The Enthusiast Cycle; Lessons From the Scuba Diving Industry

Yes, the scuba diving industry. Maybe nine months ago Fran Richards, former VP at TransWorld and somebody whom I consider one of the best intuitive marketing guys in action sports, called me up and said, “Hey Jeff, I’ve given your name to the guys at the Dive Equipment Manufacturers Association!”

“Uhhhhh, thanks Fran, that’s great, I guess…..WHY?!”
Anyway, to make a long story short, some months later I found myself facilitating a conference for that industry. It seemed that the sport was perceived as too expensive, the instructors were not very sales oriented, the baby boomer customers were dropping out, the equipment was all good and not differentiable (and a lot made in China by one manufacturer who may enter the market with its own brand), nobody had the time to participate, it was becoming even more a destination sport, there were too many small retailers who had no idea what they were doing, the industry had no idea how to attract kids and as a result of all this, the market was shrinking or at best not growing.
Anybody who is or has been in the winter sports business, as a resort, retailer, or manufacturer probably feels for the dive guys by now. At one time or another we’ve had or have all those problems. Like the dive industry, we’re still working through some of them. The good news is that we’re further along the “figuring it out” curve than they are.
Anyway, having noted once again that industries tend to be more similar than different in spite of the protestations to the contrary by the participants in each industry, I found that working in a new industry gave me better perspective on this one (In some ways, diving ought to be an action sport, but it’s just too damn peaceful).
The Enthusiast Cycle
As I listened to the dive retailers and manufacturers talk, I found myself thinking about the ski resort business in the 60s and 70s. People came and skied in droves in spite of comparatively poor base facilities, equipment, lifts and various other inconveniences. I won’t say that none of that mattered, but it certainly didn’t keep people from showing up and participating.
The resorts got just the slightest bit complacent. When skier days started to decline, the resorts didn’t know what to do, but while they were thinking about it, the snowboarders appeared to the resort’s ever lasting relief.
And the snowboarders didn’t care about poor base facilities, equipment, lifts and various other inconveniences. Hell, they even found ways around the people trying to kick them off the mountain.
The skiers in the 60s and 70s and the snowboarders into the 90s weren’t just participating in a sport. Many of them defined themselves as snowboarders and skiers. It was their lifestyle.
As people trying to make a few bucks (or Euros- whatever. Look, I’m in the middle of moving to Dublin and have no idea what currency to think in. I suppose it doesn’t matter as long as I can buy beer with it) in the action sports business, that’s exactly where we want (need) people to be. We want them to feel that participating in the sport is validating their lifestyle and self image. Then, to put it a bit indelicately, they buy more and put up with more.
Why do they do that? I think it’s because they are young, something is new, and maybe perceived as a bit exclusive. But whatever it is, they don’t stay young, it doesn’t stay new and we bust our butts trying to make sure it doesn’t stay exclusive lest too many of us go out of business.
So somehow, at some point in the enthusiast cycle, it becomes just a sport to more people. You can participate in a whole lot of sports and activities. You can’t have a whole lot of lifestyles- maybe you can only have one. As you get older, your lifestyle can revolve a bit more around kids, career and mortgage payments and less around snowboarding, or skating, or surfing. Not for everybody, I know, but I’d say that’s true for most.
SIA’s web site shows this succinctly in a couple of graphs in one of their reports. They show snowboard and skier participation by age. Guess what it shows? Snowboarders are younger, skiers are older, skiing participation is going down, snowboard participation is going up. What a shock.
Skateboarding has been through this a couple of times and may just be starting to come out of its latest down cycle. At the recent Surf Summit, in May, Quiksilver CEO Bob McKnight warned that surf’s present good times wouldn’t last forever.
These cycles happen and will continue to happen. When surf/skate/snow/diving become “only” a sport they become vulnerable to new competitive pressures. It is no longer the same priority at the top of the participant’s list. Maybe we can influence these cycles (and I’m not sure of that) but we can’t change them. What should we do?
The Ski Resort Response
To their credit winter resorts started to figure it out and snowboarding bought them some time to do it.   They trained instructors in selling and conversion. They collaborated with manufacturers in making equipment that was easy to learn on. They put up signs so you could find the bathroom. They offered cheap lessons and incentives to come back. They tried to make sure that people didn’t show up for their first lesson in jeans and freeze to death. Some resorts have restructured their rental process from the ground up to make it more customer friendly. High speed lifts, better base facilities, the list is endless.
It cost a lot of money. My perception is that it’s working to some extent, though the jury is still out on whether it will work in a way that makes financial sense. But at the end of the day, what the U. S. resort industry says is:
“While these tangible issues are encouraging, conversion (“software issues”) has emerged as the predominant roadblock in the industry’s ultimate goal of growing the sport by 10 percent.”
The intangible “psychology of conversion” and the “golden hour” between trial and conversion must be more effectively addressed.”
In other words, all the tangible improvement and enhancements in processes and facilities are necessary but probably not enough. Somehow, they need people to “feel the love” and make snow- or skate, or surf, or diving- something that defines, to some extent who they are. They don’t need somebody who participates in snowboarding, though they’ll take them. They need people who think of themselves as snowboarders.
The Marketing Delusion
We all believe, or perhaps hope, that the rather significant sums we spend on advertising, teams, trade shows, promotional product, events- the list can seem endless- contribute to creating people who don’t just participate but associate themselves with the lifestyle images we try to create. We know to some extent it works and if I knew what “to some extent” meant exactly you’d all be paying me a fortune to tell you.
My belief is that it works better when the target audience is younger and the product is fresher. That’s why the skate companies, with an overwhelmingly adolescent male audience, have tended to introduce new brands on a regular basis.
I’m suggesting two things. First, and most importantly, we’re at the mercy of what I’ve described as the enthusiast cycle- not in control of it. We can’t stop people from getting older and, as a result, changing their priorities.
Second, and here’s a BGO (Blinding Glimpse of the Obvious) for you, we damn well better know as precisely as we can who our customers before we spend those buckets of money on marketing.
It’s not just about whether a customer is “young” or “old.” We should be concerned with their changing motivations as they age. Resorts have been trying to sell condos to baby boomers as they sell terrain parks to teenagers. Some have succeeded, but lord that’s a hell of a schizophrenic marketing message to manage.
Recognize that you can’t do anything about the enthusiast cycle. It’s as inevitable as death and taxes. Don’t believe that the same marketing will work as the customers’ priorities change and they age. Start by checking out the demographic statistics in your market. The U.S. Census bureau has great stuff on line that tells you how many people are what ages and where are they.
I don’t know if all the EU countries have the same thing. 
To oversimplify a bit, are you going to try and hold on to the same customers as they age, or are you prepared to drop them and go after the new crop? Or both?
I know it’s not that linear, but your answer will determine where, how, and how much you spend on marketing.
Don’t fool yourself into believing you can overcome the enthusiast cycle with marketing. Acknowledge it and build it into your business strategy. If you approach it that way it’s an opportunity, not a problem.