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Retaining Members

Four ways to create a gym environment that motivates.

Many directors focus predominantly on recruitment. While this is important, retaining current members is equally essential. Profits from a single customer can increase dramatically over time. A 5-year member can be up to 377 percent more profitable than a new one (Reichheld & Sasser 1990). Keep that in mind the next time you’re crunching numbers to meet the budget.

According to the July 2003 IHRSA Trend Report, the number of U.S. health clubs increased by 14 percent in 2002. While this provides the public with countless gyms to choose from, it doesn’t mean that you should give up. Armed with the following four strategies, you can create a motivating gym environment that will prevent your members from being lured away by other clubs.

1. Provide Superior Customer Service

Exceptional customer service involves more than just employing a friendly staff. You must consistently meet and exceed your clients’ needs. Survey your members periodically to make sure you are succeeding, and then develop a customer satisfaction package based on their feedback.

Address Individual Fitness Needs. Provide an initial fitness assessment and an extensive orientation to each of your members. The latter shouldn’t be just a walk around the gym and locker room, but rather a comprehensive equipment demonstration. This will prevent injuries and encourage members to use unfamiliar equipment.

Hire Service-Oriented People. A responsive and experienced staff plays a crucial role in developing a supportive environment. Employees should be available to answer questions about fitness, nutrition and membership, both in person and by phone, during operating hours. Encourage staff to congratulate members on their successes. “You must hire a staff willing to go out of its way to engage members in conversation and activities,” says Scott Lewandowski, fitness director at Union Station Multiplex, Chicago.

Develop a Rapport. Put pictures and bios of all staff members on the main bulletin board. Members will learn each employee’s name and know whom to approach with fitness, training or club-related questions. Similarly, encourage employees to learn every member’s name. This is difficult but worth the effort, as it promotes loyalty and develops a comfort level. Further this rapport by sending “thank-you” cards to members who refer friends.

2. Offer Incentives

Sometimes, members need a little extra push to lose those last 10 pounds or try a new cycling class. Incentives provide just the right motivation and should begin from day one.

Offer a Coupon Booklet. This incentive is good for one-time discounts on all club activities, such as massage and personal training. Coupons offer a taste of your programs and services and encourage members to continue the ones they enjoy.

Establish Individual Goals. After their initial fitness assessments, help new members establish goals. Update existing members’ fitness goals at the beginning of the year. “It’s important that [members] review goals weekly, if not daily, to stoke that fire,” says Todd M. Brown, director of personal training and nutrition for WOW! Work Out World facilities throughout New Jersey.

Each time members reach small milestones on their way to attaining overall goals, recognize them with token rewards, such as movie tickets or nutrition bars. The idea is to celebrate small achievements. Brown adds, “Let’s focus on rewarding our members for the activities that lead to success, not just the actual success. This way they get to experience success a lot faster.”

Run a Contest. Play a game in which members earn points for certain activities, such as signing in, attending a group fitness class, taking a nutrition seminar or participating in a club event. At the end of every month, award prizes to the three members with the highest point totals. Prizes could be a T-shirt, water bottle and key chain with the club’s logo. A fun challenge for members, this game also provides free advertising for the club. The more involved members are, the more they’ll adhere to their fitness plans and want to stay.

Don’t forget your long-term members. On their enrollment anniversaries, give them yearly rewards such as gift certificates to local restaurants, gift cards for a sporting goods store, gym bags or personalized gym towels. This practice demonstrates that you appreciate your members’ dedication.

3. Create a Sense of Community

A supportive, close-knit environment goes a long way toward promoting habitual attendance. Your facility should be a fun place where people come to enjoy themselves, work toward their fitness goals and socialize.

Organize Special Clubs. Plan activities designed for members to get to know one another. Forming relationships helps clients feel they are part of a team and not just numbers. Individualized clubs help achieve this objective. Examples include clubs for beginning exercisers, women only, men only, hikers, bikers, runners—you get the picture. An organized buddy system is another useful tool, particularly for new members, who may not know anyone at your gym.

Plan Social Activities. A fun way to facilitate bonds between staff and members is to organize social fitness outings. A full-day white-water rafting trip, a half-day biking trip or a new-member 5K walk initiates social interaction while providing a great workout.

Publicly Recognize Achievements. Acknowledging the triumphs of your members increases their feeling of belonging, inspiring them to continue their efforts. Post a bulletin board that boasts members’ accomplishments: John Smith completed a 5K charity walk; Amy Han lost 15 pounds; José Romero lowered his cholesterol. Dedicate a section to members’ birthdays and include pictures when
appropriate. Why not take it a step further and display a “member of the month”? Establish criteria and allow members to compete for this monthly position of pride.

