Adventure and Learning

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The second question of three.

In your experience, how does adventure learning contribute to a student’s academic and personal growth? Please address both types of growth.

Expeditions can greatly contribute towards building strength of character. Joseph Conrad in Lord Jim tells us that it is necessary for a youth to experience events which ‘reveal the inner worth of the man; the edge of his temper; the fibre of his stuff; the quality of his resistance; the secret truth of his pretenses, not only to himself but others.” Kurt Hahn

IMGP0046Recently a colleague has been dealing with a lot of bad luck. Following bankruptcy he had been clawing his way back by building a branding consultancy, just as things were starting to fall into place his partner ran with the money and accounts. Why am I telling you this in regards to adventure education? Well this gentleman used to sail big yachts and seeing him peering over the precipice of depression I decided to have a chat with him about his passion. We shared stories of dealing with duress outdoors and failing in life as depicted by a modern consumerist paradigm. We talked about how being in “adventurous situations” we did not whine, we just dealt with whatever circumstances were thrown at us. We did not find people to blame, we lived as our best selves. When we are functioning well we bring the lessons that we have learned outdoors into this modern conundrum that we call living. As we talked about John the outdoorsman vs John the business man a light started to shine in his eyes. As he remembered who he is outdoors he recognized who he can be in any other situation. He left our conversation with a renewed resolve that was wonderful to watch.

B Tech 1008Kurt Hahn was particularly impelled to bring Outdoor Education into his pedagogy because he believed that society was becoming diseased and that expeditions were one of the best form of therapy for the post industrial malaise he saw growing in Nazi Germany. The Salem School; Hahn’s first opportunity to practice his thinking, set out to to train young people to have moral independence, an ability to choose between “right and wrong,” and an improvement in their physical health. It strikes me that this is just as necessary today in America as it was then in Germany.

“We discovered that expedition training and expedition tests counteracted the unhealthy effect of undeserved hero worship. Not a few specialist athletes revealed in adversity a certain flabbiness of will-power which was well hidden in their ordinary life. The expeditions were sometimes of an arduous nature – long treks in the Alps, exploratory expeditions to Iceland and on the Payenne and the Seima Lakes in Finland. Again and again the average and even clumsy athlete excelled on such expeditions…” Kurt Hahn

IMG_0688This is a large part of my motivation to teach in the outdoors in that not only am I a “clumsy athlete” I also appreciate the contemplative nature of outdoor folk. Nature shows us that we are part of something much bigger than ourself which leads to the Eastern thinking that we are all connected. Anything I do to something or someone else ultimately affects me. This fosters a desire to nurture as ultimately I will also be nurtured. I feel this is the best way to bring about social justice and heal the evident issues we face in the West as demonstrated in an Aurora movie theater last year.

626546211_MzSPU-LA number of years ago Robert Fulgham wrote All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I feel the same way about the outdoors. Relevancy and reality are amazing motivators when it comes to learning and the outdoors caters to both. I have yet to meet a student who having been advised to bring a jacket because it will be wet and cold, shown how to cook a meal and praised for a cooperative behavior and its benefit to the group does not open to my teaching.

A shared experience outdoors inevitably develops meaning that is understood and a connection between the teacher and students involved. I still feel strong ties to all the teachers who took me outdoors.

IMGP0695The raised level of engagement and cooperation that adventure demands opens a door to explore concepts that may normally be shut out by cultural demands. The idea of “I am not a mathematician” is usually left behind when we introduce math for navigation. Understanding the current group dynamic is brought alive by history and the stories it contains, even if history is deemed useless in another arena.

Adventure though is so much more. Students have to learn to deal with feelings of uncertainty (I argue that this is the very definition of adventure) and the cognitive dissonance it creates. The vulnerability that is felt emotionally is the very same state that creates significant learning and this learning transfers to other areas of life both personal and academic. As soon as someone believes they are a learner they gain the self confidence to learn anything. In particular we focus on problem solving skills, value clarification, communication, cooperation, leadership, decision making and continuums like the distinctions between right and wrong or needs and wants. All of which define both a person and that person as a life long learner.

