Are entry-level scuba diving courses good enough? Are scuba tryouts valuable to consumers? To us?

“Let’s face it – you only enjoy a sport after you get pretty good at it – and a student fresh out of a diving class is just ready to start learning to dive. He has learned theory, and how to use his equipment, but the real knowledge which leads to full enjoyment of the underwater world can come only through practical experience and practice.”

When do you think the above statement was made? A long time ago, by Bill Barada – when newsletters were prepared with a typewriter. Don Rockwell, the former CEO of Aqua Lung, an international dive gear manufacturer, and wholesaler, showed me this newsletter in a museum of scuba diving maintained by Aqua Lung in its upstairs lobby in California.

Up to this day, we’re continuing to have the same discussion on entry-level scuba diving courses.

In a study published by DEMA in the Fall of 2018, “New Dive Professionals Psychological Insights,” you can’t miss the following line:

“There was keen concern expressed regarding the perception of adequate diver certification training. Nearly all participants advocated longer initial diver training and spoke negatively about tropical certifications being ineffective in creating safe competent divers.”

There’s a lot of good stuff in the current dive training programs. But we want to turn around a shrinking dive industry. Therefore, we need to identify pain points and fix them.

1. If It’s Broken, Fix It

For years now, we’ve been doing scuba tryout (e.g., PADI Discover Scuba Diving & SSI Try Scuba) as a way of giving people a taste of the underwater world, with the hope that they will register in the complete certification course afterward – similar to the tasting they offer at the grocery store.

For years, we’ve been conducting entry-level scuba diving courses that are relatively short.

And for years, the number of certifications has been going down in North America.

Something is not working as intended. It’s time we look at the causes of the problem and find solutions.

Imagine you sell sausages, and you have a person offering to taste them at local grocery stores every week. And every week, sales go down – for years. Would you continue “as is” or find a way to fix your problems? Right. It’s about time we figure out how to fix it.

2. Scuba Tryouts in the Dive Industry

Scuba tryout is a peculiar beast. It’s a significant money-making activity for numerous resorts. We know that the number of scuba tryouts done per year around the planet is significantly higher than the number of entry-level certifications.

For instance, DEMA reports about 200K entry-level certifications in the USA, annually. PADI, the largest international training agency, indicates approximately a million certifications per year. This PADI number includes all certifications at all level. A diver doing Advanced Open Water Diver and five specialty courses is recorded six times.

How does it compare to the annual number of scuba tryouts?

How many scuba tryouts are performed annually, worldwide?

PADI reports recording about 1M DSD (Discover Scuba Diving) per year, worldwide. That’s already more than all their other certs, together. However, since the vast majority of scuba tryouts are not reported to the training agency, numbers are sketchy.

For instance, one place in Hainan Island, China, tea-bags about 1M people a year, at that one location. None of these are reported to any training organization.

What do we mean by “tea-bagging”?

Tea-bagging is an even shorter version of a  scuba tryout as defined by training agencies.

Already, we have scuba tryouts from training agencies that are very short and bring underwater some people who have barely spent any time in the pool. Tea-bagging is the term we use to define the tryouts performed even more quickly without following training agency standards.

We estimate the total number of tea-bagging experiences, annually, to be more than 5M per year, worldwide.

Why are there so many scuba tryouts?

The main reason why there are so many of these scuba tryout experiences is financial. Resorts make very good money performing those. People on vacation tend to leave their brain at home! They will freely spend money, all week long, to have fun. It’s easy to “charge it to the room”!

For instance, people may pay between $95 and $195 for a scuba tryout or even for tea-bagging. Yet, when they are back at home, they find that $295 for a full Open Water Diver course is too much. Humans are funny!

The second reason for the popularity of scuba tryouts is us. For years, the dive industry has actively promoted these tryouts as a way to introduce people to the underwater world, betting that a fair percentage of them will follow up with certification courses. Well, the industry is going down.

It’s time we revisit how we introduce people to scuba diving – and how we teach scuba diving.

This brings us to an even more alarming evaluation of these tryout scuba events.

Scuba Tryout Horror Stories

Here’s an astonishing experience a dive store I know when trough, a few years back.

As a marketing initiative, their training agency shared with them, monthly, the list of people who had performed a scuba tryout the month before, somewhere on the planet.

Their first observation was that the number of such people was tremendous. The monthly list of scuba tryout participants was often longer than the number of certs they were doing, annually – and they were the largest Dive Center in their area. This list only included scuba tryout sessions reported to the training agency by dive instructors or dive resorts. Therefore, you can imagine how many people try scuba without ever stopping by your local dive shop.

Then, they hired a marketing person dedicated to following up on these people. They thought they had found fortune!

A side note for those of you who would like to try a similar marketing experience: Do not attempt to sell to these people immediately. They are just back from vacation. It means they are just recuperating from the heart attack they got when receiving their first credit card statement after the holiday. Since many people go on vacation at about the same time every year, it seemed like about nine months later was a good time to contact them, ahead of their next vacation.

