Clubs  Thriving or just surviving? Clubs of the future

What are the role of clubs and how can they stay relevant for future generations? Kathy Ombler, journalist and FMC member, delves into the many creative ways clubs are practicing diversity, advocacy, and technology.

By Kathy Ombler, journalist and individual FMC member

Congratulations to the Tararua Tramping Club (TTC). One hundred years old, with a strong membership and the precursor of a club tradition that’s become essential to how many of us ‘do’ outdoor recreation.

But is the TTC bucking the trend? There’s talk of clubs struggling, of ageing and declining memberships and a dearth of volunteers, of giving up clubrooms too costly to maintain, of flailing against casual meetups and social media ‘meetings’ instead of the good old camaraderie of club nights.

Actually, it’s not all bad. There’s the 50-year-old, North Island midweek tramping club where the average age is 70, yet the membership has remained stable for years. And in the south, one of the country’s oldest and largest climbing clubs has just appointed an 18-year-old president who’s bursting with ideas. These clubs are not atypical.

Yes there are challenges and that’s why smart clubs are evolving and diversifying. Community conservation and advocacy have become huge. New technology and health and safety demands faced and embraced. Kiwi clubs: welcome to the future.

This is not just about outdoor recreation. Forward-thinking sports clubs are also tweaking their offerings to remain relevant. Bowling clubs now run competitions such as ‘Mates in Bowls’, where anyone can enter a team and coaching, barbecues and beers are included. Golf clubs are relaxing ‘stuffy’ traditions, offering more flexible, ‘pay as you play’ subscriptions, and developing shorter ‘pitch and putt’ courses that appeal to learners and social groups.

At Recreation Aotearoa, Sam Newton says the organisation spends a lot of time thinking about participation trends, influences and effects. ‘There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that sports and outdoor recreation clubs are in decline, but there’s not a lot of hard data, and that certainly does not mean outdoor recreation is in decline. Based on a Sport NZ survey in 2017, we can say participation in outdoor recreation is booming in New Zealand. For example, we can confidently state that over 940,000 New Zealand adults go tramping (including day tramps) each year.’

Do we even need clubs, then?

The New Zealand General Social Survey 2016 indicates that those who belong to a club are more likely to rate their overall life satisfaction as ‘high’, and are more likely to feel that the things they do in life are worthwhile. Two good reasons for joining up. 

Paul Maxim, TTC committee member, adds more. ‘We offer support, experience, equipment, and infrastructure (van, huts and lodges). People can do outdoor things in a safer way with an organised club. Also, as people have more time as they get older, they are looking for companionship and want to get back into the outdoors  ̶  a club can be very supportive and safe.’ So there are wider societal benefits and, of course, environmental gains; as clubs increasingly take on advocacy roles and conservation work to protect and enhance the natural wilderness places we so love.

So, what are the keys to the future of Kiwi clubs?

Advocacy

Advocacy will be key, says New Zealand Alpine Club (NZAC) President, John Palmer. ‘People can find a mate to go rock climbing or ski-touring without joining a club, but when you have a club that passionately and effectively advocates for your common interests, that’s a very worthwhile service and one that can attract new members. For example, we are increasingly representing climbers and their environment; working with iwi over climbing access and making submissions on national park management plans, and we’ve had good feedback from members about this.’

Outdoor recreation clubs have long been staunch environmental advocates; watchdogs on milling, mining, damming, helicopter landings, access, be it individual club members climbing trees or NZAC and FMC filing submissions on everyone’s behalf. Such advocacy should only intensify in the face of tourism growth and climate change, says Palmer. ‘For example, as we experience more extreme weather events and instability in the mountains, access advocacy becomes very important.’

Health, safety and training standards

Good clubs will also factor increasingly difficult mountain access and instability into future safety planning, adds Palmer. ‘Some people say all this Health and Safety stuff is a negative but it’s actually a positive improvement.

‘A generic club challenge is reliance on volunteers. The difficulty is when someone wants to be a leader simply because they like taking people out, then they stray into instruction, or have to make decisions about weather changes and they are not equipped to do so, and it gets messy. Conversely, some good volunteer leaders back off because of concern about the personal risk or exposure.’

Palmer says the NZAC has tightened its volunteer instruction regime. ‘Some fatalities occurred on NZAC courses and that really shook up the club. So a huge effort has gone into building a standardised framework for voluntary instruction, plus we have developed a framework for Club trips.’

