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Marketing During a Natural Disaster

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The very idea of marketing during a natural disaster may sound preposterous at first, but give me a few more sentences and I believe you will see my point.

This past week we experienced the savagery of Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast, and it was brutal. Major damage to property and life occurred on the shores of New Jersey, New York and Long Island. Millions of people had no power for days on end; and there was no heat, no light and no refrigeration. Homes were lost and shorelines disappeared. How on earth do you make something good out of all that?

The old adage “There is a silver lining in every cloud,” is always true. Our silver lining came the day after the storm, when there was no power in the entire area, not even at our club. It was on that day that we decided to open our doors to our members, even without heat and light, and e-mailed them to come in for shelter and a brief release from the storm. We have great natural light in our fitness center and in one of our two gymnasiums. Some of the members were even able to get a workout in on the equipment that is manually powered, as well as on the machines and free weights. The kids played in the gymnasium or hung out in the lounges and café. We were not able to serve food, but it was still a place to be that was safe. The other side benefit that we didn’t think of, was the fellowship and camaraderie that people felt by being together in the same place during such a stressful time. When the sun went down at about 6 p.m. we did close our doors, as the dark overtook the building.

The next day, the power returned and we e-mailed our members again to come in to the club and eat hot food, take hot showers and recharge their cell phones and computers. We had more than a thousand people throughout the day lining our hallways, lounges and café, clustered at every electrical outlet. We even provided as many surge protectors as we had to spread the power around. We did have lines of people at the hot showers, but everyone was polite and considerate, since they were all in the same boat.

Later that same day our Youth Program Director decided to coordinate a School’s Out Emergency Camp for the next day. Because of the storm no schools were in session for the entire week and some folks had to return to work with no place to put their children. We e-mailed them once again to let them know that they could walk in and register for the camp the next morning, and we would take care of their kids.

Finally, by the last day of the week things were returning to normal at the club, but many of our members were still out of power, so lines at the showers were still long and the café sold double the amount it usually does in the same time frame.

All of the above measures generated great public relations for us. Our members were thanking us a hundred times over for being open and available.

Here is the real marketing creativity. We ran a Sandy Membership Special on the first day that we reopened with power, which also happened to be the last day of the month (October 31st). We e-mailed all of our prospects and offered them a one-day special deal to join with no enrollment fee and a free month with a 2-year agreement. Since many people still weren’t leaving their homes we reminded them they could join over the phone. There was only one caveat; we had no phone service in the club. “Where there’s a will there is a way,” and our sales staff used their cell phones to close 10 new membership sales in one day! We closed out the month ahead of our goal and had 10 happy new members.

It doesn’t stop there. As a result of the storm, most of our clients in the salon canceled their appointments for the next few days. In order to boost last minute sales, the Salon Director put out a Facebook posting that invited people to e-mail her with the word “Sandy” in the subject line, and she would book appointments for them with a 10 percent discount through the weekend. Consequently, she filled her weekend appointments.

Over the course of four days we sent out eight e-mail blasts to our members, updating them on every opening, closing, new program and extra amenity we were providing. We included every e-mail blast on our Facebook page as well. At the end of the week, we created a huge poster for the lobby highlighting all the wonderful compliments we received for our efforts. We also sent out a press release to the local press and had two articles printed. This was remarkable because we were up against the presidential election news as well.

The overarching message here is that there is always a way to find opportunity in any situation. The truly successful do this time and time again.

Linda Mitchell is the director of marketing, public relations and charitable giving for Newtown Athletic Club in Newtown, Penn. She can be reached via e-mail at linda@newtownathletic.com.

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Rachel Zabonick

Rachel Zabonick is the editor-in-chief of Club Solutions Magazine. She can be reached at rachel@peakemedia.com.

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