Nurturing the Future of Scuba: Ways to Grow the Women's Diving Market In Your Dive Center
According to the DEMA Diver Research Project, (see DCB, July/August 2015) 43 percent of recreational scuba divers are now women. ?Given the presence of women consumers in the scuba industry, and their influence on consumer spending, if you aren't merchandising for, and marketing to them, you might be missing out on sales and profits.
Michelle Pugh, owner of Dive Experience in Christiansted, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, says, "I think the days of 'It's a man's world' are over. I'm seeing this to be very true in the dive industry." Says Tige Pratt, co-owner of Virginia Scuba in Manassas, Virginia, "Mom controls the purse." You are getting an idea of where at least part of your marketing, merchandising and training efforts should be directed.
What Women Want
What brings women to diving?
Dennis Monroe, owner of Gulfport Dive Center in Gulfport, Florida, says, "A majority of them are coming in of their own volition, even if they are part of a couple or family." Jeff Davis, owner of Aqua Hut in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, says, "Honestly, I think we have more women bring in their husbands and boyfriends than the other way around." At Sea Experience in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, owner Bill Cole is seeing more individual female divers than ever before.
Cole told me about two women (neither of whom live in the area) who met diving with Sea Experience and now get together to dive there once a year. A common thread among dive centers is that they often hear from customers, "I always wanted to do this and it is time." In many of these cases it is a woman who has recently gone through a divorce or been widowed and her husband hadn't wanted to do it. For some, they are the only one in the family interested and they are taking the initiative to do it anyway.
Very few stores I spoke with have a lower percentage of women than the 43 percent found in the DEMA study. As a matter of fact, most were certain the number is higher in their store. Those who did report lower percentages (less than 25 percent) were in the North with cold water and low visibility for local diving. Most of the women these particular stores have as customers are there for a significant other or preparing for a trip. They simply aren't interested in having to wear the heavy equipment and deal with the low visibility and cold water. Most northern stores with higher percentages of women divers, but similar local diving conditions, have strong dive travel programs. The women are mostly diving at tropical destinations, but doing some diving locally.
Controller of the Purse
At Weaver's Dive and Travel in Boulder, Colorado, owner Steve Weaver shared this account of a recent equipment sale: "A couple was in this weekend looking at gear," Weaver says. "The woman didn't even dive, but she was strongly encouraging her husband to buy his gear, so he would be more comfortable. At the risk of sounding stereotypical, women are more practical than men." (See "Reporter's Notebook" on Page 46.)
So how do you put women at ease enough to create these kinds of sales? Begin with a look around the store.
Gulfport Dive Center opened three years ago with the right idea. "From the beginning," Monroe says, "we decided we didn't want to have any dark corners; no beat-up old equipment on display. We went for visually appealing, well lit, nice colors, comfortable; had a woman's touch from the beginning. I think that makes a difference, particularly to women."
This theme is carried through to their website as well, divegulfport.com/, which is often the first experience a new customer has with a business. It's bright, vibrant and the first photos that show up prominently on the home page feature a smiling woman underwater and two shots with men and women together, all obviously having fun.
How About the Staff?
Do employing women sales and instructional staff attract women customers? Common sense tells us "yes."
So does experience.
According to most of the people I spoke with, including a few women divers who are working in the industry, the answer to that is a resounding, "Yeah!" That was the exact response I received over and over again, sometimes with a "Duh!" thrown in.
Sea Experience has several female instructors and their training director is a woman. Cole says, "A lot of women are a little less intimidated, though a few are still more comfortable with the idea of a guy teaching them." The owner of Roanoke Island Outfitters & Dive Center in Roanoke, North Carolina, made a very good point that applies to store and teaching staff, "When you ask them how much they weigh to set them up with a wet suit or weight, it makes a difference if it's coming from a guy or girl. A lot of conversations are going to be easier with a woman."
Pugh had a boat trip just before I spoke with her that was all women: captain, crew and divers. And it wasn't planned that way. She is seeing more and more solo women coming in. One of these women took her beginning class with Dive Experience, then came back to take Advanced and Night classes. She says, "I think it makes a difference that I'm a woman owner and still enthusiastic, still loving diving. Other women can relate." A-1 Scuba & Travel in Littleton, Colorado, has 32 instructors; half are women. They have a lot of female store staff as well. Co-owner Lynn Taylor says, "Sometimes women will want to interact with a woman. If so, there is someone to go to and they'll gravitate toward that direction."
