Q&A with Doris Colgate, co-owner/CEO of Offshore Sailing School

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Doris Colgate is the co-owner and CEO of Fort Myers, Fla.-based Offshore Sailing School, one of the oldest and most recognized schools in the industry. Colgate's first exposure to the school came when she took a course after joining the advertising department of Yachting magazine in 1967. She was hooked on sailing.

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She joined the school full time as vice president in 1970 following her 1969 marriage to the school's founder, Steve Colgate. Doris Colgate was named president in 1978 and CEO in 2001.

Together, the Colgates have grown Offshore Sailing School from one branch, two instructors and two boats to an industry-respected school with seven locations, more than 40 boats, and 120,000-plus graduates.

In 1990, Colgate founded the National Women's Sailing Association to raise awareness of the sport among women and help them build confidence in their sailing abilities. That same year, she introduced You Can Sail Escapes at the school to provide all-women training programs. In 1991, she launched AdventureSail, a mentoring program for at-risk girls. In 1997, Colgate established the Women's Sailing Foundation, a not-for-profit group dedicated to enhancing the lives of women and girls through education and access to sailing.

Named to several Who's Who lists, including Who's Who of America and Who's Who of American Women, Colgate, 68, received the Betty Cook Memorial Lifetime Achievement Award from Boating magazine and International Women in Boating in 1994. Two years later, she and her husband were honored with the Sail magazine Industry Award for Leadership.

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In 2003, US Sailing awarded the Colgates the Timothea Larr Trophy in recognition of their leadership in the sport. A year later, Colgate received the Leadership in Women's Sailing Award from BoatU.S. and NWSA.

Colgate has served on the BoatU.S. National Advisory Council since 1997 and served as a board member of Sail America from 2000 to 2006. She currently serves on the group's marketing committee.

Colgate is the author of "Sailing: A Woman's Guide" and, with her husband, co-authored "Fast Track to Cruising."

The Colgates live in Fort Myers and together have sailed around the world to the Caribbean, French Riviera, the former Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Tahiti and other destinations. The couple has competitively sailed in the Caribbean, Norway, Spain and around the United States, competing aboard their 54-foot ocean racer, Sleuth, and later when Steve Colgate co-helmed the maxi racer Nirvana.

Q: How has the school fared during the recession? How are you dealing with the downturn?

A: There has been a drop [in students] - definitely there has been a drop. People are making their [enrollment] decisions very, very close to the time they're going to [take a class]. They're not committing to anything far in advance.

We did a bunch of discounting earlier, but that doesn't help, so we're not doing that anymore. All that did was water down the revenues, which last year were among our highest ever. What we're doing is just adapting to the audience, with shorter programs and more innovative stuff. We are listening really hard to what the customer wants and providing training programs and sailing experiences that fit into their budgets and hectic schedules.

Generally, with discretionary income, we are probably the last to feel it, as there is a strong lag time between when the news hits and the reality sets in, causing some to put aside travel plans. Our business is based on advanced bookings several months out, so in the case of this recession, we did not see a strong winding down until after the first of the year. Unfortunately, we are also the last to recover, because people, once they start loosening up on their money, go and take care of other things first - commodities such as cars and household goods. But I don't think we'll be far behind, as we are already seeing people planning for winter 2009-'10.

Q: What's the biggest challenge facing sailing today - lack of time, the stereotype that it's too complicated, the cost, something else?

A: Right now, I think it is mostly cost, as it comes from discretionary income. Not how much a boat or a lesson actually costs, but spending money on doing something nice for oneself does not appear to be in vogue right now. People do not "need" sailing; they need to "want" sailing. Our job is to convince them that taking a few hours or a couple of days to experience how relaxing it can be, how inspiring and fulfilling it is, can make a big change for the better in their lives.

