Photo Courtesy of Nick Collura, Wisconsin Athletic Club
A Home for Wellness
Many of us have the best intentions when it comes to exercising more and making that part of our regular routine. But with tight schedules and full plates, the path from good intentions to actually breaking a sweat can be fraught with distractions. And on the other side of the equation, fitness facilities are continuing to adapt to pandemic changes, and are looking for new ways to engage current members and attract new ones, whether through marketing, programming, new technologies, etc. So just how do they get the well-intentioned through the door?
Many YMCAs offer a full complement of exercise equipment and fitness programs, and YMCA Chief Marketing Officer Valerie Waller said that when it comes to engaging their communities, they’ve found both traditional and digital strategies to be successful. “At local Ys, radio ads and billboards capture a broad range of people as they’re going about their day-to-day activities. Digital marketing and social media let Ys target and share specific information with people already involved with the Y or looking to become involved. To ensure we’re relevant and connect where people are, Ys use Facebook, share stories on Instagram and even make TikTok videos.”
In St. Charles, Ill., Ande Masoncup is the assistant superintendent of recreation at the Norris Recreation Center, which features a fitness center, sport courts, indoor pool and many health and fitness programs managed by the St. Charles Park District. She said they market using print materials, Facebook and e-newsletters. They also offer many incentives and promotions, including member referral incentives, Bring a Friend weekends, logging workouts to earn rewards and prizes, and seasonal/holiday promotions such as bringing canned food items at Thanksgiving to receive a discounted massage.
“Member incentive programs are helpful as it keeps the member engaged,” said Masoncup. “Members can earn prizes like discounts on wellness coaching or memberships or guest passes. The members can then tell their friends about these things to help bring them in.”
The center also hosts open houses, featuring facility tours, fitness demos, wellness coach Q & As, chair massages, prize drawings, refreshments and membership promos.
The 46-year-old Wisconsin Athletic Club (WAC) is one club with eight locations throughout the Milwaukee area, and members have access to all locations. Molly Anderson is general manager of the Brookfield location, which features aquatics, a gym, personal training and exercise studios, fitness areas and upscale locker rooms. She explained that their members are their biggest form of advertising, with word-of-mouth and referrals helping to grow and maintain the successful business.
“Our members who have left due to COVID are returning through our regular outreach,” said Anderson. “While we don’t do any print, radio or TV advertising, we have increased the quality and quantity of social media we’re posting.”
She said they strive to make it personal, highlighting success stories and including members and staff in the postings. “It’s important to us that our communities know that we’re invested in making a difference in people’s lives.”
The nonprofit American Council on Exercise (ACE) offers certification programs and continuing education to exercise professionals and health coaches. Anthony Walls is senior director of global fitness development at ACE, and he suggested that people often join clubs “because they want a sense of belonging.” But he also pointed out that joining a club and then actually showing up consistently are very different motivators. “When you’re part of that group, your motivation to stay in that group has to be reignited every day.”
Group fitness offerings have proven successful at motivating members to consistently show up, and according to Walls, it’s an area where they’ve seen “a tremendous amount of evolution” lately. He said that while personal training might explore new techniques and philosophies, at the end of the day the environment is quite fixed: one-on-one. “Go to group fitness on the other hand, and you can do many different things with it, whether you’re changing the music, changing the design of the room, or utilizing different tools (bars, dumbbells, kettlebells) and different modalities of exercise.” He added that they’re seeing an increase in specificity as well, whether it’s working with youth groups, older populations, etc.
Anderson said that group fitness is an important part of their success, with 90 complimentary classes at her location and more than 600 a week between the clubs, from strength to cardio to mind-body. “Our instructors are given the freedom to create their own classes with appropriate music. It allows them to let their personalities shine and be memorable.”
Many members take more than one format a week, and many friendships are built at the club, according to Anderson, who said participants also come for a mental health boost. “We’re finding that now more than ever people are craving the social component to their wellness, and it’s more fun to go where your friends are!”
“Group exercise classes are extremely popular,” echoed Paul McEntire, chief operating officer at YMCA, “even more so now so that people can be together.” He said variety is critical, and they work with all fitness levels, offering programs for beginners to the most avid group exercisers, while keeping up with trends in the interest of continuing engagement and meeting demand. Additionally, Ys tailor their offerings to the interests and needs of the communities they serve. “Using attendance data and member input, Ys will adjust offerings based on member demand.”
Masoncup reported their group classes have a strong following, with most classes building a great social community amongst participants. “(We’re) always looking to try something new; suggestions are welcome from members and we accommodate if we’re able.”
More clubs are expanding their health and wellness offerings to include more than just physical fitness, which is attractive to a wider range of potential customers. There are health coaches, behavior change coaches and weight management specialists.
“That’s a big area,” said Walls. “For many years, ACE has believed in the principles of behavior change; influencing behavior to be more successful.” He said that coming out of the pandemic, people were thinking more about mental wellness. “So the ability to have a conversation about habits or looking at things that are barriers to being happy, to participating in exercise programs and having healthier choices of food, those types of conversations are what coaches are doing now, and they’re more acceptable at health clubs.”
