Many years ago when I first started teaching—I quickly learned that if I needed help with something, maybe a volunteer to help out with a pony party or a Scout troop—I needed t know whose parents worked full-time, which kids were home-schooled, which adult worked the night shift, but could be counted on to help with a project in the late mornings.
I would make mental notes.
Then I started taking it a step further.
I would listen—somehow politely ask, “Oh, you’re a fireman?” or “Oh, you work at the local day care?”
So you can see where I’m going with this.
But then it took a funny turn . . . funny but fabulous!
I had a family whose daughter rode with me, and they mentioned how busy there were with their family business. Turns out they owned a local funeral home. Oh, sure you’re thinking, “What?”
I’m not sure what first comes to your mind—when someone says, “funeral homes”.
My first thought was—TENTS! I needed TENTS! We had our summer camp programs getting ready to start, and we were short on inside, covered space to get in out of the sun and rain. And tents are expensive. So I casually said, “Oh, do you all have any tents, you don’t use?” And the mother said, “Oh, sure—we have these older ones that are too faded to use.” I remember that moment, I thought, “Fantastic!”. But it really got better.
The mother said, “When do you want them?” And in two weeks, a big truck drove up, with a crew of guys. They jumped out and up went a huge and beautiful tent—a little sun fading didn’t bother me! The tent went up and stayed up for the three weeks of camp, and we greatly enjoyed it—at the end here came the crew again and down it went. This went on for three years!!
So how does this relate to you and your riding program?
For years, I have been pondering—How to get inside the school system?
I have tried many “avenues” of getting inside my local school systems.
What am I trying to do once I get in? I’m trying to promote my riding program. I mean there they are—all your clients (well probably not the adults, although I’ve gotten several great teachers involved through the school system)—I mean lots of future clients.
Just go and get them.
Yeah, I’ve found it’s not as easy as it seems.
I’ve tried to get in using the Front Door and I’ve tried getting in by using the Back Door.
I have found that if you try the Front Door, you find all your efforts quickly ended. There are two reasons for this. In today’s world if you don’t have an appointment, you may find yourself not allowed in, even locked out. Security in today’s schools is tight, so unless there is a reason for you to be there, you’re not getting very far. And schools do not like to be “marketed too”. Schools do not like salesmen. Frankly schools are too busy to help you out. Most of them are short staffed, and too busy.
But while I’ve had very little, to no success going in the Front Door—I do need to discuss what happened to me last summer. It happened in July. I have to give some background information, I have called schools—I have made “cold calls” to numerous schools over the years. With “cold calls” I didn’t have a contact to ask for, I simply made a call and asked for what I wanted/needed. I’ve never had a “cold call” go very far, other than vague answers from the voice on the phone—“we don’t really do anything like that” or “bring a flyer and I’ll try to hang it up”.
But one morning in July last summer—I had gotten brave, from listening to one of our speakers at last year’s Riding Instructor WorkShop. They had said to try to find the school’s marketing program or director. Well here in our little county, the schools don’t have a marketing director. So I called the Board of Education, my thought was to just try to be able to pass out some flyers within the school system.
Well the phone rang and rang and rang. It must have rang like 10 times, just as I was going to hang up a voice said, “Can I help you?” I thought “Oh, I’ve dialed the wrong number.” I said I was trying to reach the Board of Education. And the voice on the other end said, “Oh, you’ve got it.” I had gotten the secretary of the Board of Education. And my was she chatty. I suddenly realized I had gotten through in the dead of the summer. I had really gotten the person I needed to talk too. And she was bored. She knew where the barn was—she loved horses and rode as a child—Oh and she thought it was a wonderful idea to get our children riding. What do you want to do, honey? My gosh I was nearly in shock.
This secretary gave me the name of every principal and grade school teacher in the county. You just use my name and tell them that I said it was fine to drop off flyers throughout the county’s public schools. She also told me how many kids were in each class and how many flyers I should make. Also that I should put them in a folder or envelope for each teacher. I made sure to write her name down in bold letters. And every time I take those flyers, I make sure to “drop” her name every time!
After years of not getting in the Front Door—I had finally gotten in. I would recommend trying to reach someone in July. I have called in June (I’m presuming everyone’s resting from the school year), and I know I’ve called right before school started (but I’m thinking that everyone is very busy getting ready for the new year). July may be the ideal time!
So let’s try the Back Door. And I’ve found there’s a lot of ways to get in the Back Door.
Okay, first I decide what I want to do within the school. First it is important to look at each school as an individual. You are dealing with different ages, you may be dealing with a public school or you may be dealing with a private school, there are a lot of variables.
I do a lot of different things with schools (many times this may all depend on how I can get “into the school”). It is also important to note that I have always had more luck in working with Private School Systems than Public School Systems—I think it simply has to do with the fact that the Private Schools often find it easier to change their schedule, calendar or system, than the Public Schools.
I do want to mention that I have worked with over 20 public Louisville area schools and over 30 private Louisville area schools. Once you get started with one school make sure you mention it when talking within another school. If you’re “O.K.” with that school it must be “O.K.” for their school.
Also it is important to mention that here in Kentucky, we have three points that I try to use to their fullest: the tradition of the horse in Kentucky, the importance of the equine economy to the state of Kentucky, and the Kentucky Derby. I think if you are outside Kentucky—you can still mention the importance of the equine economy (“your kids who love horses can take this love and turn it into a career, mention equine degrees as well as figures with the impact that the equine industry has).
