Failing to convert the unconverted
Over the past few decades, the health and fitness industry has evolved based on the needs and wants of the Those Who Do. Clubs have become bigger and better, filled with only the latest and greatest equipment. Fitness instructors and personal trainers have increased their knowledge and skill in the areas of exercise testing, program design and instruction. And, the latest generation of exercise clothing now wicks, cushions, supports and stabilizes better than ever.
Although these advances have presumably enhanced the growth of the fitness industry, they’ve hindered efforts to attract the inactive market. Health clubs have traditionally taken a features/benefits approach to advertising and sales, striving to convince prospects that the club will help them achieve their fitness goals. An active, club-oriented individual might be positively influenced by the latest technology in exercise equipment.
The inactive person usually isn’t. To the committed fitness enthusiast, certified personal trainers may be perceived as a benefit. To the uninitiated, however, the concept of a personal trainer is intimidating. The point is that clubs that proudly promote a “state of the art” message have difficulty attracting the inactive market. A business strategy based on the objective of converting the Those Who Don’t into Those Who Do is flawed and destined to fail.
If health clubs want to attract the inactive market, they need to offer more than just physical fitness. They need to create a place that enriches peoples lives on an emotional level as well. People pay to go to places that feel good to them — restaurants, movies, resorts, museums, national parks. These are examples of nice places where people get their needs met; where they can enjoy emotionally and physically satisfying experiences; where they can escape temporarily from the stresses and strains of everyday life.
Wouldn’t it be nice if a health club could be such a place? If coming to a health club evoked the feeling of strolling through an art gallery; curling up in a comfortable chair; enjoying a good novel; taking a walk through the woods; enjoying a wonderful meal or getting together with an old friend. These are the things in life that make people smile; the kinds of things that leave most of us wanting more.
The next generation health club
A small, but growing number of health clubs are successfully making the shift toward attracting the inactive market. Called “lifestyle centers,” these facilities are designed, staffed and marketed with the intention of attracting people who have never been members of health clubs. The underlying objective of these facilities is to create an environment where people can enjoy themselves with or without exercise. Here’s a brief overview of the lifestyle center concept:
Personnel. The lifestyle center’s personnel is hired and trained with a primary mission — to create a sense of community within the club by building relationships with and between members. The staff’s job is not only to talk to people but to listen to them. They learn how to ask questions that encourage interaction and draw people out. Instead of members staring at television sets while they’re exercising, staff facilitate group conversations. “Who’s going to win the Academy Awards? What are your favorite video movies of all time? What vacation have you taken that you really enjoyed? Any recommendations for new restaurants?” The goal is to create a social atmosphere where there is plenty of sharing, compassion, energy, enthusiasm, empathy and laughter.
In the lifestyle center, staff meetings are held on a regular basis to discuss member relations. “I’ve got a member who is struggling with this.” Or, “this member is interested in meeting with people, and we’re having a hard time getting her connected. Any suggestions?” “Are we doing everything possible to meet the needs of our members?” The purpose of these meetings is to problem-solve, brainstorm and develop staff communication skills.
Facility. The lifestyle center concept is ideally suited for suburban areas with high concentrations of middle- to upper-income professionals with children. The facility is centrally located with at least 5,000 to 10,000 square feet devoted to an exercise area (studio, circuit and cardio areas), a children’s center, meeting space, a member lounge, reception area, offices and changing areas.
The lifestyle center’s atmosphere can be enhanced for relatively little cost by making strategic trades with key members and local businesses.
The more children’s programs offered, the better. Indoor and outdoor child-care facilities are ideal. If the programs and facility appeals to kids, moms and dads will come more often. Lounge areas are comfortable, enclosed areas where people can relax, have a cup of coffee, read, visit, listen to music or watch a video. Menus from local restaurants are available for people who want to pick up a take-out dinner on the way home. The area also offers a computer, CD-ROM, fax/modem and printer. Massage chairs are provided. The whole idea is to create a place that members can call their own that offers other “healthy” experiences , in addition to exercise.
Lifestyle centers with meeting space benefit from the growing interest in adult continuing education programs. Facilities produce quarterly catalogues of classes and programs and distribute them throughout the community. Topics aren’t limited to health and fitness either. The key is finding interesting, knowledgeable people in the community who are motivated to share their expertise and gain exposure.
Programming. The greatest challenge for the lifestyle center is to diversify its programming beyond just cardiovascular and resistance training. Examples include swing dancing, Tai Chi, healthy cooking classes, dog obedience classes or simply taking a group of people for outdoor walks. If the facility has the space for it, a community garden is a terrific draw, particularly for older adults. Food can be grown and served as part of a cooking demonstration or potluck dinner party.
In a sense, the lifestyle center is like a private community recreation program. It continuously offers a variety of activities that members can experience both in and out of the center. All programming features a strong social component. The lifestyle concept is not only about conditioning and training — it’s about enjoying life, developing relationships and being active.
Marketing. The time has come for a new marketing message. Lifestyle centers differentiate themselves from traditional health clubs by shifting their marketing message from “the way you’ll look” to “the way you’ll feel.” No more references to couch potatoes, New Year’s resolutions, bathing suit season or state-of-the-art facilities. Instead of suggesting that there’s something wrong with people, lifestyle centers promote a more accepting, inviting message. The center has a strong spokesperson who regularly goes out into the community and promotes at corporations, community organizations, women’s groups, seniors groups, childbirth education classes, etc. Lifestyle centers focus their marketing efforts on word-of-mouth advertising, special events and local publicity campaigns, rather than print and direct-mail media. Local television advertising appears to be a promising avenue, as well.
The time is now
The aging of America. A managed care system striving to reduce health care utilization. A growing concern over quality-of-life issues like Online Office Supplies. Child-care shortages. Social isolation. Never before has our society been more ready for the lifestyle center concept. The business opportunity that a lifestyle center presents is significant enough that many health clubs are already heading in this direction. Among the approaches being explored are club conversions, free-standing satellite facilities and facilities within facilities.
The time is now for the next generation of health clubs. The question is: Is the health and fitness industry ready and able to capitalize on the opportunity?