Increasingly, wisely, outdoor clubs are developing safety management guides, policies and advice, along with training guides for volunteer leaders and instructors. For example, Paul Maxim says safety perspectives are key inputs to the club’s Instruction Course programme, and safety and instruction procedures are reviewed by a professional guide every four years. Club PLBs are also readily available to members.

Going professional is also an option, says Jane Morris, NZ Mountain Guides Association president. ‘Because club instruction programmes take a lot of volunteer time, some clubs are opting for professional help. I recently guided a group from Canterbury University Tramping Club, regular young Kiwis wanting to extend their skills. They felt the best way to learn was to outsource the overall responsibility of the trip.’ 

There’s future proofing, too. NZAC’s Otago Section (ONZAC) recently ran a dedicated Trip Leaders course. President Riley Smith said the Section had noticed weekend trips were all being led by the same people. ‘We wanted to set something up for future leaders, and to keep the club more inclusive.’

That ageing thing – getting the kids involved

One of our difficulties is that because of NZAC safety requirements there’s not a lot we can do with teenagers, says Smith. ‘Courses are not open to students under 18. That means young people get involved in other things. So we have started supporting the Dunedin Youth Climbing Club, run by professional instructor Tim Bartholomew. It’s become hugely popular. All the funds we raise from the annual Banff Mountain Film Festival go towards the club, with the aim of producing a cohort of keen and experienced climbers ready to join the NZAC when they are older.’

City-based clubs could well consider connections with sport climbing groups, which are increasingly attracting young kids and teenagers, boys and girls equally. While this is a highly competitive, new Olympic sport that takes place in urban indoor facilities Climbing NZ president, David Sanders, says it also offers a pathway to get kids into climbing outdoors.

‘We have eight clubs. Their leaders also have a keen interest in outdoor climbing and take the kids on trips all around the country. That’s one of the great things about this sport; it offers huge potential for urban kids in large cities to get out into the wild country.’

Adapting a family friendly focus has helped forward-thinking Mt Ruapehu ski clubs says former RAL boss, Dave Maizey. ‘Some clubs haven’t really evolved and are struggling; they are competing with backpackers in the local towns. Other clubs have become really strong for families, some have adapted better to snowboarding, they have a different culture when you stay there and they have waiting lists for membership.’

Taupo Mountain Bike Club’s Paula Pietersma says the club noted the increase in entire families out riding the trails together and joining in club events, and responded accordingly. ‘We have established a Junior Development Squad for members aged 12 to 15, which focuses on building bike skills and an introduction to racing.’

The TTC runs a club youth programme, taking groups from local secondary schools on trips involving tramping, rock climbing (indoor and outdoor), and basic snowcraft and bushcraft. Paul Maxim says the kids love them. ‘We see this as a way of giving back to the Wellington region and, although we don’t get a lot staying on, they do come back. We now have second and third generation members.’

Welcoming different demographics

In 2017, a Sport NZ Recreation survey found that the white collar affluent male dominates the outdoor sector, and groups not involved include Asian, Pacifica, female, teenagers and low social economic. John Palmer, for one, bemoans the current lack of diversity of the NZAC’s membership. ‘When I go to a climbing wall in Auckland I see all sorts of ethnicities, men and women, aged say 20 to 35. I’m sure there are ways our clubs can adapt to changing social factors.’

There are. Through its Targeted Outdoor Activity Fund, Recreation Aotearoa is supporting progress to activate demographic groups who currently do not participate or have low participation rates. As ‘credible outdoor activity providers’, outdoor clubs are an ideal fit for this, says Sam Newton. ‘Any club can design and forward a proposal or programme to engage these demographic groups. They are welcome to apply for the next funding round, which opens in August.’

Oldies but goodies – embracing ageing members

Like many clubs, the TTC has an ageing membership, says Paul Maxim. ‘This is reflected in the types of trips the club offers; midweek walks and weekend day walks, for example. There are definitely more retired folk, aged in their late 50s to early 60s, however that hasn’t affected our overall membership, it’s still growing.’

It’s little wonder there are more older people in outdoor clubs  ̶  there are simply more older people, and that’s not about to change. Government figures project that by 2036, one in 4.5 New Zealanders will be aged over 65, an increase of 77 percent. On the positive side, 80 is the new 60. Thanks to advances in public health and medical innovation we’re living longer and we are more active, says American health expert, Jennifer Wider.

