Feature Article - February 2014
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Survival of the Fittest

Keys to Successful Fitness Facility Management

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Attracting Members

If you're an established facility looking to grow, one of the greatest ways to bring in new members is a referral program. A referral is always the strongest prospect, Sobotka said. No one can sell your fitness center better than those already experiencing it for themselves. Of course, this means your current members need to be happy with their experiences (see the next section for more on that).

Additional strategy suggestions?

  • Make your presence known. When Tech Rec opened in Maryland, they sent a postcard to every home in the area, inviting people to come see the center. "Some people were waiting outside to come in the day we opened," said Anita Pesses, chief of public affairs and marketing for the Department of Parks and Recreation, Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. "But there are others who might never stop by if they weren't invited." Even if your facility isn't new, be sure it's at the top of people's minds through consistent external and internal marketing, Sobotka said.
  • Spice things up with special events, Cohen added. Some of your potential members may not know they're in the market for a fitness center membership. If you can get them into your facility for something special—a community fitness day, the introduction of a new type of exercise class, family day at the aquatic center—they'll see firsthand what you have to offer and perhaps be inspired to return. "Our opening was almost like a big party," said Beavers about Tech Rec. "Everyone had [a free] opportunity to do something. You have to make a splash to get people's attention."
  • "Be a constant presence in the community," Beavers said. Be sure your team includes staff members focused on outreach and community relations. Visit churches, homeowners meetings and recreation council meetings. Participate in community events, from fun runs to craft shows to police department safety workshops. Find out how you can help, and make sure you have information about your facility available.
  • People seek fitness professionals and fitness facilities "because they need two things they can't get easily by themselves: results and, more importantly, motivation," Mills said. If your facility can help customers achieve these, this will in turn "attract people who come more often, remain loyal longer, bring more friends, and talk to people about their fitness experiences in a positive way." How do you offer motivation? Make fitness fun, he suggested. Give your center a stimulating, welcoming atmosphere; fill it with friendly, knowledgeable, supportive staff; and offer entertaining and inspiring special events to keep people engaged and working toward a goal.

Retaining Members

As important to success as bringing in new members is keeping the ones you already have. To do this, focus on the quality of the experience guests have at your fitness center. What sort of customer service are you offering them? How is your facility maintained? "Without service and facility upkeep, you'll see members walk out the back door as fast as you are able to get them in the front door," said Sobotka.

Knowing what customers want and letting them know their needs are important to you are crucial to success, these experts report. If you have a consistently high level of customer service, then even when things don't go a person's way (you can't offer the Zumba class at the precise time they need it; or you don't have the funds to put in the climbing wall they're begging for), they'll stick with you. "When people are treated well, they remember," Beavers said. "They need to feel respected and like they matter."

At Tech Rec, this means there's always a staff member stationed in the cardio and fitness room to help people use the equipment properly and keep the room clean, reported Reynoso. Yes, there are wipes available for clients to use on the machines, they can connect their smartphones to the equipment, and everything is state-of-the-art, but "having someone who is knowledgeable there to help" is also essential, he added.

What else keeps customers happy?

  • Make sure your members are informed about all you offer. You may be so busy marketing to potential customers that you forget to take care of your own. The parks department that manages Tech Rec sends a weekly e-newsletter about what's happening at all their facilities, and they make sure they're always stocked with brochures listing all classes and events for a particular location. They also use social media and even the big digital marquees in front of the building to keep their users up to date.
  • Consider carefully the environment you're creating. "Environments can encourage, or discourage, people of all ages to lead an active, engaged life," said Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging (ICAA). If seniors are among your target audience, you'll want to be particularly sensitive to their wants and needs (see sidebar for more on this), but customizing to the interests and expectations of your clients goes a long way regardless of their age. This is once again an opportunity to communicate with your clientele about what they like and dislike, and what they'd like to see.
  • Little things can make a big difference in the atmosphere, Milner noted. Changing a paint color, adding extra lighting, adding signs for easy navigation or creating a comfortable seating area where parents can watch their children's classes can add warmth to your facility and encourage people to stay. Consider offering snacks or Wi-Fi or game tables to up the opportunities for fun and socializing, suggested Beavers. "Environments provide experiences, good and bad, and good experiences create memories that bring consumers back," Milner said. "How will you make your environment compelling?"