People still have time. Tons of people like to be challenged and learn something new. But as long as the newscasters continue to hammer at how many people are out of work, with interviews that shed an unending, depressing cloud over our lives, we will not see a change quickly. For every person that lost their job there are still hundreds of thousands working. I think many of those who have lost jobs would probably never consider sailing if it were right in their back yard. I don't mean to sound prejudiced in any way; I am just being   realistic. Sailing is not for everyone.

Q: What needs to be done to grow sailing?

A: I have hammered this to death over the years. We need to get pictures of people having a great time sailing in the eyes of the public, not just those who pick up a sailing or boating magazine. This would be a concentrated PR and marketing campaign - industry-driven, something we have not yet successfully gotten off the ground for lack of funds. Many will say it is accessibility, and I used to say that too. But with lots of community sailing centers in municipal areas, commercial sailing schools all over the country that rent their boats and/or run sailing clubs, and most of all wonderful charter opportunities in the United States and warm, dreamy waters all over the world - I do not think accessibility is the main factor.

Today's vacationer/adventurer is bombarded by competing and very different opportunities through the Web. We need to get our heads out of the tiny industry we are in and start looking at that big picture. Our competitors are all the other outdoor adventures someone can participate in. Our market is fickle. They may try sailing today, trekking tomorrow, whitewater rafting after that. To hook them on sailing, we need to sell the attributes that we know will make them feel good: an activity they can do at any time and any age, providing a lifetime of opportunities to "get away" - some without even having to go away.

Our customers tell us all the time that learning to sail fulfilled their dreams; it was the most awesome thing they've ever done. That marketing campaign with "hooked sailors" talking would make all the difference.

Most of all we have to sell well to women. I read recently that 80 percent of vacation decisions are made by the woman in the family. We all know that women can make or break a boat sale - whether sail or power. We need to tell women what's in it for them - and none of it is drudgery, like cooking aboard.

Q: In all your years involved with sailing and your school, have you seen a change in the number of women interested in the sport?

A: Yes, I have seen a change. When I first met Steve, when I took the course back in 1967, there were two couples, and we took it together. But when I went to the racing course, I think I was the only woman there. In those days, after I joined the company, I think we had about 10 percent women, and it's more like 40 percent today. Today, we've got nine [class] evaluations in, and five were written by women, so that gives you a pretty good idea.

Q: What would you say to a potential new boater to get him or her to try sailing rather than powerboating?

A: It's a totally inspiring activity, giving you a real sense of freedom, and what's more, it's green. There is nothing more amazing or fulfilling than driving a boat with wind power alone. No smelly fuel to make you seasick in a following sea with the wind on your stern, no deafening noise making it impossible to carry on a conversation, no back-jarring bumps as you hit short waves at full throttle. Full throttle in sailing is slicing nicely through waves, with the spray on your face and wind in your hair.

Q: There was some talk last summer, when gas prices were so high, about sailing gaining popularity on powerboating. Did you see any evidence of that, and if so, do you think it will continue into this summer?

A: I think that was true last summer. We had a bang-up summer; it was a fabulous summer. I think it would have kept on growing if the news [media] didn't get a hold of all the hype on the housing market. They haven't let up. I don't even listen to the news anymore in my car. I just play soft, wonderful music. I don't want to hear all this. It's self-feeding.

As a personal observation, we live on the river in Fort Myers, and I don't see as many boats out as we used to. In past years, there were a whole lot more boats out there than there are now, and they're mostly powerboats. I don't think there's been an increase in the purchase of sailboats, but I think that's just relative to [potential boat buyers] not purchasing, period.

Q: Your school recently celebrated its 45th anniversary. Can you talk about the changes in the industry since that time?

A: There are tons and tons of sailing schools these days. When we first started, we were basically the only guys in town. There were a couple of other sailing schools in the country that we knew of, but, then, the market was very small, too. Nobody knew about taking sailing lessons. I think the market has grown considerably, and I think that we are right up there, in terms of interest in sailing, with kayaking and whitewater rafting and going trekking and all of that other stuff. If somebody's looking for an unusual vacation, we're one of many options.