And not just active, many older club members have experience, time on their hands and are happy to ‘put something back’. These people (and younger members) will likely be drawn to a club that gives them a purpose, says John Palmer.

‘Some of our sections are really strong, often they have a hut which is a real focal point, it’s something tangible and they’ll have teams of volunteers happy to do the hut maintenance.’

An Auckland Tramping Club track development in the Kaimai Ranges, now managed by the Kaimai Ridgeway Trust, is one of an ever-increasing range of volunteer opportunities that provides a purpose for members, says club president Tony Walton. ‘The project has, without doubt, encouraged a lot of people to volunteer their spare time hacking away in the Ranges. They feel a sense of ownership for the tracks.’

At Bike Taupo, Pete Masters says track building has become as fulfilling as riding for mountain bike club members. ‘The single biggest improvement in the last 20 years for mountain bikers has been the standard of tracks (such as the Great Lake Trail and Waihaha Track upgrade). We said we would build them ourselves, this allowed us to build what worked for bikers and also created a massive feeling of ownership.’

Community conservation

Club conservation projects also offer engagement opportunities for older members with time to spare. Predator Free NZ has estimated that in 2011, 65 percent of the 45,000 people involved with community-based environmental groups were aged over 50.

This number will surely have increased as, across New Zealand, community conservation is a growing phenomenon. Outdoor clubs have always had a strong ethos of caring for the natural environment, and are very much a part of this swelling tide. 

Two examples (and there are many more):

The Auckland Tramping Club is heavily involved with pest control in Pureora Forest (prime kōkako habitat), Ark In The Park in the Waitākere Ranges, Motutapu Island restoration and other local pest and weed control work. Interestingly, says President Walton, these projects have attracted members who only minimally participate in other club activities.

The Queenstown Climbing Club has worked with DOC to establish trap lines and bird count stations in the Wye Creek Conservation Area, a popular climbing spot with outstanding high alpine and ancient beech forest ecosystems. A similar project has since been established on Queenstown Hill and the Club’s efforts now continue under the umbrella of the Wakatipu Wildlife Trust.

Technology – embracing it, updating it

It’s OK to snail-mail hard copy club newsletters if that’s what your members want – and many do. But a media mix, with options that meet everyone’s preference, is the way club communication is going. Offering a choice also addresses the Facebook dilemma; some members have never joined while others are now leaving the social media network.

The main communication means for the NZAC Central Otago Section, for example, are a Facebook group and a bi-monthly newsletter. ‘We are aware that some of our members may not be on Facebook,’ says President Wendy Johnston. ‘We should never be restricting access to information and hence members joining in our activities.’

Paul Maxim says the TTC uses a broad mix. ‘Our Alpine and Youth groups have Facebook pages, however our older trampers are happier with emails and Google Docs. Our newsletter is available both online and as a hard copy, and we still have a club telephone list.’

The Hawke’s Bay Mountainbike Club also uses a mix; weekly and monthly e-newsletters, a club website and Facebook page. Club secretary Carl Larsen says the database is deleted each year and started fresh.

As technology constantly changes, clubs will benefit by regular ‘tweaking’, as Riley Smith at NZAC’s Otago section explains. 

‘Over time we’ve had to go more digital. There was a decline in response to our emailed newsletters so we found a new website solution. It’s based on a Canadian Alpine Club site and it’s a bit like Facebook, but only for climbers. To be able to experience all of the website features, you have to be a member. It’s so much easier to arrange trips now. As a trip is created an email is sent out to members and a post automatically made to our Facebook group. Members then can sign the form online, and join the trip – super simple!’

And let’s not forget embracing technology for club night talks. Eye-catching (relevant) audio-visual presentations will hold members’ attention so much more than the oft-interminable slide show.

Meeups will work for Clubs, too

Casual ‘Meetups’, as in activities organised through social media, have been criticised as competition to clubs. But clubs can have it both ways, as Tony Walton explains.

‘We have a Meetup group that we have found is a good way to attract a more transitory user base, for example people who today typically participate in a range of activities spread over different organisations. It also attracts new Aucklanders. While there is limited transference from being in our Meetup group to becoming a club member, we also run joint ATC / Meetup days. The Meetup participants add a wider range of people to the activity, and contribute to the operating costs of our bus.’

