Marketing Pilates can be as easy as having members communicate its benefits and results.
Mom always said eavesdropping was impolite, but there are times when it is not only inevitable but beneficial.
Not long ago I was in the locker room after teaching one of my classes. Julie, a newcomer to our facility, ran into her friend Sandy. Julie was amazed at Sandy’s physical transformation since seeing her a few months before. Clearly impressed, Julie remarked that Sandy looked longer and leaner. “What are you doing differently?” Julie asked. I could hear the smile in Sandy’s voice when she answered, “I’m doing Pilates now. It’s amazing!”
What was amazing to me was this walking, talking advertisement of our Pilates program. Julie kept quizzing her friend about Pilates. Sandy kept extolling its virtues. I kept listening! In a matter of minutes, Sandy had accomplished what many directors and instructors spend countless hours trying to do. She had “sold” the Pilates program to another member. Sure enough, Julie appeared in my class later that week and has been coming ever since. I realized then that the best way to market our Pilates program was to have the participants market it for us through their praise and real results.
Growing a successful and profitable Pilates program can be very challenging for many directors. Often the biggest obstacle to surmount is educating members about what Pilates is and how it can benefit them. As an instructor and the wellness program coordinator at a new wellness center in Bethel Park, a suburb of Pittsburgh, I found this barrier formidable. In fact awareness of Pilates was so poor that one gentleman asked me if it was an Italian cooking class!
Some individuals perceived Pilates as a program only for the rich and famous. Others thought it was an abdominals or stretching class. Still others believed that Pilates was not challenging enough or was just a fad. The real deal breaker, however, seemed to be the extra cost of the class. In our facility as in many others, the Pilates program is not included in the cost of membership—nor is it offered to nonmembers. The extra cost, combined with the misconception that Pilates is “just like” yoga—which we offer at no additional cost—kept new participants away. Clearly I needed a new game plan if this program was going to take off.
After hearing the exchange between Julie and Sandy, something hit me: Friends listen to friends and colleagues, not to salespeople, instructors or professional actors paid to pump products on television. I realized that clients who find their way into our Pilates program are usually driven by personal recommendations. Take “Mike,” for example, who is an avid golfer. Mike’s wife, who knew he would benefit from Pilates exercise, had been encouraging him to take it for years, with no result. But while playing in a charity event, he met a PGA pro who raved about how Pilates had improved his golf game. Mike began taking my classes shortly thereafter.
In the past I had tried demonstrations, offered educational seminars and posted flyers boasting the benefits of Pilates. But I realized such tactics were not nearly as valuable as plain old endorsements from members who were Pilates devotees. I tore down my fancy flyers and removed pamphlets I had produced to advertise the program. The time had come to create a new marketing plan that involved our “addicted” participants.
My first step was to create a questionnaire (see “Pilates Questionnaire”) for the Pilates enthusiasts. My hunch was that I’d be able to build a “real participants campaign” with the answers our members would provide. I used this informal but powerful market research to create new in-house marketing materials featuring testimonials.
I also began producing a member newsletter titled The Pilates Press. I included information on class dates, times and prices, along with more in-depth articles on how Pilates exercises could enhance sport and fitness performance and improve one’s daily functions. The Pilates Press was also a perfect place to feature the comments of members currently involved in the program. Our events bulletin board began to fill up with testimonials and pictures showcasing our Pilates “stars” performing their favorite mat or reformer exercise.
Involving our membership team was another key element of the program’s success. Membership advisors were encouraged to bring prospective members into Pilates classes during tours. Seeing the class in action, the diverse clientele and the one-on-one attention each participant received showcased the value of this fee-based program. I encouraged prospective members to “interview” participants, who usually were very eager to be in the spotlight for a few minutes. Such sincere enthusiasm was far more valuable than any flyer I had posted—particularly when participants ended the conversation by saying, “The class is worth every penny!”
Renee Vichie, the membership director at the wellness center, supports this new “tour stop” and encourages her entire staff to participate. “Prospects instantly begin interacting with members who are excited about the club and the Pilates program. They see firsthand how friendly our members are and how well-trained, warm and welcoming our instructors are. As a bonus the sales staff has become better educated in Pilates and can promote the program by using the participants’ words and experiences when asked about it.”
Growth of our Pilates program has been slow, albeit steady. Our center has progressed from having one mat class that was getting three to four participants “dropping in” to having two mat classes with 10 regular participants; four full reformer classes with four participants each; and a list of new clientele eagerly awaiting the addition of new sessions as the demand for more classes increases. As the program grows we plan to hire additional instructors and purchase more equipment to keep up with the demand.
Pilates personal training has exploded as well. In September 2003 I had one client. By the end of December, I had eight clients—and more who looked forward to getting started in 2004. Members pay an average of $60 for a 1-hour Pilates personal training session that incorporates the use of the reformer and the mat.
Where doubt and skepticism once existed, a buzz about Pilates can now be heard. Members see the classes in action and hear positive feedback from others involved in the program. We know that Pilates, like most paid programming, will not attract the majority of our members. However the people who do participate are extremely dedicated, and their support will keep the program thriving. All signs point to an increasing profit margin as more friends of friends get involved. Such growth can be attributed to our faithful followers, their involvement in our marketing plan and their praise of Pilates!