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The 'Issue' Is Membership Sales

The 'solution' is to use technology to communicate to both current and prospective members; market to the growing number of older adults; and help to motivate members and mix up their programs by trying new equipment.

In 2005, for the first time in the fitness industry's history, membership numbers failed to increase. Yet, prior to 2005, membership numbers consistently increased by 5 to 7 percent each year. Why the downturn? And, more importantly, what is to be done about it? Membership sales is one of the most important issues facing facility operators, and it is the focus of this issue's special report. While the solutions to this issue are varied, encompassing every aspect of a fitness facility's operations, we have narrowed in on three solutions that highlight some important industry trends. These trends include the prominent role that technology is playing in helping facilities to reach their membership goals, the change in demographics from a younger to an older clientele, which requires new and creative marketing strategies, and the innovative equipment that is being introduced to stimulate exercise programs for increased motivation.

Setting marketing and sales goals

But first things first. Gaining and retaining members begins with good planning. In his seminar, "Improving Your Club: Moving in the Right Direction" (Club Industry 2006 Conference and Exhibition), Rick Caro, president of Management Vision Inc., New York, N.Y., and industry consultant, emphasized the need for facility operators to have a detailed marketing plan in place. This 12-month plan should spell out the facility's marketing goals, point of differentiation from other fitness centers (what they are doing and who they are targeting) and outreach techniques (how the facility is going to reach the prospects). In addition, facility operators need to have a sales plan in place. Sales goals should be set and changed when appropriate, says Caro. But, he cautions, when changing your goals, be sure that you have a good reason for changing them, such as added staff, more programs, etc. Also, be sure you have adequate staff to meet your sales goals, and that those staff members have the tools (namely software) they need to accomplish their goals, as well as the appropriate training. Training could include written and online education, and it should definitely require testing to ensure they have the expertise to perform their job. And, last, says Caro, be sure that sales staff are well-compensated and that you create some variety in their compensation packages.

Using technology to communicate

These days, all sales efforts must use computerized technology as a method for reaching current and prospective members. This means that, no matter the sales effort, email addresses must be collected. Why? Because as Heather Peavey, associate editor, shares in her article, "The Electronic Sales Pitch" (p.32), while there is no substitute for one-on-one, interpersonal interaction to sell memberships, email is the very best way to stay connected to members when they're not inside your club. Email communication should be looked at as a complement to, rather than a substitute for, face-to-face interaction with members. And it should be used as a communication tool on a regular schedule, anywhere from once a week to once a month.

Marketing to older demographics

Sales efforts should also focus on growing market demographics. It is not news to anyone that the fastest growing demographic in fitness centers is older adults. But, as Debra Atkinson, author of "Marketing to the Older Population" (p.38), states, this mature market will require you to market to them on their own terms. This means identifying marketing media that appeal to them, providing programs that they can safely perform and staffing your facility with individuals who can identify with them.

Motivating members with equipment

Sales efforts don't end once the membership contract is signed. Indeed, the sales effort to retain those members has just begun. Paul Upchurch, C.O.O. of Tennis Corp. of America, and part of a panel discussion at Club Industry 2006 titled "The Biggest Challenges Facing the Club Industry," says that a lot of efforts are spent on the sales process rather than on retaining members. "We have to find ways to reach out to people so they know our product works," Upchurch says. "Fitness has to be fun. The more diverse programs are, the longer people will stay with us." This means getting people to try different things. A lot of innovative products and programs have been introduced that are making our "product" much more exciting than just the same old strength, cardio and group exercise routines. Amy Scanlin, author of "Getting Members to Use New and Unique Equipment" (p.34), identifies the three most recent innovative equipment trends as multi-planar resistance ("functional" fitness), virtual reality products and core training. But Scanlin explains that just as important as offering a variety of new types of products to members is understanding that members won't necessarily try out these new activities unless staff members play a prominent role in showing them what they are and how to use them. This means providing workouts, demos, free training sessions, etc.

Solutions to the sales issue

This past October, the Bush administration reported that it would develop guidelines for physical activity. It is hoped that these guidelines, which will be ready in late 2008, will help people live healthier lifestyles. This is positive news that, perhaps, will help in the future to increase the number of physically active individuals and, thus, reverse the downturn in fitness facility membership numbers. But, until then and even then, these are a few sales solutions to help our industry continue to grow.
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