Feature Article - February 2014
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Survival of the Fittest

Keys to Successful Fitness Facility Management

By Jessica Royer Ocken


Staying Current

The world of exercise and fitness is constantly changing, and new trends come to the forefront all the time. Although Sobotka points out that being aware of what's happening around you makes sense for any industry, just because something is new doesn't mean it's the right choice for your facility, added Fuel Fitness's Cohen. For example, if your fitness center has a focus on yoga, dance and other mind/body practices, the latest kickboxing program—no matter how popular it seems to be—will not be a good fit and will "counteract the calm, soothing environment" you've likely worked to cultivate, she noted.

However, you can still show your clients you're hip and current. "You can capitalize on a trend by promoting it on a flyer in your gym, with a caption like, 'After you've danced the night away at Zumba, we'll be waiting for you here, with gentle, healing yoga to relax and calm those dancing muscles.'" Be sure to stay focused and "do what you do," said Cohen. "And do it the best that you can."

Other ways to keep tabs on trends?

  • Tech Rec talks with its patrons to learn about what they want to do, but staffers also look online and visit other fitness centers in the area to see what's working for them, Reynoso said. After attending a national conference, Tech Rec has been working to tie their outdoor amenities, such as the track in the adjoining park, to indoor fitness options that will keep people moving in all seasons of the year.
  • Don't be afraid to try something new. "Sometimes we have to push the boundaries," said Beavers. "Sometimes residents say they don't want something, but we pilot it anyway. People are often thankful later." It's not difficult to give up on something that's clearly not working, so it can be worth the risk to offer something new. However, you don't want to revamp all at once. "Always stick with what's working," Sobotka added. "But do keep this fresh so members don't become bored. Sometimes, a whole new change is appropriate, and sometimes a small new twist on an existing program is appropriate."
  • Mills suggested getting a Millennial mindset, as these young adults are the future of your facility, so engaging them can be essential to success. This age group is also the most likely to be aware of and interested in the latest trends, as well as looking for something different from traditional exercise classes and methods. "Millennials are social, like focusing on themselves, and are willing to spend [money] when they see value," he reported. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) programs and express programs (like the Fit in 40 option Cohen mentioned) are particularly appealing to this group. And the ability to book and pay for classes, as well as check in to your facility, using a mobile device will also be appreciated.
  • While you're thinking about Millennials, you may also want to expand your focus to include youth, which is a group Mills believes will be growing quickly in the next few years as users of fitness facilities—or at least they should. "There is a need to go beyond simply providing children's versions of adult fitness classes and make a fundamental change in approach in order to successfully get children moving," he said. This means "providing fun, engaging physical activities that will improve confidence and well-being and help foster positive physical habits for life."

Setting Yourself Apart

Without a doubt, the exercise and fitness market is a crowded one, and you more than likely have multiple competitors in your area. Rather than preparing for head-to-head battle with them, these experts suggest finding your own place in the market and learning to coexist—or perhaps even work together—with the other options around you. "Know your competitors and know your demographic marketplace," said Sobotka. "Find a need and fill it."

How should you do this?

  • Do a careful assessment of your strengths and most popular features, and then work to maximize those assets and appeal to the segment of the market most likely to enjoy them. "Make sure what you choose to do is something you are good at doing," Sobotka added.
  • If you're part of a park district or municipality, you may be particularly well-positioned for success. The Tech Rec staff talks frequently with managers at other Prince George's County fitness centers and parks so they can cross-promote each other's programs, avoid overlapping the services they provide, and combine their efforts to offer special events. In addition, membership at one fitness center gives customers access to the majority of parks and recreation sites in the county for a mere $115 per year. And, a government subsidy makes memberships for children under 17 and people older than 60 completely free. "That's one of the ways we ensure meet the needs of those who need fitness the most," Beavers said. Although park district fitness centers are not the fanciest in town—there's no towel service or sauna at most locations—no one can compete with them on price and sheer number of facilities, Beavers noted. "We look at it as everyone has niche," Pesses said. "We have private health clubs in the community, but we work with them. [Our focus is on] things we can provide as a government agency, this is our mission."
  • And finally, don't get too crazy. "In my experience, positive differentiation comes from nailing the basics," Mills said. "Do you have an inspiring and motivating environment? Do you coach people on how to get started in the best way? Do you have great programs to engage them in? Do you have friendly staff at reception? All of these are much more critical to success than trying to 'be different'—especially if a facility ends up being 'different but less good.'"