What's mainly changed the industry, I think, is the Internet. In the old days, we would produce a very good brochure, very slick in many cases, and that was very impressive. But now you can just have a Web site and anybody - no matter what their product really is - can look impressive. You have to really work harder at reaching out to the customer and selling your brand and having them be confident in you.

Q: What has it been like for you to be a woman in a male-dominated industry? Have you ever faced any problems because of it?

A: It's challenging, and it's exciting. It's fun, actually, because it's a huge learning experience, and I've been able to serve on boards and be around the men who run the major companies in some cases. But there are a lot of women now in this industry. I think that the boating industry is a lot more forgiving of women than some of the other industries.

In the '70s, one thing sticks in my mind a whole lot. When we went to negotiate for a new location outside of the United States and Steve and I walked into the room together with the bigwigs of this resort, they promptly told me to leave the room. And, unfortunately, I did. Today, I would say, "No way. You're negotiating with us both." They just were uncomfortable negotiating with me because I would have been the one speaking up anyway.

Sometimes there's a lack of respect, not from everyone, but occasionally a male employee. They just don't get it that a woman can run a company.

Q: Your husband introduced the Colgate 26 to the market. How many have been sold, and where is it in use now besides your school?

A: A number of other schools are beginning to pick up used boats, and some have bought a handful of them. It's definitely the boat of choice for a lot of them. Steve developed the boat because we were looking for many, many years for a boat that we felt was the near perfect boat to teach on. None of them had everything that we wanted, which was safety, performance, wouldn't capsize, ease of handling but sophisticated - a number of different points like that. So one day we were talking, and I said, "Look, let's just build our own boat." And so he put all the parameters on paper and went out to a lot of boatbuilders and got rejected by the big guys because it was a different kind of boat.

The year it debuted, which was the Annapolis boat show in 1996, the U.S. Naval Academy was doing an analysis of boats in order to have a new boat for training, and the Colgate 26 was one of the ones they were considering, and they chose it. So they now have a fleet of 30. The Coast Guard Academy has at least 16. Maine Maritime has a fleet and UKSA - the United Kingdom Sailing Academy - they have some. There are a lot of recreational sailors that have them, too. We've sold about 317 now.

People buy them just to have fun. Some big-boat owners have bought them because they're done with the big sailboat scene, or they want to have the small sailboat at home because if they've got a big boat, they're probably campaigning it or they have it in charter service. We've thought about developing other models, but right now we're not.

Q: Of all your professional accomplishments, which are you most proud of?

A: I think the biggest one is working with Steve and developing this company to the position that it is today. We really are the leaders in the sailing school industry. We're the bellwethers of the industry. We're the ones who see the entry-level sailor and the customer who may or may not stick with it. I feel really great that I helped take the company to where it is today.

The other one is starting the National Women's Sailing Association, and later we also started the Women's Sailing Foundation, which is a not-for-profit and exposes sailing to young girls who live in poorer areas of the cities. They could be less than a mile from the water and never got out on it - never went to a beach or never got on a boat. It is very heartening to see them out there and asking if they can steer and what can they do.

I started [NWSA] in 1990 ... and we developed programs for women at a time when women weren't feeling secure in the sailing world, or some weren't, and didn't want to go off cruising. We reached out to probably more than 3,000 women through the seminars that we were doing at boat shows. I'm not involved anymore, and the happy thing is it's gone on to be a really thriving association without me, so that's a good thing.

Q: You became involved with sailing almost by accident. If someone had told you in 1967 what you would have accomplished by 2009, what would you have said?

A: Oh my gosh! I was a chemistry major in college ... [but] I never got that big degree that would have given me a job in that world, and I was married then to someone else, and one of us had to support the other, so it was me. I answered an ad in the New York Times and got a job at Yachting magazine and I thought, Boy, they were passionate. This is for me. I never dreamt I would be in the industry, basically, as somewhat of a leader.

A lot of people are very respectful of me, and I'm very eager to learn from all of them, so I'm really happy that I stumbled onto this course.

This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue.

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