Lessons from Abroad
Stephen Tharrett and James A. Peterson
The U.S. fitness facility industry is the largest market of its kind in the world, comprising slightly more than 40 percent of the fitness centers, 31 percent of the total members and 30 percent of the total revenues globally. The U.S. industry is viewed by many as the benchmark for how to operate a successful fitness club business. While the U.S. is the global market leader, the international market has quickly caught up and, in some respects, surpassed the U.S. By benchmarking the international fitness arena, U.S. operators can uncover new strategies for improving and growing their business.
Standards of qualityMany international facilities undergo outside audits and inspections based on industry-accepted standards. The White Flag Program in Ireland, Quest in the U.K. and Qualitop in Switzerland are examples of quality assurance and audit systems. These programs are intended to raise public awareness and trust regarding the quality of the fitness facility experience. The Quest and White Flag programs are seen as the pinnacle of recognition for operating a quality club. The Qualitop program is used to determine a club's eligibility for insurance reimbursement.
TechnologyAt the Coliseum in Istanbul, Turkey, members have an eye scan performed as they enter the facility, which is viewed as both a measure of security and exclusivity. At the Pele Club in Sao Paulo, Brazil, members check in with a fingerprint scan. Once their finger is scanned, a message is immediately forwarded to the personal trainers on the floor, each of whom has a PDA. The PDA provides the trainers with data about the member's exercise program. Similar technology is also used in Hong Kong, Singapore and Moscow.
Service and cleanlinessThe international arena places a greater emphasis on service. Full-time fitness instructors always work the floor to make sure members are well-served. And, these facilities still have successful personal training programs. By providing assistance on the floor, trainers are able to connect with more members and to lower attrition. In addition, front desk staff's main focus is on greeting members — scanning cards, taking fingerprints, etc., is secondary. Finally, in almost all of these international facilities, members receive an extensive orientation at no additional cost.
As for cleanliness, in Turkey, prospective members touring a facility must wear special boots over their shoes. In Brazil, three or four staff members are dedicated to cleaning at all times. In general, most international facilities place a high degree of importance on cleanliness.
Qualifications and programmingIn Ireland and England, many fitness centers offer sophisticated programs for special populations, such as diabetic or obese members. In Brazil and Russia, group fitness is huge, with some facilities offering more than 200 classes a week. Most clubs have three to five studios, each with a different focus. In Brazil, England and Turkey, a majority of the clubs provide programming outside of their facilities (e.g., adventure- and entertainment-themed events). Several Sao Paulo fitness centers even feature a disc jockey during evening hours.
In Brazil and Turkey, personal trainers and instructors must have a four-year degree in the fitness field. In China, most instructors have either an undergraduate or graduate degree. In Russia, instructors complete an intensive curriculum of training at the secondary level.
Pricing and designThe international market differentiates itself better than the U.S. market. The U.S. market has a proliferation of low-price operators, and only a handful offering a high-price, high-value experience. In Sao Paulo, monthly dues in many of the top clubs range from $125 to $200 per month, and the experience members receive is on par with that level of pricing. Similar rates are charged for the top fitness centers in Moscow and Istanbul. That is not to say that there are no low-priced leaders in the international market. Companies such as McFit in Germany, Fitness First and L.A. Fitness in the U.K., have all developed successful low-price point offerings. But, in the international market, the focus is on creating distinct market differentiation based on both the experience and the price.
Design and construction are a part of this differentiation strategy. In Sao Paulo, the ECOFIT Club uses green architecture to distinguish itself. The water in the pools and showers is reclaimed rainwater, the facility's heat and power come from solar energy and the finishes are all made from recycled materials. In Brazil, Spain and numerous other international markets, operators use themes in the design of specific rooms and areas of the facility.
Facility of the Week
Ithaca College Athletics and Events Center