Masoncup’s facility offers complimentary health and wellness consultations free to members every six months, which she said “are gaining traction as more members see the benefit of this service. These consultations guide you based on your likes and what you’re wanting to gain in your wellness journey.” Health and wellness coaches help clients identify problem areas, explore causes and establish goals and plans. Besides exercise and weight management, other typical items addressed include stress management, lifestyle changes, time management and personal organization, emotional and mental health, nutrition and sleep patterns and managing specific health conditions. Masoncup said their clients represent all demographics. “We have teenagers looking to get fit as well as older clients looking to improve flexibility. Wellness coaching is for everybody.”
YMCAs also offer a variety of wellness programs, including Healthy Weight and Your Child, Diabetes Prevention and LIVESTRONG for those dealing with cancer. There are special programs for older adults including Moving for Better Balance. “YMCAs indicate that they continue to see many requests for programs to support lifestyle health and disease prevention and management,” said McEntire. “The biggest trend throughout the pandemic has been requests for programs/services to support mental wellness, and Ys have been mobilizing alongside partners to provide a variety of supports or referrals for these services.”
He said personal coaching/training has always attracted a wide variety of interest, though motivations may vary. “Ys support individuals in achieving their well-being goals which may include support for injury recovery or support to individuals who need a little guidance and/or variety to achieve their goals.”
Anderson said that personal training is a big draw, but explained that the initial sessions new members receive aren’t about selling personal training. “They’re offered to help connect our new members to someone in the club. We believe the more connections an individual has, the more they will use the club, the longer they will stay and the healthier results they will see.”
Coming out of COVID, she said they transitioned to a monthly subscription as opposed to selling packages. “There’s something to be said for the accountability that a trainer provides as well as a program that’s focused on the individual’s goals and needs. Our trainers make it very personal and fun!”
Walls described the “digitalization of the industry” as a trend. “How is technology being leveraged to help individuals feel successful, help them with their programs, even down to tracking (progress)? That’s one of the big pieces we’re seeing now is integrating technology within a member experience. That could be through automation, but it could also be through programs and services.”
As an example, he mentioned the ability to go online and do an on-demand session when traveling or do a session from home using your club’s app.
Though demand for many virtual offerings has waned, McEntire said most Ys continue to offer some programs online. “Ys have found that this has allowed them to expand their reach and meet the needs of the individuals they’re trying to serve.”
Asked about other fitness trends, he mentioned that over the past few years there’s been a trend toward less equipment use and doing more types of resistance training using the body or other objects. “There’s also a growing trend in understanding the need for flexibility, so stretching and yoga and things like that have become more popular.”
According to Anderson, yoga is also in high demand at their facilities. “Last year we remodeled our studio and rebranded it ‘The Lotus Studio.’ This tranquil space is available throughout the day for members to enjoy their own mind-body practice.”
As far as other fitness trends, she mentioned a younger membership base (20- to 30-year-olds) and said more members are focusing on strength training versus cardio. “For this reason, we’re investing more dollars into expanding our fitness spaces, adding more benches, weight machines, free weights, etc.”
She said the exception is their cycle program, and her location just received new bikes that use a standardized system that optimizes a user’s indoor cycling training experience either solo or in a group setting. “We have a strong cycling community who are very excited to have this upgrade.”
Community rec and fitness centers continue to add services and amenities that help them compete with private clubs. Masoncup said they’ve now offered massage therapy for several years, and it’s been a nice perk for their membership. “This is a service that more park districts should offer as it helps create a ‘one stop shop.’” And she pointed out that they’re one of the only local clubs with an open childcare center, though she reported it’s been underutilized since the pandemic, possibly due to a shift toward remote working for many families.
McEntire said that each Y is unique and offers a variety of amenities, and some have upgraded their level of support in their facilities. “That said, what is available at all Ys is a sense of community. The Y is a place both children and adults can build camaraderie and find support in a safe, inclusive environment, something that we know is needed to reduce the social isolation epidemic in our country.”
“The quality of our classes and the connections that are made are far more important than any piece of equipment,” said Anderson, who also stressed the importance of community, as well as making a difference within their communities. She mentioned a number of initiatives they’ve contributed to, including blood drives, food drives, toy drives, shoe and sock drives, the Milwaukee Rescue Mission and men’s and women’s shelters.
“We pride ourselves on being a social club, not just a gym,” said Anderson. She described how half of their locations have ‘club pubs’ that host a variety of social events. At her location, the most popular night is Taco Tuesday, featuring tacos and Mexican beer specials. “We also host special nights with live music, Bunco and Trivia.”
Their outdoor pool has an oasis that serves food, smoothies for the kids and adult beverages, as well as hosting live music in the summer, which draws members from all their locations. “We love our members to come and enjoy all that we have to offer, and we pride ourselves in being a home away from home.”
And maybe that’s the answer to getting those well-intentioned people through the door. RM