Premium Partners

The 'Issue' Is Member Attrition

The 'solution' is to get members involved in your facility by creating member relationships; showing members results by designing an overall assessment plan; providing superior customer service; and making facility cleanliness a top priority.

Attrition is the No. 1 talked-about business topic in the fitness industry. The old adage that says it costs more to acquire a new member than to retain an existing one is a key concern among fitness facility operators. Unfortunately, while this appears to be a main focus of concern, Ray O'Connor, owner of Wisconsin Athletic Clubs, states that, "More people have joined and quit clubs today than are members today." With less than 14 percent of the population currently fitness facility members, you have to wonder how many of that other 86 percent has "been there, done that." And, if they have, is it even possible to get them to come back? While attrition is certainly a part of doing business, it can be reduced. "There are always going to be cancellations," says Doug Ribley, director of administrative and wellness services at Akron General Health & Wellness Center, Akron, Ohio. "People's lives change. It is a part of our business, part of what happens." In fact, the majority of those who quit fitness facilities do so because of relocation, financial hardship or illness. What we must identify is why individuals drop their memberships due to dissatisfaction, and then create ways to reduce the likelihood of that continuing to happen.

Retention requires a program

At the Club Industry trade show and conference held in Chicago in October 2006, Bob Esquerre, owner of Esquerre Fitness Group, Weston, Fla., in his seminar "Member Retention: 17 Steps to Success and Profitability," asked attendees how many of them had a retention program in place at their facility. Out of all the attendees, only three raised their hands. Since the seminars on retention at the major industry shows tend to be the most well-attended, it's clearly not a question of whether attrition is important but, rather, confusion about what to do about it. Esquerre believes that, for fitness centers to be successful, they must be able to change and adapt. They must have a retention program in place, which includes the following:
  • implementing a new member "meet and greet" program
  • establishing an interactive/pro-active fitness floor management process
  • creating a synergy between personal training and group exercise programming
  • developing a comprehensive staffing plan
  • positioning personal training to support member retention
  • developing monthly special events to expose members to programming options
  • developing a selective staff recruitment program
  • executing trainer performance expectation agreements and contracts
  • developing a program design and training progression process
  • identifying and correcting your trainers' skillset weaknesses
  • increasing personal training sales at the membership point-of-sale
  • enhancing staff professionalism and training competencies
While many facilities' retention programs will differ, depending on the market, these steps are arguably a good beginning. Many incorporate getting members involved in your facility. And, industry experts seem to agree that building member-to-member and member-to-staff connections is what will develop the emotional bond to the facility. As O'Connor explains, "People quit clubs; they don't quit relationships."

Give and show members results

Equally important to relationship building is showing members that the product - their membership investment - is working for them. But before you can show them it's working, you have to educate them about what results they should actually look for. In most cases, members look only at weight loss as a measure of success. Richard Bloomer, in his article, Assessing for Retention (p.30), states that "While a change in body weight/body fat may be most important for many people, it is certainly not the only variable on which members should focus." Bloomer outlines nine other measurement variables that trainers should educate members about. This way, he explains, "members have several opportunities for success." And fitness program success equals retention.

Ensure service strategies are working

Retention, according to Ribley, is a fitness facility staff's job. And, you accomplish that job by offering a service to members that is great enough to keep them coming back and staying healthy. Yet, while most fitness professionals would claim that their members receive superior service, most members of fitness facilities don't see it that way. If you want to know how good your facility's customer service is, you can follow suit with many other operators by hiring secret shoppers. Amy Scanlin explains in her article, Use Secret Shoppers to Enhance Customer Service (p.32), that secret shopper companies will evaluate your business in any way you ask them, and on a schedule that you decide. What you find out may surprise you, but the end result can only help you to provide superior service, which can lower your attrition rate.

Establish a "clean" philosophy

Part of providing superior service includes maintaining a clean facility. In Guy Brown's article, Optimal Cleanliness = Member Satisfaction (p.34), he quotes Mary Schrad, franchise support manager for Contours Express, as saying, "If one was to poll its members, gym cleanliness would rank in the top three concerns." Keeping the facility clean shows members that you care about their experience and their health. If you think your cleaning program is up to par, compare it to the systems other facilities have in place. You may be overlooking some areas that need attention.

Solutions to the attrition issue

Retention equals money. And, to make money, says Esquerre, fitness centers, and the industry as a whole, need to evaluate themselves and make change. "The fitness industry needs self-evaluation," he explains. "It is not the strongest of the species who survive, but those who change." While not quite a direct quote from Darwin, the parallel to the fitness industry is certainly well-made. If you don't have a retention program in place, now is the time. Look past the facility itself, and figure out how you're going to get members involved. O'Connor explains how he did this at his fitness centers during the racquetball boon: "What we learned when it was just racquetball was that they were just courts, and if [we] didn't figure out a way to get them [members] to play, [we] didn't get paid. So we created leagues, which created relationships." Once you get members involved, make sure that you treat them well and that they're seeing results. Establish a process that shows members on a periodic basis what they're gaining from continuing to be a member at your facility. Ribley states that, with every 1 percent improvement in retention, there is a 5 to 15 percent improvement in pre-tax profit. Your facility's success depends on finding solutions to the attrition issue.
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