Boom Market


As they age, baby boomers are relying on exercise to keep them healthy and active. What's your club doing to sell to this population?

The baby boom generation is marching past middle age, and they're causing a major shift in U.S. demographics. For the first time in the history of the developed world, the older population will soon outnumber the younger population. And by 2020, the number of people in their 40s, 50s and 60s will triple.

Are you making an effort to garner this growing market?

You should, because unlike earlier generations, the baby boomers don't plan to age gracefully; they plan to fight it every step of the way. "They are en masse shaking their fists at old age," says Phil Bonomo, director of strategic marketing at Health Development Corp. in Wakefield, Mass., which operates seven clubs in the greater Boston area. "They refuse to be typecast as old people because they are very, very young at heart. They recognize where they are in life and want to make the most of their senior years. They want to enjoy their grandchildren, their friends and the activities that they now have the time to do."

Unlike younger adults who work out to prepare for athletic events or to improve their looks, older adults tend to use exercise to improve their quality of life and combat the effects of aging. They've discovered that weight training and cardiovascular exercise can help them make up for a lifetime of inactivity - a lifestyle that may have left them unable to walk up stairs, make the rounds at the mall or even twist off a jar lid. "Members will say, 'I walked up the steps for the first time in 10 years without thinking about it,' " says Dottie Drake, owner of Fitness First for Women and Seniors in Rio Grande, N.J. "They're now able to get down on the floor and play with their grandchildren. A good fitness program is like the fountain of youth for these people. They're acting like they're young kids again."

Strength training can help slow or halt the process of osteoporosis, while cardio exercise increases endurance - and the ability of older adults to remain independent. Regular exercise imparts social and psychological benefits as well. "Older adults who are living alone and perhaps have more time on their hands than they're used to can be subject to certain forms of depression," says Bonomo. "Coming to the club, working out and getting invigorated can help to combat that."

All signs point to an opportunity for fitness clubs to grow along with the older adult market. Older adults want to slow the effects of aging, and they're realizing that exercise is the way to go. Now it's up to you to develop a marketing plan to get this demographic into your club - and fitness programs to keep them there.

The first step is letting the target market know that you exist, and print and radio advertising are the most direct means of doing so. Advertisements for older adults need to convey the benefits of your club in an age-appropriate style. "We had a more upscale marketing campaign," says Mike Inabinett, general manager of the Raleigh, N.C.-based Highwoods Wellness Center. "We didn't go with the generic health club advertising, which is geared toward a 20- to 30-year-old age group. We stress benefits like staying independent, keeping your activity level going so you don't have to give things up and preventing osteoporosis."

Life-stage marketing is also successful. Is your target audience retiring? Are their children getting married? Do they have grandchildren? Use these connections to help your audience relate to the benefits of your facility. For example, an ad can convey how exercise will give older adults the stamina to play with their grandchildren or be more active during their retirement years.

Fit for Print
The style of a print ad should be user-friendly for older adults. Large type, bold headlines and a judicious amount of white space improve readability. If you use photos, be sure to depict members of your target audience - and not to intimidate them with photos of teenage hard bodies. "In a lot of our marketing materials we have the type of folks we're looking to attract," says Inabinett. "We have folks in their 40s, 50s and 60s."

Just as important as what to put in the ads is where to place them; after all, your target audience isn't likely to be listening to the morning shock jock or reading the local alternative paper. "We've been in some publications geared toward the over-fifty market, such as Fifty Plus magazine," says Inabinett. Bonomo buys spots on radio programs that appeal to his audience. "We do a lot of radio advertising, and we advertise on some stations that tend to skew a little older in their listenership," he says.

Ads can be an important part of your marketing mix. However, it takes more than a slick advertising campaign to get older adults into your facility. The ads may plant the seed of interest, but programs designed to educate about the benefits of exercise will turn prospects into members.

Longfellow Sports Club in Natick, Mass., offers a strength training study - a free eight-week program for older adults. "They come twice a week to a group class that's no greater than 12 people, with one to two instructors," explains Sharyn Rod-man, director of HealthMasters, the club's senior program. "This is a great marketing tool because 75 percent of the people who participate in the free program join our club afterward. They join because they get to know a lot of the staff members, and in addition to that we give them a free two months in the facility to use the club and encourage them to take part in other senior classes."

Longfellow Sports Club also holds open houses where older adults can learn about the program. A panel of members who participate in various classes in the HealthMasters program answers questions for potential members. "I give a mini-introduction about my background, then tell them what each class is all about," explains Rodman. "I then have the panel tell their stories and answer questions about how they feel, what kinds of results they have gotten, why they keep coming. There's a lot of peer marketing that goes on. It helps the potential members because hearing it from someone closer to their age makes them think, 'If they can do it, I can do it.' "

Two years ago, in an effort to expand its senior program, The Racquet Club of Concord brought a senior director on board and held a health fair for older adults. "We gave them free blood pressure checks, free cholesterol checks and massages. We also brought in people to talk about what The Racquet Club had to offer: life insurance plans, health insurance plans and so on," says Barbara Unger, the club's fitness director.