IMG_0001b (39)I once taught a Canyon Orientation class. In the interest of transparency I need to disclose that not only did I know very little about canyons and traveling through them I also felt completely uncomfortable in a desert ecosystem. When I thought of the arid lands of the South West I was filled with dread as everything appeared prickly, cruel, uncomfortable and full of venom. Obviously this feeling is based on my perception because I knew plenty of people who felt the polar opposite to me. The course was taught over two long weekends and as I drove the bus to Delta for the first time I was worried. What did I have to teach these people when I was a fraud?

IMG_0074We rose early the first morning and walked to the entrance of the Dominguez Canyon. Prior to entering I asked the students to sit silently for half an hour and just be. We talked about the sensations and feeling we experienced in this time and it was obvious that others had felt the same as I had. It was also evident that none of those negative emotions existed any more. Knowing nothing about the natural history, I told them the story of William Smith and the creation of the first geological map, how when he started there were no names or published ideas and yet how observing patterns he had made sense of the earth’s formation. I asked them to walk alone, then in pairs and finally in fours to observe and reflect on the patterns that they saw in the geology. We then came up with questions we wanted answered and expanded those to other areas of the natural history. That week they were all tasked with researching some of the group’s questions and preparing presentations and handouts before our return. The result was incredible.

“It is the sin of the soul to force young people into opinions – indoctrination is of the devil – but it is culpable neglect not to impel young people into experiences.” Kurt Hahn

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Self Esteem and Academic Achievement

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I was recently asked to answer three questions, here is my thinking on the first.

In your teaching experience, which comes first: self-esteem or academic achievement? Explain your reasoning and how you approach these issues intentionally in your classroom.

Possunt, quia posse videntur.” Virgil

Literally: “They are able because they seem (are seen) to be able.”

TrearddurThere is a period of my life on which I look back most fondly. It is a time of real childhood where every day contributed to my growing sense of me, every day led to learning and I just knew that I was capable of what I set my mind to. During this time I was also academically successful, although I do not remember much about it. It was just part of what we did. Not long after this experience everything changed completely. “Could do better!” became a clarion call and ultimately it became my truth. I remember classes from this time because I hated them and was failing.

So what was different? Basically a change in schools. The first used Virgil’s words as it’s motto – “they can because they think they can”. Every teacher lived and breathed this simple edict and so did the pupils. The result was significant and explains why I find self fulfillment prophecy thinking so compelling.

Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson (1968) report and discuss the Pygmalion Effect in the classroom at length. In their study, they showed that if teachers were led to expect enhanced performance from some children, then the children did indeed show that enhancement. Six years later my teachers were anecdotally proving them right. Conversely Feldman & Prohaska (1979) sought to discover if the Pygmalion Effect could occur in reverse with the Gollum Effect. If my experiences are evidence then the teachers in the second school had beaten them to it.

4-Day Treck 1999092The last four years I spent in the UK I took the reins of a two year college course. Both year groups spent two days a week at the center where I worked and I had the great fortune of not only shaping the curriculum of this outdoor leadership class; I was also a significant presence in the student’s lives. I particularly loved watching the slope shouldered 16 year olds, beaten down by a school system that had failed them visibly straighten their posture over two years. My goal with the course was that we catered to three sets of needs. Firstly, that alums had the wherewithal to function well as novice outdoor instructors. Secondly, that we provided the skills for a successful transition to and exit from college. Finally, that they had the people and organizational skills to perform well in middle management positions. Invariably, by focusing on increasing their self-esteem and helping them to figure out who they were and where they fit in we were successful.

B Tech 1072So what did it look like? Firstly, the program started by being very structured, experiences were designed to create specific learning. In particular we helped students reflect and give each other feedback on what they were doing well and what they liked about themselves and each other. We made sure that while events were challenging they were accomplished. With these foundations in place, the students were given more autonomy and the ability to falter and then improve. We avoided words like failure and instead referred to opportunities and growth. We set up a cohort that depended on each other and consequently learned from and taught each other. In summary, the first year was scripted and culminated in a three month work experience for which they felt prepared. On their return the following year the students chose an expedition as a closure experience. We offered to staff it for up to a month and yet provided nothing else. The year was then spent planning and preparing for this expedition along with other project based work.

