Conducting a Winning Orientation

by Valerie Applebaum, MPH, CHES on Jan 01, 2009

A strong introductory process is an effective retention strategy.

Consider your new-member orientation process. Does the following scenario sound familiar? A trainer provides the new client with a facility tour, gives brief equipment demonstrations, schedules the complimentary training session and then leaves the member alone with daunting equipment and no social connection to other members. If this orientation sounds like yours, you’re not alone; it’s what happens at most fitness facilities.

The problem with this hands-off technique is that you miss a crucial opportunity to set members up for success by introducing them to all of your club’s services, encouraging relationships and providing the tools necessary for meeting fitness goals. Orientation should not be viewed simply as a nice gesture to new members, but rather as an important transition between recruitment and retention.

Now is the time to review your orientation program and spice it up. A well-structured program provides a warm welcome to new members and, ultimately, increases long-term revenue.

The Key to Retention

Most fitness centers experience a surge in new memberships during this season, so now is the perfect time to implement a new and improved orientation program. A crowded gym with lots of equipment, activities and classes can be more intimidating than inviting to new members. In other words, the money spent getting people in the door turns into money back out the door when they don’t return.

It costs up to six times more to gain a new member than it does to keep one (Coffman 2006). Most of the attrition in the fitness industry comes from people who quit before they even get started. The good news is that a well-designed orientation phase plays a significant role in how new members connect and remain with your business (Woodard 2003). The goal is to integrate them into your facility from day one.

So how do you achieve an ideal orientation? Transform the process from a 1-day experience to several sessions over the first few weeks. Include a facility tour, a thorough fitness assessment, an introduction to all profit centers, and opportunities for social connection.

Revive Your Facility Tour

The club tour is the first step in the orientation process. It goes without saying that the staff member conducting the tour must be polite, friendly and welcoming. The tour is your initial opportunity to make members feel appreciated. When they feel valued, they are confident in their selection of facilities and more likely to remain members.

During the tour, ask members about past experiences with health clubs so that you can determine their likes and dislikes and focus on overcoming potential obstacles in meeting their fitness needs. Additionally, introduce important contacts, such as the facility manager, the head of personal training, the daycare supervisor and others who are key to your operation (Truesdell 1998). Another vital ingredient is to provide new members with beneficial information that makes them feel part of the facility, such as a recent club newsletter, a class schedule and bios of the staff. Of course, encourage questions along the way. Every answer is an opportunity to address a concern before it becomes a problem.

A thorough tour not only aids in reducing the anxiety that results from entering an unknown environment but also motivates members to start working toward their fitness goals.

Fine-Tune Your Fitness Assessment

Make the second meeting the fitness assessment. When a new member joins, place as much value and emphasis on scheduling a health assessment as you put on collecting billing information (Westcott & Reeves 2008). A proper fitness assessment results in a realistic, customized exercise plan that helps the client achieve goals safely and effectively.

Fitness assessments provide an objective way to measure physical improvements. Specific categories include resting heart rate, body composition, muscular strength, joint flexibility and cardiovascular endurance. As important as these parameters are to fitness professionals, the majority of new exercisers evaluate their success by imprecise standards, such as physical appearance or body weight (Westcott & Reeves 2008). Therefore, you must explain the importance of assessments to members.

Assign each new member a fitness coach who conducts the fitness assessment, obtains an initial health profile, completes a goal analysis, discusses activity interests and then develops a personalized plan for the member.

Ideally, reassess members regularly to determine goal attainment and health status improvement. Reassessment is critical in encouraging retention, as it demonstrates the facility’s long-term commitment to clients’ health (Westcott & Reeves 2008).

Pump Up Your Profit Centers

The third meeting involves discussing all of your facility’s offerings. Many members do not take advantage of club services, simply because they are not aware that they exist. Provide details regarding personal training, spa services, tanning, daycare and all profit centers.

Then, and this is the crucial part, make it easy for members to sign up immediately for services. Offer special discounts that day only. For example, create three-session starter kits for personal training, Pilates or spa services. Make these special packages available only during orientation, and let members know that the deals will not be offered later. By proposing a small commitment in terms of time and dollars, you make the initial sale easier, and members are more likely to continue with the service after the introductory period (Woodard 2003).

Another approach is to create a coupon booklet for club services that has an expiration date. Offer this only during orientation. The coupon booklet is useful for members who do not wish to commit immediately, as it allows them time to think about the options. It also encourages them to sign up before the coupon book expires. Similarly, provide a new-member discount for purchases made at your pro shop or juice bar, valid for 90 days. The discount will encourage new members to patronize these areas of the facility.

Support Social Connection

A supportive, close-knit environment goes a long way toward promoting consistent attendance and loyalty. Quickly engage new members in club activities and furnish newcomers with opportunities to interact with staff and other members. Encouraging relationship building is the fourth aspect of your orientation phase, but this aspect should continue long term.

Consider implementing a buddy system. Assign an existing member to assist each new member in acclimating for the first few weeks. Buddies show new members around, make introductions to other members and answer questions about the club’s equipment, amenities and programs.

Additionally, organize regular social events for members and their families so that your club is more than just a place to work out; it is a community where members form friendships. The following ideas encourage members and staff to interact:

Social Fitness Activities. Facilitate bonding by organizing fitness outings and adventure trips. A full-day white-water rafting trip, a morning biking tour or a boot camp at the local park initiates social interaction while providing a great workout.

Holiday Events. Throw Labor Day and Independence Day barbecues, Christmas and Hanukkah parties, and a Valentine’s Day mixer. Invite nonmembers to attend, so they become familiar with your business in a fun way.

A New-Member Appreciation Party. Host a party for your new members, and allow them to bring a guest. You are more likely to achieve a big turnout if they can bring a spouse or friend. This strategy also lets you take advantage of the most inexpensive form of marketing—member referral.

Special Clubs. Organize groups to help like-minded members get together. Examples include clubs for beginning exercisers, women, older adults, bikers, runners or new moms.

Undoubtedly, you must work diligently to create a thoughtfully designed and carefully delivered orientation. However, the time and money you spend are valuable long-term investments that will lead to better fitness results for your members and better bottom-line results for your facility.

IDEA Fitness Manager, Volume 21, Issue 1

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About the Author

Valerie Applebaum, MPH, CHES IDEA Author/Presenter

Valerie Applebaum, MPH, CHES, is a certified health education specialist with a master’s degree in public health from the University of South Carolina. She currently resides in Connecticut, where sh...