Notes from the Road

My wife and I recently completed a five-week, business-and-vacation trip of 5,000 miles through the Northwest and into British Columbia. During that trip, I did some club consulting and met with more than 100 club owners and managers at a regional association's summer conference. This trip followed several other spring and early-summer trips to the Upper Midwest, the South and the East Coast. Here are some random observations from those visits.

Americans are pitifully fat. Mind you, I am far from a perfect physical specimen. My body could stand to lose that extra 18 pounds that all the charts tell me would get me down to my “ideal weight.” But, folks, the average American is in sad shape, and it looks to me like he or she is 30, 40, 50 or more pounds beyond a safe norm. On vacation, I watched ton after ton of excess adipose tissue waddle its way into freeway rest stops, mountain campgrounds and beach-front bathing areas. I watched a woman on a Moped have to be pushed along the beach by her fellow bikers because the vehicle just sank into the sand under her bulk. I saw another fellow literally side-slip himself through an ice cream store door — only to order a quadruple-scoop cone! And another heavier-than-healthy lady of about 40 got out of her car, walked with her husband about 50 yards and then retired to her electric wheelchair to go shopping on a resort main street. Lastly, I can't tell you the number of kids I saw who could barely move around due to their excess weight.

Perhaps the last thing that the average American wants to engage in is exercise inside four walls. While we allegedly enjoy having roughly one out of every 14 Americans as members in our clubs, my calculations tell me that five out of every 14 are chronically obese, and another five out of that 14 are seriously overweight or headed there fast. That apparently leaves us with the remaining three of 14 who are relatively healthy but not members of clubs. At our industry-predictable closing rate of 40 percent and an industry-published annual attrition rate of 40 percent, even if we launch a tremendously successful campaign immediately, we are likely to garner only another 38 million fitness facility members in the next five years, while at the same time losing about 16 million more of the members we presently have. In other words, we are predictably on the downside part of the membership-joining curve in our industry, and the vastly touted association goal of 100 million members by 2010 now stands in jeopardy. We are more likely to be at 63 million to 65 million members within five years.

Clubs are suffering from the overbuilding phenomenon that has taken hold in our industry in this decade. Club owner after club owner approached me during the aforementioned conference — many of them solid-operating, successful old timers — with one question: “What am I going to do for marketing?” They then went on to tell me their versions of how their marketplace, once their domain, has been oversaturated and dissipated with club offerings of every type, kind and size. They also commiserated with me how their efforts at retention and profit-center creation are not making enough of a difference to offset the dwindling margins from membership dues.

Clubs also face another problem — a shortage of qualified management talent in an industry crying for better leadership. The leading headhunter in our industry tells me he has a severe scarcity of qualified talent to fill open positions across the national club scene. Owners and club managers bemoan the fact that they cannot attract even barely qualified personnel to occupy the jobs available in their facilities. New club building, while down from its top of 12 percent or more in the last few years, is still at a high-single-digit-percentage-growth pace, and we do not have managers to staff the current facility requirements, much less additional clubs. Management incomes, while considerably improved in the past decade, do not come close to those in other service-based industries, and benefit packages and career opportunities certainly trail those of most other seasoned businesses.

An amazing amount of repetitiveness exists in our facilities. Most clubs look the same, feel the same and offer the same lineup of aging menus like standard membership orientations and stock-in-trade classes. Folks, we have a problem. Innovation in the fitness industry is standing still, we aren't getting people inside our doors, membership is slowing, supply versus demand is on the side of supply and clubs aren't building management for the future. What are we going to do about it?

Michael Scott Scudder owns and operates MSS FitBiz Connection, an online-based club consulting and training service. Scudder can be reached at 505-690-5974 or

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