Untitled-17My final expedition involved sea kayaking above the arctic circle in Norway’s Lyngen Alps and mountaineering in the Romsdal region. We each contributed $150 to the venture and then the students set about organizing and collecting resources and developing the necessary skills. Witnessing students who mere months previously shrank as a they spoke to an adult, now on the phone to the CEO of a large organization telling him why he needed to donate money / resources, etc. and what he was going to receive in return was beautiful to behold. The work that these students produced was magnificent. For instance we had one project where with limited guidance / preparation and no resources students were asked to make a piece of outdoor equipment that they would use and document the process. Invariably, I was blown away, be it by a home made wood strip canoe, or waterproof bib pants that were manufactured commercially by the factory which had been approached to help create the prototype. The written work was always outstanding and the presentation of work incredible.

ROUND ANGLESEY44The Pygmalion Effect suggests that if a teacher believes in and has high expectations of a student, then that student will have belief in and have high expectations of him / herself. With this self belief magic is possible. Catching students doing things right and being successful and building on this success is the route to a culture of anything being possible.

20130419-124453.jpgWhen I watch my eight year old son ski, the thing that most affects his performance is confidence. I cannot make him confident. However, by controlling the environment (taking him on routes that alternately challenge and show him what he is capable of) and the way I talk to him we create an accelerated learning curve. If I spend time asking him what he is proud of rather then telling him “good job” or some equally empty accolade then he learns to look at himself and see what he perceives as being good. If I ask him what he is thankful for, he sees what is good in the world, when he is a good person in a good world it motivates him to be successful.

IMGP1356Tying in neatly with this is the concept of creating a vision. When I want rowdy, discombobulated kids to be triumphant I start by telling them they are going to be successful because… and list behaviors that are going to help them. They nearly always display these behaviors and come away feeling accomplished. Likewise some years ago I was a ski instructor in a small resort. One experiment I wish I had attempted was to acquire four jackets each distinctively colored. I wanted to film four colleagues ski well in four different styles while wearing one of these different colored jackets. I am convinced that following a morning on the hill if I showed the video and then asked the clients which person they wanted to ski like and then provided them with the corresponding jacket for the afternoon that I would have seen a marked improvement in their skiing and that they would have skied like the person they admired.

IMGP1266People and children in particular can do anything that they set their mind to and believe they can. I say children in particular because they have not had so many conflicting experiences. Self belief, creativity and tools for happiness are the best gifts a teacher can nurture. Everything else falls in to place when these corner stones are set properly.

“There is more in us than we know if we could be made to see it; perhaps, for the rest of our lives we will be unwilling to settle for less.” Kurt Hahn

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St David and Equanimity

Daffodils  - a site to behold on March 1st in Wales
Daffodils – a site to behold on March 1st in Wales

Yesterday was St David’s Day. David was a teacher, an ascetic and the Patron Saint of Wales whose last words were apparently “‘Brothers be ye constant. The yoke which with single mind ye have taken, bear ye to the end; and whatsoever ye have seen with me and heard, keep and fulfill’.” Strange last words even if you are surrounded by a horde of your loyal monks. The thing is that they take a certain reserve to utter when your world is about to end. The word equanimity (a state of mental or emotional stability or composure arising from a deep awareness and acceptance of the present moment) came to mind, which is not surprising because I have been wrestling with the word since Michael Howard came to stay. Michael talked about how it is a gateway to developing spirit-will and so I have been thinking about how it might be taught.

Last post I also promised to share thinking on how we might educate the will so here goes.

Somethings are taught by raising awareness, consider my walks into school with Cai of late where we have been looking at the color of the sky and can now fairly accurately predict snow. The deep grey clouds of the mountains to our west and the low sun in the East produces an amazing silver light that seems to generally lose its gleam before flowing down into Denver bringing with it the white stuff. Equanimity however is different and I believe is developed from experiencing duress or at least by being stretched in some way. Let me share two stories from my climbing past.

