How to Create a Water Garden Club
in the Mountains of Switzerland

by Peter Kacalanos, Director, Geneva Area Pond Club
Click images to enlarge
It's difficult enough to create a new water garden club in Florida or southern California or Texas, where the mild weather has encouraged many gardeners to install a pond. Imagine how much more difficult it is to find any pond owners in a mountainous country like Switzerland, where snow covers some areas for most of the year. Add to that problem the challenge of finding English-language pond owners for an English-language pond club in a part of the world where everyone speaks French. Combined, the two problems meant the area had a very small pool of water gardeners that could be solicited to join a pond club. Not knowing it couldn't be done, we tried, and we succeeded. Since we founded it in 2004, our Geneva Area Pond Club has acquired scores of member families. So many attend the monthly meetings that now we're occasionally scheduling an additional meeting each month to accommodate them all. 
I'm an avid water gardener, and constructed two waterlily ponds for my aquatic plants and goldfish when I lived in New York. My partner Suzanne Cherney is an avid land gardener who always wanted a pond. When I moved to Switzerland to share her home near Geneva, I constructed in her beautifully landscaped garden two large waterlily ponds totaling over 7,000 gallons. One pond is higher than the other so that they could be connected by a sparkling cascade of circulating water. I added over 100 varieties of aquatic plants, and now something is blooming profusely all the time. Our neighbors tell us we've increased their property values because our ponds beautifully enhance their view. 


Peter and Suzanne's ponds 
  Why did we create the club? The dozen goldfish with which we began apparently fell in love and decided to start a family. Soon Suzanne and I had hundreds of grandchildren. In our desire to give most of them away to other pond owners in the area, I searched the Internet to find nearby water garden clubs.   

That's when I discovered www.Meetup.com. It's the web site of an online organization that encourages people to form clubs whose members would meet offline. There were 21 Meetup pond clubs listed at the time, and Meetup gave them web site addresses numbered 1 to 21. But all were in the United States, so we decided to use the Meetup service to organize our own club in Switzerland. Apparently the founders of the 21 other clubs didn't have the dynamic leadership qualities that ours did, because soon all of those groups were dissolved for lack of members and participation. We were now the only Meetup ponds group in the world, so we were assigned the neat web site address www.ponds.meetup.com/1/about. We're number one! 

I knew from experience that no one wants to join a group that has no members, on the assumption that it would have at least a few members if it were any good. So I asked each of my two daughters to sign on as virtual members of the club in Switzerland, even though they still live in New York. They obliged to humor Daddy, and even uploaded their photos onto our web site. In the meantime I had created on our computer some colorful posters with large photos of our ponds and goldfish, and put together some photo-enhanced envelopes full of take-one sheets describing the group and its meetings. All this fine literature advised that further information is available on our web site, and the still-curious could phone group leaders Suzanne and Peter at home. We tacked these promotional items up in all the local garden centers, pet shops, and almost anywhere we found a public bulletin board.

To get the attention of French-speaking readers, the promotional material was printed side-by-side in both French and English. (Before retiring recently, Suzanne was a French/English translator for the United Nations and the World Health Organization.) That was designed to encourage French-speakers to pick up the take-one sheets and pass them on to their English-speaking friends who have ponds. It worked. Because I composed this literature to give the impression that we were already a well-established organization, people started joining the group. Many who registered are bilingual, so members at our meetings who speak only French or only English have their choice of volunteer translators to help clarify the discussions. When they have time, Suzanne and other bilingual members will translate some of the pages on our web site so that anyone who doesn't read English can read the French version.

To reach prospective members who don't read public bulletin boards, we placed free classified ads and event notices about our group on the Internet. We used US-based web sites like www.Craigslist.com, www.Eventful.com, www.Eventsetter.com, www.Meetin.org, and www.Upcoming.org. We found a few small but similar English-language sites in Switzerland, and promoted the club there. We also placed notices on Swiss web sites created for American and British expatriates, English-language bookstores, and English-language social clubs.

We submitted our web site address directly to all the major search engines, and to those pond club web sites that include lists of links. (The recent addition of our club's name to WGI's list of foreign water garden clubs has already started bringing in new members.) If you now make a Google search for "Geneva Area Pond Club" (including the quotation marks), you'll find more than 1,000 references to the club on the Internet. With an equivalent effort, other leaders of water gardening clubs can get the same good exposure for their own organizations.

I arranged to be interviewed about ponds for a half hour on the gardening program of Switzerland's only English-language radio station. The program's hostess repeated our web site's address several times, added a link to it on the station's web site, and a week later became a member of our club herself. I'll soon be writing press releases about the group for Suzanne to translate into French, and submit them to some newspapers and magazines in the Geneva area. All of this takes time, but the more time we put into promoting the group, the greater the rewards.


