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Fitness Centers Can Survive in Tough Economy

The economy is spiraling downward, but your fitness center doesn't have to follow suit.

How are you responding to the economic shifts taking place? As some fitness center owners are slashing prices, major expenditures, jobs and marketing budgets, you may be asking yourself the proverbial question: "What should I do?" Before you run through your spreadsheet with a butcher's knife, look at how this economic downturn may actually benefit you.

The benefits of a downturn

It's true that many of us will not be able to do all the things we desired to do to move our businesses forward in 2009. But with a hyper-focus on what you need to do to be successful, instead of what has been successful, you can certainly minimize the effect of this economic downturn. The following tips will help you refocus your efforts on your strengths:
  1. Evaluate your business model. To the average consumer, most fitness centers are alike: They all have equipment and programs, and, for the most part, members have to pay to participate. Maybe it's a good time to start cranking up your free services to differentiate yourself. For example, offer three to four complimentary training sessions for new members, along with a monthly update on their program. This way, you can help your clients meet their goals, which will differentiate your center and give potential members a reason to join. You will also have a longer timeframe to show clients the value of having a personal trainer. Research shows that the longer a person spends with someone, the more that person feels vested in the process. Finally, you enable members to gain a relationship with a staff member without having to pay for it. If worked properly, this could lead to more referrals and greater retention, which are two other ways to grow your business.
  2. Refocus training efforts. The economy's downturn means that those who can actually sell, and not just take orders, are more likely to gain the sale. Refocus your efforts to professionally train all of your sales staff. Whether staff members learn how to avoid talking about the center and focus more on the customers' needs, or how to follow up properly (a weakness for many sales people), trained staff members will make your facility more effective and profitable. Also ensure that all staff members are cross-trained, in case you have to use them in various capacities to cut your costs. This also ensures that if you do have to lay someone off, your facility will feel the impact less.
  3. Revamp your programming. Focus on creating energetic, creative programming that will draw people in. When you offer the same programs day after day, they can get boring. Bored clients leave for greener pastures. So ask yourself, "What can I do to create more buzz and energy surrounding my group exercise classes?" And, "What can I do to attract new segments of the population?" One such segment is the 50-plus adult market. One option for working with this group is to incorporate a program such as the SilverSneakers Fitness Program within your center. The cost to you is minimal, with the potential return immense.
  4. Don't give up on marketing. Over the past few years, many advertising messages from fitness centers have been subpar. I saw an ad for a fitness center the other day that said, "A new club, a new body." Come on. Does anybody really think this works? Don't blame the medium, blame the advertiser. However, do not spend another dime on advertising unless you have done your research. You need to put together a compelling story that offers an even more compelling call to action. (Look at drug company advertisements, for examples.) To accomplish this, ask your potential members what your advertisements should say, and what they would find compelling enough to have them contact you.
  5. Focus on the basics. Keep your center spotless. Ensure your staff members are well-trained and pleasant. Make sure your center is fully operational. And, when something needs to be fixed, fix it right away. Treat your members and your staff with respect. These are only a few of the basics that tend to get lost in the day-to-day challenges of staying afloat, but they can become a significant point of differentiation for your facility.
  6. Avoid giving steep discounts. All discounting does is erode your bottom line when you need to be increasing it. Focus on increasing customer satisfaction and retention, and don't be shy about asking your members for referrals. If you have a supportive environment, they will happily bring in their friends and family. Remember, word-of-mouth is still king.
Thriving during tough times seems difficult, and it is. But, you can do it with a laser focus on customer satisfaction.
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