The most powerful technology your health club should be using to keep members engaged fits in the palm of your members' hands—their smartphones with your club's mobile app installed.
During January 2014, roughly 46 million people used an app from the health and fitness category, according to a report from Nielsen's Mobile NetView 3.0 software. This number represents nearly one-third of all smartphone owners, an increase of more than 18 percent year over year. With this steady influx of mobile consumers, apps, which once were a luxury for health clubs, have now become a popular means of communication, referrals and social promotion.
Health club operators report that members who engage with a club's mobile app are more likely to attend group fitness classes, share information about the club on social media and become involved in club events and challenges.
The key to engaging members is to keep the app updated, keep schedules current and content relevant, says Bill McBride, president and CEO of Active Sports Clubs, Sausalito, CA.
"Remember, the goal is to make it as easy as possible for the member to use your product," he says. "Mobile apps allow for an improved member experience and less hassle in getting information of interest."
At the Denver Athletic Club in Denver, staff members are trained to help new members find and download the club's app during the member onboarding process, says Jennifer Schumacher, chief membership officer for the Denver Athletic Club. Members can use the app to check schedules and RSVP to club events.
At Frank Nash Training Systems, Worcester, MA, members are required to download the app, which has been in place for a little more than a year. Even prospects who visit the club download it, says Frank Nash, founder and owner of the club. Nash also is vice president of client relations for Club Apps, which is the Atlanta-based company that developed his app.
"There are so many crazy apps out there and other things to distract people from what we do, so I want people to come to my app and stay there," Nash says.
Nash's app includes the club's nutritional program, its heart rate system, the class schedule, staff biographies, the ability to pay bills or make purchases from the club's store, and links to the club's social media sites, among other options.
"We've gone completely paperless, so everything lives within our app," Nash says.
Mobile Check-Ins Mean Savings
At Nash's club and others, apps are used as a check-in system, too. Facility check-in was one of the top three requirements that management at Core Power Yoga, Denver, had of its app, says Meghan Herwehe, vice president of strategic insights and analytics for Core Power. (Class schedules and social media check-ins were the other two requirements.)
Pura Vida Fitness and Spa, Denver, recently reported that mobile app check-ins account for 90 percent of total facility check-ins, says George Monical, CEO of MiGym, which is the app development company for both Pura Vida and Core Power Yoga. The app has nearly eliminated the facility's need for membership cards.
Elimination of membership cards can mean significant savings for some companies. Core Power projects a $10,000 to $20,000 per year savings in membership card production costs once its mobile app is fully implemented later this year, Herwehe says. The projection does not account for additional time and logistical efficiencies at the corporate level.
Herwehe is confident that members will quickly recognize the value of being able to check in to the club with their phone, sign up for classes or view and create personalized workout schedules.
Apps as Revenue Drivers
For club operators, the value of an app also resides in its ability to drive revenue.
"When members and personal training clients are engaged in our clubs, then they are most likely to retain their membership and even invite their friends or colleagues to join them," says Dan Collins, chief operations officer at Charter Fitness, Orland Park, IL. "The app certainly helps us engage our members, and the app's referral feature does help generate revenue."
Charter's app, which it launched in February, was developed by Club Apps. The goal of Club Apps is to bring the entire fitness and club experience into the club app, says Kelly Sweeney, partner and president of Club Apps.
"We chock the app full of useful tools for the member," she says. "In return, we can add tools that are useful for the clubs to drive revenue."
The most popular revenue-driving uses for club apps are referral campaigns and new member sign-ups, followed by alerts notifying members about classes, Sweeney says.
To help with these revenue drivers, club operators employ push notifications, which are messages from the club that pop up on the mobile phones of app subscribers and look similar to texts.
The number of members who download a club's app depends upon the type of club and how much the club staff markets that mobile app to members, but the average is 30 percent to 50 percent of members, Sweeney says. On average, 92 percent of members who download a club's app opt in to receive push alert notifications, she says, adding that the best practice is to send one promotional push and one informative push per week.
The ability to send push notifications is Nash's favorite option in his mobile app, he says. He sends push notifications as alerts for club closings due to inclement weather, limited class spots left for popular classes and special deals.
"The best marketing tool that we have is our push notifications," Nash says. "What better way than to hit people right on the screen of their cell phones?"
Push notifications also keep people engaged with the app and the club. Nash's club does app-only contests in which they push out a question, and the first five people who respond with the correct answer win a prize. The contests and winners are advertisements for why members should keep their push notifications on, Nash says.
"Everything we do is to promote people to download our app so we can send them those pushes," Nash says.
Push notifications can be a retention tool, too. Many apps allow for push notifications to be sent to people in a specific geographic radius. However, Club Apps also offers GeoFencing where push alerts can be sent to people who enter a certain geographic range determined by the club operator, Sweeney says. That range might be around their own club so that they can offer the member a free smoothie if they stop in, or it could be around a competitor's club so that the operator can remind that member that they are valued and offer them a free fitness assessment to get them back on track.
Some club operators develop their own apps, but others go with a subscription-based app service. These subscription-based apps offer a low cost of entry, ongoing tech support and the ability to add and subtract features quickly. Custom app developers often can offer more customization but with a higher cost to entry, McBride says.
Nash pays $199 per month for his app. The cost is worth it, he says, because Club Apps handles the backend, including Apple updates, and the app makes it easy for Nash's staff to update information or send push notifications when they want to.
Whether a club goes it on its own or uses a subscription service, every sized club can benefit from offering an app to its members, McBride says.
"If the schedules, functionality and ease-of-use are there, members will continually access the app," McBride says. "It is monetized in ease-of-use, reduced hassle, scheduling classes, scheduling other activities, seeing current club offers, sharing socially and having their membership card handy at check-in."
Pamela Kufahl, director of content and engagement for Club Industry, contributed to this article.
Sidebar: Features on Many Club Mobile Apps
Features will vary on club apps, but some common and important features include the following:
- Class schedule
- Bill payment
- Class reservation system
- Personal training booking system
- Push notification option
- Food logging
- Weight and measurement logging
- Membership sign-up
- Referral capability
- Goal tracking
- Club check-in
- Interaction with fitness tracking apps
- A promotional page to announce events and workshops
- A mapping feature that alerts members to the nearest club location when traveling