A Welcome Advantage
For this Pennsylvania facility, the Tennis Welcome Center concept has already been a big hit.
By Ed Rocereta
Now that over 3,000 facilities have signed on as Tennis Welcome Centers, I’ll bet some of you are wondering whether this new program will pay off for your club.
Well, I can tell you from our experience at the West Branch Tennis Club in Williamsport, Pa., that the concept will work. We’re proof that the TWC program is the way to spread the tennis gospel and make converts to the sport. Why? Because that same concept is essentially how we’ve been growing tennis in our area for more than 10 years.
Williamsport is a small city, population 30,000, in North Central Pennsylvania about 100 miles north of Harrisburg, the state capital. It is located in Lycoming County, which has a population of 108,000. We probably have more deer in this area than people. And, for the past decade and a half or so, our population has actually been decreasing steadily.
But our tennis club survives, even thrives, in this small population base. I can think of few other indoor facilities with such a small base from which to draw.
The West Branch Tennis Club is a six-court indoor facility that was built in the tennis boom years of the 1970s. We have a reception and viewing area directly behind and overlooking courts 2 through 5. The locker facilities are on the court level, under the desk and viewing area. Nothing fancy, but everything is well kept.
I’ve owned the club for the past 17 years, having inherited a membership of 325.Our membership now is more than 500 and revenues have tripled as I learned the business of what motivated people to want to play tennis. It took about five years to evolve from combing the tennis community for members to an expanded idea that resembles the Tennis Welcome Center concept of today.
The process began by realizing that even though we are the only indoor club for a 100-mile radius, having a monopoly on indoor tennis meant little. The tennis base was shrinking fast during the late ’80s and ’90s. I came to realize that a monopoly on the 8 percent of the population that played tennis regularly was not going to make a viable business.
It was during those five years that I realized that my competition was not other tennis facilities, but anything that competed for people’s leisure time and money. That made bowling, golf and other sports competitors. It also made non-sport activities like watching TV, doodling with a computer or even spending disposable cash on computer equipment my competition. I had to make tennis into something that people wanted to do rather than spending their time and money on these other activities.
I also realized that we already had the 8 percent of the population that played. That left a hefty 92 percent as prospective members, just as soon as I taught them to play!
First, Get ‘Em Playing!
My strategy evolved over the next few years. We started by doing beginner classes at the club for a nominal fee. I devised a beginner class that was four sessions, usually four Fridays from 6 to 7:30 p.m. We taught the fundamental strokes to hundreds of people and sent them on their way, populating the Susquehanna Valley with new players. After a couple of years, during a beginner class, one student who had taken the course before remarked that he learned the strokes, but he never did learn how to play the game!
I changed the course immediately to teaching how to play the game first. The first lesson is now a crash course in playing doubles, with the oft repeated phrase that no one should worry about not knowing how to do the shot, we are going to teach that next, just have some fun learning the mechanics of the game. The people have a ball! In about 20 minutes, we explain the general rules, scoring, where to stand, who serves and what to do when the ball is coming. Then we play a set.
After this introduction, we stop and teach the serve, explaining that this is how the game begins and we will now add the serve to the player’s skills. We do the PTR method of serve instruction then finish with a few more games. The first lesson ends after a get-together and admonition to go out and practice before the next week’s lesson.
The second week starts with a serve review, and then we go into the forehand. The session ends with another 15 to 20 minutes of playing tennis. The third week includes a review of the previous strokes, adds the backhand and ends with more doubles play. The fourth week is for volleys, overheads and a quick video lesson of each student on their forehands, backhands and serves. We stress that this is not to see what is wrong, but to show them how far they have come while pointing out something that will improve each stroke.
We finish with a little doubles round-robin tournament in which the winning team wins the “coveted West Branch Tennis Club mug” — a souvenir coffee cup from WBTC.
The final evolution of this training process came about 10 years ago when I realized that teaching people was not the most important thing, but keeping them playing was really what this was about. From the very first week on, I now tell them that there will be a place for each and every one of them in a group here at the club. I know that this may sound intimidating at first, but I throw it out there.
As the weeks go by, the barriers break down and the students actually become a group of friends. Each week I describe a bit more how important it is to keep playing or they will return in three years to take the course over and begin again. I also explain that we will make a league of this group at the club and explain the costs, telling them that their fee for taking the course will be deducted from the club membership and playing in a league only costs about $6 per week. We end the final session with a pizza party and a sign-up sheet for the new league.
Give Them a Reason to Play
This is how I have steadily grown tennis in a small town for 10 years. I can look out from the club’s viewing area any evening and see different beginner classes playing each evening — some from years ago, some from just the last beginner class. I estimate that 20 percent of the people on my courts are graduates of our classes, part of the 92 percent of the population that did not play tennis before taking the course, part of the 200 new memberships that we did not have prior to 1986.
Our advertising has stressed the words “fun, fitness, and friends.” I discovered long ago that just asking people to play tennis meant little unless you explained why. We give people a reason to want to learn tennis, like meeting new friends, adding tennis to their fitness program or just doing something for fun, like when they were kids.
We have found that people over 35 are the best targets for new members. This is when people have a little more free time and are looking for something new to do that is fun and provides exercise. Almost everyone has tried tennis as a kid, but most people are not ready to play until later, when tennis is the perfect activity to turn to. We explain that they don’t need a team; we will put them in a league of compatible people with comparable skills, for a very reasonable cost. We say it over and over and eventually they try it out. Once in here, they are hooked. Tennis is truthfully the perfect activity for an adult and they find that out quickly.
We also attract many people who are retired. That also is a great age to take up tennis, again for the first time!
Advertising is paramount. Get the message out — over and over. We use newspaper ads, but our big boost came when we asked the star personality on the area’s most popular local radio show to take the course and we would pay for ads in which she would describe the fun she was having learning tennis.
That was five years ago, and Gail still does our ads, telling thousands of listeners twice a week about the fun she has in her league and the people she meets through tennis at our club. What started out as a hopeful experiment turned out to be a primary advertising venue for us. Gail is able to tell her radio audience what a great time she is having with compelling conviction because she is having a great time. We supply general copy to reflect current programs, especially the beginner clinics we do four times per year. Gail ad libs with ease because of her ongoing experience with tennis.
We expect that the Tennis Welcome Center concept will work for you. It has worked for us for 10 years, and added hundreds of new members.
See all articles by Ed Rocereta
About the Author
Ed Rocereta is the owner of West Branch Tennis Club in Williamsport, Pa.