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Make Your Own ‘Aquatic Experience’

Posted: January 17, 2014, 11:15 a.m. EDT

By Barry Berman

I have been hearing concerns about the strength of the aquatics segment of our industry for a long time.

How often have you heard that fishkeeping is on its way to being another industry killed by technology, with boys and young men devoting spare time to video games and the Internet? Right?

Wrong, you would say, if you attended the first Aquatic Experience show last November in suburban Chicago. 

The World Pet Association (WPA) produced this new show, which consisted of both manufacturers and retailers exhibiting products to attendees. Lots of tanks, fish, corals, equipment and accessories were on display and ready to go home with raffle winners.

I attended, too, reporter’s notebook in hand. I found that about one-third of the consumers either did not have aquariums or they used to own a tank and were looking into buying a new one. Many were young families whose kids were excited about getting a fish tank. Aquatic Experience offered introductory seminars and information to help them research their decisions.

Enthusiasm for the Hobby
About two-thirds of the consumers were tank owners looking for information or advice about their aquariums and were happy to see the new product exhibits.

Aquatic Experience
Invite aquatic business with cool displays, education and gift certificates. Sherri L. Collins/i-5 Publishing at Nature Pet Centre

I spoke to some of them, and the enthusiasm they expressed, especially among parents attending with kids, was inspiring. It was crowded. The WPA’s public relations firm had secured coverage in regional newspapers, including a prominent article in the Chicago Tribune on opening day. Local TV and radio announced and attended the event. The PR firm also reached out with ticket deals to more than 50 hobbyist clubs across the Midwest, to parenting magazines and to bloggers.

One of the draws was an act appearing every few hours that featured a performer who swam with sharks in front of the audience and an announcer.

The large attendance of children at Aquatic Experience and the feeling of enthusiasm on the show floor demonstrate how much potential there is in the aquatics business.

If your store has a fish department, consider promoting the hobby in your area by copying some of the techniques WPA used in Chicago on a smaller scale.

Hold seminars regularly for different levels of hobbyists. Absolutely Fish, Patrick Donston’s store in Clifton, N.J., holds Roundtable Classes for Clients, where local hobbyists share ideas; one person is invited to make a presentation and sometimes preside.

Ask vendor reps to give presentations about the capabilities of different products and to demo what they sell.

Compensate local fish experts or college professors with product or fish coupons. 

Create an exchange program were the head fish people from stores in other areas come to your store, featuring them as "visiting experts.”

Ask a manufacturer to sponsor each event, to give away food to attendees and to feature it on its website and Facebook page.

Unlock Your Store’s Potential
You won’t be able to hire WPA’s shark swimmer act, and if you don’t have a small shark to feed, you can create feeding or demo events around different colorful elements already in your store, such as seahorses or colorful freshwater fish.

Keep at least one tank with a breeding pair of cichlids—convicts or kribs—they will breed constantly, and kids love the idea of fish breeding babies. All it takes is a 10-gallon tank on the counter with signs explaining what is happening.

Tie the hobby into people’s interest in conservation by adding to your event material about causes such as Project Piaba, which helps preserve the Amazon rainforest by promoting the sale of wild fish caught by natives of the area. This income helps them preserve their traditional way of life.

Another idea is to support reef restoration by holding a sale and giving a percentage of the proceeds to the Coral Reef Foundation.

Hold joint programs with local scuba diving shops and clubs; underwater photos and videos could be a big draw. Ensure local hobbyist clubs view your store as a headquarters; allow them to hold meetings there.
If you don’t have time to make all of these things happen, find someone else, even a part-timer who is a good communicator, to coordinate all the events you are holding. Set one per month as a minimum; then see if you can do more. This coordinator could even be someone who does not know that much about fish. If this is the case, you’ll just have to spend more time helping them.

A Coupon Every Time
Every time someone walks into your store for an event they should receive a discount coupon or, preferably, a gift certificate.

These should be generous enough so that when advertised in advance they will draw attendance and promote sales among attendees. Distribute coupons that induce customers to return more than just once.

Another key element to helping your homemade "Aquatic Experience” succeed is public relations. Make sure every event is preceded by a press release and notifications on social media, and see if you can get local radio or TV to pay attention.

Find out if a local PR firm can propose a plan you can afford; if they are any good they can create much more buzz and traffic than you can on your own.

If you won’t transmit your enthusiasm for aquatics to your community, who else will? If you do, it will pay off in bigger sales and profits.

Barry Berman is president and founder of NexPet, a co-op for independent pet retailers, and Grandma Mae’s Country Naturals, a pet food company. He has served in executive positions for Central Pet and Brinks, and entrepreneurial positions in the home furnishings industry. A graduate of Harvard Business School, he is a member of the World Pet Association board of directors.  Contact him at 888-653-8021 or



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