Woof – I cannot believe it: we are going to complete 10 years, as of this December.
I’ve mentioned this story before – our first year,we had 2-3 consecutive days of 10-11 divers and I was panicking – I stayed late in the office, obsessively double- and triple-checking everything to make sure that all was in order and there’d be no screw-ups.
And now, as we start our 10th season, the baby DIVEIndia store in Neil is about to go through the same metamorphosis – after a year or so of running under the radar, we are finally opening the Neil dive center “officially”. Finally!
One thing we’ve refused to do is go down the full corporate way, and bring in investors, etc. That would help us grow faster, for sure, but then we would become Just Another Commercial Dive Center, and god knows, the world (or heck, even the Andamans) doesnt need that. So the Neil dive center is going to follow the footsteps of our Havelock dive center, albeit with the benefit of 10 years of experience added to what was, back then, just a general/vague idea on how things *should* be run. Given how well things have gone in Havelock, I reckon those arent bad footsteps after all.
But there are still a few things I reckon we could do better. As we’ve grown rapidly in the last few years, we face some internal change ourselves. Our fully-flexible operational approach of the past is going to require a little re-working and we will have to put in some policies and guidelines, so as to keep things ticking along smoothly. The trick, of course, remains in finding the right balance of flexibility (so if a diver walks in and says, “hey, I loved today’s dive – I want to go back there tomorrow”, we can accommodate him) vs structure (shoot me if we become another bureaucratic dive center where “this is the plan for the next week, you will follow it and you will like it”).
A few changes we have planned:
1/ Improving our briefings. Our Burmese dive guides are fantastic spotters and have really good awareness of everything going on around them, but due to language and socio-cultural differences, their briefings can be a little spotty. Now, the fact remains that a group with 2 buddy teams probably doesn’t require the same level of detailed/rigorous briefings as a group with 10-12 dives, but still, it is always a good idea for divers to have as much information as possible. It would be too easy to just hire expat DMs, but I think responsible business practices mean giving back to the local community by providing them an upward path in the industry; not only that, the local dive guides are simply really, really good. I’ve been diving for 22 years now, am an Instructor Trainer/Course Director and most of our Burmese dive pros are better dive guides than me (and those who aren’t, will probably be in a year or two). So instead of taking the easy way, we are going to be continuously working with the dive guides on improving their communication skills, and providing them with the tools to make their lives easier – the most important one being maps of the dive sites.
2/ Adjust processes: The biggest challenge for us has always been the planning vs flexibility trade-off. I know dive centers that plan the whole week in advance. Classroom times for courses are strictly defined, course planning is done well in advance, etc, etc. This makes life easier in terms of operations, things run smoothly and everything seems professional. I have never really bought into this – I think our goal, as a dive center, is not to make life easier for ourselves, but to make life as convenient a possible for our customers. So if you want to come and watch the Open Water video at a different time, then, within reason, we want to accommodate that. If you dive for a bit and then want to visit a different dive site from what is planned… hey, you’re paying us, you get to decide where you want to go.
The obvious downside of this, of course, is that sometimes things do get turned around a bit too much. Some people interpret flexibility and lack of rigid structure as being unprofessional. And fair enough – sometimes, divers dont really have a strong preference on what they want to do, but are happy to follow along the plan, whatever it is.
So one of the things we are working on right now is how to find that right balance.
3/ Feedback forms: So far, we’ve been running on gut feel on what we are doing correctly and what we aren’t. Because a lot of our divers come hang out in the cafe later, we get feedback directly from them. But as we expand, we want to make sure we are capturing information in a systematic manner.
4/ Dive center re-design: Vikas and Melissa have been scheming like Pinky and the Brain on this, and we are all waiting to see what comes out of this. Those ugly floor tiles are most likely going to stay for another year, though, unfortunately.
5/ Neil to open on moderate scale: we are going to launch the Neil dive center with 6 rooms and enough diving gear to support projected business. And once everything is up and running, we’ll start actively marketing Neil packages as stand-alone dive+stay options, not merely as an add-on to Havelock (although that option will always remain).
6/ Expand the instructor training side of Diveindia – we are India’s first Instructor Training facility, offering on-site instructor training courses since 2009. And now we are India’s only multi-agency Instructor Training facility, offering both NAUI and SSI Instructor Training courses, with 2 full-time instructor trainers/course directors on staff. One thing we want to do is make the Andamans a regional hub for instructor training, but with a different – and as far as we can tell, completely unique – approach to how instructor courses are taught. More info on this to come at the appropriate time.
And then there are our usual off-season initiatives:
– Pooling the best practices from the various instructors, so that each instructor is able to improve his/her training.
– Staff training – certifying our boat staff as divers, emergency responders and also rescue divers.
– Annual gear maintenance – I dont know what it is, but our depth gauges always take a beating and have a life expectancy of about 20% of normal. Last year, we also received a bunch of non-standard O-rings that, while functional, weren’t optimal. We replaced them ad-hoc through the season but are doing a more systematic change now
– New gear for Neil and Havelock. The best part of the season – unpacking all those boxes and boxes of goodies. Christmas in the Andamans does come in August
One thing that is still on the cards but has been pushed back to next year is retail. I am not particularly keen on selling scuba equipment in the Andamans simply because the cost factor makes it economically unviable. It would be far cheaper for people to just import the gear themselves from the US or UK. And if we dont believe in the product that we are selling, what’s the point? But there are some bits of gear that we can sell which offer good value for our customers and provide us with enough return to make it worth our time/trouble: masks, straps, wetsuits, drybags. We do plan to start selling them, but it is on hold for one more year, till we are able to find a reliable import agent in Kolkata or Chennai who can handle this for us.
Our goal is quite simple – to be a better, safer dive center each year. If there is anything you’d like to see us add – please let us know via email.
PS: A couple of people have asked me if we plan to have dogs in Neil. It is quite ironic, given the celebrity status Frodo and Sam have acquired on the Interwebz, that I had initially hesitated to get them because I wasn’t sure whether keeping dogs in a resort was a good idea or not. While the Beasts have turned out to be quite a draw, we have no plans of ever keeping dogs merely for marketing. So no, no dogs in Neil, unfortunately, unless I move there – in which case, there will be 3 dogs in Neil (and none in Havelock).