Her husband and partner, Scott Taylor, became a little philosophical while we were talking. He says that in all areas of their dive center, even among their travel group leaders, the breakdown of gender is 50/50 women and men, and their business, including travel, is 50 percent women.
As he said, tongue-in-cheek, "I wonder if there is a correlation." While I spoke with the owners, manager and travel leader, they realized that with no conscious thought of making it this way, they have a 50/50 staff, a brochure they use extensively features a woman on the front and their website has several women on it.
Carry the Right Merchandise
Along with a clean look and maybe women on the staff, it's important to carry the appropriate equipment. A-1 Scuba certainly has the right attitude on this. Shane Taylor says, "One of the ways we cater to our female customers is that we have an aggressive selection of women's gear -- colorful and made for them." In preparing this article, I spoke with dive center managers/owners (not all men) who still believe the only real difference between men and women's equipment is color.
As a woman who wears this equipment, that is definitely not the case. Virginia Scuba's Pratt said, "We make sure we keep anything designed for women in stock. We keep pink lights, knives, anything that comes in bright colors, but it isn't all about the color. Women's equipment fits them better." The shorter torso length of women's BC's makes them less bulky. And the adjustable chest straps that can be placed higher or lower can be the factor that makes a sale.
Weaver says, "Women appreciate good fit and quality; it seems more so than the men…. The easiest sale in the world is to a woman who's used to diving with equipment that was ill-fitting. Just let her try on a BC made for her." Don't think only of new divers purchasing their first equipment. This can apply to a new diver who had a standard unisex BC for all of her training or an experienced diver who has older equipment.
Gear designed for travel is another good fit for women. Jeff Ranby, manager of No Limits Scuba in Chandler, Arizona, does well selling to women divers vacillating on whether to purchase or rent equipment, particularly for those traveling. Instead of wet suits, he steers them toward the thinner fleece-lined suits -- full suits or pants and top.
For warm-water destinations, they provide some warmth without the bulk or buoyancy of a full wet suit. "It provides insulation, it has a nice fleecy interior, is wind-resistant and it's great for layering," Ranby says. "If it turns they need a little more insulation, they can address their hesitation at that thought of wearing a rental suit by wearing this under the rental." He also reminds them, "You don't know what you're going to get when you get there, how it's going to fit. This is particularly important to small women." With this in mind, he shows them smaller, lightweight BC's and regulators.
All of this equipment needs to be visible. Most dive centers doing well selling equipment to women have it displayed prominently. Gulfport Dive Center has a mannequin prominently displayed and decked out with a woman's equipment package on it. Aqua Safaris Scuba Center in Santa Cruz has gone all in on merchandising for women; they have an entire wall devoted to the women's gear and another with men's and unisex.
Use Your Words
When selling equipment to women, you may need to take a different approach than with men. Many of the managers and owners interviewed for this story repeated this theme: Take time to talk to them.
Spending time discussing fit, and how it will increase their comfort and possibly improve their in-water performance will show them that you aren't just trying to make a sale. You actually care about them and their diving experience.
This approach carries through when selling and later teaching classes to women as well. Being a female diver and instructor for decades, I hate to write this, but quite often women simply take more time and effort to teach than men. The instructor has to be willing to spend more time explaining a skill or how it can be made more comfortable. I actually heard this from more women dive store owners than men -- hmm … maybe men just didn't want to say it to a woman?
Angie Klapish-Widmer, co-owner of Dive & Glide in Bay City, Michigan, said this about women taking classes with them: "It's all referral. A large majority of the women come in after talking to a friend or someone at work. In many cases they started their class somewhere else and gave up because it was rushed or they were put in equipment that didn't fit. After talking to another woman who has been through our program, who tells them how much time we took to help them through the course, they decide to give it another try here. We have women who come from 150 miles away to take our class."
Aqua Hut has a 60 percent female customer base, which Davis is quite happy about. "They spend more money," he said. This is apparently true because 90 percent of their students purchase their gear after the second pool session. Davis says that at least part of their success in attracting more women and having these sales numbers is their radically different approach to training.
All of their beginning classes are private -- all of them. Davis said, "Classes are set up for the customer's convenience. We go at their speed, their pace. Students come in more relaxed." They have a pool on the premises, making this easier than it would be otherwise. For most dive centers, this would be impractical, but you might consider promoting your private class options a little more when talking to women. Smaller classes are often more appealing to women.
