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Move Over Memberships

As I was interviewing two club veterans for this month's “Veteran Voices” story, I found myself wondering about the membership model that most clubs use. It's much different — and, admittedly, much fairer for frequent users — than the pay-as-you-play model that tennis and racquetball clubs operated under in the early days of the business. These pay-as-you-play models actually penalized the people who played the most — the exact opposite of what club owners wanted to do. As clubs began to evolve into more than racquet clubs, the yearly (and sometimes longer) membership came into vogue, then the monthly membership. However, for many of the people that fitness facilities are trying to reach, just the term “membership” can frighten them.

Some people in the fitness industry have proposed that the membership contract may need to go away or at least be offered as one of several options to encourage the 86 percent of the population who aren't health club members to join fitness facilities. I think that the membership option is a great idea for people who are fitness junkies (you know, those who actually feel sick when they miss a day at the gym). However, fitness junkies are few and far between. For the rest of the population, especially those who have never thought that they belonged in a fitness facility, we need another choice — make that other choices.

What motivates people to exercise varies by age, gender, weight, economic level and other factors — and even then, people are so diverse that you can't lump them all together by any criteria. Pay-as-you-exercise still may work well for some who want to test the waters without a set two-week free membership (again, the word “membership” can scare some even if the word “free” is in front of it).

Another option may be nonmember programs that introduce nonmembers to the club for a multi-week program. Cliff Buchholz, owner of Miramont Lifestyle Fitness in Fort Collins, CO, told me about his club's four nonmember programs that have been successful in terms of both participation and revenue earned. When the Miramont staff presented the nonmember programs to the three large corporations located in Fort Collins, the wellness directors loved the programs, says Buchholz. These programs are easier to “sell” than corporate memberships. Each program focuses on something specific: getting started exercising, strengthening bad backs, losing weight and learning about nutrition.

The goal is that after nonmembers come to the club to participate in these programs, they will feel more comfortable at the facility, see results from the program and then join the club as members. Buchholz couldn't give me conversion numbers of nonmembers to members, but he said the programs have a high level of participation. Even if only 20 percent of participants join after the program ends, the club has earned revenue from the nonmember program that it would not have otherwise. Some nonmembers may just continue to pay for the nonmember programs, but at least they are participating in exercise.

I'm sure other ideas are already in place that are worth considering. I encourage you as fitness professionals and business owners to think outside the traditional membership model, query the nonmembers in your market about why they don't belong and talk freely with other club owners to see what has worked for them. It just might yield the next big idea — and one that could attract more than 14 percent of the population inside your doors.

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