Industry Image


When IHRSA proclaimed that it wanted to grow the club marketplace to 100 million members worldwide by 2010, the association realized that the industry wouldn't hit that magic number by relying on prayer and a little luck. IHRSA knew it required a strategy, a plan to bring more people into health clubs.

"We began asking ourselves, `What do we need to do to accelerate the growth of membership in health clubs in the United States?'" recalls John McCarthy, IHRSA's executive director. "And it surfaced very quickly that we needed to strengthen and broaden the image that health clubs have in the United States." So IHRSA pledged $350,000 ($250,000 of its own money plus $100,000 donated by industry suppliers) to do just that.

And that wasn't all. IHRSA sent out requests for proposals (RFPs) to 12 companies, seeking an agency that could spearhead an image campaign for the fitness industry. IHRSA whittled the respondents down to four semi-finalists, then two finalists, and then the winner: Ketchum, a large and respected San Francisco-based public-relations firm.

Ketchum prevailed because of its focus on fitness's future, according to McCarthy. "Basically, the first and foremost project that Ketchum proposed to us was to fundamentally redefine fitness," he says. "That's a huge undertaking. But we want to redefine it in such a way so that fitness and fitness clubs will appeal to a much broader segment of the total marketplace."

The total marketplace, yes, but the campaign will pay particular attention to Generation Y, also known as the echo boomers. This population, currently between the ages of 5 to 23, boasts 74 million people, McCarthy claims. "So this monster generation is beginning to join health clubs," he says.

And it's not a generation the club industry can afford to lose. Baby boomers - who are between the ages of 37 and 54, and have a population of 76 million - have already embraced fitness. By emphasizing the industry as young, vital and contemporary, the campaign hopes that Generation Y will follow the baby boomers' lead.

The Next Generation Opening health clubs to a new generation is important, believes Herb Lipsman, vice president of development for the Houstonian Club, and the chairperson for IHRSA's public-relations committee. The fitness industry has focused a lot of energy on baby boomers, he notes, but aging boomers will plateau. That's why the industry must make itself look hip to younger generations.

There's also something to be said about catching potential members while they are young. Lipsman cites the tennis industry as an example. "One of the things that helped fuel the tennis boom was putting tennis rackets into the hands of children," he says.

Fitness Fuel Similarly, if younger generations get interested in fitness now, they could fuel growth in the club market later. And their numbers are in our favor. In its overview of the fitness industry, Banc of America Securities reported that the echo-boom population trend is "clearly on the side of this [club] industry."

That being said, however, there's no guarantee that Generation Y will march into clubs without provocation (although early research indicates that this generation is receptive to health clubs, claims McCarthy). Just because the population is large doesn't mean the echo boomers will turn out in droves.

"Build it and they will come is a bad business plan," reminds Steve Schwartz, the president of Tennis Corporation of America (TCA). "You really do have to market."

Gary Cooper, a Banc of America research analyst who follows the leisure industry, agrees that Generation Y is a population worth pursuing for health clubs. However, he wouldn't necessarily discount baby boomers, either. Granted, baby boomers are already well represented in health clubs, but, as Cooper notes, boomers also earn the highest salaries. Therefore, in terms of market segmentation, this older population provides some significant opportunities for the industry.

In a letter to Club Industry, Peter Davis, CEO of IDEA The Health & Fitness Source, adds that older adults need fitness. And, he argues, an image campaign that focuses on youth will only intimidate older adults and the deconditioned.

Don't Forget the Deconditioned "The fitness industry has long been associated with an image that stresses being young, fit and physically appealing," Davis explains, "and unfortunately, this frequently creates a negative impression with the very people in need of exercise - the deconditioned and inactive population.

"As the United States' aging population grows to over 100 million people and has 80 percent of the nation's wealth," he continues, "it is important that the industry also make a concerted effort in attracting this huge market and overcoming the old belief systems about clubs."

McCarthy counters that the image campaign will make an effort to attract older adults. True, everything in the campaign will pass through "a Generation Y filter," but attempts to draw younger people won't alienate baby boomers, he claims.

"The one thing we really, really, really know about baby boomers is that they want to feel young and they want to look young and they want to be with young people," McCarthy says. "If any generation worships youthfulness, it's the baby boomers. So we don't think clubs having a youthful spirit about them is going to do any damage."

Fitness for Everybody Furthermore, the campaign won't exactly ignore the elderly, according to Drew McGowan, the Ketchum account supervisor who is running the day-to-day operations for the IHRSA account. As a matter of fact, the campaign won't ignore anyone.

