It is a year since I started working on membership development at the EBU. This is a long term effort, but I would like to share a little about how it is going, and what we have learned about how to increase membership at bridge clubs.
One of the thing we have worked on is improving our knowledge of what is happening by studying the data we have. In fact our data on membership as such is not very accurate, partly because it depends on how quick clubs are to update their records, and partly because we care more about bridge activity than we do about the number of members as such.
First, some good news. If we look at the month of July (the latest month for which we have reliable figures), more bridge was played at EBU clubs in July 2019 than in July 2018 or July 2017. Over 15% of our clubs played more bridge in July 2019 than in July 2018, and more bridge in July 2018 than in July 2017. In some cases there will be arbitrary reasons, to do with perhaps the number of Tuesdays in the month, or the fact that a nearby club closed. In many cases though there is real growth which is most encouraging.
We have also discovered that there is no strong correlation between growth and the size of the club, or between growth and the standard of the bridge – judged by average National Grading Scheme (NGS) ranking. Clubs of every size and standard are among those growing.
One thing that does seem to be a factor is the number of sessions in the week: clubs with more than one session seem to be more likely to be growing. Perhaps this helps with providing a pathway for less experienced players, since where there is more than one session, one is often a bit less expert than others.
I am also aware that growing bridge clubs are the outcome of a lot of hard work. The demographics of bridge mean that many elderly members leave us each year, and that is not going to change. So to grow means to more than compensate for that natural process.
How to grow your bridge club – attracting people in
What then is the secret of a growing bridge club? There are really two aspects to this. The first is attracting people in. Since there is a limited number of experienced bridge players out there, most of whom already play in bridge clubs because the game is so fantastically absorbing, the best way to attract new people is to offer bridge teaching. Not every club can do this on their own, and there are often issues about finding a suitable location for clubs who do not have their own premises, but it is worth the effort.
In this it is essential to plan the progress of novices from learning the game to joining a regular club session. We have several posts on this site devoted to this topic.
The key is to plan from the beginning and make sure that the club or clubs manage the lessons and follow up, rather than delegating this entirely to, for example, a bridge teacher. Another key is to avoid creating a club within a club: supervised sessions are for helping members to progress, not a final destination.
Once you have a plan in place it is time to do some marketing, and again there is plenty of information on this site on the topic, such as How to run a bridge taster session.
How to grow your bridge club – making it a place people want to stay
It is common sense yet something that is easy to miss: a club is much more likely to grow if it runs sessions that everyone enjoys. The best marketing is word of mouth, and if a club’s members say to their friends what a lovely bridge club it is, half the work of gaining new members is done already.
The opposite is also true. If a club develops a reputation for “unfriendliness” or the word goes round that “you have to take your bridge really seriously,” then gaining new members is an uphill battle.
At the EBU we are determined to change any idea of EBU clubs being unfriendly into the opposite, that at an EBU club players of any standard are assured of a friendly welcome.
What can a club do in order to provide an enjoyable evening? Quite a lot. The directing is key, so is the hosting, or making single players welcome. We also want to encourage more multi-standard sessions, which means making sure that your top players (as well as all the others) practice best behaviour with opponents of a lesser standard: a smile, patience with inadvertent errors, and never ever trying to take advantage other than via bidding and playing to the best of your ability. There is a post on creating a novice-friendly culture in your bridge club.
In my year at the EBU I have seen plenty of evidence that where bridge is carefully promoted by novice-friendly clubs, growth does take place. There is effort involved, but the rewards are also great, not only in terms of ensuring a bright future for your club and for the game, but also in the social and community benefits of bridge, a partnership game that is endlessly varied and rewarding.