This would be particularly applicable to those who are coming in to please a significant other and are nervous about the experience. Davis also said, "We are always upfront about where we're putting our hands." As any instructor is aware, there are times you need to hold onto a student's shoulder or waist strap, maybe catch them by the arm. Mentioning this in the beginning of training should prevent any concerns of unprofessional behavior.
Ranby said about No Limit's classes, "We keep them to no more than four students per instructor. When we explain how our classes will run, women really like the idea of smaller groups. We use e-learning too and women really appreciate the convenience of it. Working women with children or women at home with children like that they can do this part of their training on their own schedule. We hear a lot about having to arrange for a babysitter and how much this helps." I asked if he thought that negatively affected sales. "I know there is concern about that," Ranby said, "but we've worked a lot with our instructors on how they can effectively develop a rapport with students. They spend a lot of time with them at the pool, in open water. They get to know them, develop a relationship. We have not seen any slowdown in sales."
And What About the Class Gear?
A significant part of a scuba class is in-water, so how about the gear being used for training? Men's vs. women's gear for classes? Does it make a difference?
Klapish-Widmer said, "They have to enjoy the pool. The gear has to fit right. We've special-ordered a wet suit or BCD when we have a student who isn't a fit for any of our current rental equipment. You just can't put a large woman into a man's suit with rolled-up legs and arms. They aren't going to enjoy the experience. We are looking for all smiles at open water. How is that going to happen if they aren't comfortable?"
I was surprised at the number of stores that do have women's BC's in their rental line, but for many stores, adding women's BC's presents such a high cost that they can't justify carrying them. Doing so would require doubling the number of BC's, which means twice the money and space required -- not an option for some, even if they want to do so. A couple of dive center owners admitted that they use those men's BC's to make sales to the ladies while in class.
They show all of the students, men and women, other BC's available, explaining the additional features on these models, particularly pointing out the difference in fit on the ladies. They let the students try them on and emphasize the difference in comfort and possibly ease of use. A lot of these women purchase BC's before going to Open Water.
Selling Travel to Women -- Is There a Difference?
Says Pugh, "Men will swim quickly over the reef, but I think women want to stop and smell the coral. They take their time, looking at the small things, taking it all in."
Pugh has owned her store for 32 years and is an inductee to the Women Divers Hall of Fame. "Women want to hear about what they will see, details about the actual experience. Describe swimming in warm clear water, the colors of the fish and reef. Tell them about the resort experience."
Many dive centers are seeing an increasing number of women coming in on their own. When it comes to travel, this could prove a hindrance. Many don't want to pay single supplement expenses or have concerns about traveling alone to a foreign destination.
Group travel answers both of these concerns. Be sure to emphasize these points. When a woman expresses interest in a trip, explain that you may have someone she can room with and then make an effort to get them together. Most dive centers I spoke with reported that 40 percent to 50 percent of the customers traveling with them are women, many traveling alone or with another woman.
There are a number of dive centers having success running women-only dive trips, making it an annual event. Virginia Scuba has run a Men's Dive Out (a play on "night out") for several years and has just announced a Women's Dive Out trip for 2016. A big part of the draw is that it is a chance to go on a dive trip and not have to worry about anyone but themselves, no husband, boyfriend or kids to please or cater to in any way. If the participant wants to skip a dive, sleep in and walk on the beach all morning, OK. If she chooses to dive every minute of the trip, that's OK, too. According to organizers, the trip is already looking like it will be a great success and an annual favorite.
No Limits recently joined forces with several other dive stores in their area to have an event in conjunction with PADI's Women's Dive Day. There was a dive, equipment tryouts and a breakfast that differed from what might be served to men. "There were omelets and fruit platters and so on," Ranby said. "If this had been guys, they'd have been happy with bacon and maybe even nothing else." The event was a success.
The Benefits of Being a Chick Magnet
Women make up almost half the diving industry. They are more likely to spend money than men, often making experience, travel and financial decisions for an entire family. It might be advantageous to your bottom line to look closely at how your business looks, through a woman's eyes.
While I was researching this article, I walked into a Florida dive center to overhear a couple in the store who had received their c-cards the day before. The husband wanted to purchase computers only and rent the rest for a while; the wife very much wanted to purchase everything. As she put it, "We'll be a lot more comfortable and probably better divers if we have our own gear." In the end, they purchased computers, high-end BC's and wet suits.
I got a strong impression they'd be back for regulators soon.