The Racquet Club of Concord's educational program was a success: The senior program, now dubbed Fit Over 55, more than doubled in size, from 24 members to 57. The program now boasts more than 70 members and continues to educate them. "We have educational programs every month on topics such as keeping your back and neck healthy, how to protect your knees and more," says Unger.

These programs get people talking. That's good. You've probably heard the marketing maxim that an unsatisfied customer will complain about your company to 10 other people. Well, the opposite is also true: Positive word of mouth is a great marketing tool. Asking for referrals after educational sessions or offering free guest passes goes a long way toward spreading the word about your facility. Another good group to turn to for word-of-mouth marketing is the professionals who see older adults every day: physicians. Because The Racquet Club of Concord requires members to get permission from their physicians to join the program, area doctors are familiar with the club and refer patients there.

Advertising, education and word of mouth will bring older adults into your club. The next concern is getting them to stay. They won't if your equipment intimidates them.

When it comes to strength-training machines, seniors prefer equipment that is low-impact, user-friendly, simple, quiet and easy to adjust with small weight increments. The equipment should include placards with diagrams and easy-to-read text that explain correct usage. Users with a variety of functional abilities should have no trouble getting on and off the equipment. The same goes for cardiovascular machines. In addition, cardio equipment should include preprogrammed workouts and an easy-to-read display with large buttons.

Work Out, Hang Out
The right equipment will get seniors working out, but older adults expect more from a club than exercise. They want to be with people. Therefore, an inviting social atmosphere is also essential to retention. "Many of our older adult members come to the club to meet and gather with friends," says Bonomo. "They have social groups that get together outside the club. The clubs become a staging ground for a lot of these social activities." Many clubs offer lunch groups, coffee socials and more.

The setting of the fitness facility is another important consideration. While a hard, bright look and the sound of barbells slamming to the floor may attract younger members, older adults prefer a warm, pleasant atmosphere. Inabinett has worked hard to create just the right setting for older adults. "We've got a larger than normal lobby area so when members walk in, they get more of a relaxing feeling - they don't feel they're going to get hit hard with something," he says. "The color scheme promotes that - it has a lot of energy but with more warm earth colors. We kept the design very open so there's natural light; you can see the outside. Our look says that this is not your typical hardcore, thong-wearing health club."

Drake relies on three simple rules to ensure that her club is pleasing to older adults: "No jocks, no thongs and no loud music."

You should also make sure that the program's name pleases older adults. Club owners debate whether words such as "senior" are insulting to potential members. "You don't want the name of your program to be age-specific," insists Rodman. "For example, you don't want to use the words 'silver' or 'senior.' We don't call our memberships 'senior memberships,' we call them 'HealthMasters memberships.' "

Bonomo disagrees: "When we call our program Senior Select, that's a very deliberate title because we want seniors to identify themselves - to say, 'I am a senior, and therefore I select to participate in this program.' Being senior is not a negative. It's not a disease. It's simply a demographic title that's been given to a certain segment of the population. Restaurants give senior discounts, you pay a senior fare on the bus. Senior has become very much a kind of across-the-board brand for the 50-plus demographic. We're not creating something new here - we're simply going along with the way seniors are communicated to, and it seems to work."

Program for Ability
As with names, exercise programs should be geared toward the special needs of older adults - but without stereotyping members as "over the hill." "Other clubs' senior programs are built around water aerobics, but we don't funnel people into some preconceived idea of what they have to do because they're over 50," says Ina-binett. "We don't tell people that if they're over 50, we're going to put them in water. Instead, we offer classes that people of any fitness level can go into. We allow people of different levels to participate in the same group exercise program, but we vary the intensities for those individuals. Whether they're 25 or 85, members feel there's something for them everywhere they go."

The final, but most important, component of a senior program is the staff. Older adults like to get to know the staff members, so it's key that they be personable. And because many older members will need more personalized service, staff members should be certified. "What the members want is constant assistance," says Drake. "Every member is trained for an hour and a half by a staff member, and the staff is always there to help them." The fact that Drake is a registered nurse as well as a certified personal trainer makes older members comfortable in her club.

In the next 10 years, we'll see an 8 percent drop in the 30- to 34-year-old population and a 17 percent drop in the 35- to 39-year-old population - age groups that until now have been the staple market of the fitness industry. But by serving the baby boom market, you can watch your business boom as well.

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