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Editor's Note: Welcome to From the Lip, a semi-regular opinion column penned by industry vet Michael Scott Scudder. Although you may not always agree with Michael's take on the industry (we sure don't), we hope his razor sharp insights will get you thinking about the way you run your business.

I've had this question asked of me more than any other over the past couple of years — interestingly enough, mostly by industry veterans and savvy players who know the ropes.

So, brash Irish-Indian that I am, I'll attempt to tell you where I think we are going.

History first. We have had good growth in the last 10 to 12 years. Total membership is around 34 million in the United States in 18,000-plus clubs. We are a better industry than in the 1980s and early 1990s.

The bad news is that for all our innovation, technological advances and certifications we still can't get a handle on keeping members active in clubs. As an industry, we are suffering a 40 percent or higher dropout every year. But there are several possibilities that could reverse this trend.

Aging Americans are more affluent, more wellness-oriented and are looking to clubs for guidance, personal training and services, as well as a place to belong. This means more money to clubs per member. Recommended readings on this subject include: “The Wellness Revolution” by Paul Zane Pilzer, “The Experience Economy” by Pine and Gilmore, “Selling the Invisible” by Harry Beckwith and “BioMarkers” by Evans and Rosenberg.

Other possibilities include the emergence of wellness insurance in which clubs will participate. The old paradigm of sickness insurance is killing insurers and employers, and the people are not very far away. But club owners will have to run a good quality club to reap the benefits.

As we see more fragmentation in the business with niches abounding from mega-clubs to small boutique clubs to women's only, seniors and more we will also see more opportunities for profits and better quality in employees and services to users.

Club owners must grasp the concept of training staff. We've got to get past opening the front door wider to offset the traffic out the back door. We must get out of the “members only” box we have been in for 30 years and into an “outreach concept” of operation. Owners and managers have to understand that buying three more treadmills or another circuit may not be as important as spending dollars on your best asset — the people who run your club. The industry needs to develop management training certification programs, accompanied by solid benefits packages, to hold managers and create careers.

We have to embrace mind-body-wellness; not just as a concept but as our mode of operation. Advertising has to support that by getting away from “menu ads,” (we have treadmills, we have ellipticals, we have this and that) and into “smart marketing.” We also have to stop discounting, which only confuses the public and kills the value of what we offer.

Certain manufacturers and service vendors will step up to the plate and become club educators by hiring experienced trainers and consultants to conduct seminars for their key club clients. Also, conferences have to stop the standard razzmatazz, 90-minute, pep-rally-pump-you-up-smorgasbord offerings and get into serious business seminars by offering comprehensive training on all levels, including numbers, operations, buying, budgeting, social skills, receiving, greeting, pertinent age-group-and-type exercise workshops.

A while back, a major fitness business association called for an industry commitment to 1 million members by 2010, the trouble is that was misinterpreted as a call to “go get more numbers.” It wasn't that at all, just as ending death by starvation on the planet was the context of The Hunger Project some years ago. We're looking at getting people engaged in their own well-being not just printing more membership cards. It is time to wake up and see what we're really about, make a stand and be something that makes a difference in our society.

The opportunity's here and the time is ripe, but will we do it? Are we going to get there or just make the trip? It's your call.

Michael Scott Scudder is a 28-year veteran of the fitness industry. He is managing partner of Southwest Club Services, a club management training company. He can be reached at 505-690-5974, by e-mail at or on his Web site at

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