What does it take to run a teaching and membership campaign? This is the heart of the matter, and the first point to make is that while we can offer some pointers and some learnings from experience, every club and every situation is different so what follows will not be right for everyone.
Still, the basic ingredients are likely to be similar. You need to attract new members, and while there may be some experienced bridge players in your area who just need a nudge to come back into the game, there will not be many of them.
A programme of teaching (whether online or face to face) followed by gentle bridge is therefore essential. New players who complete a 12-week course will be far from ready to join a standard club session. Experienced bridge players forget how challenging the things they do from habit can seem to newcomers: sorting a hand, holding it in a fan, operating bidding boxes. Speed of play is another factor. A typical board in a club session takes 7 or 8 minutes. Beginners may need twice that time. It is no good introducing them to a club session and then complaining that they are slow – it is not their fault!
How long does it take from course room to club room? Two years is a reasonable estimate. There is flexibility though, especially if the club can develop a culture of welcome for novices. Maybe you can let them break the rules a little, consult their crib sheet during bidding, and play only two of three boards. They are unlikely to be challenging for the top score, even with those allowances. Smile and be patient, then they will enjoy it and come again. In due course they will be able to play at the same pace and to the same rules as everyone else.
Note: even though it can be difficult, it is much better (from the club’s point of view) to hang on to your novices. If they join an alternative beginner-friendly club down the road (which might not even be EBU affiliated) you will probably never get them back. If you appoint an external teacher, this is a key point to discuss. Maybe the teacher runs their own club with gentle sessions. Make a point of insisting that your new players will stay in your club.
People who learn together like to play together. The idea that your new learners will immediately boost the numbers in your main club sessions is a nice one, but there are many obstacles. A gruff experienced player who puts someone off, or perhaps a different age group, or perhaps an attitude towards bridge that is more serious and less social, and very likely a difference in play standard.
There is a lot of friction, and rather than insisting that newcomers join the main session, it may be better to set up a new session, perhaps in cooperation with other clubs or the county association. Large clubs can easily accommodate newcomers, but for the small clubs who are most in need of them, it is harder. However, it is better to retain newcomers for a lifetime of bridge, than to lose them; and even if you set up a new session, some of them will migrate to your main session, so this may well be the best strategy. Some clubs have found themselves retaining only about 20% of new learners, which can be a dispiriting result, so planning how they will be retained is critical to success.
Teaching online has advantages. Online platforms are improving all the time, and online students can have audio and video communication with their teachers. Many mistakes like underbids or leads out of turn are prevented. It is easy to analyse play and replay boards, pause play for a slide presentation, and to select special deals for example from the EBED hand bank of around 1,000 specially composed boards. Busy students may be able to fit in online lessons more easily, with no travel involved.
There are disadvantages as well. Students accustomed to online play might find transition to face to face harder, and the social aspect is less good online. Communication and concentration face to face is likely to be better. There is no right answer and some clubs and teachers will want to offer both.
Running a membership campaign is very worthwhile but takes some effort. It requires commitment and time on the part of those involved. However it is not usually expensive. Room hire and teaching costs should normally be covered by the course fees. Marketing costs should be under £300 – and remember, the EBU will part-fund marketing costs for clubs whose county associations are part of the EBU’s membership campaign scheme. Other clubs too are welcome to approach us for help.
A membership campaign must have the backing of the club committee. It is going to involve a number of people, so even if there is one enthusiast who wants to do it all, do not let them: it is a club-wide effort.
Things you will need to do:
- Organize bridge lessons. You need a venue, whether face to face or online, and a teacher.
- If face to face, find a room for gentle bridge/supervised play. Ideally, this is the normal club venue. Maybe there is already space; but if it is on at the same time as a club session, will you have enough volunteer help?
- Plan an introductory or taster event. Marketing a club by saying “come along sometime” is less effective than having a specific date. If you run the taster event at the same time as is planned for the lessons, this helps confirm their availability at that time.
- Emphasise that beginners can learn on their own. They do not need to come with a partner.
- Plan a marketing campaign. Posters at community sites (community centres, libraries, health centres, shop noticeboards etc). Leaflets for club members to give to friends. Maybe a stall at the local summer fete. Facebook marketing works well because you can target just those in a certain location and age range – we have a guide. Try to get an article or two in the local press. Be wary of press advertising though: it is easy to spend a lot of money with little result. Another thing we have found relatively ineffective is leaflet drops door to door. Those leaflets soon get swept into the bin.
- Consider overall timing. It can take up to six months from initiating a recruitment campaign request to the date of the first recruitment event / first lesson date. This is because a full marketing plan needs to be pulled together and this requires to be approved by committee and opportunity given to have the Club members’ support (at AGM), members buy-in and involvement of volunteers. Getting a good plan agreed and committed to is one of the keys to success.
Finding a teacher
Finding the right teacher will be critical to success. Two important things to mention:
English Bridge and Development (EBED) run courses for teachers and EBU members get at least 20% discount, and in 2019 free places, subject to common-sense limitations (mainly, one per club every two years). So you may have suitable teachers already in your club.
There is a list of teachers on the EBU site. You just enter your postcode and a list of teachers will be shown, with the nearest at the top. You could check the teacher’s web site (where available), interview them, and talk to former or existing pupils to learn more about a teacher you are considering. Don’t forget to discuss what happens at the end of the course: you want new members for your club.
Determine what you will charge for your lessons. The fees should cover the cost of the teacher and the room or online fees. Charge enough up-front to secure a commitment, but not so much as to put people off. Free is not always a good idea, even if there is funding, and it may undermine other professional teachers. Free does work for children and students – though note that when teaching children, there are safeguarding issues to take care of (the EBU can help affiliated clubs).
Running a campaign
When everything is in place, you can launch your campaign. Make sure you have your design materials ready; and note that the EBU can help with designing leaflets or ads, particularly for clubs whose county association has signed up for a membership development campaign.
Initially, the goal is to get people along to your taster event. At this event, make sure it really is friendly and welcoming. Depending on time and season, coffee and cake, or mince pies and a hot drink will make everyone feel glad to be there. Explain the benefits and fun of bridge, what the lessons will be like, what happens when the course finishes, and how they can sign up. Then take sign-ups on the day.
You may get quite a crowd, so plan for a flexible space in terms of numbers.
Carry on campaigning
A membership campaign is not a one-off. The goal is to change your club culture so that you are always bringing in new faces. As you grow, so too your resources will grow. By the time you have your first taster event, it is time to plan the next one; then you have a positive response to give anyone who missed out. And your newest players will also be the best advertisement for bridge and for your club – ask them for some quotes about why they enjoy it!