Universal Truths in Fitness Facility Management

Seeing the same situations over and over should inform club owners' decision-making. (Photos © Kristian Sekulic/istockphoto.com)Seeing the same situations over and over should inform club owners' decision-making. (Photos © Kristian Sekulic/istockphoto.com)

We may be showing our age here, but we regularly invoke Bill Murray from Groundhog Day, the 1993 film in which his hapless weatherman, Phil Connors, relives the same day over and over until he gets things right. At one point, contemplating whether he is "a god, not the God," Murray says, "Maybe He's not omnipotent. He's just been around so long He knows everything."

Don't worry, we're not about to claim we know everything. But we have been around long enough, managing fitness facilities on a daily basis, that we see the same things over and over. It shouldn't take us as long as it took Phil Connors to get things right. Among our mundane but seemingly universal truths:

1. If you want 10 people to show up, you have to get 100 people interested.Sometimes you have to take a reasonable shot with a new program or offer, but small clubs in particular need to be careful about what people say they are excited about. When "everyone" who used our childcare service told us that we should offer it on Saturday mornings, we tried it. Nobody came. Even worse, we've done this every few years in response to frequent requests, and have had to kill it every time. Whether it's new class schedules, new swim lesson times or a whole new program, use surveys or other means to make sure you have many, many more people who are interested than you need to actually show up in order for it to succeed.

2. Boyfriends (or girlfriends) should not pay for their girlfriend's (or boyfriend's) membership. They come in to join all the time, these lost-in-love young people who are so convinced that they're going to be together forever — or at least as long as a health club membership contract — that one agrees to pay the monthly dues for the other. We try to warn them what's going to happen, but they don't want to listen. They will break up. The one who was paying will stop doing so for the other. The one who now isn't paying will be unresponsive to our calls and letters in which we explain that he or she is still responsible for the remainder of the membership contract, and — cue "The Way We Were" — the pain of coming into the gym will be too great for the aggrieved party to even want to talk to us. The story ends with one of them in collections. Happens all the time.

3. When "it's always something," your employee's days are numbered. You have a staff member whose parent gets sick, so he of course wants to attend to his mom or dad. That's fine. Then he needs to leave early a couple of nights a week for a class. Then the car breaks down and he is late to work, and of course the car has to be repaired, so that's disruptive, too. Then he misses a staff meeting because "I'm house-sitting, and it's too far to drive in." When it's always something, even though each individual problem is legitimate, we know that we're going to need to replace that person, and not because we're going to fire the employee. He or she is going to quit, and we know it before they do.

4. Some things you need to just let go. Do you have equipment in your facility that is so old and infrequently used that it's, say, wedged under a stairway? Do you have your nice, new, shiny equipment toward the front of your weight area, and the old, rusty, ripped stuff in the back? When we visit other clubs, we are often shocked at how loath club owners appear to be to get rid of their old equipment. Maybe they just hate empty floor space. We know that every club has members who cling to their old, favorite pieces, but we've been to a lot of auctions for a lot of clubs that have gone out of business, and one of the common themes seems to be that they never wanted to take anything off their floor, ever.

5. Club members are easy to figure. Like Phil Connors, we've been here so long we know what they're going to say to us, and this is a huge advantage if we put this knowledge to work for us. Some members are quiet and shy. Others are loud. Some are obnoxious. Knowing how to quickly get into character with every personality type is a vital skill, especially when dealing with the loud or obnoxious. One of our personal training clients once told her trainer "Watch this!" as she approached us to offer her feedback about our group fitness schedule. No, that says it too nicely. She approached thinking she would bully us into offering a class at a time that made no sense for us. She made a point of mentioning that she was a "businessperson" who "had a bone to pick" and she knew "a lot" of people who she could get to join, but we'd have to offer classes at later times. She thought we'd back down, but instead, we played to her ego by telling her how happy it would make us to have later classes, but as we were "sure she would understand" (as a businessperson, after all) the club didn't have enough attendance at those times to offer a class. We'd be happy to consider it if we could reach out to her friends and acquaintances and get them in as members. Our personal trainer was really impressed by how easily and comfortably we disarmed this Type A member. Thanks, we told her. It's not our first day.

Another thing we know? As in Groundhog Day, if you ever want to make it to Feb. 3, eventually you have to wise up and look in the mirror. You are in charge, and if your facility isn't performing as you'd like it to, you have problems with staff behavior or your members aren't happy, you either caused the problems that are occurring, ignored the conditions that led to them and/or enabled the problems to fester. When our business is performing well, we take pride in that because that means we're doing something right. When we felt we were faltering — as we did last summer, prompting our "19 Rules" — we made it clear to our staff that we included ourselves as guilty parties for our overall poor performance.

Failure to learn that lesson will keep you stepping in that same slush-filled pothole day after day. You've seen the movie. You know what we're talking about.

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