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Social media, deals help spread summer sailing bug

Succeeding in a seasonal business with Buffalo's short summers can be quite a challenge.

Seven Seas Sailing School had been gliding along since 1970, lifted by little more than its passion for introducing the public to the splendor of sailing.

But since embracing the Internet as a marketing tool, the company has been able to share that passion with more people from a wider radius, using less money.

"It has completely transformed how we do business. We've gone from being a small, anxious business that was Buffalo's best-kept secret, to a strong, thriving, waterfront institution," said Bill Zimmerman, director at Seven Seas. "It has aroused a financial stability that is precious to us."

The breakthrough came two years ago when the company began offering daily deals through the social buying websites LivingSocial and Groupon, heavily discounting its two-hour chartered picnic sail for two.

The strategy was that those customers would return to Seven Seas for keelboat lessons once they caught the sailing bug.

It seems to have worked.

"It's hard to ask for a better season than last year," Zimmerman said. "I don't want to be greedy, but I'm already getting the sense that this season is going to be tremendously successful, too."

Where the company once prebooked five or six sails for the season, it prebooked more than 600 during 2010 and 2011.

Though the sails were discounted by about 64 percent, Seven Seas didn't take a hit. That's because many of the school's captains -- part paid, part commission, part volunteer -- donate hours of their service simply for the love of sailing. Any money made on the tours goes directly to them.

Those big numbers have translated into lesson sales. The school has added 10 Coast Guard-certified instructors to its original four to handle the new students.

In years past, the school had spent $15,000 on television commercials.

"That sounds like a lot, but it's a drop in the bucket compared to some budgets. You really need to spend a couple hundred grand to get your name out," Zimmerman said. "With social media, we've been able to inundate the marketplace with awareness."

That market now stretches well beyond the Canadian border into Ontario.

"For anyone south of Toronto, it's actually less of a stress to drive to Buffalo than to drive through Toronto," Zimmerman said. "But calling Welland used to be an $8 phone call. How could you afford to market there? Social media has blown that wide open now, and it's only going to get bigger."

He sees Ontario as a huge growth market for the company, with the potential to increase his business by one third solely on the influx of Canadian customers.

The school is reaching beyond the country's borders with schools in India and Tanzania, though Zimmerman refers to those two latest ventures as "sailing missionary" work rather than a money-making strategy.

In 2010, Seven Seas opened the Indian school, where some of its local instructors now spend their winters. The Tanzanian school, on Lake Victoria, should be open next spring.

"I've done all kinds of sailing -- racing, I owned a charter in Hawaii for years," said Ed Quinlan, an instructor who helped set up the Indian school. "Now the most pleasure I get is from promoting the sport of sailing through teaching."

Seven Seas is on a mission to promote a love of sailing here, too.

The very idea of a community sailing school is something far removed from the traditional avenues to sailing. In the past, if you didn't own a sailboat or belong to a yacht club, you generally didn't learn to sail. The expense excluded entire populations of people from the sport.

But Seven Seas changed that, heading up a trend that has caught on around the country.

Of 1,000 entities accredited by the rigorous U.S. Sailing Association, 550 of them are now open to the public. That's the highest number in history.

"[Seven Seas] has been able to maintain our standard [while getting] people into the water who might not otherwise have the opportunity to," said Stu Gilfillen, sailing programs administrator for the U.S. Sailing Association.

"More and more people are trying to get into sailing, and more organizations are becoming more welcoming and more open to the public than in the past. Getting people into the water is huge," he said.

The renewed urgency to develop Buffalo's waterfront and improve public access to the water is another positive for Seven Seas and for sailing in general.

"Our business will definitely grow. It's a rising tide that will lift all boats," he said.

email: schristmann@buffnews.com