The 'Issue' Is Programming

The 'solution' is identifying the key set of ingredients that make up a recipe for program success.

There are two types of fitness facility members: 1) those who are content to come in on their own and spend 'x' number of minutes on a cardio machine and/or 'x' number of minutes strength training, and 2) those who join your facility because they want to be a part of something. Being a part of something could mean many things. It might mean participating in group fitness classes or other activities, such as aquatics programming, racquetball, etc. Or, it might mean that they have a core set of individuals with whom they work out. Either way, it's all about the motivational aspect of the activity, because without it, they would likely not be driven to work out. That's why programming is such an essential element in the fitness center.

Your demographics will dictate just how many of your members require the motivational aspect of exercise programs vs. working out on their own. However, no matter how you look at it, programming is a must. And, making programs successful requires a key set of ingredients. "Take a dash of this and a dash of that, mix it all together and, voila, you have a recipe for creating a revenue-generating program," says Donna Hutchinson of On The Edge Fitness Educators, North Vancouver, B.C. But, here's the question, she says: What is the "dash of this" and "the dash of that" that you are adding to the mix to create these programs?

Follow the leader

For starters, leadership plays a key role. Leadership could be one person, or it could be a team of players. Either way, "a great leader is someone who is in service to others," Hutchinson says. It is one person or a group of people who are "constantly thinking of the needs of the community or members."

Prior to designing programs, leaders need to get to know their members' hobbies and interests, both inside and outside the fitness facility. They also need to have a good understanding about what the predominant sporting activities are in the area. And, says Hutchinson, they need to think outside the box (the gym) and toward other resources or partnerships. "What expertise exists in your community, and what activities do you know people would be interested in?" she asks.

Paid vs. unpaid programs

Not all programs you create will be offered as part of the membership. Of course, a certain number of group classes and types of fitness programming should be offered free. (See Pre-Style vs. Freestyle for group fitness class ideas and strategies.) But, a great percentage of ancillary revenue can be generated through paid programming, as well.

Think beyond personal training, which is listed as one of the top profit centers in fitness facilities. Think about incentive programs (see Inspiring Incentives for incentive programming tips and ideas). Fitness incentives are typically contests run to encourage participation in the facility, says Joy Esper, consultant and owner of Keep Active the Esper Way, Framingham, Mass. "If a particular exercise class or program needs to increase in attendance, a contest can be designed around that particular program," she says. "If change of season or a busy holiday season usually anticipates a decrease in overall participation, a contest should be implemented." Change of season opportunities can often involve sports programming (see Training Clients for a 'Tri'). The key is to run the programs regularly - at least quarterly - and to feed off of simple games to create new ideas.

Marketing strategies

"If you have done your homework to understand your members' needs," says Hutchinson, marketing is the easy part. For instance, "If I ask people about their interests, and they tell me they are interested in hiking, then I will create a program for hiking, tell them about it and get them registered," she says. "I know this sounds very simplistic, but I have tried this technique many times, and it works. I actively seek out the comments of the members to find out what they want, and then implement the programs."

To notify members about your new programs, put up flyers throughout the facility. But, keep in mind that not all members will take the time to stop to look at posted flyers. So, Hutchinson recommends keeping the flyers short and eye-catching, and using strong language that attracts attention. For instance, she says, "you can use 'limited space' or 'for the super-fit only' as wording to attract people. I once used 'only the super-fit need apply' when advertising that I was accepting new personal training clients. This worked so well that I had to take the flyer down after only one week."

Also take advantage of those "connected" members. These are the people who are social and know everyone, and who will make good ambassadors for your new members, says Hutchinson. "If you find someone such as this, then offer them a complimentary program, give them the best experience and watch the magic."

Creating repeat business

Members won't continue to participate in new programs if what you create fails to meet their expectations. No doubt there are few people who will say that they haven't been to a workshop or class that didn't match the content that was marketed. "Review the format of the class with the instructors so that they are delivering the content as described," says Hutchinson. And, make sure, too, that the difficulty level of the class is well-defined. "Pre-screening participants may be important," Hutchinson says. "You want to make sure that people are registering for programs within their capabilities and where they will experience success." Members will only continue the program if they are capable of performing what's required and/or if it challenges them.

"I believe the most important aspects of keeping people in your programs are service and quality of instruction," Hutchinson says. The goal, she says, is to create a "wow" experience for participants where they can't wait to register for the next session.

Identify the "stars" on your staff, and determine what makes them stars. "Your top performers are worth gold, and the more you know about them and what makes them so unique, the easier it will be to implement [that style] in other programs," says Hutchinson.

And, don't forget follow-up, which is crucial to the success of any program. Hutchinson recommends asking for feedback often from program participants, and then focusing on the positive, rather than the negative. To do this, she suggests asking the following questions:

  1. What do you love most about the program?
  2. What three benefits have you received since starting the program?
  3. What was the most exciting result you achieved during the program?
Esper says that documenting results is essential. "Note what worked, what didn't work, what you would do to change it and what you would do to make it better," she says. Make sure to document dates, number of participants, etc., which will provide you with information for the future. And, be sure to post photos and results on bulletin boards where everyone can see.

Recipes for success

Hutchinson provides these 10 recipes for success to generate extra revenue for your facility:
  1. Get out there and talk to members.
  2. Stay on the cutting edge of popular culture.
  3. Ask members what they want, and then give it to them.
  4. Anticipate needs.
  5. Be creative, fun and innovative with your programs.
  6. Find the "connectors" in your facility, and get them to help you sell your programs.
  7. Go outside your doors and the industry for inspiration.
  8. Learn how to get fired up and sell your programs.
  9. Ask for feedback.
  10. Learn from already successful programs.
"Keep in mind that you are in service to the participants," says Hutchinson. "The programs are meant to inspire, motivate, educate and activate, and you, as the leader, are the person who will make that happen for your members."
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