The first occurred when I was 16. Inspired by tales of heroes I elected to try and climb three routes in a day, each of which had been climbed during or prior to 1945 and were rated “extremely severe”. Suicide Wall and Javelin Blade are well known, there is though a third route that fell into my category called Rowan Tree Slabs first climbed in 1929 and this is where we started. After a warm up pitch on a classic easy slab the initial part of the main pitch is friendly enough. As one gains height the moves become more tenuous and the security less available. About three quarters of the way up this 100 foot pitch I placed what I believed to be a good piece of protection in a crack and clipped a rope into it. Twelve feet higher I came to an impasse. There followed a little dance that lasted about an hour, each time I would move up a few feet and try a move that involved placing my shoe on a rounded placement that did not inspire me with confidence. Try as I might, whenever I placed pressure on that foot with the intention of weighting it and standing up to grasp a hold just out of reach I failed to commit and my mind played games with me until breathing heavily and feeling wobbly I reversed to a small resting ledge. Up and down I went. I usually equate this motion with purpose, like that of a piston and yet in this moment I lacked resolve and consequently the place and time became a nightmare of weak will. Eventually I climbed down a little more before jumping when I could reverse no further. The thing was I expected that after a drop of 15 feet the rope was going to catch me, only I did not feel the familiar stretch and then a comforting cuddle as the harness squeezed my waist and thighs. Instead there was a sickening jolt as my anchor popped, and suddenly I was catapulted upside down bouncing and sliding head first down the slab. The rope slowed momentarily as I reached another piece of gear before it too was jettisoned and I was again on my gravity assisted odyssey. Again, the sense that it was over was precipitated by the sound of whirring and a jolt. I eventually stopped, five feet above a sickening fang of rock. I had fallen 65 feet. Dave slowly lowered me to the stance. I shook and this only incoreased when I flicked the rope and the final nut; the one that had saved my head impacting with the pinnacle, flew out effortlessly. It was a year before I really climbed again.

The second occurred some seven years later, I now had a lot of vertical ground under my belt, some of it done without a rope and again I was inspired by books and what a climbing hero of mine John Redhead called “authentic desire”. At the time I worked at a bail hostel and while drinking coffee in the kitchen I would sit in a window with a view of Ysgolion Dduon framed by an old oak tree. The Black Ladders as they are known are a winter wonderland of dripping ice and frozen turf. The characteristics that make them forbidding in summer weave a matrix of white smears that make for excellent sport in colder months. I took one of my trainees up one mid week day to find perfect conditions and looking at one of the classics “the Somme” I debated whether I should take him up it. I chose to do something easier but vowed to return alone at the weekend.

Light had not yet punctuated the sky and driving up the narrow lane, Tom Petty was singing “I’m free falling” to me; it left a sense of foreboding. Still I walked in quickly, aided by a light sack. As I arrived the hills across the valley collected the sun’s first rays and I looked up to see that a lot of the ice had melted. Filled with initial doubt I questioned myself as to the wisdom of climbing unroped in these less than perfect conditions, yet before long my crampons were fastened to my boots and my axes strapped to my wrist. Again, easy initial ground lured me in but before long I was struggling in a tight crack. For one short spell I clipped into some gear left behind by someone rappelling off the route but the sense of heartache as I had to release the carabiner half way through a sequence of moves severing an umbilical cord of blue webbing was overwhelming. I was now 300 feet above the boulder field and emotionally exhausted, I stopped on a large leaning boulder to drink some coffee from my flask. Other climbers were starting to appear in the valley and as I ate a sandwich I surveyed the slab ahead. Accessing it required precariously stepping over a cleft and committing to a sheet of ice that was a half inch thick. The prospect was extremely intimidating and I thought about waiting for another party to reach me so that I could tie into one of their ropes. The same up down routine ensued, yet this time I stopped and breathed and chose to move onwards. The step across was like springing a trap, however once I had done it, my rhythm returned and soon I was finding that perfect cadence where heart and movement synchronize. The following 150 feet were pure magic as demons were exorcised and I felt the control of a warrior. Without doubt this is one of my seminal moments and one I am so glad that I indulged in. Reaching the top following several hundred more feet of easy ground was one of the most elating experiences and I lived on a cloud for months after it.

The question is what led to that moment of equanimity perched atop a leaning boulder surrounded by crystals of ice and the vast architecture of a wet Welsh cliff? I will have to say it is the progressive momentum of stretching oneself slowly and consistently over time. Each time we show discipline and do something a little harder than we are used to we open the door to equanimity. It is not something to be learned vicariously, it is something that is earned through graft.

What are you going to do to stretch your comfort zone today?

