Creating Members for Life

by Jackie Camborde on Jul 01, 2007

Increase retention by connecting with members and fostering a sense of community.

Ask the managers of any gym, personal training studio or other fitness-based business what their biggest challenge is and you are bound to hear “member retention.” Getting new members is easy—keeping them is more difficult.

Holding on to members for the long term is a special science, one that makes you think about how you approach every aspect of your business. Let’s look at how both fitness-based businesses and other sorts of member associations tackle this tricky subject.

Strategies for Member Retention

Below are some helpful methods for encouraging all types of members to continue patronizing your business.

Know Your Members’ Names. If the same people come to your facility almost every day, you must know their names and train your staff to know them too. To help employees learn names, keep members’ pictures on a big wall behind the front desk with first names under the photos. Encourage staff to study the photos during quiet times and learn the names of regulars.

Give Appropriate Praise. When you see that a member has a great new haircut, looks rested after a vacation or has made it in consistently for a week, compliment that person! Many of our members go through life being ignored, passed over for jobs or assignments or just made to feel insignificant in some area of their lives. It is our job to make sure we notice a great new pair of earrings, even if no one else has noticed all day.

Ask for Feedback. There’s nothing like knowing that your opinion matters. A big clubwide survey is sometimes appropriate, but so is pulling aside one of your regulars and asking, “How did you like that class?” It’s also helpful to ask new members about their experiences. After about 2 weeks, e-mail new members, asking how they are doing and what they are loving and not loving about your programs. This process empowers your members and reinforces the fact that you care about what they think.

Keep Members in the Loop. Class cancellations, closures for improvements or holidays, and changes to policy are all occurrences that you must communicate to members as soon as possible. Creating an e-mail list of members to whom you can shoot a message when something sudden happens is incredibly helpful. You can also set up an automated “hotline” for announcing changes and encourage members to call if they are unsure when a class starts or whether the facility is open. Think of this retention strategy as the “Law of No Surprises.” The more you keep members informed, the more trust they put in you.

Reward Loyalty. Tracking attendance and membership duration is important. Each month, note which members are celebrating 1, 2 and 5 years or more and send them a handwritten card thanking them and congratulating them on staying dedicated to their health and well-being. A card seems like such a small gesture, but it’s one that members notice.

A special reduction for longtime members is also a great incentive for them to stick with your facility. “We offer a 6-month incentive program from the time they start exercising with us,” says Kristen Redding, MS, owner of The Pilates Studio of Friendswood in Friendswood, Texas. “Each month brings them some type of incentive, such as a bottled water for every class, a T-shirt or a free class. Once they hit the 6-month mark, they get a price reduction in their class sessions.”

Make Members Feel That They Belong. Fostering community is a huge benefit to any member-driven business; members who feel they are part of a community are more likely to stay.

Try hosting special events where your members can interact socially outside of the fitness context. One Santa Fe, New Mexico, facility hangs the work of local artists throughout its common areas and holds a monthly art opening at night with drinks and hors d’oeuvres.

If you lack the resources to offer special events, you can always ask people in class to say their names or to introduce themselves to one person they don’t know. Train your members to do this, and they will start to do it on their own. Fairly soon, you’ll have a community of friendly, empathic and supportive members.

Helping Different Types of Members

Once you have implemented strategies to encourage long-term retention, how do you handle the difficulties that inevitably crop up? Let’s look at some typical members you may encounter and how you can turn them into committed players on your team.

The On-the-Fence Member

This person is always telling you, “I don’t know if I’m going to stay. Maybe I should just join for another month instead of taking the annual membership.” If you have notes on this member, you can refer to her goals and remind her of why she joined in the first place. A typical scenario would go something like this:

Member: “I don’t know. . . . Maybe I’ll just do a 30-day term. I never know when I can get in, and I don’t even know where I’ll be in a year.”

Staff: “Well, Mary, remember when you joined? You said you had a hard time sticking with a program. Looking back over your progress, I see that you have really been consistent in your workouts for about 3 months! You know, 3 months is a big make-or-break point for a lot of exercisers—it’s a time when you commit or fall off the wagon. Why not commit today by signing up for the year? I’ll personally help you stay on track.”

You have just done several things to get this member off the fence. You referred back to her initial meeting, acknowledged her progress and appointed yourself her personal cheerleader. Who wouldn’t feel good about this?

The Sometime Member

This person comes and goes: 1 week of intense workouts is followed by 2 weeks of no visits. He seems to have no set schedule or has not made a serious commitment to your facility. Let’s look at one way to sway him:

Staff: “Hey Jerry! Haven’t seen you in a while—welcome back! Were you away on business?”

