HAVING BEEN a certified scuba diver for 20 years and now stepping into the profession as an instructor, I have long seen the industry through the eye of enthusiast-turned-insider.
After Thailand was recognised worldwide as a top spot for divers, it passed through the boom period of the 1990s and became less stable, and the prospects for future opportunities no longer looked so bright.
From the beginning, the sport’s competitive advantage came from the power of trust in educators, advisers, and resources, capitalising on people’s curiosity of the undersea world to transform a once-military-only activity into a long-term passion.
I can think of some examples where old-school selling tactics have been deployed. A dive instructor offered training, provided students with information, gave advice, showed enthusiasm and caring, taught classes (then of course lured them into more advance classes), and finally offered the soon-to-be-certified divers dive tours and equipment for sale (masks, fins, snorkels, wetsuits and so on), earning commissions from the dive shop.
This “new” technique is now known as “content marketing”. Its first practitioners were ahead of their time, but now this ploy has started to become obsolete. While other outdoor-sport industries are attempting to reduce risks arising from mistrust, a crucial do-or-die strategy in the modern marketing era, scuba as an extreme sport has never attempted to erode mistrust among its industry professionals.
It’s known that scuba diving is not governed by laws, but rather is autonomously controlled by diving associations, and there are plenty of them. In simple terms, even if diver certifications, training and standards are similar, those associations are vastly segregated in terms of their marketing-driven policies.
If you are a diver certified by a particular agency, you are encouraged to engage only with activities offered for members of that agency. If those activities are unsatisfactory, customers may not be happy, especially the silent ones who never return.
In Thailand and perhaps throughout South East Asia, the sport’s life and soul rely very much upon incentives from dive tours and the sale of scuba gears. Dive professionals search long and hard for ways to keep their operations busy and their customers happy. But insisting on “exclusivity” for their own students or customers neglects the fact that we are in a tourism “single market” predicated on the belief that freedom of choice will drive prosperity as a whole.
One might think that running a dive shop nowadays is no different from years ago. But technology has made the equipment market extremely competitive and social networks have reduced the costs of communication, putting power back into consumers’ hands.
Recreational scuba diving offers opportunities to satisfy the savvy customer, but only the ones that are smarter and more discerning. It is a brand-new niche market for the affluent that needs a new approach – one that dive professionals were once good at before they began relying on “content” as a marketing tool.
Now, as the economy (and the diving industry) has started to slow, they will need an emergency-ascent approach to avoid submerging more than ever.
In an emergency like this when they are soon to be out of air, good buddies are better, as they hold the only alternative air source.
Because of the new sport economy, we are all breathing the same air.
(This article is orginally published by The Nation by the same author in 2017)