"We definitely want to attract the younger generation, but that's not to say in any way, shape or form that we are not going to engage the baby boomers and the seniors," McGowan stresses. "What we are trying to do is develop a comprehensive program that fits and meets the demand of every population across regions, across age groups, whatever. We want to reach everybody."

"I think one of the real messages here is that clubs are where anybody can feel at home," McCarthy notes emphatically. "Please don't imagine that health clubs are filled with a lot of perfect male and female bodies, and a lot people who are so athletic and fitness-oriented that they are almost fanatics about sports and fitness. We are trying to soften the image of what goes on in a club to continually reduce the intimidation."

New and Improved One way the campaign plans to soften that image is to show the new things that clubs are providing - things many nonmembers may not even realize. Nowadays, for example, strength training among women and older adults is common; it's not just young guys hanging out in the weight rooms. Another example: Mind/body classes are helping members eliminate stress from their lives.

"There are a lot of new things going on in clubs that would appeal to all sorts of people," McCarthy says. Still, many people "have an image of health clubs that is much more restrictive." And that's unfortunate.

Not only will the campaign emphasize the new programs and services available in clubs, it will look for the next big trend in fitness - something that will help sell the industry.

"What we are trying to find is some profound new research to see what is next in the fitness industry, and see where we can use that new insight to forge a campaign that is going to help reshape the industry," McGowan says.

Fearing the Findings At the moment, nobody knows what that profound new research will be. And with nothing firm to examine, some club operators and owners are afraid of what Ketchum may come up with. One club manager, requesting anonymity, describes this scenario: Ketchum's research convinces consumers that they should seek out not-for-profit wellness facilities. If this happens, the for-profit clubs that IHRSA serves would lose out.

McCarthy dismisses this possibility. "This new image of fitness is something you will find, live and breathe in clubs," he says. "This campaign has no negative messages whatsoever. It will be all positive, but it will be all club-centric."

It will also engage clubs. While Ketchum will eventually share its research and fitness messages with the media, the image campaign will ultimately depend upon clubs to be the industry's spokespeople in their communities.

"Fundamentally, we will be sending a lot of communication to major media, but we will also be sending a lot of communication to clubs to let clubs adapt and adopt the communication that we are sending to the major media and the media in their own communities," McCarthy shares.

This communication will also in-clude promotions and programs that can help clubs. For example, the campaign will share the best practices it finds in the industry, so all clubs can benefit.

"There are many clubs out there right now that are doing amazing things; they are really trendsetters," McGowan notes. "What we are going to try to do is work with those clubs to lift up the idea of best practices in the industry because there are so many clubs that are doing so well already. We want to find those clubs and highlight them and show their good ideas to the other clubs that are out there so we can all borrow and learn together."

Re-Educating Consumers While illustrating the club industry's best practices, the campaign should also dismiss the old, negative stereotypes that plague clubs, Cooper believes. Consumers need to realize that they have pricing options, and that they won't get hit with the hard sell the moment they step into a club. They also need to know that a club won't take their membership dues, shut down the facility and disappear with the money.

"People - particularly people who have worked out in their younger years and stopped working out to raise a family, [and] may or may not be considering coming back to the industry - still have those old images in their head and they are not entirely accurate," Cooper says. That's what the campaign must emphasize - that those images are inaccurate.

Regardless of how the campaign progresses, one thing seems certain: This is just beginning. McCarthy says that the campaign will be an annual initiative - an initiative that Lipsman believes will grow.

"I would tell you that we have a sizable budget [and] we believe that if we tell enough of a compelling message that we'll be able to attract sort of a coalition of other organizations...that might chose to partner with us to help make that fund bigger," Lipsman says.

And with a bigger fund, IHRSA's image campaign can deliver a bigger message.

Webster's Third New International Dictionary (unabridged) defines fitness as "the quality or state of being fit or fitted."


Since Webster's makes fitness sound so dull, it's only natural that IHRSA and Ketchum hope to redefine fitness with an industry image campaign. But how should the new definition read? Club Industry wrote to John McCarthy, executive director of IHRSA, asking him to educate us. "I cannot be very succinct about this," he wrote back, "but the new definition of fitness involves a broader understanding of `exercise' that leads to a broader definition of health.

"To be specific, the new definition of fitness includes yoga and Pilates and tai chi and meditation and outdoor exercise and strength and endurance and flexibility and balance and stress management, and intelligent eating and drinking, and the right balance between work and family and play and rest. And it means being smart about prevention and smart about exercise and smart about wellness and smart about lifestyle, so that everything one does facilitates leading a healthy, energetic, self-directed and balanced life."

Got all that, Mr. Webster? Good. Now start reprinting those dictionaries.

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