When you’re working with 40 schools a year, and will welcome four new ones in 2018, you’ve got to be doing something right.

Having built their school base over many years, Exmouth Watersports sees their engagement work pay off as season-on-season they pack out their weekday Beach Club for Under 16s and Sunday OnBoard Junior Club with inspired youngsters.

The centre’s OnBoard focus is on windsurfing, training kids up to 30 knots, alongside other watersports. School visits are split 50:50 between Year 5-6 enjoying specialist beach days and senior schools doing courses or activity weeks. So what’s the secret of their OnBoard success?

“Hard work and attention to detail,” smiles John Morgan, Exmouth Watersports Director and RYA Trainer. “Cold calling schools is a thankless, soulless task. Teachers are too busy to
talk to strangers, so word of mouth or being referred to a
named contact is everything.

“It’s about recognising opportunities too; a comment from someone you meet at an event you lock away for later,
chatting to people who look interested in what you’re doing
on the beach, a teacher who comes on a course, you find so many people work in education and I have no shame telling
them what we can do for them.”

Finding a timely hook that turns a teacher’s head can be
critical in any OnBoard pitch. John is well versed at tapping into what Year 5-6 are studying at a particular moment and linking their approach to that.

And when you get a lead, don’t let it go.


“Exactly,” John continues. “We live in permanently connected digital world, there’s literally no excuse to take a week to get back to someone. Even if it’s acknowledging you’ve received their email or voicemail as soon as possible and going back to them with more detail later, that customer service can be the difference between a school signing up or going elsewhere.”

The personal touch

School visits are a massive part of John’s approach. First there’s the pre-visit, meeting the contact, old or new, and going through the safety aspects and risk assessments so they can complete their due diligence.

Most of these meetings take place in October-November, but if a lead comes mid-season a meeting is set up asap. Even if it’s a school or teacher that’s worked with Exmouth for years, and it’s a five-minute meeting, John goes, as communication is key to repeat business, more groups coming from the same school and referrals.

Then it’s time to impress the kids. Or is it…

Assemblies and class visits, complete with cool videos and heaps of funky kit to show off, might look geared to the young audience, but who are you talking to really?

“The teachers,” John admits. “You might have seven minutes to get everyone excited about watersports. So when I get a kid up to hold a sail and say ‘Feel how light it is, isn’t it easy, it’s not like when I learned, come and have a go’ I’m telling the teachers ‘Whatever you’ve heard about windsurfing, it’s not like that now.’

Then use your nous to keep that conversation going after the kids have left - “When you’re packing up and a teacher offers to help, always accept. It’s another chance to have an extra chat.”

That chat doesn’t have to be about the activity itself.

At one school John inspired a teacher to set a task for pupils to design the ultimate Exmouth Watersports brochure, assessed on use of eye-catching pictures and maps, accuracy of course information and using as few words as possible. The kids loved seeing theirs appear across the centre’s social media channels.

Building and maintaining relationships is fundamental.


Inspiring your instructors


As Exmouth Watersports’ owner, John still does most of the school visits himself. Last year they did 15. He acknowledges kids like being taught by young people closer to them in age and, at 55, they might not relate to him like a young instructor. But John is cautious when it comes to using his instructor team for visits.

While their teaching capabilities on the beach aren’t in question, standing in front of 400 schoolchildren and connecting with everyone in a room is a different and difficult skill. He doesn’t think it’s fair to put a young instructor in that situation until they have the confidence or experience to do it effectively. That confidence or experience comes from investing in their instructor training.

John continues: “You never know who’s going to talk to a teacher during a session. If that person isn’t knowledgeable and enthusiastic, the hard work that’s gone into getting the school along could be undone.”

Training instructors in customer service is important at Exmouth. So is preserving their enthusiasm. Instructors notoriously don’t get enough time to do the sports themselves. But at the end of a session, if it’s windy the team is encouraged to pack up quickly and get out windsurfing. Or when they arrive in the morning they might be surprised with a paddleboard up the River Exe. It’s all about maintaining quality.

“Reputation is everything,” John insists. “Whether you’re a centre during the school holidays or a club running post-season OnBoard sessions, instructors still have to be 100% enthusiastic about teaching the kids. Anything less is a disservice to the school. It’s also a disservice to you as negative word of mouth can do a lot of harm.”

A large, successful commercial operation, Exmouth Watersports can invest resources in engaging with schools. But there are plenty of lessons even small, volunteer-led OnBoard clubs can learn from their approach.

As John concludes: “Nothing beats being attentive and working really hard at it; pressing the flesh of teachers at sessions, telling them what’s going on, what you can do for them next year. By the end of a session or course I want them signed up again for next year. It never stops, but the long-term rewards of seeing kids enjoying being on the water makes it worth it.”