Understanding the Value Proposition in Technical Dive Training
As consumers, we use the terms cheap and expensive frequently, without really being accurate in our choice of language. Correct usage means that if something is expensive, then the cost or price is perceived to be greater than its worth. If cheap, the cost or price is less than what it’s worth. All too often, we use the terms erroneously – expensive to describe something that costs a lot of money, regardless of it’s true value, and cheap for something that costs very little.
There are several forces at play that influence our judgement of cheap v expensive.
Firstly, what we as buyers consider to be the true value, based on what that item is worth to us. We see this in bidding wars over a house sale.
We judge it against similar items, trying to make a like-for-like comparison. Bread, milk, or washing powder for example.
The competition in the market may set their prices lower or higher as part of an overall product portfolio strategy, or to try and capture market segment or position themselves as a premium brand. Car sales would be a good example.
If a sale and purchase is to be completed, the buyer must understand the value proposition from the seller and feel the price fairly matches this. The value proposition is the sellers view of what that product or service is truly worth. Many sellers have difficulty communicating the value proposition effectively, especially in diving, after all we are divers, not sales and marketing experts.
Sometimes, though, the market forces sellers to compete on price instead of sticking to a value proposition that delivers a fair margin for the offering… Usually because of failing to communicate the value proposition. These price wars apparently result in great consumer deals – free market economics! But in technical dive training, this race to the bottom can and will have seriously adverse effects. Quality, safety and ultimately the industry’s reputation will suffer.
In the recreational scuba industry, we have seen two big trends in the last five years, especially in Europe.
- A reduction in the size of the sport diving (non tech diving) market resulting in increased competition amongst dive centres and instructors for students and customers.
- A growth in the number of people going into technical diving as opposed to taking divemaster and instructor routes, though this trend may now be slowing.
Over a longer period in the sport diving market, we have seen these and other market pressures lead to deep discounting, to the point where open water courses and more are being delivered at a considerable loss.
We are starting to see resort and destination dive centres and associated instructors beginning to discount and price compete on tech courses. This is obviously a worrying trend and will, without action, spike the price race to the bottom. In the UK and Ireland this has not really bitten on CCR and Overhead courses, but ‘edge-of-tech’ courses like sidemount / wreck are being marketed heavily at rates where it is hard to see either profit for the instructor and centre or how quality is being delivered.
Growth in tech diving
There are now more technical instructors, as centres and agencies can see the growth trend in technical diving over the last five plus years. Dive centres are offering technical training, gear rental and guiding to cash in on the trend. Many of these have variable standards. Some are outstanding, driven by passion and a love of technical diving. Others are more opportunistic and driven by instructors with little real tech experience, but able to achieve instructor ratings via self-certification, through less scrupulous and economically challenged instructor trainers looking to enhance their own income, or through entry into the tech market of agencies whose recreational model undermines a quality-driven approach to technical training.
This model of prescriptive training, a tick box on performance requirements, has worked for recreational training, as it obviates the need for two key elements most would highly value in a technical instructor:
- Quality experience that allows the instructor to develop the student at an appropriate pace to ensure skills are embedded in context – i.e., stimulated from and capable of being executed in real life situations, stimuli, and environments.
- The ability of the instructor to develop attitudinal and decision-making skills, as a team member and as an individual in the student.
These elements can only be achieved by investment in the instructor, not in the system of instructing. Good instructors self-invest, through peers, via further training, and through reading and study outside of the online updates routinely available.
What elements make up a good value proposition in technical dive training?
- The time the instructor has invested in getting themselves to this level – their training, their experience, their own hours of skill development.
- The quality of the instructor trainers and the standards they enforce.
- The diving and teaching experience of the instructor. If all they do is teach, well, where is the diving experience at tech level?
- The time they allocate to the course and each student.
- The provision of quality equipment, teaching facilities, etc.
- The ability of the instructor to ‘teach what they can do.’
In this way, the technical instructor can set a fair rate for their time and be able to explain the value of their price to the student. To help with this, I would recommend avoiding packages. Packages are the first step on the slippery slope to discounting.
Prices should also be set:
- Excluding books / manuals. Recommended retail by agency should be used.
- Excluding Certification fees – no pass guarantees. You pay the cert fee only when you pass. Cert fee is RRP agency set. It’s their cert after all.
- Clear that they exclude dive costs such as gear rental, boat or site entry fees, gases etc.
Of course, people can and do packages for these, but it increases the transparency to the consumer if all elements are openly and fairly priced. Don’t do a package because then you are selling on price. List the individual cost elements. That way, the consumer knows exactly what they are paying for, the training time and expertise. I would suggest that this level of transparency on some open water course prices would lead consumers to question how anyone could do a good job for the €30 a day many OW course prices would generate – if that.
Not all courses should be priced with the same assumptions
I would suggest assumptions on pricing is structured differently based on risk, liability and associated ‘level’ or experience an instructor would have to be at to teach these courses.
- Air Courses 2, 3, 4 or 5 day courses base minimum price
- Mixed gas courses 2, 3, 4 or 5 day courses base minimum price
- Overhead Courses 2, 3, 4 or 5 day courses base minimum price
- Rebreather Courses 2, 3, 4 or 5 day courses base minimum price
- Additional Days for each of the above
So, let’s say a 3 day air course is 450. Manual 35, cert fee 25. That’s about 150 per student per day, which seems fair given average course ratios of 2 or 3 students to 1 instructor, particularly if surface and safety support is needed. It’s probably break even at 1-1. There is an argument, especially for high profile instructors, that 1-1 should attract a higher cost. It’s easy to make a good case for this given the focus and time that could be spent, versus a less scrupulous instructor thinking 1-1 equals shorter days! I would encourage the ‘rock stars’ amongst you to do this if you can justify the premium in light of your value proposition.
Having said that, I’m not a fan of charging per day per student as is the Mexico practice. Whilst the overall cost to the student versus paying a per course cost is the same, the impression given is very negative. For example, the day rate is 300 USD, therefore if I hire you 1-1, its 300usd. If another student turns up, the day or ‘time’ is now split between students, but under the Mexican model the day rate for the instructor is doubled to 600 USD and students time might be perceived to be halved! However, if a student purchases a course, they feel they are buying the value of a product/service, not hiring by the day.
If, as technical instructors, we were all consistent on messaging, it would be very strong to both prospective students and those instructors tempted to discount.
- As a community we care about quality, which cannot be delivered cheaply.
- Students should look at many sources when choosing an instructor, but price should not be part of the decision making.
- Choose an instructor who participates in fair and open pricing, as it will help with quality.
- Educate the newbie into tech diving about value versus cost.
- Allow instructors to share positive messages about the premium they may charge based on specific individual experience and reputation.
- Isolate discounters, cost cutters and production line style operations.
- Agencies supports fair pricing for their instructors.
- Show and sell what the course delivers, i.e. the benefits to the diver of both taking and hopefully passing the course.
So, please, don’t join the race to the bottom on price, which will result in a similar descent of standards, quality, safety, yours and the dive industry’s reputation in short order. Be proud and confident of what you have achieved in diving and be able to support the value of what you do. Just because something costs a lot, does not mean it is expensive. Just because it is not so much money, does not mean it is in any way good value.
The madness of paying little and expecting a lot should not be allowed to gain a foothold in technical diving.