They are a vibrant and active club, with a lodge on Ruapehu, a hut in the Orongorongo valley and two 12 seater vans. They run a club night every week, and up to 5 different overnight trips each weekend. Suffice it to say, the club is strong. But what do they do to encourage and support new members, to help keep the club in the strong position it is? We spoke to club member Megan Sety to find out.
A few years ago, the membership appeared to be in decline (heading south of 400) and the club committee decided that it was time to make an active effort to reverse the trend. They took a good hard look at themselves, with the perspective of a potential member and decided that they might have appeared a little ‘exclusive’ or perhaps ‘cliquey’ which might have discouraged new folks.
And so they started with the biggest step; being open to change. Some of the stalwart membership had issue with some of the suggestions, but with hindsight, it was the willingness to enact change which was the biggest factor in the successful rejuvenating of the club. If you continue to do what you’ve always done, you’ll just get the same result.
They began with a series of practical changes, to make the club more welcoming for new members, and easier for people to join and become established in the club.
At their meetings, they used to collect a koha (donation) at the door, and required non-members to ‘sign-in’, but did away with these potential turn-offs. There used to be a lengthy process to become a member, but little by little they reduced the requirements from ‘3 overnight trips with the club, and the nomination of the trip leaders plus an executive member’ through to simply filling out a membership form and paying the fee. The argument for the membership requirements was for the club to ‘get to know the person, and the person to know the club’ but they felt it was more likely to discourage all but the most determined people; there’d be lots of people who would have made great club members who simply never managed to join due to the challenging process.
Non-members are allowed to go on trips (though the trip fee for transport is a little higher) and there’s no formal limit to the number of non-member trips you can go on. They’ve also made it possible for anyone to sign up to receive the club newsletter; by putting themselves out there, with few barriers they’ve found they’ve had a great response with more new members.
Once the club got into the ‘theme of change’ then ideas came thick and fast from within the club, and once the changes were seen to be successful, support grew from most of the membership for more changes. As Megan puts it “You join a club because you want to do cool stuff, and you want to find cool people to go with” the more folks in the club, the more likely you are to find the people you want to connect with. Another member who instructs on the clubs snow craft course begins each course by explaining why she instructs. “I want to teach you guys these skills, because I want more buddies for alpine trips!”
There are now over 600 paying members, and Megan estimates about 50-100 who are very active.
As well as removing the bureaucratic barriers for prospective members, WTMC has set up a club culture where new people are actively engaged and made to feel welcome.
At each club night, someone is rostered to greet people as they arrive. Any new people are offered one of the clubs trip schedule and the time is taken to explain how the schedule works, and how to sign up for trips. A few questions help to figure out the new person’s interests and experience level, so the greeter can suggest a few trips which might be of interest to the newbie, and to point them out to the trip leaders. Obviously, this is a job for a social club member, but for the right person, it’s a great chance to meet lots of new people and get the satisfaction of knowing the new folk feel welcomed.
On any given club night, there’s about 20-70 folks who turn up. WMTC has thought about online trip sign-up, but for now still asks people to come to the social nights to sign up in person. This give trip leaders and participants to size each other up (it’s a big club, so they may not have met yet). Often there might be a few new people loitering around the sign ups area, not quite knowing what to do, or who to talk to; It’s the perfect spot for an eagle eyed member to go say hi, and chat to the new person about the club.
There’s lots of onus on individuals to encourage new people, but the culture has been set by the club and it’s committee – make sure that people feel welcome.
WTMC traditionally has run annual ‘new member’ evenings. (https://wtmc.org.nz/newsletter/new-members-night/) They don’t usually advertise much; just asking their current members to pass on the facebook ‘event’ to friends and acquaintances.
A bunch of club members volunteer at various ‘stations’ around the club rooms; Tramping, climbing, biking, kayaking, canyoning. At each station, the members chat to interested people about the what the club does in that activity, and how things work.
Instead of the standard of 1 ‘greeter’ on a normal club night, 5-10 members are encouraged to actively chat and engage with the new people who might be a little shy or unsure of things. At some point, there’s a 10 minute presentation showcasing the club; History, what it’s like to be a member, how to sign up to the club and to trips, short and sweet!
When they schedule a ‘new member’ night, the club has made sure that there are a bunch of easy/medium trips on the trip schedule, so that new members have got an activity to sign up for straight away. There’s always a bushcraft course on within a week or two of the new member night, as well as a few ‘jump start’ sessions scheduled. Supporting brand new members with a few suitable activities straight of the bat seems to go a long way to getting those members enthused and eager to participate more fully in club life.
“Jump start” sessions are scheduled for 1 hour before a regular club night and take the time to explain the things that most of us take for granted. WTMC seem to get quite a lot of new members who are completely new to the outdoors. Like brand new. Never slept in tent new. So at a jump start, they explain what tramping is, what a trip would be like, how it works to share a hut, what stuff you take, and how it all fits in a pack. Just enough to give someone who is brand new a little context for the club night and any trip they are about to attend. It stands to reason that a person who has no experience but wants to try something would approach a welcoming community of people who can help them along their way. It’s a good mindset to change; tramping clubs shouldn’t just be for people who are already into the outdoors to find new friends; they should also be a vehicle for introducing completely new people to the experiences we all cherish.
WTMC don’t actively advertise their club, but they do think that a quality, modern website with up to date information is a major encouragement to potential members. The interested people are just searching the internet for a local tramping club, and having a good website means that they will find WTMC quickly, and be impressed with the organisation of the club, and see how much fun stuff is going on; nothing like plenty of activities to inspire people to want to find out more!
On reflection to the last few years of change, Megan felt it was clear that volunteers form the backbone of the club. As part of the rejuvenating of the club, WTMC did a survey to find out who was volunteering, how they felt about it, and what they got out of it. As a result, the club made a number of changes to spread the volunteer workload more effectively, clarify the roles in the club and give more credit and thanks to those who do volunteer. All this ensures that members are enjoying the club, and getting out of it what they are hoping for; which is vital for retaining members and making it an attractive prospect for potential members.
Trip leaders are one of the core voluntary roles for most clubs, and WTMC puts a fair bit of effort into fostering and mentoring new leaders.
The trickiest part is finding the people who might lead a trip. The club sends out invitations regularly in it’s newsletter, on it’s website and at club nights. Existing leaders are encouraged to shoulder tap new leaders, and on membership forms, people are asked to indicate if they might be willing to lead a trip in the future.
1 day long leadership courses are run at the club’s normal meeting hall. The course covers: Why lead a trip? Trip planning, Trip leading during a tramp, Risks and mitigation and Navigation basics. Any brand new leaders without much experience are mentored by experienced leaders as co-leaders on a few trips before heading out on their own. The chief guide makes a point of investing a bit of time into all the new leaders, chatting to them at club nights, asking how they are feeling about trips coming up, and reflections on past trips. The club goes a long way to making sure leaders feel supported and valued; which goes a very long way to providing the right activities for club members to keep the club active and attractive.
All told, there’s a huge amount of work that WMTC has done to ensure that it’s a vibrant, healthy club, that is attractive to new and existing members alike. But Megan was quick to remind me that the details of how you do it don’t really matter too much;
“The most important things are being open to change and making people feel welcome”