4. Educate Members

Losing or maintaining weight is most people’s prime motivator for working out. Nearly 9 out of every 10 Americans (88 percent) believe that regular exercise is essential to weight management (International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association 2003). Although weight management is a significant benefit, there are numerous other health advantages that clients may not be aware of. It’s your job to convey this information. After all, the more reasons members have to exercise, the more likely they are to continue.

Offer Seminars and Workshops. Communicate vital information about health and fitness. Subjects like nutrition, strength training and disease prevention are good places to start. A club-specific class highlighting various programs and events helps clients find activities they enjoy. They feel better equipped to create a diverse workout they can stick with. “There will come a time when you reach a point of boredom. This is why it is important to offer a variety of fitness opportunities,” says Cedric Bryant, PhD, vice president of educational services and chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise in San Diego.

Organize Health Fairs. Work with doctors’ offices and hospitals in your area to arrange on-site cholesterol, bone density and blood pressure screenings. Invite other allied health professionals, such as physical therapists and massage therapists, to talk about their services. Don’t forget to have personal trainers and group fitness instructors available to answer questions and schedule appointments.

Publish a Monthly Newsletter. Feature
articles on health topics that reflect your membership demographics. For example, if most of your members are women, run columns on pre/postnatal exercise, juggling career and family, and other pertinent subjects. Provide practical tips on how to stay motivated, and list useful resources and community contacts. Highlight success stories, making members
feel they are an integral part of the club. And remember that a newsletter is a good
marketing tool—use this prime space to
announce upcoming events, new class schedules and contests.

An inspirational and supportive environment encourages members to adhere to their fitness goals and maintain their membership. Employing the strategies outlined in this article will set your club apart and continually motivate your members at little extra expense. The key to retaining your members is making your club a second home where they feel encouraged, inspired and surrounded by friends.

Come Back! Three Simple Ways to Win Back Members

1. Analyze Dropouts. Mail questionnaires to, or conduct telephone interviews with, lost members. Their responses can provide a wealth of information about why members left and present ways that you can improve your services and facility. Assure lost members that you will address these issues; this may be enough to earn you a second chance. Offer a free 1-month membership just for completing the survey or interview.

2. Maintain Contact. Communicate with members who have recently canceled or haven’t used the gym for several months. Rather than ask why they’ve canceled or been absent, say, for example, “I’m calling to let you know about a new class that I think you’d really like.” Suggest they try the class free of charge. This brings them back into the facility and is a creative way to promote a new program.

3. Know Your Competition. Regularly research rival clubs’ classes, services and prices. Stay competitive by providing amenities members can’t find elsewhere. Offer unique programs that increase your club’s perceived membership value. Members return if they know they can’t get these innovative programs anywhere else.

Retention Resources

Online Tools and Software

fitTRACK: provides an interactive site for members to communicate their personal progress with club staff; http://club.fittrack.com

Fitness Rewards by Promote It: a member appreciation program that provides incentives centered on new health products; www.fitnessrewards.net

MembersFirst: a Web-based communication tool that helps build a sense of community, improve member satisfaction, increase revenue and reduce communication costs; www.memfirst.com.

Peak Performance International Fitness Network: a professional resource that provides management, staff training and marketing information for the health and fitness industry; www.healthclubpros.com/

Universal Club Manager: a software program that provides access to a wide range of vital information and reports designed to improve revenue and retention; www.gymsoftware.com


Enhancing Exercise Motivation: A Guide to Increasing Fitness Center Member Retention by James J. Annesi (Fitness Management Leisure Publications 1996)

Members for Life: Proven Service and Retention Strategies for Health-Fitness and Sports Clubs by Richard F. Gerson (Human Kinetics 1999)

Health Fitness Management: A Comprehensive Resource for Managing and Operating Programs and Facilities by William C. Grantham et al. (Human Kinetics 1998)

Insider’s Guide to Recruiting and Retaining Phenomenal Staff, IDEA Resource Series Book #C899028 (IDEA 2003); www.IDEAfit.com; (800) 999-4332, ext. 7, or (858) 535-8979, ext. 7


International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association. 2003. IHRSA Trend Report, 10 (2), 1.
Reichheld, F. & Sasser, W.E. 1990. Zero defections: Quality comes to service. Harvard Business Review, 68 (5), 105-11.

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