During a recent interview with Mike Grondahl, CEO of Planet Fitness, he said something that made me stop and think. He said that our industry developed backwards, starting with bodybuilders and then moving to facilities like Curves. Instead, it should have started with places like Curves (where social interaction makes exercise less intimidating) and then progressed to places like Planet Fitness (for post-plateau) and then onto places like World Gym (where varied programming and more personal attention is available).
With all due respect to the legendary bodybuilders who helped create our industry, I think Grondahl is correct. Our beginnings and the ensuing era of aerobics and movies such as “Perfect” only added to the stereotype that clubs are for the already fit and beautiful. It has made our facilities seem intimidating to those who need them the most. In essence, our brand as an industry needs a change, and perhaps that change has already started with the circuit facilities and low-priced clubs.
However, I'm not completely sold on the low-priced club model. I have concerns related to whether these facilities can provide the customer service wanted and needed by members (an online search will turn up plenty of negative reviews about service levels at some of these types of facilities). That view was only exacerbated when a franchisee of a low-priced facility told me that he wanted to sign up as many members as possible and then he hoped they wouldn't all show up. I thought that comment reflected a sad attitude in a business that should be all about helping people.
However, after reading a study that says that price is the number one factor for 31 percent of people who join a facility (higher than any other reason given), I began to wonder if some people just need that price barrier broken to get them through the doors the first time. I know that was the case for me. I had worked out on my own for years before joining a club and only did so once I found a good deal at the club around the corner from me. During my first year I didn't want personal attention or to join a group fitness class. I only wanted to use the treadmill, elliptical and other cardio equipment. It wasn't until later that I began to feel the need to expand my fitness routine, and then options like personal training and group exercise began to look more attractive. However, one thing I did want was to know someone was there if I had a question or was doing something incorrectly.
So I am warming up to the idea that low-priced clubs may have a place in our midst as a way to entice some people to start a fitness habit. Everyone is at a different point in their fitness journey, and a low-priced, no-frills facility may fit some people at a certain point. However, as Grondahl pointed out, many of these people will eventually want and need more, and that's when they will move onto facilities that offer more programming options, more amenities and more personalized attention. My concern is that if their first experience at a health club involved a low-priced facility with no customer service, then their view of all clubs may forever be tainted and they'll never move onto another facility where their needs can be more fully met.
For the sake of our industry and its outreach to newcomers to fitness, I would suggest that club owners who decide to compete on price remember that regardless of why their members joined, ultimately, customer service is what will keep them not just at your facility but within the fold of the larger fitness industry.