A new approach in Port Elgin!

The Port Elgin Curling Club put a concentrated effort into attracting a younger generation to the curling club through social media and found immediate results. (Photo supplied, Port Elgin Curling Club)

Port Elgin club finds ways to increase membership despite pandemic

By: Brian Chick

Doug Flowers has spent a lifetime in the curling business. After decades leading the company his father started, Goldline Curling Supplies, Flowers retired. He now spends his time building a different kind of curling business — a local club.

For nearly 40 years, Flowers ran the Mississauga, Ont.-based curling equipment company, but in 2018 he moved north to Port Elgin, where he dove head-first into the small-town curling club volunteer lifestyle. He joined the board, and spearheaded new initiatives to keep the club vibrant.

“We started a new membership development committee,” said Flowers. “Our mantra is ‘We are a business.’ And like any other business, if you don’t continuously market yourself, and promote, your membership is going to wane.” 

In recent years, the membership in Port Elgin had been steadily declining.

“Six years ago, we had 250 members,” said Flowers. “It got down to less than half of that. I think that was largely due to the fact that we weren’t marketing, or trying to bring new people in.” 

The already-low membership took another hit from COVID-19.

“At the end of last season, we were at 103 members,” noted Flowers. “This season, largely because of COVID, 41 of them decided not to come back.” 

The Port Elgin Curling Club invested in radio ads, press releases, lawn signs and social media to increase membership. (Photo supplied, Port Elgin Curling Club)

After cutting last season short in the spring, Flowers was inspired as the weather improved.

“Once we got out to the golf courses, we saw they were busier than ever,” he said. “Actually, COVID probably saved a few golf courses from closing. We saw that COVID could actually be an opportunity for us. Curling could enjoy the same kind of patronage.

“We knew we had to promote ourselves. The board has gone along with that, and has given us a budget to market the club,” added Flowers.

Through some radio ads, press releases, and lawn signs, Flowers and his membership committee colleagues started getting phone calls.

Flowers knew, however, that today’s younger generations don’t tend to make a lot of phone calls — even if they’re on their phones all day.

“The median age of our membership was probably 55-60, and many of us use social media to some degree… but we wanted to attract the younger generation, the millennials,” he said. “We knew we had to improve our social media presence.”

The club hired a professional — a millennial — to handle the social media accounts.

“The important part was that they were good with social media, but they had to be adept at marketing through social media,” said Flowers.

Over the course of the season, the club pledged to spend $3,500 on their part-time social media expert in an effort to bring in the younger demographic.

Krista Keller learns some of the basics of curling during through the Port Elgin Curling Club’s Learn to Curl program. (Photo, Port Elgin Curling Club Facebook page)

“That was our target,” said Flowers. “We accepted the fact, too, though, that we’d happily accept anyone who could fog a mirror….We basically mounted our campaign around the idea that we’re safe, we’re physical, and we’re social.”

Fifty people showed up for the club’s open house.

“That’s twice as many people as we’d ever had before,” said Flowers. “We had 20 people sign up for our Learn-to-Curl league, which meant we had a waiting list.” 

When the season finally got underway, membership in Port Elgin was up to near 130, even after losing more than 40 curlers in the off-season.

“I think we counted 60 new faces… some of them were snowbirds who didn’t go south, but a lot of them were millennials.”

Coming from a lifetime in the business world, Flowers knows the old adage “You’ve got to spend money to make money,” and in this case it holds true. 

“We’re up 30 or so members, overall,” he said. “Assuming they all spend $300 or so on memberships, you’re at $9,000, and then of course you have to consider the money spent at the bar. If you look at the numbers that way, you could say we’ve had a substantial return on our investment.”

The next challenge was to navigate the prospect of keeping curling safe during a global pandemic. Many curling clubs in Ontario didn’t bother to open their doors this season.

“We are so fortunate that we can still curl up here, and we really do appreciate that fact,” said Flowers. “We are so careful (with COVID safety), because we don’t want to lose that. I feel very secure curling at our club. The protocols are so stringent, and so well-adhered to. I really feel that we’re not jeopardizing anything by curling.”

Flowers said that the biggest adjustment was not getting used to a mask, but instead, the one-sweeper rule. Curling brushes are the family business after all — he likes to sweep.

“It’s a bit different, but the fundamentals are still there. You can still enjoy it,” said Flowers. “My wife and I have been saying ‘Thank goodness we still have curling!’ because it’s consumed us and kept us busy, which is something we need during these times!”

Curling Canada