The ongoing coronavirus pandemic is presenting every fitness business with a unique set of obstacles. The degree to which each business will struggle with a given variable—such as cash flow or employee retention—will vary. However, one guiding principle for facility operators of all sizes, specialities and markets has emerged from the discussions featured in Club Industry's recent virtual town hall events. That principle is to keep communicating with your members.
Member communication can take many forms and address numerous topics during this era of social distancing and mandated facility closures. Initially, none is more important to your members than the subject of billing.
Will your members be charged their monthly dues on April 1? What about May 1? Can they freeze or cancel their membership? If they are being charged, what virtual amenities or future credits may they receive?
These are just a few of the critical questions your members may ask of you, and the quality of your answers may determine whether you retain those members moving forward.
Communication should be one of your business's foundational pillars, especially during challenging times, Casey Conrad, president of Communication Consultants, told Club Industry. Member letters can be one of your greatest retention tools during this time, but they must be written with your members' priorities and potential anxieties in mind.
"Your written communication should always start with a statement that emotionally aligns with your customers,” Conrad said. “This means being empathetic to how they are feeling and then transitioning to your updates. For example, ‘In this time of great national difficulty, we here at ABC Club understand what you and every other member is having to deal with at this time. Individually, our entire staff is going through the same challenges. We understand that in addition to the stress of the situation, not having your workouts and connection to your ABC Club community is something you have missed.'"
When it's time to discuss dates and dues, Conrad encourages facility operators to consider using positive language and turns of phrase.
"How you say something has a huge impact on how the reader processes the information," she said. "For example, you unconsciously may write, 'We will resume your billing on the 15th of the month.' A better way to say that same thing would be, 'We suspended your billing until the 15th of the month.' It may sound small, but the reader feels better about their billing being suspended."
Additionally, avoid using the word "but" whenever possible, Conrad said. She considers it the most dangerous word in written or verbal communication, as it prompts the reader or listener to become fixated on the concept of negation. They could have had one thing, but now they're getting something else—according to you.
Before communicating, facility operators must first meet with their management team and make firm decisions about how to bill or not to bill in the near future, according to Al Noshirvani, the chairman of Motionsoft and owner of multiple World Gym clubs in the Washington, D.C., area.
Consider how your billing-related decisions will affect both your business and your members today and long into the future, he said.
In mid-March, Noshirvani and his club management team composed a letter that outlined their clubs’ billing strategy for April and beyond. This letter was emailed to their database of new, past and prospective World Gym members, and it was shared on the clubs' social media accounts.
Noshirvani and his team decided against billing their members during the month of April. They are also offering membership freezes through April 25 with the promise of offering membership cancellations, for those interested, as soon as the clubs re-open.
Members who do not freeze their agreement will only be charged 50 percent of their standard monthly dues starting May 1 and every month after during which the clubs remained closed due to the coronavirus. Furthermore, the members who agree to pay 50 percent of their dues will receive a 100 percent credit when the clubs re-open. This credit will be divided by 12 and applied to each member's bill over a 12-month period, essentially granting each member a free month of membership for every two months the clubs remain closed.
These decisions—and the way in which they were articulated in the letter—were intended to put members at ease and make them feel as if they had a multitude of options, Noshirvani said. He wanted the clubs' management teams to appear empathetic and flexible.
"We wanted to appeal to their sense of community but not feel that they were expected or obligated to do anything as we did not know or understand their personal situations," Noshirvani said. "We decided there would be no questions asked to suspend our April billing and then let them make the choice for May and beyond."
The more options you offer members, the more likely they will be to take action and make at least one commitment to you, Conrad said.
“For communication that is trying to get the member to take an action, it is always best to find a way to give two options that are both going to result in a decision that you would prefer,” she said. “For example, say, ‘At this point, you may want to utilize our virtual workout platform at a reduced price, or you may decide to freeze your membership. Please give us a call, and we will help you with whatever decision you make.’”
Noshirvani's decision to collect reduced dues while offering future credit was based on the fact that it is more cost-effective for his clubs to retain their current members.
"We factored a few data points into this decision," he said. "We looked at our average member life as well as our customer acquisition costs and realized what our costs were for getting a new member versus keeping an existing one. It's one of the reasons that we gave them the account credit back over a 12-month period. Think of it as a way of incentivizing them to stay, almost like an initiation fee."
Other key topics to address in any billing-related communications are enhancement fees and pre-existing personal training agreements.
Noshirvani decided to continue billing annual enhancement fees per usual because his teams are continuing to improve and update the clubs while they are closed. He also decided to continue billing personal training agreements per usual with the option to negotiate an opt-out with the understanding that specific trainers or time slots could become unavailable when the clubs re-open.
Furthermore, he extended all expiring personal training sessions by an additional 90 days from each club's re-opening date. All other personal training sessions will remain valid for one year after each club’s re-opening date.
Conrad said it is imperative to add value wherever possible for your displaced members. Just be sure to convey this value in your communications. Make every effort to engage them, support them and incentivize them to remain with the business.
“No doubt you will have many members who are feeling stressed financially or at least uncertain as to the future,” she said. “Look to find ways to keep them as a member by adding some value that doesn’t really cost you more. For example, give them one or more passes to small group training each week for a designated period of time. Since the facility already has these classes on the books—and they will likely not be at capacity when things re-open—perhaps this added value will save a cancellation.”
To reference Noshirvani’s full billing letter, click here.
For more coronavirus-related resources for fitness professionals, view this page.