How Special Events Can Help Recruit and Retain Members

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Mud Run
Photos courtesy of The Empower Group

Throughout my years in the fitness industry, I have learned that there is one key factor in increasing retention, and that is to diversify the way a member interacts with the facility. If a member attends for only one reason, such as using the elliptical, that member will be extremely susceptible to competition. On the contrary, when a member attends for a variety of reasons, such as using the elliptical as well as taking group X classes and participating in running club, that member is much more likely to stay.

One method of getting members to engage in multiple ways is by hosting special events. Event themes can focus on member appreciation, lead generation, charity, new member social opportunities, and — believe it or not — fitness itself. No matter which type of event you decide to do, it must be done right.

Here are five steps to help maximize the impact of your next event:

1. Goal

The first step to running a successful event is to set a goal. What is the purpose of the event? Are you trying to generate leads? Retain current members? Raise money for charity? At the end of the event, what will have made it a success?

Every year we hosted an onsite event called “Summer Shindig,” with the inaugural Shindig held before we even opened. We experienced delays during the buildout and presale, so our grand opening was significantly behind schedule. We were concerned about upsetting members who joined early, so our goal was to find a way to show them appreciation, as well as appease them. Thus, the Summer Shindig was born.

We had a huge party in the lobby and parking lot of the facility. The primary goal was to retain members who had joined a gym that they couldn’t use. The secondary goal was to generate new leads. The event was a big success. We had great participation, our members were happy and excited for the opening, plus we sold a record number of new memberships that day.

2. Budget

With a firm goal in place, you can tackle the budget numbers.

When creating a budget, brainstorm a comprehensive list of expenses likely to be involved with staging the event. Typical expenses to consider are facility and equipment rentals, food and beverage supplies, staffing, swag, etc. One expense that is often overlooked is insurance. When doing events, whether onsite or off, make sure you are covered in terms of your business’s potential liability.

That said, there are creative ways to get more bang for your budget buck. One tip is to rent venues on off-nights. We chose to host our holiday party on a Wednesday or Thursday because it increased attendance during the busy holiday season, plus the venue was less expensive. Another tip is to add value to your event by finding businesses looking for complimentary exposure. We hosted a Father’s Day event called “Bro-ga.” It was an extended yoga class designed especially for men, followed by a happy hour. We had a local brewery that was looking for exposure donate all the beer. What is not to love about free beer? We also had a local chiropractor do complimentary stretching afterward. One caveat when working with businesses on a complimentary basis — make sure they aren’t selling their product or service in a way that becomes off-putting to members.

In the end, a tight budget prevents overspending and helps you maximize ROI.

3. Plan

This is the step where the budget comes to life. Brainstorm the tasks that need to happen, who will handle what, and when the tasks need to be finished. This ensures nothing is missed.

One event we did for several years in a row was the Mud Run Race at Camp Pendleton. It was an adventure race that took place in San Diego, two-and-a-half hours away. There were a lot of tasks involved in the planning, such as arranging carpools, blocking hotel rooms, registering for the race, planning a prerace happy hour and dinner, and assembling teams. Without a detailed plan, this would have been impossible to do well. We assigned a team member to handle each of those tasks and gave them a deadline. We had more than 100 members participate, and thanks to the plan, they had a seamless and awesome experience.

4. Promote

Event promotion is no different than marketing anything else. Use a combination of traditional, digital and personal marketing.

Traditional marketing includes posters, flyers, postcards, etc. For our annual holiday party, we would have the welcome desk hand postcards to members as they left the gym. Taking something with them resonated with members.

Digitally, we posted regularly on social media. To increase our organic reach on posts, we asked all staff to like, comment and share them. We would also email invitations to all members.

On the personal level, we challenged all staff to invite five to 10 members. One of our members, who was a great guy and friend, approached me in the gym one day. He asked me if I had forced staff to invite people to the holiday party. When I pressed him to tell me why he was asking, he revealed that six different team members had invited him. Personal invitations are powerful and effective.

Finally, make sure your promotional strategy is part of your Step 3 planning, so that all marketing is done on a timely basis.

5. Execute

The final step is hosting the actual event. This is the fun part, especially if a good job was done in all preceding steps.

Review your plan to make sure nothing is missed. Meet with the team members working the event prior to starting it. Present them with an agenda and schedule and review it. Remind the team of the goal of the event and what they, as individuals, need to do to help accomplish that goal. Run the event. Have a blast. Take pictures and videos for social media. Make attendees happy!

With all events, we challenged the team to introduce themselves to new members. It’s easy to interact with the people you already know, but it can be more impactful to meet new people.

Lastly, don’t forget to have a breakdown and closing plan for when the event ends. You must make sure that after an exhausting event everything gets wrapped up efficiently and effectively without just a few staff bearing the brunt of the work.

These are the five steps to running great events. Decide why you are having the event. Figure out what it is going to cost. Create a project plan with everything that needs to be done. Use diverse methods to tell everyone about it. Then have a blast putting on the event.

When you put the proper effort into the first four steps, you make the fifth step much easier and, more importantly, a great experience for attendees.

To ensure that all events are likewise a great experience for your business, debrief at the end of each one. If you don’t brainstorm right away, details might be forgotten. Note what worked and what didn’t, so you have concrete tips to improve the event each and every time it’s held.

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