Starting a Club

Before we begin, I believe it's important to clarify something. That is, what is a club? When it comes right down to it, you and your buds getting together to play some tag is a club. It might not be a public and open club, or require membership dues, but it's still a club. While that kind of club is great, there's something to be said for an open club, and that is... bigger games! The only thing you have to do to change a group of friends into a typical club is to call it one (a name for the club helps, too ;-) and start looking for new members. If you want bigger games, or even tournaments and other competitions, then you need to grow your club. If that's your plan, then you've come to the right place.

I've given this very simple advice to several people, but more often than not, they don't do one or more of them, and don't get anywhere. I'll preface this with one very IMPORTANT bit of information... this is YOUR club, no one else's. Don't try to run it like a democracy. When a club is starting out, it needs strong leadership and decision making. People aren't going to join some club they don't feel they can rely on. Remember, most people are followers. If you come across another leader, don't hesitate to enlist that person to help expand your club. Until then, YOU are the leader, and everyone else is following. These tips might seem simple at first, but if you can't make them happen, your club won't happen either. Remind yourself of that simple fact any time you run into something that slows you down. Ready? Here we go.

  1. Find your location for play.
  2. Choose your date and time for an event.
  3. Advertise.

Simple, eh? Let's get more detailed now.

1) If you know anyone with private property, ask them about using it. If you have your own, then your battle is half over. If you know of some public property that is out of the way and not often used, then go for it. As a responsible club owner, you should ensure minimum impact on the environment. Enforce "no litter" and "no vandalism" policies, even encourage litter pick up and vandalism clean up. The friendlier you are to your site, the less likely you'll get kicked out of it. The location should be as big as you can find with as much available cover as you can find. While it's possible to play in a small area with a lot of cover, or even make and bring your own cover (inflatables, coroplast blockers, etc), you'll want as much of your "arena" to be pre-existing as possible. A good place to start is your city's Parks and Recreation department. They'll often have a list or map of all public parks. Go to each one and lay your own eyes on it. You can't get a feel for its suitability for play unless you see it with your own eyes and walk around in it. You're also likely to find out about a LOT of parks you never knew existed. A big park with lots of trees and bushes, easy access and a decent parking lot are all good things. A bathroom facility would be icing on the cake. Depending on your area, you might want to get permission to play there, but for laser tag, there's no more environmental impact than any other park activity, so I say just go and play, especially if your club is 100% free.

2) Remember, this is YOUR club. Trying to set a date and time by some kind of majority vote is a waste of time and energy. Not only will people NOT commit to it, but even if they do, they might not show. All you end up with is less people than you expected, and bad feelings toward those who said they'd come but didn't. Just choose the date and time, and whoever shows, shows. You can still have fun with only a few people. Just be creative in your scenarios. Making it crystal clear when and where the game is, and promising to be there no matter what, will engender trust in your members and potential members. Who's going to come to a game if they think you might not be there? Be there, even if no one shows up. If no one shows up, don't make a big deal about it. Put out your gear and encourage park goers to give it a try. You might even get some members that way. Then, set up a new date, and repeat. That said, don't be afraid to cancel. If you find that a date was poorly chosen, a blizzard or hurricane is coming, or something else got in the way and you can't be there, go ahead and cancel and reschedule your game. The important part is that you do everything you can do make sure everyone knows of the cancellation as far in advance as possible so that they don't show up for no reason. If you're unable to spread the word, get some help. Having a mailing list or phone chain or whatever is a good idea for both game announcements and cancellations. If it's not weather, but only you can't be there, see if you can get someone else to fill in for you as the host for that game. Your dedication to the club will be even more evident because it shows it's not about you, but about the club. Of course, all of this is pointless without step 3.

3) Anything and everything is fair game when it comes to getting the word out. Classmates, work colleagues, friends and family, friends OF your friends and family. Make it clear that everyone who is interested should come and play, even if they've never played before. Encourage them to bring new people to each game. Maybe even have a contest to see who can bring the most new players to a single game, or over the course of several games. Put up flyers on community bulletin boards in grocery stores and Starbucks locations. Look for any kind of free advertising in local newspapers and even coffee shop/restaurant papers (Coffee News is pretty common around the country). Start up a web site, MySpace, FaceBook, Yahoo Group, etc. Make sure people who find out about the club also find out how to get more information, either from a web site or your phone number. Make sure club information, dates/times, locations are all easy to find and freely available. If you set up a site, be sure to spread the word all over the net. Tell me about it and I'll link it on my site. Post about it on boards and stuff. The more places with links to it, the more likely someone casually looking for laser tag in your area will find you.

Step 1 can often be a one-time thing. Once you've got your location, you're golden. Sometimes you need to find a new location, but not often. Alternate locations are good to keep things fresh, but you don't want to change locations too much. People will become confused as to where you're playing, and decide to stay home rather than risk a wasted trip to the wrong location. If you have multiple locations, maybe set a pattern for when they are used, or use one for a season, then use the other for a season. Consistency is key.

Step 2 is repeated each time you set up a game. Set them as far in advance as you can given the season and your playing location (to prevent conflicts and stuff). If people know about a game far enough in advance, they can plan for it. If you're hard core, then forget the weather. Don't cancel games 'cus of rain. I don't. I plan my whole season in advance. If you cancel a game, do it as far in advance as possible, and make sure you have a relaible method to let everyone know that it has been canceled.

