The dream of a global village is now a reality. Fitness centers need to research and possibly modify their marketing strategies to effectively reach a multi-cultural clientele.

Fitness center owners and managers share some common goals: to gain and retain members, and to help those members reach their fitness goals. How, then, can facilities market their products and services to best reach all potential members, including multi-cultural clientele? And, after they join, how can fitness professionals encourage this cultural melting pot to sing the facility's praises to their friends, buddies, paesans, mates and amigos?

Know your market

It is essential to know the age and cultural demographics of your market, according to Tracy Christiansen, membership consultant for the Sport and Health Group in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area. For example, members with a strong Eastern European link may like facilities with a spa-type atmosphere, including a wood-panel sauna and steam rooms. Or, cultures that place a strong emphasis on family and extended families might appreciate programs and activities that every age group can enjoy. Also, Christiansen says, in many European cultures, particularly for members older than 40, exercise is associated with traditional physical education classes. This is where marketing your group exercise program becomes particularly important. And, team activities such as volleyball and basketball can be a great way to attract these members, says Christiansen.

You can cover all your bases by offering classes that may appeal to a specific culture, but not necessarily be restricted to this group. Classes like Caribbean Rhythms, African Dance, Zumba and martial arts can reach across all ethnicities, and provide a fun workout alternative for members.

Find the cultural connector

To help focus your programming to specific cultural groups, the people you need to contact first are the "connectors." It is one thing to know the hard data about an area's population demographic, but it is quite another to know about every culture in your community. How, then, can you incorporate culturally relevant and sensitive messages into your marketing strategies?

Internet search. You can research using the Internet, but even the best search engine will provide only a cursory introduction to a culture's unique perspectives and social mores. At best, there will be minimal, if any, information in regard to a culture's perception about exercise and fitness centers.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his best-selling book The Tipping Point, describes connectors as "people who link us up with the world, who introduce us to our social circle, ... [who have] a special gift for bringing the world together. ... They are the kind of people who know everyone." Nearly every organization, corporation or group has a connector. Connectors may not even necessarily hold a formal position in the hierarchy. So, how do you find them?

You can start by researching local embassies or cultural associations online. Many local churches also attract people of one particular background. There may be social clubs, sports teams or a charity that caters to a specific cultural group. Find the people who are prominent in these types of groups, and you are likely to find your connectors.

Mike Smallcorn, sales manager of the Sports Club LA in Washington, D.C., has had a lot of success using this approach. "Once we find the key person and establish a relationship, we can offer to give a free seminar on exercise at their embassy or social club - or even hold an open house where we can offer them discounted memberships," he says.

Go out in your community. Many cultural groups may be hesitant to extend themselves beyond their own community, or simply not have the time or inclination to publish their activities online. In this case, you will need a new approach to finding the connector.

Find out where these groups gather for social events. It might be a pub, community center or restaurant. Observe from a distance and, chances are, you will soon determine who the group's connector is. This may take some patience, but if you are a keen observer, you will be able to identify the person who seems to be the center of the conversation.

Once you have determined who the connector is, pick the right time to stroll over and introduce yourself. If you find this too confronting or beyond your comfort zone, remember that you are in the fitness business, and should have the requisite people skills to do this with confidence. Anyway, who will refuse a polite, respectful approach? As well as some free passes, of course! Many sales people have been using this technique for years.

Introducing your facility. Rather than meet these key people in their office, extend an invitation to attend your center via a free week's membership, and include an informal meeting. Use this meeting to tell them all about your facility, group exercise program and personal training. Your relationship with the connector will promote how outstanding your product is to other members of the community. These connectors will also give you the information you need on how to approach selling your facility to this group.

Remember, however, that connectors often move on. When connectors leave an area, if there is nobody to fill the gap, your relationship with that particular group may die. To protect your relationship with this group, make sure the connector introduces you to other key people, and keep the relationships alive.

Be careful what message you send

Your marketing materials, including advertisements, brochures and flyers, should all be written in culture-neutral language, free from slang and jargon. "Communications should be clear, succinct and straight to the point," says Cheri Bennett, manager of health promotion and communications for World Bank, Washington, D.C. Fitness centers often have their own jargon that is not understood by some cultures, or is considered offensive or misleading. Avoid advertising that shows scantily clad models, or that emphasizes hard bodies.

The Cheers concept

Marketing is not all about ads, flyers and open house events. Your marketing efforts should extend to your day-to-day operations. The big mistake many fitness centers make is that once members sign on, they become just a number - and are treated like one. Members of all cultures like to be recognized and treated with respect. Many fitness centers are hopeless at this - members swipe their membership cards, and that is virtually the last human contact they have. This can build a lot of resentment. In a worst-case scenario, this could be interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as a slight against that member's cultural group.

Solving this is as simple as knowing people's names, greeting them as they arrive and saying good-bye when they leave. If you can't remember their name, your staff should be trained so that they at least make the effort to welcome members. A smile, and a genuine, warm "hello" and "good-bye" crosses all cultures and makes people feel like they are appreciated. Say "Hello" with an exclamation mark, and "Good-bye" like you want members to come back.

Also important is to have all of your policies and procedures in place and clearly communicated, so that one group doesn't think they are being singled out.

There are some words and sentiments that cross all cultures, and one of them is respect. Combine this respect with a great exercise facility where everybody knows your name, and this will bring plenty of cheer to both you and your customers.