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Thinking and Feeling Will

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This post may sound like a double entendre, it is though inspired by Michael Howard again. Michael is the keynote speaker at a conference at Cai’s school and is also staying with us, so we have been having conversations and my mind is particularly active at the moment. One of the things that I have come to recognize in the last few days is that most of the acts I am particularly proud of I have been led to intuitively rather than thought my way into them. The choice of Cai’s school is a good example, deciding to send Cai to a Waldorf school was first inspired by an emotional response to a school I witnessed in my late teens. When we were looking at where to send Cai, we went to a May Fair at the Anchorage Waldorf School and our decision was based on how Kim and I felt there and how Cai appeared to feel. My knowledge of Rudolph Steiner back then was based on having hung out with some hippies who were into Biodynamic farming. One night I  watched in incredulous amusement while they buried a bull’s horn full of urine in dirt and proceeded to have a full moon party where they danced around said buried horn. The thing was, while I did not feel comfortable with their approach or rituals, I did enjoy the huge and highly tasty vegetables they produced by pouring this fertilizer on their plants, I was still not prepared to read Steiner’s books though.

Likewise the next step of my Waldorf journey was watching a sculptor call David Nash create something incredible at a residential center where I worked. “Portal of light” was a huge dying tree, that had its crown cut off and all but one of its limbs removed. This limb was trimmed and then sectioned off with a chain saw, also the trunk around the limb was cut through so that light was visible through it and it look like the limb was floating.

Not the described sculpture still an indication of his methods. Click on the photo for more examples of his work

Nash was part of a cooperative that started the Waldorf school I had originally seen and his sculpture now makes me think of Steiner because Nash can see something within a tree that I can not and when he exposes it the results are incredible. Likewise, Steiner was able to see things within children and the techniques he collected and shared with teachers are similarly impressive because they bring out the “wonder” from within children.

If I had stopped to read Steiner’s work before having felt on a number of occasions the results I now witness on a daily basis, I know that Cai would not be at a Waldorf school. I was just not ready for Steiner’s brand of esoteric mysticism.

So why am I writing about all this? In the last post I talked of how freedom of will requires us to navigate the stream of thoughts that are constantly flowing and this requires us to use meditative practices to develop our skills and understanding (Steiner shared a few different ones designed to develop different capacities of will).  Michael Howard  in his book discusses the difference between thinking-will (head and hand coordination) and feeling-will (head, hand & heart coordination). He clearly states that the intentional development of both types of will in children needs to become the major purpose of education however he in particular focuses on how we can develop feeling-will because this is the piece that is most often lacking. Howard goes farther and suggests that “the defining characteristic of feeling-will is the capacity to live deeply into the inner quality of something outside us, knowing and feeling it as if we are within it or it is within us.”

Now this has got me thinking if I have used my feeling-will to create the decisions I am proud of how can I develop it in others as an outdoor educator? How can I lead my trainees towards this beacon as someone who develops a corporate culture?

Next time around I will share some of Michael’s techniques for developing feeling-will. You can always read his book. Until then, has thinking or feeling provided your best results?

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Drystone Walls, Lego and Foundationial Principles

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Dry stone wall building in South Wales
Image via Wikipedia

Once in a previous life I built drystone walls and trail. It is satisfying work. Simon Lapington, a friend with whom I used to work titled an anthology of his poems “the Legend of True Labour“, and this resonates with me. The thing is that now when I walk past a garden wall or stone house cladding then I am drawn to a quick analysis. Form does indeed follow function and if a structure has true strength; as in the Menai Bridge from the last post, then it is is aesthetically pleasing. What I find is that I baulk at a lot of the stonework that I see, I am sorry but it is plain offensive. I was always taught that there is a simple rule when walling. One on two, two on one. When I see a straight line travelling through a wall I want to scream. Any child who has spent sufficient time with Lego knows that if blocks do not overlap then the structure is weak.

The thing that irks me is that people are paying good money for “professionals” to this kind of work. The other thing that makes me sad is that it is simply remedied. My apprenticeship with stone was served with large mentors who took no nonsense. It did not take me long to create the simple practice of laying one rock so that it sat on two others and making sure that it was tied down by having two rocks lie on it.

