Have you heard the podcast that is sure to pique your interest?
No, I'm not talking about "Serial," although even if you've never heard one Serial podcast, the takeoff on "Saturday Night Live" was really good.
I'm referring to the NPR podcast earlier this month called "The Planet Money Workout" that focuses on the health club industry. A little more than 4 minutes in, we hear from none other than our good friend and longtime health club designer Rudy Fabiano, who talks about designing gyms that don't look like gyms, such as Town Sports International's BFX Studio.
My favorite line from Rudy in the podcast: "I personally like the gyms where you can get a shake. Because I'm Italian, and you have to eat." He later told me in an email that his NPR interview lasted three hours and that although the report said he does not belong to a gym, he has had several club memberships in the past and has a pretty well-stocked home gym in his basement, thanks to his clients.
In addition to Rudy, Planet Fitness and its low-price model played a starring role in the podcast, in which the NPR reporters discuss the Planet Fitness massage chairs, the company's pizza night and its bagel breakfasts. A New York City Planet Fitness manager says her club holds 300 people yet has 6,000 members.
The point? Health clubs, like Planet Fitness, depend on members who do not show up, and even at their low membership prices, those members are actually subsidizing the members who do work out at the gym regularly, according to the report.
A couple of Internet sites picked up on the Planet Fitness perks after the podcast aired, pointing out the irony of pizzas and bagels in a health club. I reached out to Planet Fitness about the podcast, and spokesperson McCall Gosselin told me in an email the way Planet Fitness was portrayed "is not an accurate representation of what our brand truly stands for."
"Planet Fitness offers a high-value fitness experience at an extremely affordable price," Gosselin says. "We believe fitness should be accessible to everyone whether you work out seven days a week or have never worked out before."
Gosselin added Planet Fitness does offer amenities such as massage chairs and Bagel Tuesdays as a reward for a good workout "and because our members appreciate them."
"We are all about encouraging our members to work out at a pace that's right for them," Gosselin says. "We believe that is a key reason why Planet Fitness is the fastest-growing full-size health club franchise in the U.S."
Did the NPR podcast really reveal anything we didn't know about the health club business? Of course gyms don't want all of their members at the club at the same time. Revenues are built on memberships. How a club company treats its members and encourages them to work out is up to the club company. Some do a better job of this than others. But make no mistake, monthly membership drafts are the lifeblood of a health club company's bottom line.
As one of the reporters in the podcast suggests, people actually would prefer to have a health club contract than a cell phone contract.
"Joining a gym is an interesting form of what behavioral economists call 'pre-commitment,'" Kevin Volpp, the director of Wharton's Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics, said in the podcast. "They're picturing the new me who's actually going to go to the gym three times a week and become a physical fitness machine."
One of the NPR reporters said most gyms lose half their members annually, which I don't think is accurate. Attrition is part of the equation in the health club business—just not to that extent, in my opinion. The point the NPR reporter was trying to make is that most people eventually stop going to the gym and want to cancel.
"And even if we think about cancelling our membership, some of those contracts are notoriously difficult to get out of," the NPR reporter said. "This business model works so well that low-price gyms are growing like crazy. Turns out that selling stuff that nobody uses is a great business."
What say you, club owners and operators? What do you think of the assertions made in the NPR podcast about Planet Fitness and the health club industry?