When Jack and Jenna Oliver opened Above the Bar, a CrossFit® facility in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, 2 years ago, they knew it wouldn’t be an overnight success. However, they didn’t expect the competition to be so fierce. First, they had to deal with a Planet Fitness grand opening (with $10 monthly memberships); then, another CrossFit facility set up shop just a few miles away. Despite the competition, their box was so successful that they moved to a larger location—only to find out that a 24 Hour Fitness® was opening up less than a mile away!

“It rattled us for a few seconds, until we realized that people come to us because they think we have a superior product: awesome coaching, personable relationships, great equipment and, most important, results,” Jenna Oliver notes. “When you walk in our doors, you can feel the closeness. It’s a community, which is something you can’t get at your usual globo-gym.”

Oliver touches on something that rings true to many fitness owners and managers. From big-box gyms to CrossFit boxes; to specialty clubs that offer boxing, boot camps or barre; to huge university “exercise chapels” that seem to cover city blocks—there truly is something for everyone. The competition for consumer fitness dollars is stiff. What happens to an established facility when a shiny new club opens? Sometimes clients are looking for the “new-new,” and trainers fear losing their clients to the hottest boutique trend. Conversely, what if you are the newcomer and you want to raise your profile to attract a client base?

As facility owners like the Olivers discovered, there are ways to survive and even thrive. Here are some ideas from fitness pros who have “been there, done that,” and some lessons on how they coped with meeting—or being—the new kid in town.

Focus on Your Specialties

Trinity Perkins, owner of Train with Trin in Woodbridge, Virginia, runs her business from a private 3,200-square-foot studio that she estimates is surrounded by about 10 gyms within a 10-mile radius. Perkins says those other facilities run the gamut, from big chains to smaller franchises, and even specialty gyms for yoga or Pilates. Perkins knows that what she offers—personal training, small-group classes and nutrition coaching—is more important that what she doesn’t offer, which includes childcare, swimming or memberships. The customers who seek her services are specifically looking for personal training and a smaller setting.

“Clients know that all of my personal training sessions and meal plans are specific to their needs,” she observes. “I don’t try to compete with the other gyms. By specializing, I have been able to own and operate my business in this location for 3 years.”

Be Realistic About Your Competition

In 2013, Angela Reed-Fox opened Fox Cycling in Portishead, England, a town that was already serviced by three gyms but where cycling-specific studios were unheard of. Her business is successful, but she acknowledges that it took time to build a customer base. Not only did the company have to define the studio cycling market, but it also had to create a workforce of cycling instructors.

“I think the key is to see the competition the way your customers see them,” she suggests. “One of my partners claimed that we had no competitors because there were no other high-end, high-tech cycling studios in the area. But that wasn’t how our customers saw us. Some of them just felt like we were a gym without a pool and Zumba.” Fortunately, she recalls, enough clients saw Fox Cycling for what it is: a brilliant new place to get fit, get accepted and make friends.

Market Creatively

Most savvy fitness facility owners know that if you build it, the clients won’t necessarily come. Instead, to attract clients you need to rely on a wide variety of marketing methods, from the traditional to the nontraditional. The quirky marketing at Above the Bar has included everything from meeting with a radio host, which got “spendy,” to Jenna Oliver doing handstands outside the business while waving at passersby (yes, they got one member that way).

Christopher Slone of Slone Strength Systems in Johnson City, Tennessee, helps his small fitness center compete with nearby national gyms by encouraging trial runs. He chooses a business and a school “of the month,” and offers everyone in the group a month’s use of his facility for free. Halfway through the promotion, he adds urgency by offering deals to employees and students who sign up before the month is over.

Most facilities try out a combination: first, regular advertising, such as print ads in the local weekly paper, and second, an online presence that includes search-optimized key words and a robust social media program. Some other ways to encourage trials are bring-a-friend promotions, free classes and charitable events.

Partner With Complementary Businesses

When Above the Bar moved into its new space, the Olivers noticed that a small catering company shared the same parking lot. Jack contacted the caterer to see if she’d be interested in offering meals that were Paleo-friendly, since many CrossFitters incorporate this diet into their lifestyles. The Olivers had a Paleo challenge coming up, where members were encouraged to stick to strict guidelines for a month. The catering company’s owner jumped onboard, and now many Above the Bar clients buy meals from her on a weekly basis. In return, she touts Above the Bar to her clientele.

Perkins has created partnerships with trainers who focus on the exercise part of wellness and whose clients are seeking nutrition advice as well. She coaches these clients on nutrition choices, and she also pays the trainers 15% of the cost of her services for sending her the referral. It’s a triple win.

Slone partners with a local massage studio to offer a free massage to new members of Slone Strength Systems. In return, the massage therapists refer their clientele who are looking for strength training.

Be the Best, and Clients Will Follow

For many facility owners, good old-fashioned word of mouth is still the best way to find and retain members. These days, of course, that includes social media and positive online reviews.

The Olivers’ first client was a high-school friend, who brought her boyfriend and another girlfriend. Then the girlfriend brought her boyfriend. Soon, they were posting and tagging themselves in pictures when they worked out. Jenna recalls, “Once all their friends saw the cool stuff they were doing, like flipping tires, climbing ropes and doing handstands, they wanted to know where they could do it, too.”

According to Reed-Fox, there is room in the world for all kinds of gyms, because clients are looking to meet their personal needs. Many want an intimate, friendly atmosphere; others prefer the traditional gym experience, with group fitness classes, childcare and a variety of machines.

“The key is not only to offer something different, but also to make sure it is excellent,” she advises. “If there’s a better option down the road, that’s where people will go. However, if you have a different product, they will try you out. You just need to make it so good that they keep coming back.”

Cathie Ericson

Cathie Ericson is a freelance writer who specializes in health/fitness and business topics. She loves group fitness classes, especially now, especially outdoors, even in the variable Oregon weather. Find her @cathieericson.

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