Survival of the Fittest

Keys to Successful Fitness Facility Management

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Keeping a fitness facility up and running—whether you're part of a park district, a private club or a community center with a fitness component—is a big job. Programming and scheduling, training and teaching, cleaning and organizing, marketing and motivating: These duties combine to make a lot of moving parts. And they need to work in synchronicity to ensure happy customers and success for your operation.

But, although effective fitness facility management is more than just opening your doors at the right times and having clean towels (although both help), it's also incredibly rewarding. There's nothing better than helping clients improve their health and fitness, feel better about themselves, and have a great time along the way. So whether you're a seasoned staffer or new to the business, check out these tips and ideas—collected from industry experts—for keeping your fitness center at the top of its game.

Choosing and Designing Programs

The classes and programs you offer (as well as the quality of those programs and their instructors) are a big part of what defines the culture and atmosphere of your fitness center, as well as one of the main ways you make money. So get this right. Fortunately, you have a whole team of allies ready to help if you just ask them: your customers.

If you're in the planning stages of a new facility, you can get input at the ground level. The Prince George's County Department of Parks and Recreation is home to one of the newest and most innovative fitness centers in the country: the Southern Regional Technology & Recreation Complex in Ft. Washington, Md. (known affectionately as Tech Rec). Situated in a community of 23,000, Tech Rec activated 17,000 new memberships in the first month after its opening on June 29, 2013. Staffers with the park district trace this impressive start to the fact that creating the center was a "community-driven process from the beginning," explained Kelli Beavers, chief of Southern Area operations.

People living near the center contributed ideas about what it should include and the programming they'd like, and today Tech Rec boasts a variety of technology-based classes and programs, as well as fitness programming basics (line dance, basketball) and special requests including abundant senior fitness options, early morning boot camp and indoor soccer. "This is a very vocal community, and our department as whole has a citizen-based approach," Beavers said. "We have a good working relationship with the citizens and groups in our community, and our facilities are a home away from home [for them]."

But even if your fitness center is up and running, it's never too late to ask for user input. "Open the lines of communication between staff and members," said Franci Cohen, owner and CEO of Fuel Fitness, a specialty fitness center in Brooklyn, N.Y. This could be as simple as a suggestion box at the front desk or a "how can we better serve you" survey, she noted. "Let members tell you what they want from their gym experience."

Other bright ideas?

Keeping a fitness facility up and running—whether you're part of a park district, a private club or a community center with a fitness component—is a big job.

  • Rather than committing to a full 8- or 16-week session of a class you aren't sure about, offer it for a "demo period" of just a few sessions to see if the community likes it, suggested Beavers.
  • Timing can be critically important, both in terms of when you're offering classes (make sure it's a time the intended members are available) and how those classes are formatted. If you're serving an audience on its way to work, schedule classes that will give them the most benefit in the least amount of time, Cohen said. "Offer a 45-minute blow-out or a Fit in 40 class that will offer the same intensity and caloric burn as its one-hour counterpart." During the day is downtime for many fitness facilities, so why not entice moms and kids by offering simultaneous programming for both in the midmorning and early afternoon?
  • Make sure your teachers can teach. It's not enough to be a fitness guru; people skills and teaching experience are essential as well. Provide training for all your instructors, and teaching staff should be "certified and experienced in [the] methodologies [for their classes]," said Rick Sobotka, corporate wellness pro and founder of FCS University, an online resource for fitness center employee training. "We interview every instructor to be sure they have same passion we have," added Glen Reynoso, facility manager for Tech Rec. "We want to be sure teachers will take time with students, be on time to teach, and be able to explain what they're teaching."
  • Phillip Mills, CEO of Les Mills International, a New Zealand-based company that produces group fitness and team training programs, suggested offering pre-choreographed group fitness classes (for which teachers are given a routine to learn and teach) as a way to ensure quality and consistency.
  • Innovation is important, but research shows six core genres drive 84 percent of global fitness center attendance each week, Mills said, citing the March 2013 Round 7 Global Survey Scoreboard. These categories are: strength and weights; core strength; cycling; dance; mind/body; and martial arts. Therefore, "while it can be great to offer something a little different, if a facility dedicates the majority of their timetable to these six trends, it will generate solid appeal."

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?"

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.'"

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