The Trouble with Selling Health Club Memberships to Seniors

(Image Christopher Futcher/ Christopher Futcher/ Boomers are coming! The American population is aging, and most have never been members of a health club! This represents a huge opportunity for your business!

We started reading these exhortations in about 1992, and 22 years later, we're still reading them. Every year. Our question: Is there a health club owner alive who doesn't get it? Who wouldn't like a part of this business? And yet the needle has barely moved. IHRSA recently reported that "only 16 percent of individuals 66 years or older currently belong to a fitness center, and three-quarters have never been members." This shouldn't shock any of us. As an industry, we do about the same with the older-adult population as we do with everyone else. For example, we're getting about the same percentage of people between the ages of 45 and 65, and nearly 70 percent of that age group have never purchased a membership, either.

So, as people age, they don't rush off to health clubs, and we as club owners, despite all of the advice and encouragement we get, don't seem to be motivating them to try. What's going on?

Every trade magazine and seminar speaker will tell you basically the same thing about getting seniors to join: Implement medically based programs. Provide flexible and affordable membership plans. Offer greater variety of equipment. Hire qualified staff. Focus on personal attention and opportunities for seniors to socialize. Sounds so easy, right?

In some ways, it is. In others, it's a real challenge. And that's a problem that nobody wants to talk about. Seniors are a tough group to sell to and to keep as members. We don't mean that in an angry or accusatory way. It's simply true. And if it's sometimes hard for us, given that we already offer a lot of these things, then it's going to be even harder for a gym owner who doesn't have the building blocks in place to appeal to this community.

To be sure, we have lots of senior citizen members, and we're happy to have them with us. When we renovated our main location several years ago, we built an indoor pool specifically to appeal to seniors and families, and it has worked brilliantly. Many of our seniors are a joy to see, they bring their grandchildren on family swim nights, and occasionally we get homemade cookies. While many are snowbirds who leave for Florida every November, they return like robins every spring because we have a flexible membership freeze option that allows them to pick up where they left off when they return. Our seniors pack our midmorning aquatics classes, keeping the club energized and busy during off-peak times, just as promised in all those articles and talks. More seniors than ever are purchasing personal training.

The flipside? Think about selling a membership to your mom. She expects a discount, doesn't she? In fact, she feels entitled to one. That sense of entitlement, so often ascribed to our youngest generation of members and staff, applies quite well to many in our oldest generation. Whether questioning the pricing or terms of their contract, objecting to the presence of children or expressing unhappiness — seriously! — with the way swimming lanes are marked, many seniors feel that they deserve what they deserve because they are senior citizens. And they are not shy about making their expectations known — or complaining about things that haven't met those expectations.

To cite one frequent example of the latter, in this age of instant communication, seniors can be challenging to keep informed about what's going on at the gym. We communicate frequently with our members using Retention Management email blasts and other electronic media. We know that regular communication keeps members connected to us even when they have gone missing, but our seniors are sometimes "islands." Certainly, many seniors are conversant with email, text messaging and Facebook, but there are many who (proudly) tell us that they don't do email or use a computer or own a cell phone. That makes it difficult to get word to them when, say, we've had to close the pool due to a mechanical issue. "I drove all the way here and now I can't swim!" is a complaint we've heard more than once. We put the news out via text, email, Twitter and Facebook — but (sigh) that upset senior member was unable to get the news.

One of the things that seniors expect and enjoy is socializing, and club owners who think about trying to attract more seniors should understand that this often means making an investment in purely social spaces. We had the advantage with our renovation to create open areas with sofas that invite our members to relax and mingle. If you want to draw and keep seniors, you need to facilitate this healthy member-to-member interaction.

You must also be prepared for frequent and lengthy member-to-staff interactions. Your staff, and you, need to know how to manage your time with members who, while engaging, pleasant and entertaining, have nothing else to do with their day. The balance between providing time, attention and good service versus actually getting work done must be managed closely.

The social aspect of being successful with seniors is without a doubt one of the reasons, if not the main reason, that Ys, JCCs and community centers are such a comfortable place for many seniors. With activities beyond fitness to enjoy all day long and a staff that often includes volunteers and others who can focus their energy on these folks, it is a natural fit for many seniors to gravitate toward nonprofits. Be prepared for that if you want to compete. Nonprofits serve the senior community very well.

In addition to having the proper appeal and service for seniors, you need to be sure that your senior memberships are profitable. As we noted, seniors expect a discount, and so we provide just enough of one to make people feel like they are getting a deal. However, once they are members, they can be tougher to keep than younger members. IHRSA reports that 20 percent of seniors will quit due to a medical issue, so you need to factor that into your math when determining the value of every contract sold. You'll be dealing with all of the other reasons that people of all ages cite for quitting, plus you'll have this additional factor of medical issues. You have to judge how valuable and long-term your senior members will really be.

Value is also the key issue to consider when you are approached by an insurance company that wants discounted memberships for its customers, many of whom will be seniors, as well as senior-focused programs like Silver Sneakers. Without getting into all the details of Silver Sneakers or other similar programs, our worry boils down to the value they would provide to our business. Given that we live in a rural community, we have to consider how many people we might sign up with a given insurance company plan or via a senior-specific membership plan. With our relatively small population base, the numbers typically are not compelling. Now, that math might change if we lived somewhere with thousands of seniors within a few miles' drive, but we don't — so why go through the trouble of offering sharply discounted memberships?

Perhaps that final issue is the most important. You need to know how many seniors you can reasonably appeal to, sign up and keep at your facility before you begin reshaping your business according to the conventional wisdom that says these folks are out there for the taking.

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