The Geneva Area Pond Club schedules meetings in the homes and gardens of volunteer club members in the towns around Geneva. We started small, and hosted the first few meetings in our own garden, next to the ponds. Only three genuine members were able to come to our first monthly meeting, so we stacked the deck by inviting six of our neighbors as well, and the meeting turned into a garden party. More real members came to our second meeting, so we needed only two neighbors to make it seem full. By the third meeting we reached the critical mass and considered ourselves a successful and active organization. 


Waterlilies in Peter's pond

We now have many more members than are self-registered on our web site, because not everyone here has a computer. The computer-deprived prospective members ask for further information about the group by phone instead. I always have Suzanne field those calls, and not only because she's bilingual. Her outgoing personality and enthusiastic attitude are contagious, and by the time she hangs up the caller is usually committed to join the group.

What would a pond club organizer have to do to make the club grow? Spend lots of time promoting your group. Spend lots of time enhancing your web site. Spend lots of time communicating with your members. Get the picture? The amount of time you spend on these activities directly affects the success of your group. There's no short-cut, although you're likely to find more efficient ways to handle each of these tasks as you keep working at them. As with so many aspects of life, you'll experience a learning curve as you become a better organizer.

Suzanne and I are both retired, and I'm a really old codger, so I'm still learning how to use the computer to enhance our web site. (I feel every computer sold should be simple enough for even an adult to understand. Otherwise it should come with a helpful and patient 14-year-old boy as standard equipment.)


Peter and Suzanne
I've succeeded in uploading hundreds of photos of pond fish and aquatic plants to our web site to help site visitors identify the many varieties. I've filled our Message Board with dozens of informative and tutorial articles about designing and maintaining ponds, and members have been adding their own. I've uploaded sets of road maps and clear travel directions to each meeting's location, which club members can print for their drive to the event. Giving your members many reasons to log on to your web site frequently will help them remember your group, so they're more likely to attend each meeting and to recommend the club to their pond-owning friends.

The Meetup organization hosts our web site, and provides good features for each group using their services. One useful enhancement is the ability for club members to indicate whether or not they plan to attend a meeting, because each meeting's hosts have to know how many attendees to expect. The members can submit an RSVP for each event right on our web site by clicking Yes, Maybe, or No to show their intent. When I send e-mail reminders of the next meeting to our members, I check on the current RSVPs and make the Subject line of the message read something like "Pond Club meeting RSVPs: 18 Yes, 3 Maybe, 2 No." That makes members realize we'll have another good crowd, resulting in more last-minute RSVPs, with practically everyone who responded Yes showing up.

I send those e-mails individually instead of en masse, so that I can personalize each one with some reference to that member's specific interests, as recorded in my notebook. (Yes, that takes more time, but the results are worth it.) The reminder e-mail always includes a direct link to the web site's page describing the next meeting, and occasionally links to the Message Board or Photos pages when appropriate. Making it easy to reach our web site encourages busy and even lazy members to participate actively. I describe each upcoming meeting vividly on our Events pages. I choose an informative main discussion topic or an enjoyable activity for each meeting, eventually covering the special interests of every member of the club.

The day after each meeting, the Meetup organization automatically sends a request to each member who submitted a Yes RSVP to return to our web site and evaluate the recent event. The comments members write as feedback show that they like meeting in a different venue each time, especially because they can see the design and planting of a different pond at every meeting. Members are also asked to rate the club as a whole, using a five-star rating system. After 22 meetings as of this writing, our club has earned 4.87 out of 5 stars, one of the highest ratings among the 14,000 clubs under the Meetup banner. We must be doing something right. The conversations at the meetings have been so animated that occasionally they didn't end until 10 or 11 p.m. Since then we've specified that the meetings start at 2 p.m. and end at 6 p.m., so that hosts won't be reluctant to host a future meeting.

So far Suzanne and I have been able to handle all the work ourselves, but if the pond club grows much larger, we'll need to appoint assistant organizers. Perhaps we'll continue to manage the members and meetings east of Geneva (where we live), an assistant organizer will manage those west of Geneva (in neighboring France), and another assistant organizer will manage those in greater Geneva itself. If all three sub-groups then continue to grow, they might become three independent clubs. But of course that possibility is way off in the future.

  Right now we're enjoying ourselves tremendously working with the size of the pond club we currently have. The people we've met and the friends we've made are well worth the time we spend organizing the club and updating the web site. These are bright, funny, caring people from all walks of life, who originally came from many different countries, whom we never would have met if it weren't for the Geneva Area Pond Club. 
Our success with the pond club has prompted us to expand our horizons. Last year we founded another club to meet people who share our passion for turtles and tortoises. We have many of these fascinating reptiles living and breeding in our ponds and garden. The new club is the Geneva Area Turtle and Tortoise Society, with its web site at http://turtles.meetup.com/44/about. But that's a story for the next issue of the WGI Journal. Stay tuned to learn about the pleasures of adding charming turtles to your own pond. 

Geneva Area Pond Club

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