 kids who had the number that was called would come up to the front. We had a USS national team sweat, a Wichita team sweat and a Russian team sweat. She would put the sweats on the kids, and of course they were big, then she would hold up a Speedo and all the kids would laugh because the suit was so tiny. She would say what kind of suit is this, the kids would all yell Speedo. They all knew. We were in the gym with 4th and 5th graders, about 200 kids. They named 12 Olympians. Without any contact with USS, only with what they saw on television. It’s a great impact. It’s a great thing to do after any meet has been televised. The kids would have the sweats on, she would put a cap and goggles on them, and the 197 kids in the audience would all be laughing at them. Then she would take water and pour it on their heads and say okay, we’ve made 3 swimmers. It’s a neat routine. If you can tie in safety the principle will usually let you in quicker. It went over well and we picked up some kids from those programs, for both the lesson program and the team activities.

You can have a splash party for rewards for the safety patrol or the kids who got good grades. You can have fun days, where they can come in and do mask and snorkel and fin stuff. We play water polo with water walking belts on. You can do a water safety day. Usually principles will buss kids to your pool if you will talk about water safety. Every kid that leaves the pool takes your flyer in their hand. Make a box that goes on the wall of your pool that will hold 2 or 3 flyers. People can walk up and pull it out depending on what they are interested in.

Have introductory programs. Throw everything out and see what sticks. Not everything sticks. Offer reduced rates. Get your first month free if you start Sept. 1. Do the USS winning spirit camp program. We tried a triathlon club. Find someone who does triathlons, they can coach the kids. We had kids come in on Saturday for 2 hours. They went from 10:00-12:00. They would swim some then get on their bikes and take off and cycle within our property, then they would do running. Have an August skill school. We did this with new kids and program kids. We called it the August stay in shape program. We had 8 year olds up to 18 year olds in the pool the same time. Have lesson programs that progress from the lesson program to team. When our kids finished Aqua Cubs the next step was the level 1 competitive program which was the Aqua Bears. The parents understood and they would keep their kids coming to lessons until they got to the Aqua Bears. We had a home school PE program during the day. Moms would bring the kids in and we would go through a whole year of aquatic activities. Everything from basic skills through fitness swimming, games, water polo, safety, life saving and we would finish with canoeing and boating. The kids would do that while the moms were in one lane doing water walking. You make $20 off the moms and $35 off the kids for 1 hour of work twice a week. We would have swim meets for those kids and emphasize joining team. We would use the USS sprint star program. We would have summer league kids practice to get kids ready for their summer league.

We had swim and study. One of our coaches would go over to the grade school and get the kids. They would swim for 1 hour and it was a competitive skills program and then they would go into the cafeteria and study for an hour. Moms would pick them up at 5:00. This was $60.00 a month. We had a Jr. High School boys swim league. 6 boys from grade school and they would swim from 6:00-7:00 at night. It was convenience for the parents. On Monday and Tuesday they would work on skills and on Thursday we would have a meet — different meets, kickboard races, pulling races — and then teach them how to do turns and then time them. They are not ready to be timed on strokes because of the 210 limited time they have had on skill development. We did boys because we need boys, we have too many girls.

We worked a deal with a high school and provided a coach and we started a team with 35 girls 6 boys and we started a high school team. They came to our pool and practiced from 6:00-7:30am each morning. Each kid paid $40.00 a month. We provided the coach.

The kids in all our programs didn’t have to do any fund raising until they got to the third level. They could be in Aqua Bears and Gators and not have a fund raising obligation for the team. Once they got to Dolphins, when they started to compete, they had fund raising obligation to the team.

Work hard to keep the kids who walk in the door. Make parents realize that the best Olympians were late maturers so that kids who don’t have skills or natural abilities still understand that they still have a chance.

We had a time bomb meet. We would take stuff that was left over from our swim shop and t shirts. Kids could swim and get coupons based on their finish. They could turn in the coupons for a baseball cap or t shirt or whatever. We had the red and black carnival. Every kid that came to the program got a new swimmer pack.

We had special events. During red ribbon week we had presentations on “just say no.” All the kids wore a red ribbon all week. They signed a black board that said “just say no” and they would sign their name to it.

We had a Halloween Party. We had a Christmas Party and we exchanged gifts.

Those are the kinds of things to get out into the community and show the parents you have more than a swim team. The word gets out.

Total team practice. Everyone comes on Saturday morning and you line them up by height, tallest on one end shortest on the other end. Cut the group in half and they are partners with the taller half and they get in the water and they learn skills together.

Media releases about your fast swimmers. Have an attractive entrance. See what the competition is doing to attract people. We would fill the mail boxes of our team kids with 10 flyers each. They knew they were responsible for handing these out. They put them on windshields at church or whatever. We would put flyers on windshields at summer league sessions.

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