When Rudyard Lake SC recognised that membership was steadily on the decline, the club knew it needed to take a fresh look at how it engaged with its local community.

Following an extensive Membership Survey, the club launched a five-year development plan (2015-2020) aimed at arresting this decline. Two years in and a 15% rise in membership shows the plan is working. This is why Rudyard Lake won the Communication category of the RYA Club of the Year Award at the RYA Suzuki Dinghy Show in March.

So how are they doing it?

“Our communication and engagement with past, present and future members underpins all we do,” explains Commodore Mark Jacot.

“Using many and varied communication channels based on our own and RYA research findings, we have managed to encourage existing members to stay with the club while reaching out more effectively locally to let people know we are here, what we do and how we are breaking down barriers for them to get into sailing.”

Embracing the digital age

Every volunteer-run club knows the challenges of putting too much on people who give up their time support it, and when human resources are tight it’s often things like the club website and social media that get sidelined.

The downside of this in today’s world is a stagnant, outdated online presence does little to inspire someone to join your club. If information is not up-to-date, website navigation is a mess, it looks low quality and social media channels are inactive their first impression will be there’s not much going on and you’ve lost them.

Rudyard understood this so a core part of the Development Plan was to launch a new website, introduce a weekly Commodore’s blog and increase use of Facebook and YouTube. Meanwhile a PR committee position was created with that person responsible for Facebook and the website, arranging local radio interviews and organising leaflets promoting open/taster days to go in public locations and schools.

Core messages were agreed around comfortable new facilities, investment in equipment, a diversified membership base in terms of age, background and abilities, underpinned by a strong ethos of the doors always being open to welcome anyone.

In 2016 this culminated in the membership increase, a record 140 people sailing at their Open Day, an 140% increase in adults doing RYA courses and their ‘Jybaz’ junior section seeing a 25% upturn in sailors, with 24 of these new regulars first having sailed with their school through Rudyard’s OnBoard club.

Then there was the stuff to keep existing members engaged…

Repping for the novices

Rudyard’s communication strategy was as much internal as external. While the new publicity channels helped them speak to more people outside of the club, the conversation needed to be kept going with those inside it too. The aim was to make everyone feel as valued as the next person however long they have been sailing.

Building a strong Facebook community was part of that, but on-the-water initiatives were just as critical, and one of the most successful elements of Rudyard’s approach has been the role of a novice’s rep.

Ian Lee did his Level 1 at the club three years ago, but from the outset he spotted a gap in how rookies transition from learners to regular so the club invited him to become the new adult novices rep.

Ian explains: “Once I took my first steps I was very keen to practice, but the needs of novice sailors weren’t well catered for. This was not intentional but the way the club was structured led to three obvious bones of contention.

“Novices questioned their instructors when the instructors were wanting to race their boats on a Sunday. Instructors were also being asked by novices if they would “take them out” as crew, when most people already have a race crew. There was no clear guidance about how novices could sail without interfering with the racing.

“These kind of issues had created tensions between ‘racers’ and ‘novices’, leading to novices losing interest and leaving sailing altogether. We fostered a sense of camaraderie between the novices and now more are becoming regulars.”

Ian’s got a list of all novices’ email addresses and contacted everyone on it. By communicating regularly throughout the year at a level appropriate to beginners Ian, with fellow novices rep, Bruce Carter, have helped built a community that now feels empowered to get involved, sail and race.

In addition a number of Go Sailing activities were established, complete with safety cover and informal coaching made available and all of which included a significant social element. Members were around to help novices check their boat was rigged ok and there was the opportunity to try different boats too. The coaching was demand-led and adapted to meet the different needs of the novice members.

These included:

  • Two-hour family/novice sessions after Saturday youth training - encouraging parents to sail often with the children sailing with or alongside them.
  • Go Sailing Sunday mornings - followed with lunch and afternoon club racing. This encourages novices to have a go at racing, sometimes as crew for an experienced racer or on their own with help on hand if they want it.
  • Wednesday afternoon Social Sailing - with tea and cakes available from 5ish. There is the club race in the evening followed by a hot meal and the bar is open. A Novice-focused webpage was also created providing advice on the best sessions for people to attend, choosing a boat, social information and how to start racing, while the club runs a Novice Membership Orientation Day each year too.Mark concluded: “It’s fabulous to see the hard work we are doing to develop the club paying dividends and 2017 promises to bring more exciting developments to maintain this successful level of engagement.”

Find more information about RYA Club of the Year Winners and Finalists.