A key point is that there should be clear definition between what is a social Meetup and what is an official club trip or course, says NZAC president, John Palmer. ‘In a climbing trip Meetup you’re expected to lead people to a hut, people can then partner up and do their own thing. The appropriate place for receiving climbing instruction is on an actual club course, not a Meetup trip.’

ONZAC makes a clear distinction between Section events, which are vetted by the Section committee, and private member events, which are listed on the Section website but not officially vetted.

Diversification

Complacency, as in, ‘this is what we’ve always done so this is our model for the future’, isn’t going to cut it anymore, says Paul Maxim. ‘If clubs don’t evolve, or offer broader things, they may well drown.

‘At the TTC our diversity is our strength. We are not just about tramping, we’re also about city walks, skiing and ski-touring, climbing, cycling, botany, rock climbing, youth groups, conservation and city history. We’re also flexible. We’ll adapt or start activities to suit our members, such as the midweek walking group for our older members. The more a club can offer, the more people it will attract.’

The Taupo MTB Club has looked to ‘reinvigorate’, says president Paula Pietersma. ‘After some years of stagnation we had to change in order for our Club to survive. We reviewed our Constitution and updated our Objectives that hadn’t been touched for over a decade. Now we are looking at the make-up of the Club membership, reviewing what we currently do and seeing how that fits with what our riders want. We are making a plan of events we would like to run over the next one to ten years and what trail development we need to run these events successfully. We have teamed up with local bike shops and a local tour operator to give member discounts and benefits.

‘We are offering skills sessions for riders, which we see as a growth area. We have also considered emerging sports and, as a result, we are looking to tap into adventure racing with a new, fun MTB Rogaine event which we can easily expand if it proves successful.’ 

Community events

Outdoor community events; mountain runs, marathons and multisports epics have become prolific, providing yet more competition for clubs. John Palmer would like to see clubs getting more involved in running their own community events.

‘They are really successful overseas. The British Mountaineering Council (BMC) and Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) hold really good, well patronised, community climbing events and festivals. They are not just for hard core climbers and they are very positive in maintaining connections between clubs and their communities.’

Examples include the BMC’s cancer fundraiser, where participants climb, walk or cycle up their chosen peak over one weekend. Canada’s annual General Mountaineering Camp, set in a wilderness base with introductory guided climbs, catered food and evening socials by the campfire, has run for 100 years. The American Alpine Club also brings climbers around the campfire for a three day Craggin’ Classic Series that includes films, presentations, music and local crag stewardship projects. At the end of each summer the Yosemite Climbing Association runs the Yosemite Face Lift, a major clean-up of the park. In 2018 3,334 volunteers collected 6,700 pounds of rubbish.

Back home, Palmer notes the annual Remarkables Ice and Mixed Festival, established by the Expedition Climbers Club has become incredibly popular. ‘Hardly any of the people involved are NZAC members. A vision of mine is to introduce more community climbing events.’

New membership models

Like the golf clubs, John Palmer ponders the merits of a new, ‘pay as you play’ membership model for the NZAC. ‘While our membership is growing (from 3,500 to 4,200 in the last five years) some members join just for the extras we offer; insurance, instruction courses, NZAC huts, journals and guide books. Therefore, I wonder about introducing a ‘pay to play’ model instead of an annual subscription. You could pay a basic, say, $10 for a club card, then buy an instruction course, or the journal, and pay as you go. It would take some courage but we could target a wider section of the community, and perhaps raise more resources to tackle major projects such as environmental advocacy.’

Volunteer appreciation

When it comes to respecting committees and volunteers, ONZAC president, Riley Smith speaks with wisdom that belies his 18 years.

‘Our Committee members are some of the kindest and most dedicated people I know, who all show leadership in different ways. Each is assigned to their own role, but not afraid to ask the others for advice. For me, the small things they do, like running Tuesday climbing, arranging and instructing snow craft courses, taking weekend trips and participating at meetings shows how much they care about the club, and about introducing our sport to others. There is no reward in it for them apart from thanks.’

Delegation is so important, he adds. ‘If everyone on the committee has a job to do, small or big, they feel much more involved and motivated to do their part for the group. Good leadership matters, but for me it comes down to the individuals in the committee running the club together. It’s just so much more efficient!’

This article has been republished from the June 2019 edition of ‘Backcountry,’ the quarterly bulletin of Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC).

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