The second observation out of doing this exercise was stunning. The number of negative responses they got was out of this world.

In their particular case, it turned out that the majority of people they called told them about an awful experience. These scuba tryout participants didn’t want to even think about scuba diving again. They heard horror stories after horror stories. The guy who ended up with a free-flowing regulator at 110 feet on the open water portion of the scuba tryout adventure. The gal who had a BCD leaking air and had to constantly “swim-up” not to be sinking. The other guy who couldn’t keep up with the divemaster swimming ahead like he was in a Formula One race. The other gal who panicked when her mask flooded and nobody cared. And these stories kept on coming in.

They eventually stopped the initiative. There were just so few people interested in pursuing scuba diving after doing a scuba tryout that it wasn’t worth paying a staff member to continue doing these phone calls.

Of course, their sample only included people from the geographic region their dive shop was located in – but the size of the sample was quite large after numerous months of following up.

In the face of such dismal results, I think that we can no longer pretend that a scuba tryout is an excellent way to get people into scuba diving. Well, let me rephrase this.

The way we currently perform scuba tryouts is not a good way to get people to appreciate scuba diving.

This brings us back to our discussion on the inconsistency of the quality of the experience in the dive industry. This problem could be fixed with quality assurance – real quality assurance.

Of course, in the ‘following up’ initiative, there was a minority of a scuba tryout participants who had a good time breathing underwater for the first time. But in those cases, they found many people telling them that they just wanted to do it once, and now it was “done.” In other words, they wanted to cross it off their bucket list.

So, either way we look at it, these scuba tryouts are just a way for resorts to grab money from tourists – but they do not produce much value as a marketing technique to recruit clients in the dive industry. We need to rethink these experiences and our marketing approaches.

Promoting Scuba Diving

In the meantime, we believe training agencies and dive centers should immediately review how they present scuba diving to potential customers.

For instance, I think SSI should change the scuba diving section of its website. Imagine a person decides to learn to dive and lands on the SSI website. Under “Learn How To Dive,” there is a statement, early on, stating that “the best way to experience this amazing new sport is the SSI Try Scuba program.” This sounds weird to me. The guy wants to learn to dive. Why are you sending him away? And, as we’ve seen in some studies, “sport” is not the right word to reach non-divers.

While we’re on that topic, it’s also time we reconsider the value of the DEMA Go Diving pool tour. It’s a huge annual expense in DEMA’s budget. We keep funding it, and the industry keeps on shrinking. How about we find new ways to recruit non-divers – ways that would grow the dive industry?

3. Our Obsession With Skills, Courses, and Cards

Scuba diving instructors want to teach as soon as they succeed in their instructor examination (IE). And in many cases, they want to accumulate certifications to reach higher levels in the pyramid quickly (e.g., Master Scuba Diver Trainer, Master Instructor, etc.). Therefore, what are these instructors focused on? They want to teach courses and issue c-cards. They are focused on volume.

Right there, we’re starting on the wrong foot.

We should be focused on providing value and an outstanding customer experience. Volume will follow.

Our focus should be on getting people to go scuba diving, for whatever reason they may have – observing tropical fish or adventuring on shipwrecks in the St. Lawrence River.

But when we go on dive centers websites, “courses” are prominently promoted. It’s all about “do this course” at this price, with this and that included.

Then, what do we do with them? We jump into the pool, and we do a bunch of skills. Then we jump in open water, and we do the same. Remove this. Perform that. Non-stop. In every pool session, we drop a bunch of skills on them. And in open water, we do four dives, and each one has a bunch of skills.

In that context, it’s no surprise that people believe they “got it” after they get their “certification card.” They didn’t have fun scuba diving, yet. Doing skills after skills. Writing quizzes and exams. For normal human beings, that is not fun. And that is what they associate to scuba diving after doing all that stuff with us.

Compare that to skiing. When I first went skiing with my kids, we went to the small hill with a ski trainer, doing pizza and spaghetti. I didn’t tell my kids we were going to class! We went “skiing.” My kids were proud they had been skiing, and they wanted to go skiing again. The focus wasn’t on class, courses, skills, or the instructor. The focus was on skiing.

To get the dive industry back on track to growth, we need to talk in terms that are of interest to our potential clients. Nobody sits at home and suddenly says, “I think I should go take a course.” People want to do activities, not take courses.

This is confirmed in a study by Aquis Marketing in which there was a negative impact on receptivity by non-divers to messaging that emphasized skills and training.

Promoting skills, courses, classes, and training, turn many non-divers away from scuba diving.

4. What’s Next? How To Fix It?

Providing scuba diving training is an essential part of our industry. It’s often the first step in the customer (diver) journey. Therefore, we’re dedicating a full article to discuss how we can redefine the way we promote and teach scuba diving.

If It's Broken, Fix It

We’re ready to work with training agencies or investors to fix scuba tryouts, entry-level scuba diving courses, and how we promote and sell scuba diving. It’s time!