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What Members Want

What Members Want

Surveys offer a glimpse into how members decide which clubs to join and why they stay.

The members at Snap Fitness in Douglassville, PA, made a request through a recent member survey. It wasn't a big request, but it was enough to get the attention of club owner John Stockton.

The problem? The TVs were placed too high in the club.

Members said that they sometimes got cricks in their necks when they looked up at the TVs while they worked out on the treadmills. Problem identified, problem solved for Stockton, who had the TVs lowered 14 inches.

Those 14 inches went a long way toward creating good will at the club.

“I had a couple of members come up to me and give me hugs saying thank you,” Stockton says. “When members feel that you're listening to them, they're going to tell you more.”

Club members expressed a lot more of their opinions in two member satisfaction surveys conducted by the Health Club Development Co., Providence, RI, in conjunction with the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) and Les Mills International.

About 7,600 members were surveyed in more than 20 health clubs in the United States and Canada. The clubs in the surveys ranged from coed multipurpose facilities to wellness centers. The responses also came from multiple- and single-location clubs that were both corporately and privately owned.

The majority of the respondents had previous health club experience and had been members at their current club for anywhere from three months to three years. Three-quarters of the respondents worked out at the club three or more times a week. Women represented 62 percent of the respondents.

“We've learned quite a bit about the industry and our members,” says Chris Gallo, president of Health Club Development Co. “There's tremendous consistency. It's very enlightening. You learn how to become better operators. You listen to your members.”

Price and Convenience

Given the condition of the economy, one might think that price was top-of-mind among the survey respondents in choosing or staying with a club, but that wasn't always the case.

When asked about the factors that led them to join their current health clubs, members ranked affordability fifth in one of the two surveys. Convenience was the No. 1 response, followed by club facilities, club appearance, atmosphere and hours of operation.

Price ranked higher in a similar question that asked members what factors are likely to have the biggest influence over their long-term commitment to a club. In that question, their personal financial situation ranked third behind cleanliness and convenience.

What's interesting is that local competition ranked a distant 14th after other factors — including staff interaction, fitness programming and social relationships. This led Gallo to question whether club owners are paying too much attention to the club or clubs down the street and not enough attention to their own clubs.

Programming ranked 10th in both questions, but that should not be a reflection on the value that programming brings to a club, Gallo says.

“Only a small percentage of people are interested in programming,” Gallo says. “But even if it's 20 percent of your members, it does not mean you still can't bring in some good revenue and creative value proposition by having [programming].”

That convenience ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in these two questions was of no surprise to Gallo, who presented the surveys at the IHRSA show earlier this year in San Francisco. It's common knowledge in the industry that the majority of people join a club within a 5-mile radius of either their home or work.

Because convenience is all but a given in the decision-making of most members, Gallo took convenience out when he asked members what factors would prompt them to check out a new club next door to their current club. In that question, 35 percent said lower prices. (See chart on page 41.) However, a majority of respondents — 56 percent — selected one of these three factors: group exercise/fitness (25 percent), a new building (21 percent) or a larger facility (10 percent).

“It's not surprising that lower price is the first thing that people think of when it comes to new clubs,” Gallo says. “Lower prices get people interested, [but] I think it's what's inside that counts. I think they still decide on value once they get in there. That's why we're looking for what deals we can put in promos to get them to come in the door.”

Branding and Value

Only 4 percent of respondents said that brand recognition would cause them to check out a new club next door. (For more about branding, see sidebar on page 29.) This is good news for mom-and-pop club owners, Gallo says, because it again illustrates what really matters to members: value.

“There is always that fear when someone bigger and better and more powerful invades a smaller guy's market,” Gallo says. “Members don't leave because that brand has come to town. They may leave because that brand puts up more facilities or is more convenient or is newer or has a better price.”


When asked to rank which club promotions would most entice them to refer a friend to the club, survey respondents ranked receiving the next month's membership free as their top pick, followed in order by a luxury holiday package, a $50 restaurant gift certificate, a $50 gas card, complimentary personal training session, $50 in club cash and club merchandise.

One marketing executive who has been in the club industry for almost 20 years says club owners should be careful about giving away these items, especially the one month free, which would dilute the average price of the membership. Instead, club owners should give out as many free samples, such as gym bags and nutrition booklets, as they can, he says.

“Anything that you can get somebody else to pay for is a good idea,” he says. “When a member joins, they should leave with something.”

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The service that most influenced members to join a club was the club's professional staff and knowledgeable trainers, according to one of the surveys. In a separate question, 78 percent of respondents said they expect their health club staff to be either extremely fit or have an average fitness level.

Several member prospects said they felt intimidated if the salesperson at a club wore a shirt and tie, Gallo says. In other words, members don't want a club's salesperson to look like someone who is simply trying to sell them something. Rather, a club's sales staff should appear more like a trainer — someone trying to help potential members — by wearing polo shirts or some sort of athletic wear, Gallo says. The more credible a club's sales staff is, the more believable and better suited they are to closing a deal, he adds.

“When you sit down side by side with people looking for solutions, you have to know how to sell solutions,” Gallo says. “There's no better person to sell those solutions than someone who looks like they are there to help and knows about fitness.”

