(Editors' Note: This story originally appeared in Club Industry's December 2018 report, "America's Obesity Crisis and the Fitness Industry's Role in Resolving It," which can be downloaded for free by going here.)
The Newtown Athletic Club (the NAC) is celebrating its 40th anniversary as a high-end, family oriented health club that sits on four acres in Newtown, Pennsylvania. Members pay for a large number of offerings and amenities, including group fitness, youth programming, three pools, a lazy river, wellness programs, a spa and more. But not everyone can afford the membership dues, even though the NAC offers nine membership options: youth individual, young adult individual, mid-adult, adult individual, couple, family, senior individual, senior couple, semi-senior couple. All of those membership options indicate that the NAC is looking for ways to make its facility affordable to as many people as possible.
And that is no more evident than the NAC’s other offering: the NAC Financial Program. This program helps people in the community who can’t afford a NAC membership. Following is a Q&A with Linda Mitchell, director of public and government relations at the NAC, who explains more about the program and why the NAC offers it.
Q: How does the program work?
Mitchell: The NAC Financial Program is very straightforward. When a potential member indicates that the cost of the membership is financially impossible for them to bear, we offer our program. If a current member is terminating their membership because of financial hardship, we offer the program.
We don’t advertise the program through mass media, but we do freely include it on our website and speak of it when appropriate. We have learned from experience that many people are sensitive about their financial wellbeing and wish to be discreet about this program.
The program consists of gathering some basic financial information, including the past year’s tax return and a simple accounting of their ongoing expenses. This allows us to confirm that they are truly eligible. We also allow them to offer their own story as more substantive background on their situation. Often, they are dealing with a tragedy, sudden death, job loss, serious illness of a child, divorce or other extenuating circumstances. There is a sliding scale of a discounted percentage based on income, but honestly, their individual circumstance heavily influences our decision on how much “forgiveness” can be offered.
The program is handled in a very private manner and the only individuals involved are the owner and his executive assistant.
Q: How much of a discount do people get?
Mitchell: The amount of “discount” is dependent on the amount of need. It is a sliding scale from a minimal discount to 100 percent.
Q: Can they use the full facility, all programs and on all days at all times or does this limit them to certain days/times/parts of the facility?
Mitchell: There is no limit to their use of the facility. They use it as full-paying members. However, we review each case on an annual basis to determine if we can continue. This often includes a resubmission of the original paperwork.
Q: When did you start offering this?
Mitchell: We began offering this in the late 1990s.
Q: Why did you decide to offer this program?
Mitchell: Frankly, we always offered financial relief on a case-by-case basis whenever it was brought to our attention. However, as the local non-profits (YMCA) began to enter our market, we realized that what we did for the underserved population was more generous than what the YMCA was doing in terms of giving back to the community and, even worse, no one knew that we were doing it. That is when we decided to systemize our giving structure and modeled our system after the YMCA, but we are more generous in the amount of forgiveness we offer.
Q: How many people are on the program?
Mitchell: Hundreds at any one time.
Q: What percentage of your membership is that?
Mitchell: This varies based on the current need, but hovers between 5 percent to 7 percent of our 12,000-plus members.
Q: What are the retention rates for the people on the program?
Mitchell: The retention rates vary based on the time frame for which they have the need and the amount of discount. For those who are 100 percent “scholarshiped,” the retention rate is 100 percent. For those being provided a discount who are no longer eligible based on an improved financial situation, the retention rate is excellent.
Q: What has been the cost of this program for NAC?
Mitchell: We have never figured this out; it is just part of what we are committed to doing.
Q: What has been the ROI of the program for NAC?
Mitchell: I am not sure there is a ROI, except knowing that you have been of service in a time of need and the extended loyalty of those who stay on as paying members.
Q: How could other clubs implement a similar program?
Mitchell: I recommend that others simply mimic what we are doing. Knowing that you are helping when there is need is the right thing to do, and the sense of satisfaction is priceless.