Step 3 is an ongoing and NEVERENDING process. Clubs are like businesses. If your club isn't GROWING, then it's SHRINKING. If you're not working on getting new members constantly, then expect your membership to dwindle. Even the most hard core members will change. They'll get a new job, a new girlfriend, a new hobby. They'll stop coming. Don't take it personally, it's just the way it is. That's why you need to ALWAYS be looking for new members, and the only way to do that is to get the word out. Also, don't expect your club to just suddenly spring up from nothing to booming. It takes time unless you have a million dollars to spend on TV and Radio ads. Keep working at it, and it will grow. Just remember not to stop working at it, or it will shrink. If you notice a shrinking membership, redouble your advertising efforts. Try new things, try old things harder, re-invite people you've invited before. Just don't stop.

Finally, and this isn't really a step so much as a REALLY good idea, and that is to have loaner gear. Yes, encourage people to bring their own, buy their own and even mod their own and stuff. But don't expect every new player to pick up their own gear on their way to the event. You really should have loaner gear for as many newbies as you can afford to kit out. If you can afford to have loaner gear, then you can put that in your advertising. People are much more likely to try out something new if they don't have to buy stuff just to do it. Loan them gear, and if they enjoy the game, tell them about different gear they can get, and where to get it.

As for legal papers/waivers and the like, well, that's up to you, and possibly the location you find to play on. It's possible the only place you can find is a local paintball/woodsball field, or even an airsoft field that charges a rental and has their own waiver to sign. If you play on private property, then writing up a simple waiver to cover your assets and those of the private land owners in case someone slips or trips and breaks a leg, is a good idea. Now, I'm not a lawyer, so to be on the extra safe side, you should talk to one.

Another thing to consider is costs. If you have to pay to rent the location, then you'll need to recoup that money somehow, and a club membership/dues is one way to do that. An event fee is another. For my club, we play in a public park and so don't have any real costs to get paid back. I bring water and snacks, but don't require anyone to pay. I accept donations, though, and I often leave the park after a game with an extra $20 in my pocket because of generous parents who brought their kids to play. At the same time, I often leave with nothing more than what I brought. Asking for money makes it a business, which can turn people off. I tell them it's free, and they come, and sometimes they slip me a $10, or a pack of batteries. :)

Another idea is to buy cheap gear and sell them to newbies who have fun and want to get into it right away. If you've got some gear you can sell at cost, or a little more to cover your trouble, people will buy it to save them the trouble of finding it themselves. They'll also trust your judgement on gear, so don't sell people crap. If people have their own gear, they're more likely to come again, and bring it, giving you more players, and more loaner gear for more newbies to borrow. :)

Follow those 3 easy steps. Be diligent and patient, and you'll have a thriving club in no time. :)

Forming Club Policies

Once you get your club going, you'll have some issues to deal with. You can play it by ear, or you can think these through early in the process. I kind of played it by ear, but sometimes I wish I'd thought about them before hand.

How should you name your club?
The name is entirely up to you. Many clubs base their name on the location or city of the club, and some will choose a name based on their favorite movie or theme. The name should embody the overall attitude of your club if possible. If you want a club for mature players who are into military simulations, then some kind of fictional battalion name might be the way to go. If you want your club to be about other kinds of activites than just laser tag, then maybe go with a general sci-fi or school mascot type name. In the end, its up to you as the leader to decide, but if you already have a core group of members to start with, be sure to get their input, or even have a vote on it. If you can come up with a fun logo, that will make your advertising that much easier and more eye-catching.
Age limits and how you deal with minors.
My club has no age limits other than the ability to actually use the tagger. In general, that's about 8, but we've had 4 and 5 year olds. When they're that young, though, they need to have a parent or older sibling with them while playing, if only to prevent them from wandering off or leaving the tagger in a puddle of mud. Some clubs allow only adult members. This can reduce some issues, but also greatly limits your available market for members. That said, if you have a known age range, you can focus your advertising efforts better.
Rules concerning 'dropping off the child for the day' (aka, becoming a glorified babysitter)
My club rules are that kids under 13 need to have a parent/guardian there at all times. Kids 13+ can be left, but only after they have come and their parents have met us/me and given me their signed waiver(s). There have been situations where I feel like I'm a glorified baby sitter, but that's usually when the parent is oblivious anyway, and more often than not, they're still there... being oblivious. If you have a rule about this, make sure it's clear to all current and new members, AND their parents, and stick to it!
Once you're having a meet, how do you pick what games to play?
You might have to play this by ear every time you have a meet. Some clubs will stick with simple team games the whole time, and some go for the complex ones like Team Own the Zone, or Hide and Seek. It depends entirely on what you, as the leader, want to run, and what your members/players enjoy playing. You might find that they all wait for you to declare the next game, or that they all shout out their favorites and beg to play them until you give in. The important thing is that everyone has fun and no one feels left out. If you pick a game someone was begging for, and a few of the other members groan, be sure to give them a round of their favorite game as well.
That's up to you and your wallet. No matter which way you go, you should definitely encourage all members to bring their own water/drink and snacks. That way, if you bring extra, then the newbs who forget or didn't know, will have something to keep hydrated and energetic with. If you end up with a club full of forgetful people, don't be afraid to ask them for donations. You can't be expected to supply everything for free, so if you don't have dues or event fees to support those expenses, ask for donations and remind them that nothing is truly free, and if they want you to keep bringing extras, they need to chip in.

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