Okay, getting inside the schools—using the back door.
What am I trying to do—well my dream is that I get 30 kids from a school sign up for lessons.
But over the years, I have found the road difficult and at first you will only get a trickle, don’t go in looking for a flood of new students. Several years ago, Parker Lovell, an instructor and manager of a very large successful riding program in North Carolina, wrote a series of articles on riding lesson program management—and one of those was on the importance of “Follow Up”. And if you do any work with marketing, you will quickly find that one of the biggest challenges with any business is its ability to “Follow Up” with any programs that have been started.
Follow Up will include managing your programs that you’ve offered—make phone calls, remember who’ you’ve talked to, what you’ve offered, send reminder emails, be patient and thorough.
These are the things I’ve offered to schools
- Field Trips—here at the Louisville Equestrian Center we’ve offered FREE Field Trips the two weeks prior to the Kentucky Derby (this is usually the last two weeks of April—which also coincides with the promotion of our upcoming annual summer camp programming). Each year we’ve had 500-1000 school kids walk in our doors. With years of practice, we’ve gotten a real handle on how to have 50-75 kids walk into our barn, I will try to post soon on how to host a Field Trip a successful Field Trip.
- Pony Rides/Open House—I’ve had trouble getting students out to an Open House, but to offer a school an educational Field Trip, seems to go over better with the school. An Open House may appear to be a Marketing Tool by the stable in order to “sell something” to the students.
- Educational Programming—I’ve had this go two ways: the school/teacher developed the programming or I’ve built the Equine Science/Education programming. I have found schools will be more likely to allow you inside the school/pass out flyers/make announcements during school/send out emails to parents if the programming follows along a more educational route.
- First Way: Twice I have had teachers (one who rode with me and one that I didn’t know prior to the program) build a program on their own and want to implement within my program/stable. The first was a Math Teacher (she “cold called” me to set this up and had a program for her elementary students to look around the stable working on a variety of math problems she had figured out for them. This school was very close to the stable, and she brought about 25 kids. I had one volunteer go with them as a safety protocol, but other than that I had no other expenses. So I didn’t charge them.
- Second Way: I have two offerings out at my stable for large groups to join us. The first is an un-mounted Horsemanship/Equine Education, kids come out for a 45 minute hands-on horsemanship program—usually for a semester period (of 4-6-8 weeks). This is often utilized by a school who is new to our programs or simply from a poorer area and they really want to join in, but can’t afford to pay for the Riding/Horsemanship programming. I have a teacher who has ridden with me for about 10 years, and she has worked with her school and for the past 5 years we have had about 150 kids join us, for a hands on program only. I don’t charge this school, I only use the teacher, her bus driver, myself, my office manager to watch and help the kids (this is a Middle School). This is a hands on program, and they love it. The other offering is what I’ve termed an Equestrian Club. Your school can put together any kids that would be interested and join us for an hour or an hour and a half and this includes a 30-45 minute riding lesson and a 30-45 minute un-mounted horsemanship lesson. The length is determined with myself and the teacher/club leader. This is usually a multi-week program, although I have done it with a one time offering. There is a charge for this. Currently we have two schools working with us (both public schools) and the cost is $129/rider for a 5 week session. This includes a 30 minute riding lesson (most are beginners, so I do have overhead with my volunteers) and a 30 minute un-mounted Horsemanship program (and I do also have a couple of volunteers who help with this also). Our elementary school that is currently offering this Equestrian Club program has 28 kids participating. Twenty-eight kids was my max number, so it did fill up. The teacher is planning to offer the program again when this one is finished. The other school is in the works of getting everyone registered, but we have offered 28 openings as well. Each one of these runs 2 one-hour long meeting time (30 minutes riding and 30 minutes with the horses). We offer one time slot at 4:30-5:30 and one 6:30-7:30 on a Monday night.
IMPORTANT NOTE: I have found throughout the years that each school has to be looked at as an individual. So be sure to be flexible and work with the teacher or parent when discussing future programming.
Okay, I’m kind of jumping around here. But let’s go back to marketing and your tools. If you are lucky enough to get inside of a school, either by working with a parent or teacher and our able to promote your program either by using a flyer or notice—be sure to be VERY, VERY NICE! If you are bringing several thousand flyers (I always offer to bring them the flyers—I don’t think any busy school teacher or administrative staff would look forward to more time spent at the copy machine or computer) make sure that you are on your very friendliest behavior. I mean you are dropping off thousands of flyers for your program/business for them to promote your program/business! You are asking them to do more work for you!
It is a given fact that schools are usually under-staffed and over-worked. They already have too much on their “plates”. And here you come along and say “Hey, Michelle down at the Board of Education said I could drop these off”. First, do “name drop” to legitimize yourself. If you just walk in with a box of flyers you will more than likely be escorted out along with your box or it will just sit on the floor waiting for the trash. I always make sure that I know how many flyers for each class/teacher and already have them all separated and in a bag—hopefully so the administrative staff can simply slip them into each teacher’s mailbox.
Also if anyone asks always push the education side of your program. How the kids learn about nutrition and daily care of a horse, health and veterinary care—keep the education, number one. The riding side is great physical exercise. I usually include something with the Washington State University study about how great horses are to kids’ mental and physical health.
OKAY, All of this sound great—But how are you getting in the Back Door??
That’s for the second part of this post . . .