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Top Salespeople: The Storyteller

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Top officials and board members at the Sarasota Yacht Club are fiercely protective of their yachting tradition, which dates back to 1926.

Yet they also realized yachting and economic downturns are a toxic mix. So much so that membership growth from 2006 through 2010 stalled, at about 450 total members. Membership rolls at country clubs and yacht clubs across the region, and nationwide, were also flat or in retreat.

The Sarasota Yacht Club, on Sarasota Bay, decided to counter the situation with a new strategy. The overall idea was to balance the traditions of a yacht club with the realities of attracting new members. The first step was a $12.5 million renovation project, which culminated in a new opening in April 2010.

Another key move in the strategy was to hire Dana Soldati, former regional director of the American Heart Association in Charlotte County, to run sales and marketing. The title itself was a change for the club, which in the past had simply had a membership director, who did little marketing.

Soldati, though, was hired to tell the yacht club's revival story. She does that at a bevy of local business and community events.

On an internal basis, Soldati ushered in several tangible changes to the yacht club, from a corporate membership program to cooking classes to summer camps for kids. Soldati, 39, also introduced new fitness classes for the refurbished fitness center, in addition to fishing clubs and a biking group.

“The days of having a membership director sit at a desk,” says Soldati, “are over.”

The changes, in less than a year, have already produced results. Soldati has signed up more than 100 members since she was hired in April, and the month-to-month membership count is up 100% over 2010. “She connects members to the club,” says the club's general manager, Bernie Kloppenburg. “She has done an incredible job.”

Soldati says the club's mix of young and older members was slanted heavily toward old when she got there. That was a large problem to attack. “Country clubs tend to be retirees,” says Soldati. (But) if you don't get a younger membership into the mix, it will be a bleak future.”

The approach was to build what Soldati calls a memory-creating place that provides more than yachting and docking-related services. That's where the cooking classes and other offerings came into play.

The corporate membership program has also been a big plus. The plan allows businesses to have full social privileges.

A San Francisco native who worked in sales in Orlando before she moved to the Gulf Coast, Soldati's challenge is now to leverage the yacht club changes into members. She studied the region's demographics, checked out what competitors were doing and created a marketing plan. “Every club is in the same position,” Soldati says. “The economy is still tough right now. To be able to sell around that can be a challenge.”

Another lingering challenge, says Soldati, is to maintain the club's yachting traditions, even in the push to grow membership levels. That goes back to the original intent of club officials, when they launched the new strategy. The yacht club is one of 13 original members of the Florida Council of Yacht Clubs.

“You don't want to take a private club and do something dramatic,” says Soldati. “With new members, we are now seeing a well-rounded mix, which is what we want.”

• Mix it up: Sarasota Yacht Club sales and marketing director Dana Soldati says people's general resistance to change can be a hindrance in sales. “A lot of people do what they do because they've always done it,” says Soldati. “They don't think to change.”

• Personal connection: Social media, says Soldati, has enabled some salespeople to become lazy. She says everyone in sales, no matter the industry, should seek ways to maintain non-electronic relationships. “One thing I will never give up,” says Soldati, “is the handwritten thank you note.” Plus, Soldati says email “should never replace a drive over to see a client on a regular basis.”

Dana Soldati, sales and marketing director at the Sarasota Yacht Club, says advanced customer relationship management software and social media “have most certainly given any sales and marketing professional a leg up.”
But Soldati says her most valuable sales tools remain word-of-mouth and referrals. Says Soldati: “There is no better sales tool than having a customer speak highly of your service and/or the seamless and professional treatment they receive from their salesperson.” 


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