Increasing Market Share: Tapping the Most Important Thing

A Look at the Market

We know that typical health club patrons tend to be well educated and more affluent than the average population and live or work near our facilities. But that’s where their similarities end. People’s motives for belonging to a health club vary. Health needs, fitness wants, desire to improve appearance, managing stress, social connection and athletic performance are just some of the reasons we hear most often.

In working with club owners on marketing strategy, I find many operators focus on Plan A: how to be more appealing than the other guys. Sound thinking, for sure. And also an area where most club operators can improve. But more appealing to whom? The presumption is that we are playing to the same 20 percent or so of the population who are already members or are willing to be a member of a health club or studio. It locks us into a perpetual zero-sum game with each of our fellow club operators for superiority and an increasing or decreasing share of the typical health club market.

This is certainly a time-tested approach. It is always good to be the obvious choice for people interested in what you or your industry offer, but it leaves the motherlode of the market untapped.

The image above depicts the market’s willingness to lead a healthy lifestyle. In round numbers:

  • Twenty percent will lead a healthy lifestyle—and to a greater or lesser degree, they already are.
  • Twenty percent won’t lead a healthy lifestyle no matter what, except perhaps under the most dire of circumstances.
  • Sixty percent might lead a healthy lifestyle. These people understand the value of good health and would lead a healthy life if only… (Note: This group is not all the same. Some are more like those who will lead a healthy lifestyle, and some are more like those who won’t, but they all have their own unique obstacles to overcome.)

Since entering this industry, I have wondered about this paradox. One of the early messages from IHRSA’s first director, John McCarthy, was about how Gallup polling revealed year after year that for 90 percent of the population, the most important thing in life was their own health and the health of the people they cared about. If consumer sentiment is so ripe, then why, 35 years later, has our market penetration only grown from 10 percent to 20 percent?

In that same time, cell phone use and subscription TV services have grown to be ubiquitous, touching well over 75 percent of the population. Are communication and entertainment more important than good health? Not according to Gallup. So why have these industries blossomed to such levels of adoption while ours has not?

Is it time? Doubtful. I would bet most people spend more time each day on communication and entertainment than they do on improving their health. For many, this is true of social media alone.

Is it money? Unlikely. In fact, I would guess that most people’s monthly cell phone and cable bills far exceed the cost of membership at a reputable local health club.

Is it effort? Perhaps. One could argue that being healthy takes persistent effort and sweat, and so it is chosen less often than communication or entertainment.

Is it convenience? Here’s a category where the communication and entertainment industries have us beaten hands down. In fact, one could argue that their explosive growth is due substantially to the convenience of making communication and entertainment possible nearly anywhere.

Is it reward? The payoff for effort spent communicating and being entertained is fairly immediate, while improving one’s health takes time. The one immediate reward for exercise is typically an elevated mood, similar to the effect of legal or illegal drugs—two industries that have also achieved more significant market penetration than the commercial health club industry.

So how do we tap this motherlode of opportunity?

The answer is not in scrapping exclusively with our competitors over the 20 percent that has already chosen to lead a healthy lifestyle but rather in finding ways to attract segments of the middle 60 percent who would lead a healthier lifestyle if only they could fit it into their lives. If we tapped just one-sixth of this segment, our industry would grow by 50 percent. Find a way to attract just one in 10 from this segment and your club would likely struggle to accommodate the growth.

Sound appealing? Let’s call it Plan B, but don’t go after the whole 60 percent at once. That is more than any organization can reasonably hope to achieve, and people in this category are not all the same. Instead, figure out how to be more convenient, effective, enjoyable and/or rewarding to subsets of this group. Find out what’s most important to them and adjust your programming and messaging accordingly. The prize will be a significant market advantage and a new surge of growth for your company with a strategy unrivaled by your competition.


Tim Rhode is the CEO Summit director for Club Industry. He is a fitness industry veteran with more than 30 years of experience, managing, developing, owning, growing and consulting health clubs. Since 1986, as an owner and manager, he has personally operated health, wellness and racquet sports clubs from 8,000 to 120,000 square feet with teams of 20 to more than 300, and more than 100 personal trainers. As an industry innovator and consultant, Rhode has helped small, large and multi-club operators visibly improve their businesses with strategy, systems, training and motivation. Email [email protected]. Call or text him at 443-324-0580.

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