Retention, retention, retention. The fitness industry breathes and sleeps retention, continually pondering bigger and better strategies for holding on to members. Yet many facilities still focus on getting new members in the door, providing a basic orientation and setting them free—free to slowly lose interest in attaining their fitness goals and coming to the gym. This pattern occurs frequently, affecting attrition rates (Cherry 2002). According to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, the annual attrition rate industry-wide is currently 34.5% (Milner 2006).

You don’t need to lose that many members at your facility. The key to retaining members is to make them feel welcome and help them remain active (Clayton 2001). You may think you’ve tried everything to encourage retention, but a proven and powerful solution is right within your reach: encouraging a sense of community. Fostering a feeling of belonging can transform your club into something more than just a place to exercise after work before heading home.

A supportive, close-knit environment goes a long way toward promoting habitual attendance and loyalty. Your facility should be a fun place where people gather to enjoy themselves, strive toward fitness goals and socialize with friends. You can achieve this ideal by promoting personal interaction, both among members and between members and staff, as well as by regularly rewarding loyal patrons. This formula is the key to long-term retention, and ultimately, to long-term profits.

Fostering Staff–Member Relationships

Forming friendships with staff helps clients feel they are part of the overall team and not just numbers on your membership roster. Therefore, it is essential that employees take the time to get to know each member personally. Staff should not only know each member’s name but make an effort to talk with members each time they arrive. In addition, staff should regularly circulate throughout the club, shaking hands with members and offering assistance and guidance. Also, suggests Bob Nelson, PhD, author of the best-selling book 1001 Ways to Reward Employees (Workman 2005), “Having fun with group activities, celebrations, team-building sessions and contests [aids in fostering these relationships].” The point is to make people feel that they belong to an organization that cares about them as individuals.

Here are some other strategies for cultivating staff–member relationships:

Plan Social Fitness Activities. A fun way to facilitate bonding is to organize fitness outings and adventure trips. A full-day white-water rafting trip, a morning biking tour, a boot camp at the local park or a new-member 5K initiates valuable social interaction while providing a great workout.

Throw a Member Appreciation Party. To achieve a big turnout, allow members to bring a guest. They are more likely to attend if they can bring a spouse or friend. This strategy also lets you take advantage of the most inexpensive form of marketing—member referral (Lewandowski 2002).

Provide Superior Customer Service. It goes without saying that a responsive and experienced staff plays a crucial role in developing a supportive environment (Clayton 2001). Employees should be available to answer questions about fitness, nutrition (within scope of practice) and membership, both in person and over the phone.

Develop a Rapport. Post pictures and bios of all staff members on the main bulletin board. Members will learn employees’ names and know whom to approach with specific fitness, training or club-related questions. Further this affinity by sending “thank-you” cards to members who refer friends and “congratulations” cards to those who have achieved a fitness goal.

Fostering Member–Member Relationships

Increasing interaction among members helps clients get to know one another, so the club becomes a meeting place for friends in addition to a place to work out. Take the following steps to promote togetherness and encourage members to mingle:

Organize Special Clubs. Individualized groups help members meet other like-minded members (Coffman 2006). Examples include clubs for beginning exercisers, women only, men only, bikers, runners, new moms—you get the picture. An organized buddy system is another useful tool for new members who may not know anyone at your gym.

“Offering programs and activities such as our book club, coffee club, pawsercise class (dog-walking club) and marathon/ triathlon training programs, Fitness Formula Clubs has become more than just a health and fitness center,” explains Scott Lewandowski, MS, Chicago-based regional fitness director for Fitness Formula Clubs. “It has become a fun and social community center with improved member retention.”

Publicly Recognize Achievements. Acknowledging the triumphs of your members increases their feeling of belonging and allows members to encourage each other, inspiring them to continue their efforts. Post a bulletin board that boasts members’ accomplishments (Cocchi 2001); for example, announce that “John Smith completed a 5K charity walk” or “Amy Jones lost 15 pounds.” Dedicate a section to members’ birthdays and even develop a “member of the month” program. For all of these ideas, include members’ pictures as often as possible.

Create Leagues. Based on your club’s existing amenities, you can create specific leagues, such as basketball, tennis or swimming leagues. Schedule regular times when these groups can meet to play their specific sport. The teams can be competitive or recreational, depending on members’ desires.

Reward Your Members

In addition to fostering interaction and building meaningful relationships within your club, rewarding members goes a long way in making them feel appreciated and part of a supportive environment. Here are several creative ideas for how you can regularly reward members:

Play a Game. Have members earn points for certain activities, such as attending a fitness class, taking a nutrition seminar, providing a referral or meeting with a personal trainer. At the end of each month, award prizes to the three members with the highest point totals. Prizes can include a T-shirt, a water bottle or a gym bag branded with the club’s logo. A fun challenge for members, this game also provides free advertising for the facility (Cocchi 2001).

Run Special Competitions. Create certain themes that tie in with seasons, holidays or sporting events (i.e., March Madness, the Olympics). Contests should last 4–6 weeks. Any longer and members may lose interest. Members love to see how they are advancing, so it’s important to have a big, bright visual, such as a colorful chalkboard or dry-erase board, displaying each member’s progress (Cocchi 2001).

Provide Yearly Rewards for Members’ Enrollment Anniversaries. Show your appreciation for members’ continued patronage by giving inexpensive gifts, such as movie tickets, personalized gym towels or gift certificates to local restaurants. This practice demonstrates that you value your members’ dedication to their own fitness and to your club.

Over and above these main strategies, there are several other simple tactics you can employ to further the sense of community within your club. A suggestion box, while not a new idea, makes members feel that their opinions are important (Parker & Ribley 2000). To demonstrate that the center is responsive and that the suggestion box is not a proverbial “black hole,” design a bulletin board highlighting member suggestions and the actions taken to address them. Also, member surveys make clients feel valued and a part of the club’s continued success (McBain 2006). Include questions regarding the club’s cleanliness, staff effectiveness, programs and classes. Finally, the club’s physical appearance and maintenance are crucial to creating an inviting and comfortable environment. Chipping paint, broken equipment and dirty locker rooms will have members running for the door. Plan routine inspections of your facility, including the physical building, furniture, equipment, sound system and lighting (Weir & Harrow 2001). Little things make big impressions.

Members for the Long Haul

An inspirational and supportive environment encourages members to adhere to their fitness goals and maintain their membership for years and years. Set your club apart by employing these strategies and making your club a second home where members feel appreciated, inspired and surrounded by friends. Let your members know that they belong at your club, and they’ll continue to do just that.