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It happens every year. Hordes of well-intentioned people trudge into your gym with high hopes of fulfilling their New Year's resolution to get in shape. They overwhelm the staff with orientations, tours and questions. They take over the machines, irritating long-time members.

Hank Boerner, director of the Wellness Center at North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo, MS, says that his facility can see an increase from 900 visits a day on peak days during most of the year to 1,100 visits per day on peak days at the beginning of the year. Not only do new members pour into the club in January, but current members who have been lax in their visits often get re-invigorated about their workouts, causing the number of visits per week to increase along with the number of visitors. The Wellness Center can go from an average of four visits per member per month to six visits per member per month in January.

Boerner has worked in commercial facilities as well as non-profit facilities such as his current 4,300-member, 52,000-square-foot facility. He says clubs preparing for the new year's onslaught must staff up, stand back, get prepared and make members and visitors feel welcome. Here are some specifics on what you can do to prepare for January's rush.

Adjust your staffing level. Clubs can bring in extra help during the beginning of the year — part-time employees who want to go full time for a month to pay off those holiday bills or exercise physiology students at the local college who are interested in short-term internships. A club can also temporarily move staff around a bit to accommodate the crowds. However, during a rush such as this, staff handling areas with which they are unfamiliar should be thoroughly trained, preferably during the December lull rather than during the January rush.

Because Boerner bases his facility's staffing level not just on the number of members but also on the number of visits per day, he has had to ramp up staffing levels during past Januaries.

Keep up staff morale. Regardless of what you do with staffing, the larger crowds are going to mean longer hours for employees and more work for them while they are at the fitness club. Plus, the staff will be dealing with complaints from members and visitors who can't find an open machine or who had to park far from the facility. This is a good time to do an extra incentive or recognition program to reward employees for putting up with the craziness of the season. Even something small like a $20 gift certificate to a favorite restaurant or store can help boost an employee's morale.

Review training. Prior to the January onslaught, you should review with staff what they learned when first hired: how to greet and say goodbye to individuals, how to give tours of the facility, how to sign up new members, how to answer the phone and other day-to-day responsibilities. Review with staff how to make members and visitors feel welcome and how to provide the high-quality service that will make visitors want to join and members want to return. In addition, you must emphasize the importance of having a positive attitude and a smile throughout the day. And, don't forget to remind yourself of this. Your attitude during this busy time will rub off on your staff — so keep it positive.

Start early. Rather than wait until January to offer special promotions, why not start a little early and offer membership deals in November and December? Boerner's facility offers a waiver of the $100 enrollment fee if someone joins with a friend in November or December.

The Wellness Center also runs its member retention program in November and December to keep current members coming to the club during the holidays. Otherwise, they will slack off and then return in January only to face the rush of new people.

“Instead of being a New Year's resolution, we try to get them to make a Thanksgiving Day resolution,” Boerner says.

Turn visitors into members that keep coming back. Plan now how you will keep the January visitors from being just that: January visitors. To get them to join and use the facility on a consistent basis, you have to ensure that they are comfortable with the facility, the equipment, and the staff, and you have to make them feel like you know them and you are aware if they don't make it in.

“Make sure they are comfortable so that they are not lost in a sea of salmon,” says Boerner. “One of the scariest things for someone is to have made a resolution like that and then they come down to a facility in a sea of people and they are in the middle of an exercise program and they feel lost.”

Make the staff understand how people feel who haven't exercised as much as they have. Show them how to be supportive and encouraging of even the little steps that members take. That will go a long way in retaining new members' confidence and in keeping them coming back.

Boerner's facility offers a fitness assessment for everyone when they join. Then, the staff shows the new member how to use the equipment until they feel comfortable on their own. The staff then sets up goals with the member and schedules a reassessment, giving the new member a target date for meeting the goal.

You may also want to recognize new members by taking their pictures and posting them in the lobby or juice bar with their names. This gives staff and other members the opportunity to learn names and greet new members by name. Those personalized greetings will in turn make new members feel more welcome.

Do something special for members. Because current members have to put up with all the “newbies,” it's a good idea to do something special for long-time members. You can hand out special items, such as gym bags or hats with “member since” dates on them. Those items give the long-time members a feeling of status among the January crowd. Depending on the size of your club, you can also hang pictures of long-time members in the lobby with their join date. Not only does this give the long-time members a feeling of pride, but it offers encouragement to new members that someday they can say they've been going to the gym several times a week for 10 years or more.

Prepare your facility. Because December is generally a slower time of year, it's the perfect opportunity to do a little “holiday cleaning” before the rush. December may be the perfect time to shampoo the carpets, refinish the gym or aerobics studio floor or do pool maintenance. It's also a good time to give all the equipment and supplies a “once-over” to see if they need repairs or replacement. The fresh and new feel these maintenance chores will give your club will make it more attractive to January visitors.

These suggestions can help curb the frenzy of the January rush. However, the most important thing you can do is to remember that signing up new members is important, but retaining current members is just as important.

“It's important to try to make the current members feel like they are wanted and needed and not shoved to the side because we're signing up new members,” Boerner says. So don't neglect current members who have displayed loyalty to your club for newcomers who have yet to prove their staying power. If you do, that loyal member may pack his or her bags and become a new member at the club down the street.

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