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How to Borrow the Best Ideas from Fitness Trends

Rob Bishop
Rob Barry Feature

It's becoming difficult to track all of the trends that are impacting the fitness industry. Maybe that's good, because trying to do so can be depressing. It seems that every trend is a shot to the heart of all-inclusive health clubs.

You've got low-priced clubs that have convinced the public — or re-affirmed the public's preconceived notion — that a gym is worth only $10 a month. You've got studios popping up everywhere, appealing to those who are willing to spend quite a bit on an experience that is intimate and exclusive. If you don't want to leave your neighborhood, there is surely a nearby fire hall, church or VFW offering Zumba. If leaving the house is too much trouble, you can stream a workout over the Internet. But really, you don't need to worry about any of that, because we're just all going to walk 10,000 steps a day as directed by our magic wristbands.

The combined impact of these trends has many predicting the death — or at least irrelevancy — of the traditional multipurpose health club, and those predictions are not without some validity. These trends, combined with the struggles of U.S. consumers, have created the most challenging environment we've ever experienced.

And it's not just clubs like ours that are being impacted. We run facilities that are independent, mid-priced and mid-size, and squarely in the crosshairs of these trends. The "big squeeze" that we've written about here and spoken about at the Athletic Business Conference & Expo is clearly getting worse, but we take some comfort in seeing everyone being affected. Even Life Time Fitness has discussed how low-priced providers and small studios are impacting its business. Heck, if these trends are hitting the big chains, what chance do the rest of us have?

The first thing we have to do is realize that maybe we have some advantages. While some in this industry will tout the "outdated" nature of traditional health club membership structures (one price for access to equipment, classes and some instruction), maybe it's not outdated. Maybe this model can be trumpeted as having stood the test of time. Sure, things have changed — from the old lifetime contracts of the '70s to EFT-based payments of today — but maybe the model in and of itself isn't destined to fail.

Maybe what's required, as it has always been, is to learn from the current trends, embrace the ones that make sense, and evolve. We'll bet that your local supermarket, even if it isn't a Whole Foods, has added lots of organic produce, widened its aisles and improved its lighting. It also probably has a bulk goods section or "$1 aisle" to compete with warehouse chains and dollar stores.

So, what can we take from the current trends in our industry? Let's start with the low-price trend. Much has been written and spoken about how to compete, and the big thing not to do is try to match price with these providers. But, what can you learn from them? In the current economic climate, everyone wants to save money. Would-be clients don't necessarily need their membership to be cheap, but they want it to be cheaper. They want a coupon or a discount, something to get them in the door.

At our clubs, we offer "no enrollment fee" and "first month free" specials. Our special offers aren't the old-school "What can we do to get you into this membership today?" kind of deal making. If the low-priced players have taught our industry anything, it's that they are consistent and transparent with their pricing, and they are perceived as easy to do business with, including having online membership contracts. If you are still relying on a sales process that requires prospects to come in to meet with a salesperson before they can even get pricing information, you are a dinosaur. You need to get into the new millennium and put your prices on your website and quote them over the phone. If you don't, your prospects will go to the nearest competitor who does.

What can we learn from studios? They are personal, they focus on relationships, and they don't apologize for their prices. Are you wondering how some cycling studios can charge more for one visit than you charge for an entire month? Our group fitness director scouted some of New York City's cycling studios. She reserved her spot in a specific class via the web. When she arrived, she was greeted by name ("We've been expecting you!"). In class, technology allowed everyone to see how they were performing against each other, fostering friendly competition. And, the workout was world-class.

If you're thinking, "I can't afford those kinds of things," then go visit a CrossFit box to see community-building done on the cheap. You'll see everyone's name and results, every day, on a white board. Then a photo of that white board will inevitably be posted on Facebook.

So, instead of bemoaning the existence of these studios in your market, borrow their best ideas. What's wrong with greeting people by name, or helping them get to know each other, and making them feel special? Absolutely nothing. Whether it's an in-club LED message board touting the "Member of the Month" or a white board celebrating a small group's performance improvement or a post on Facebook about a member's weight loss success, you must build relationships and community if you want to reduce a studio's inherent advantage of being "intimate."

And that leads us to technology. We have bought our Fitbits and our Up24s, and we read about all of the wearable technology. We were on the edge of our seats with the announcement of the Apple Watch. We are intrigued by virtual group classes and solutions that would allow us to put our cycle participants' performance up on a giant LED screen. The problem? This is all expensive stuff, and it's constantly evolving.

Unless you are in a highly competitive market, the latest batch of technology does not appear to us to be "must have." Instead, we recommend that you watch, wait and learn. Just as today you are expected to have a phone number and website, at some point you're going to have to have your own app. Perhaps one day the wearables will all transmit information in a standard format, and members will expect trainers to use this information day to day. We don't know, and we don't need to be early adopters, and we're pretty sure these devices aren't going to put us out of business. In fact, when it all becomes less expensive and standard, it should be quite a benefit to all of us.

We don't concede for a minute that any of these new competitors are better than us or destined to succeed while we are destined by fail. Remember when Curves was cresting in popularity and gym owners were frantically renovating space to build 30-minute workout circuits? That wave has ebbed. And does anyone really believe that every $10-per-month gym is going to succeed? That every boutique studio is better than every full-service gym? Does it make any sense to think that a wearable fitness monitor will suddenly turn masses of deconditioned non-exercises into devoted workout-aholics who will never set foot in a gym? Of course not.

We've been around a long time in our one-price, all-under-one-roof, everybody-thinks-we're-going-out-of-business facilities. Sure, we need to evolve, grow, learn and adapt. We need to run our businesses the right way, and we need to creatively market ourselves in order to stand out in an evermore-crowded environment. But let's not assume that everything new is better. Sometimes old and wise isn't so bad.

RELATED: Big Squeeze: Mid-Priced, Midsized Clubs Must Increase Price, Service

Rob Bishop and Barry Klein are owners of Elevations Health Club in Scotrun, Pa. This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Trend Vetters"

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