What I now realize is that this phenomena is rife in education as well. In our ever increasing need to train complex situations we are not training young people in the simple, yet foundational behaviors and skills that they need to do work successfully and efficiently. My mentors did not allow me to move forward untill I had the basics down. We are in such a hurry to reach high performance we often sabotage it.

So what are you going to do to make sure that you have the basics covered?

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Tall Tales – thoughts on stories and using them:

As a teacher I use stories all the time. Painting images of archetypes truly allows a concept or lesson to be picked up, played with and felt at an emotional level. Recently there seems to be a recurring theme in the conversations I have been engaged in. “We talk about authentic, do stories need to be true?” If you know why you are telling a story then you are always going to know the truth in it and to me this is the foundation of authenticity. I particularly like stories that challenge the status quo and commonly held norms. Even tall tales can have integrity, you merely need your audience to know that the message of the story is what is important. The disconnect occurs when something is passed off as real which isn’t and then we have to contemplate the story of the boy that cried wolf.

Some years ago I was working building trail, groups of five to twenty of us would go out into mountain parks and create and repair routes through the foothills of Colorado‘s Front Range. One of my colleagues was a young man named David. David had a penchant for stretching the truth, his motivation seemingly to create something incredulous out of a normal life. This was so much the case that he had earned the nickname, Liar Liar. One morning he came in claiming sickness, we tended to think it was the result of a late night. Following walking in to our site in extremely hot weather he proceeded to go and lie under the tarp we set up for shade at breaks. While the rest of us sweated, David snored and to say the least sympathy was the farthest thing from our minds. Just before lunch there was a scream from the tarp and David came out running, looking distraught and cursing about a snake. Now it should be noted that David the bull riding, sky diving, extreme fighter was terrified by snakes, even so we certainly were not inclined to believe his latest story of a large rattlesnake slithering over his chest while he slept.

Out of curiosity and armed with a suitable excuse to down tools we meandered over to the tarp to witness the site of his newest escapade. Imagine our surprise when we saw a big old snake curled up by the backpack which had obviously served as a pillow. David had told the truth; this was a shock, especially when the snake was the largest rattlesnake I have ever seen. It was a beautiful and unusual green color and sat at the end of it’s tail were 16 globes which made the most incredible sound when we tried to move it on with a lengthy stick.

The point of my story is that David’s intention in telling his story was entirely lost due to the previous pattern of his behavior. While he was digging for sympathy we were all laughing. Rather than believe his story we had believed he was going to tell us an untruth.

On another note we often disbelieve stories because of our perceptions of them. Fish tales are never true right? So here is a shameless plug for my wife, the woman some know as a prissy cheerleader and others a mom. Here is the result of 4 hours in the Kenai River while I was away working and that is no lie. This may tell you something about who the provider is in this household?

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Who gives you food for thought? How do they supply material for the messages you want to share?

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Thinking Outside the Box

I used to work with a company called Sprayway. They make outdoor clothing and following a cheeky letter suggesting a mutually beneficial arrangement I proceeded to test product for them. The relationship developed when I went to see them to put a face to a name, it strengthened further when I convinced them to have their test weekends at the center where I was employed. Being known by all the managerial, marketing, sales and design team members was extremely advantageous and the “mutually beneficial arrangement” blossomed; you have to love being paid to go on the vacation you had already organized because it becomes a photoshoot, especially when the tent is exchanged for 4 star hotels and luxury meals are cooked for you.

My highpoint in the relationship came when I collaborated with the marketing team to think outside the box and brainstorm alternative ways of encouraging custom; center pages in national magazines are expensive. What we came up with was:

  • Most decisions are made while talking to a sales assistant at point of sales.

Assistants promote a product based on one of three factors:

  1. They have been asked to by management
  2. Commission
  3. A personal relationship with the product.

Based on this we decided to invest in creating relationships with sales assistants and making sure that they knew our products, brand and also our people. We started inviting 50 to 80 people at a time to the Conway Centre, we took them out to do outdoor activities wearing Sprayway products during the day and entertained and informed them in the evenings. At the end of the weekend we sent them home with a fleece and shell garment.

The bottom line is that sales went up and less was spent on the marketing budget.

How are you thinking outside the box? How are you taking a familiar situation and stamping it with your own flair?

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