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The 'Issue' Is Programming

The 'solution' is to tie your programs into your facility's brand, and provide a host of programming options that your members can connect with.

"Fitness centers have to make themselves less about their physical space, and more about the programs they offer," say Stephen Tharrett and James Peterson in this month's Operations column (p.50). This couldn't be more true in a time when making connections seems to be the key to retaining fitness facility members. This key element to the success of fitness centers is being espoused by some of the most prominent figures in our industry. No matter what the topic being discussed concerning facility management, from customer service to marketing, staffing and operations, the need for programs to connect with members' needs has become an industry mantra.

When we talk about programming, what we're mostly referring to is group fitness. Yes, there are some programs that can be offered as one-on-one services with personal trainers, but truly effective programming occurs when you bring a facility's offerings and members together. Carol Scott, president of ECA World Fitness, Long Beach, N.Y., said it perfectly in her presentation, Group Fitness Branding: Define Your Success, at the IHRSA Convention, held March 28-31 in San Francisco: "Group fitness is the heart and soul of the club. It is the quintessential opportunity to provide emotional bonding with the consumer, and cannot be utilized enough to cement that connection and ensure a lasting and relevant relationship."

Identifying program needs

To be effective with group programming, you first need to identify who your members are, says Scott. Who are you attracting to your brand and why? You'll know this if, first, you know who you think you are, and, second, if you know who your members think you are.

There is a distinct correlation between facility branding and programming options, say Bob Esquerre of Esquerre Fitness Group, New York, N.Y., and Abbie Appel, group exercise program development specialist, in their IHRSA presentation, Increasing Club Profitability with Group Exercise Programs. Esquerre and Appel asked presentation attendees to give themselves a reality check by answering a questionnaire, which included questions such as, "Is there someone or a department in your club who is responsible for integrating your new members into the club?" "Has your club developed a competitive point of difference in its marketplace?" "Has your club defined the experiences that it wants its members to have?" All excellent questions to which you should be able to answer "yes."

Then, if you look more specifically at the details of those answers, you have the information you need to determine which types of programming will meet members' needs. You should also know, says Scott, how your instructors, employees and programming are different enough in the marketplace to ensure a unique member experience geared toward member demographics and preferences.

Perfecting program details

There are three types of programs, according to Scott: Basic, signature and "canned." Basic programs consist of those that are popular in the industry, such as Step, hi-lo impact, stretch, strength, yoga, group cycling, etc. Signature programs, on the other hand, are those that are unique to your facility. These are the programs that your instructors have created that are not found elsewhere. And, last, canned programs are those that are developed by companies, or equipment suppliers whose programs are developed around their products, and sold to fitness facilities. Which types of programs you decide to offer depends on what your members want, of course, but it's always best to provide signature programs that make your facility stand apart from the competition.

Also, group programming means nothing if you don't have the right people and elements in place. According to Sandy Coffman, owner of Programming for Profit, Bradenton, Fla., in her presentation, The Five Goals of Programming Success for Older Adults, successful group programming involves many elements. You have to have the perfect leader, she says. Your program/fitness director has to be the role model for that department, and he/she has to be able to attract a talented and enthusiastic pool of instructors. Instructors need to know how to create the group experience, and classes need to feature terrific music. And, members need to be recognized, rather than being lost in the crowd.

You must have specific group exercise schedules that offer a wide variety of programs for your members, as well. Not all members will want the same thing. However, you can determine the types of programs and the times to offer them based on your knowledge of who your members are.

One of the newest types of group programs today are competitions within the facility. While the driving force behind these promotions and competitions are to get members involved and make them connect with staff and other members, ultimately, it is the competitive nature of participants that motivates them to get involved. Which means, be sure there are prizes; people love to get prizes, says Coffman.

What should not be overlooked in group programming is the ability to offer free and fee-based programs for members and non-members. But, as Esquerre and Appel emphasize, it is important that a synergy between these services, "vis-a-vis" your facility's brand, is created.

Promoting programs internally and externally

Your current members are a captive audience once they enter your facility. So, it shouldn't be too difficult to make them aware of the classes you offer. Obviously, mailings, flyers and newsletters work, as do emails and promotion on your website, says Rick Devereux, yoga instructor, E.R. Devereux Ltd., in his IHRSA presentation, How to Profit More with Yoga Classes. But, more importantly, you need to outline the benefits of different classes to members so that they know both whether a class is right for them and how they're going to benefit from it. Devereux also suggests including "testimonials from those who have benefited in specific ways" from a class.

Fee-based programs offered to members should always be offered free at first. "As with any new offering," explains Devereux, "first invite people to try the class before signing up or during a trial promotion period before a class series is offered." Also, if the class is going to be a series, there needs to be enough classes in that series for members to benefit.

When marketing fee-based programs to non-members, Devereux suggests placing ads in local papers and posting flyers on public bulletin boards. In addition, you could "give flyers for classes on health-related specialties to local physicians' offices," he says.

Diversifying programs for massive appeal

Many different types of group programs exist. While the majority will take place in your group exercise room, it's important to think outside the box, as well, to areas such as aquatics and sports-specific clinics that could be provided on the cardio or strength floor, or outdoors. Read on in this section for a host of group programming ideas and tips. As Esquerre and Appel say, "Successful programming can positively impact membership growth, membership retention, membership referrals, and growth in both non-fee and fee-based services."
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