Catering to Ever-Smaller Groups is Not How Fitness Centers Stay in Business

Catering to ever-smaller groups is not the way for fitness centers to stay in business.

The sales people for our local radio stations are relentless when it comes to pursuing health club advertising. What I enjoy most about talking with them is how every station, without exaggeration, is No. 1. They all have the numbers to prove it, too. One is No. 1 with men 18 to 45. Another is No. 1 with women 24 to 55 during the business day. Another is No. 1 with older adults at noon on Tuesdays, and another is No. 1 with teenagers from 3 to 5 p.m. (while they are supposed to be doing their homework).

So, since my independent facility has some appeal to men, women, older adults and children, all the stations figure I should be running ads with them. When I don't do business with them, I encourage them to keep looking for the right fitness facility, because surely there is a micro-niched, laser-focused fitness center out there that is No. 1 in the same targeted demographic.

Niche mania

The mania with having a niche seems to be reaching the same don't-think-about-it-just-do-it-because-everyone-else-is mania that surrounds my other favorite trends: "branding" and "opt-in marketing." It seems that the industry press reports every month about these niche clubs, and it's not always good news.

We have women-only. Women-only for active women. Men-only. Hard core weightlifters. Older adults. Kids. Teens. Exergaming for kids and teens. Religious facilities. Group-fitness-only. Group-fitness-with-pole-dancing. Eighties themed. Sports themed. I sometimes feel so last-millennium by having a facility that appeals to at least a few different demographics, and with several activities to keep each of those demographics happy and engaged. I certainly don't believe in trying to be everything to everyone, but I also don't believe there can be so many facilities catering to such narrowly defined groups.

Flawed logic

Many of these micro-niched facilities seem to come into being because the owners think that everyone is just like them. Their business plans are typically overly simplistic, and based on "people like me": other members of the faith, or parents with similar-age kids, or people who like to take just group fitness. The owners hope and expect that members of their community who are like them will choose this niched facility purely because the owner and the prospect have some similarities. While this may work, it is fraught with peril.

Among the biggest flaws with this logic is that the owners forget that the niche is not "people like me." It is actually "people like me who also work out," or at least, "people like me whose reason for not working out will be satisfied by this facility." That's a dangerous game. I once spoke with a would-be facility owner who was a devoted runner. She used weight training to supplement her running, and envisioned a boutique, high-end facility that would appeal to "all" of the women runners in her community. It was a classic "people like me" rationale.

I've spoken with other fitness center owners who hope to serve special populations, including cancer survivors or people with physical or mental disabilities. This is noble, but I always caution that you've got to stay in business before you can help these specific groups. Having an entire business based on a small portion of the population makes a fitness center - which is already serving just 14 percent or so of the entire population - an even riskier proposition.

The non-niche option

I don't believe that the fitness industry needs to go the way of my local radio stations. We don't need a No. 1 serving each tiny fraction of the population. There's no reason why fitness centers can't serve complimentary and related portions of the public. If you draw in moms, then maybe you can add services for kids. If a large cross section of your community is a certain religion, then maybe you can become more friendly to the customs and requirements of that religion, without going all-out to the exclusion of other religions. If you'd like to serve under-served populations like people with disabilities, make your facility accessible, and have appropriate staff, but make sure you can pay your bills with the general population.

But, if you want to be the only fitness center that runs an ad with the No. 1 radio station among men-and-women-who-only-work-out-on-rainy-days, please give me a call. I'll hook you up.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fitness Management magazine.
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