If there are two or more HEMA clubs in the same city, how do you handle this from the point of view of marketing your own club? There is competition for members, so how do you advertise? How do you differentiate your club from the others and how do you show that your club is the best fit for a potential member, without putting down the other clubs?
It is never a good strategy to badmouth or undermine other clubs in the same city. Wherever possible, maintaining friendly relations is a good policy, because you will have more opportunity for collaboration and cross training when you are on friendly terms.
Understand what your club does and how you do it
If your club does a bit of everything, and the other clubs in the city do a bit of everything too, then what really makes your club different? Or if your club studies longsword, and so does another club, what makes you different?
It is important to realise that most clubs do things a bit differently, even if they are notionally studying the same thing. If you can identify the differences then you can use that to significant advantage when marketing or when positioning yourself.
Think about how much focus your club places on working with the sources. Do you crack open the books in every session? Or do you refer back to the books only occasionally?
Think about what the goals are for slightly more experienced members. Is the expectation that more advanced club members will be funnelled towards tournaments? Will more advanced members be coached towards becoming instructors themselves? Will more advanced members be “promoted” out of a beginners’ session into an intermediate or advanced session?
Think about the equipment that you use for training and sparring. Do you do most of your work with plastic swords or with steel swords? Do you do most of your training in full protective gear, or do you do most of your training just in t-shirt and fencing mask? How expensive is it for people to get involved in your club?
Think about the intensity of your training. Are you a relaxed club with a laid back atmosphere, or are you a competitive and highly-motivated club? Do you tend to play hard with each other, or do you keep things lighter and less painful? Do you festishise and show off your bruises proudly, or do you see bruises as a sign that people are hitting too hard?
Think about your team of instructors and club administrators. Is the club run in a democratic fashion, or does one person call all the shots? Do you have an instructor who is experienced and good at teaching, or do you have group leaders who are not much more advanced than everyone else and who try to learn everything alongside the students?
None of these answers are necessarily better or worse than any other answer. But they do make your club different from other clubs, even if you study the same discipline.
Be able to articulate what makes your club different
Once you understand how your club operates and what you try to achieve as a group, you need to be able to articulate this in a short and sweet message that people can understand. This is a bit like a mission statement that encapsulates the goals and parameters of your group.
For example, Liverpool HEMA is a club focused on the longsword, and we are interested in training historical martial arts according to the surviving historical source material. We train longsword as a proper martial art and we put our emphasis on being functional in every motion we make. That being said, we are quite a relaxed and fun group, and I like to crack jokes as I teach – we laugh a lot and have fun even while training in a well-disciplined fashion.
That is quite a powerful statement about my club and it would differentiate us neatly from any other HEMA clubs nearby. Anyone reading or hearing a statement like this about my club would be able to get a feel for us immediately and come to a decision about whether or not this sounds like what they would like to do.
I am never offended if people decide that they don’t actually want to do the sort of thing that we focus on in my club. In fact, if I know that they are not really interested in how we do things, I am quite happy to point them towards another club that is a better fit for them. It is better to have members who enjoy what the club does and how we do our training than to have people who aren’t so keen on it.
Finally, if you can articulate what makes your club different, then you will be able to do a better job of developing and maintaining your club culture (and communicating this to other people already in the group).
Understand what the other clubs do and where their strengths lie
In a similar fashion, you should consider the other clubs nearby. How do they do things? What are their strengths, compared to yours? What makes them different?
If you are a newer club trying to compete with a bigger, longer-established club, then it can seem very daunting. But if you consider everything this way, you might be able to see how you can serve a different group of people in a way that the other club does not.
What you must remember is that there are always people who prefer any given way of doing things. So if other clubs do things a certain way, that means they are NOT doing it in some other way – and that means your club can do it that way and so you will be able to appeal to different people without direction competition between clubs.
For example, Liverpool HEMA appeals to people who enjoy recreating a historical martial art as correctly as we can, and who enjoy spending most of our training time working through drills to improve our technical skills. We do NOT usually appeal to people who just want to gear up and spar, or who want to dabble in a bit of this and a bit of that, or who want to cherry pick random techniques from random sources.
Another club could set up quite successfully in the same city, even focusing on the same discipline as we do, by doing things differently. A more sparring-oriented club would cater for people who prefer doing things that way. A more competition-oriented club would cater for the people who get impatient with how we do things. A club with less strict focus on adhering to the source material would cater for people who just aren’t as interested in the academic side of things as we are.
If you have other clubs in the same town or city as your own, then spend some time thinking about them and considering how they do things and what they are good at. Once you can articulate this, you can compare all the clubs in a neutral and objective fashion, and you can demonstrate easily why your club is different and why some people will prefer the way that you do things.
Charge enough that you can turn people away
Although this may seem like a strange piece of advice, and although it may go against your instincts to keep everything cheap and cheerful, this is one of the most important pieces of advice I can give to any martial arts club.
If you charge enough that you are able to turn people away and point them at other clubs that are a better fit for them, then you will not be worried about your finances. You won’t worry about being able to pay for hall hire, or paying for first aid training for instructors, or paying for insurance, or anything like that. You will be able to buy or replace equipment for the club without making a big song and dance about it.
If you charge less, and therefore feel the need to hold onto as many people as possible so that you can break even, then you are sabotaging yourself and everyone else. Desperation for money is not pretty and people can smell it. No one really wants to be part of a club that struggles financially, that can’t afford to buy anything new, that can’t afford to lose even a single member.
This doesn’t mean that you should charge a ridiculous amount of money and price yourself out of the market. If your hall hire is crazy cheap then maybe all you need is £3 per person per night. Or maybe you have other expenses in running the club, and you have to go a bit higher. The precise number is something that you need to choose by analysing your income and expenses, and it will be different for every club. A higher attendance fee is not necessarily a bad thing and it can mean that the club will be able to create a better and more enjoyable experience for everyone involved.
From the point of view of marketing your club, the attendance fee doesn’t really matter. If you can articulate what makes your club different and why people will enjoy being part of your club, and if you can afford for them to decide not to join you, then there is no pressure. They can make their decision either way, and maybe you get a new member (yay!) or maybe you don’t, in which case you can point them to the nearby club that will be a better fit for them. Drop the other club a note to let them know that you have sent this potential member their way and they will be happy that you were so thoughtful and helpful.
You gain very little by entering into divisive competition with your neighbouring clubs. If you are all undermining each other and talking about how the other clubs in the area are rubbish compared to your own, you are going to poison the local scene, and potential participants may just decide that HEMA is not for them because none of the local clubs sound appealing.
Instead, it is much better to work towards having a positive relationship between nearby clubs, and to understand what makes each club different. Even if every club studies something very similar, the way they all go about it will be different and will therefore appeal to different people.
If you do a good job with this then you may find that people enjoy being part of two or more clubs in the local area, because they enjoy more than one way of training, and because they like more than one group of people. However, if you engage in bitter rivalry with other clubs, there is very little chance that anyone will cross train and attend other clubs, and you might all lose out when potential members decide to give it up and do another hobby instead.
How does your club train? What are your goals and how do you go about it? I would love to hear a variety of mission statements from different clubs!
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Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. I teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.