Staying in Touch

The underlying theme of the member surveys is that the basic rules of customer service apply to the fitness industry, as it does to all industries. That understanding might help new club operators who don't have a fitness background.

Like a lot of Snap Fitness franchisees, Stockton had never owned or operated a health club before opening his Snap Fitness facility last year. But Stockton gained plenty of marketing experience from his previous business ventures, including fast food, insurance and computers. He also served as the chief marketing officer of a credit card company.

“Knowing and understanding your customers is the most powerful thing that a businessman should do,” says Stockton, who has since bought the rights to three more Snap Fitness clubs.

Stockton still refers to his club's member survey every few weeks to see what else he should do to improve the club and keep members happy.

“We build a bond with our members so that they know we're committed to their success,” Stockton says. “As long as we're committed to their success, our success will follow.”


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In the Fitness Industry, the Brand Doesn't Always Fit

Many clubs that have been around for years, such as Bally Total Fitness, Gold's Gym and 24 Hour Fitness, are well-known within the industry. But how well-known are they to the general public?

Chris Gallo, president of Health Club Development Co., Providence, RI, says no fitness club brand stands out in the industry, which is unusual for any industry.

“People don't just say, ‘I need to sign up with Bally or Gold's,’” Gallo says. “None of our brands are that strong. They basically shop for the best clubs at the best price.”

Derek Barton, who was the director of marketing for Gold's Gym International from 1985 to 2005, says the fitness club industry lacks a brand that emotionally connects with the public, like how McDonald's, Starbucks, Coca-Cola, Nike and Apple connect with people.

“Other companies make their products and services a lot more attractive than we do,” says Barton, who now runs his own marketing business, Barton Productions, in Los Angeles. “That is the fault of the whole [fitness club] industry. We've commoditized ourselves. We're doing nothing but price wars now. The consumer is not stupid, so when they see us go from 50 bucks a month to 40 to 30 to 20 to 10, they're thinking, ‘Something is wrong with this product and service. Maybe I'll just train at home.’ There's no value placed on our products and services when we practically give it away. People will pay, even in this economy, decent money to have a decent product and service.”

Denise Lee Yohn, who runs her own brand consulting company, Denise Lee Yohn Inc., in San Diego, says that club owners need to create value in their brands.

“In some ways, people do identify with or express themselves through their fitness club choice,” Yohn says. “If you're in New York and you're an Equinox member, that says something about you.”

Gallo says one part of creating a brand is having an inviting atmosphere.

“Our experience should be refreshing and entertaining,” Gallo says. “You cannot have that with a piece of equipment in your basement, and you cannot have that with a piece of equipment in your office. Hopefully, we're the experts in making that experience fun and refreshing.”

Planet Fitness Promotes Value, Not Just Price

Few club companies have expanded as much as Planet Fitness has over the past six years. Planet Fitness, Dover, NH, not only has grown to more than 275 clubs in 31 states since it began franchising in 2003, it has done so with marketing.

Planet Fitness is known for its purple and yellow colors, its judgment-free zone, its no-grunting policy, and of course, its price, which can get as low as $10 a month. This no-frills model has been especially effective in the current economy, when some members are choosing to join lower-priced clubs.

Although price is what gets most people in the door, Planet Fitness prides itself on value, says John Craig, the company’s brand development manager.

“We let our product speak for itself,” Craig says. “People want clean, friendly, good-looking gyms, and they want it at a good price. We think we deliver on all those counts.”

Recently, Planet Fitness expanded its marketing approach. In the spring, the company ran an ad on a billboard in Times Square in New York as part of its $1 down, $10-a-month membership campaign.

Last month, Planet Fitness ran nationwide TV commercials promoting its $99-per-year memberships. The company bought air time in several major markets, even running an ad during baseball’s All-Star Game.

Craig says marketing is a big part of Planet Fitness’ success.

“People always say, ‘It’s just low price,’” Craig says. “I can tell you that there’s a lot more that goes into it than just hanging a sign [promoting] $10 a month and being successful. It takes a lot of work and a lot of creativity in keeping it going.”

Chris Gallo, president of Health Club Development Co., Providence, RI, likes the Planet Fitness approach.

“They beat you on price. What else can you say? There’s no doubt about it,” Gallo says. “People just don’t want to spend, in most markets, a lot of money on their fitness membership. Planet Fitness nailed it in some ways. They know that probably 90 percent of people that join a club are looking to tone up and lose weight. Most people will either use cardio machines, free weights or strength training machines. They realize that the majority of people just want that, and if you give them a good price and you put it in a convenient area, you’re going to get X amount of members.”

Derek Barton, who was the director of marketing for Gold’s Gym International from 1985 to 2005, says he was skeptical of Planet Fitness, known for its $10-per-month memberships, and other low-priced chains when they came onto the fitness club scene. Barton is not skeptical anymore, mainly because those chains, he says, have taken advantage of what other clubs have not provided their members.

“Who’s at fault for them being in business?” Barton says. “The current gyms that don’t really know how to emotionally connect and offer their customers something worth paying for.”

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