Jerry: “No, I just got sidetracked by work, deadlines . . . you know, the usual craziness.”

Staff: “Well, I know that when you do make it in, you are a workout maniac! I think I have an idea of how you can get your workout in every day. Want to hear it?”

Jerry: “Okay—I’m listening.”

Staff: “How about we take out your datebook and look at when you could come in over the next 2 weeks? We’ll schedule your workouts just like business meetings or deadlines you can’t miss. If you don’t show up, I will call you. Is that okay?”

Jerry: “Wow, if you could do that for me, I might actually make it in here instead of eating pizza at my desk every night. Let’s try it!”

You outlined Jerry’s history, asked if he’d like a solution and offered one that included hands-on treatment and commitment from your staff. Of course, Jerry might have said, “Stay out of my business,” but since he seemed amenable to your idea, you might just have converted him.

The Exercise-Through-Osmosis (ETO) Member

This person purchases a membership and doesn’t ever come in. Short of going to her house and dragging her in, what can you do? I seek help from my lifer members, people with strong loyalties to the facility. First, I ask if anyone knows this ETO member. If I find a connection, I enlist this person’s help. I ask the lifer to call the ETO member and encourage her to come in by making a workout date with her. If no one has a connection with the member, I do three things. First, I give her a call that goes something like this:

Jackie: “Hi, Jane. It’s Jackie from Santé Fitness Studio. How are you?”

Jane: “Hi, Jackie. What’s up?”

Jackie: “Well, you signed up for classes a month ago and I haven’t seen you yet! I want you to get your money’s worth, so what can I do to get you in and working out?”

Jane: “Oh, I know. I came down with the flu right after I signed up, and then work just got crazy. I really need to get in soon.”

Jackie: “How about Tuesday? You said Pilates mat classes are what drew you to us. I teach a mat class on Tuesdays and know you’d enjoy it. Can I count on you to be there?”

Jane: “Let me try.”

Jackie: “Jane, I know I’m a pain, but can you do more than try? Can you be there? Write it on your calendar like a doctor’s appointment. I will call you if you don’t show up!”

Jane: “Okay. I will be there. Thanks for giving me a jump-start!”

I follow up this call with two things: an e-mail and a handwritten note. The e-mail confirms our call and its outcome (Jane is coming to Pilates on Tuesday). I mail the handwritten note so that it arrives on either the day of our appointment or the day after. The note says something like this:

Dear Jane:

So glad you made it in on Tuesday—wasn’t it fun? What? You didn’t show up? Well, stick this note on your fridge to remind you that there is always next week. You know I am going to call you until I see you again! Seriously, let me know if there is anything I can do to get you to class—I am here to help you!

Best in health,


Maybe this strategy seems like overkill, but if you ever needed to work on someone, it’s this client. One of my ETO members resisted me for 2 months before I got her in. The first thing she said was, “Okay, I’m here. Now will you leave me alone?” I said I would, but lo and behold, she loved the class and has been coming regularly for 3 years. Sometimes being persistent pays off.

The Unhappy Member

This person is not pleased with something or someone at your facility. He may complain that an instructor didn’t start class on time or that his favorite treadmill has been out of order or in use every time he comes in. If his problem is an easy fix, then fix it! If it is something deeper, such as a general unhappiness with everything, see if you can coax him to open up and talk about what is really bothering him. It may not even be your facility—perhaps he is having difficulty at work or at home. Sometimes a complainer simply needs a sympathetic ear and a strong shoulder. If you can provide that support, not only will you turn this member around, but you will gain his long-term loyalty.

On the other hand, this person might just be constantly unhappy and addicted to complaining. Is this someone you want to have around for life? Didn’t think so. Someone you can’t please regardless of all your efforts does not want to be pleased. Let him go on to another facility.

A Retention Plan

The time to start making a member into a lifer is when the person has just signed up and is ready to go. Whatever you do, don’t wait until her membership term has expired; nothing will strike that member as less sincere than receiving a call from a facility salesperson when she hasn’t worked out in months and has let her membership lapse. It just smacks of desperation, and the message your prospective renewal gets is “I don’t really care about you; I just want your money.”

Remember, it’s 10 times easier (and cheaper) to keep a current member than to cultivate a new one. What can you do today to begin converting your members to lifers? Write your plan of attack and get going—the end result is worth the work.

IDEA Fitness Journal, Volume 4, Issue 7

© 2007 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Author

Jackie Camborde IDEA Author/Presenter

Jackie Camborde has been teaching group fitness classes for over 14 years. She owns Santé Studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and is the creator of the Real World Fitness series, and her first DVD, Real ...