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

Published on September 18th, 2014

by Damian, The Final Beat
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).

“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.” – Tillerman blog

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:

Objection: That it is unfair on paying members that didn’t have the chance to avail of such a scheme.
Response: 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.

Objection: That it is unfair on paying members that the free members have the same level of club benefits
Response: 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.


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