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Inspiring Incentives

Tips on how to develop incentive programs that will motivate members and earn profits for your facility.

Member retention is a consequence of facility usage. Therefore, it is important to do whatever you can to create an environment that encourages members to use your fitness center. Offering programs that provide meaningful incentives to members for participating in activities that are centered on exercise, health and well-being can benefit both your members and your facility. Incentive programs provide a reason (motivation) for members to make time in their schedules to come to your fitness center. They also increase member usage, which can increase retention, resulting in increases in profit. Finally, incentive programs infuse members and staff with new energy, making your fitness facility an even more desirable place to be.

Essentials of an incentive program

Six essential steps are required when developing incentive programs for members. The specifics of the programs will vary, depending on the resources available to you.

Step one: Identify a "champion" on your team who will create and drive the program. Successful programs require a champion - a dedicated, passionate individual on your staff who will come up with program ideas, create awareness and enthusiasm for the program among members and staff, and administer the program. This can take anywhere from five to 20 hours a week per program, depending on the scope of the program and the staff member's level of commitment. If your "champion" has many responsibilities within your organization, he or she may feel overwhelmed, and may not be able to give the program the appropriate attention. Before moving forward with incentive-based programs, make sure your potential champion has the time, the creativity and the resources (people and money) available. The main reason programs fail is lack of a champion.

Step two: Determine the incentive or reward based on what people want and what they are willing to do to get it. For some people, just being involved in a program is enough of an incentive. Many people need the structure and increased excitement a program provides to stay motivated. The program gives them a means to an end. But, more often, people expect some reward for their extra efforts.

Incentives for completion of programs can range from the standard T-shirt or "club bucks" to more extravagant items like trips and automobiles. You might be surprised what retail businesses are willing to donate or sponsor for the opportunity to get their name in front of your members.

Once you settle on the rewards (grand prize, first prize, group prize, etc.), you can determine your budget and decide whether there will be a fee to participate in the program. If you decide to charge a fee, whether you are giving a T-shirt to all participants or a substantial cash prize to just one winner, you will need to ensure that you at least cover the program costs, including the rewards.

Some programs are designed simply to motivate members and to drive member referrals. These programs may operate at a loss at first glance. They are typically planned well in advance, and are included in your annual budget. For example, say you decide to offer a large group exercise class on your basketball court on a Saturday morning. The event is free for members and to any guest they wish to invite. To make the event special, you contract a celebrity fitness instructor to teach the class, fly him or her to your city and put him or her up in a hotel. You provide refreshments, rent large speakers and purchase a professionally designed poster to advertise the event. Other departments are also involved: Massage therapists provide complimentary mini-massages, the day spa provides complimentary make-overs, personal trainers offer a free assessment. All of this is going to cost a bit of money and staff time. However, to get a true picture of the success of the event, don't forget to track the number of guests who joined because of the fun they had. Include in your tracking the increased revenue that the massage, personal training and day spa departments generated as a direct result of the event.

Step three: Ensure the program makes people feel like they are part of a group. Being involved with other people is a huge factor in motivating members to participate. The program provides them with something in common and something they can talk about. Participating in a program is a great way to meet new friends. Ask your team to post weekly results and progress. Participants who like competition can rank their performance against others, while those who do not can plot their own progress and feel proud of their accomplishments.

Step four: Make the program fun. Ideas that your team are excited about are fun to execute. And, when staff is excited and having fun, their enthusiasm rubs off onto members. Involve staff in brainstorming sessions when developing new or redesigning existing programs. The energy and input of other people is invaluable, and you will have greater success getting your team to buy into the idea by making them part of the process.

Step five: Communicate clear and specific instructions, rules and goals. Put all rules and instructions in writing so participants understand what they must accomplish in order to receive the reward. Put your facility's goals for the program into writing, also, so you can gauge your success.

Step six: Recognize and reward the participants who succeed. Participants can be recognized on your website or newsletter, the local newspaper, your main bulletin board or at an awards banquet that all participants are invited to attend. You might decorate the winner's rented locker, send a card to the winner's home or office, send an email, or post an alert on your check-in software so front desk staff can congratulate him or her when he or she enters your facility.

Ideas for incentive programs

Rather than reinventing the wheel, take a look at your existing programs, choose one and give it a new twist. Change the name, prize, rules, destination or venue; bring in a local celebrity as a special guest speaker; add an additional service; or make a traditionally one-on-one activity team-oriented.

Keep your eyes and ears open for new ideas at all times. The best program ideas can come to you when you least expect it. Familiar board games like Monopoly and Chutes and Ladders work well as incentive programs. Television and video games provide more ideas than you can use. There are hundreds of ideas around you every day; just reach up and pick one.

Laurie's All-Time Favorites

Here are two of my all-time favorite programs that work great.

Dog Walk at the Club Program goal: A fun event to bring together people who like dogs.

Overview: For this 1-, 2- or 3-mile walk, members receive a special Dog Walk program T-shirt and doggie goody bag containing samples of dog food; treats from a doggie deli; discount coupons for grooming, obedience training and veterinary check-ups; information from animal shelters; and more treats. Prizes are awarded for the dog that looks most like his or her owner, best dressed dog, most talented, most likely to need training and most unusual breed. Prizes consist of free grooming, free check-ups at a veterinarian and a large platter of dog treats. All prizes and bag stuffers are donated. The Greyhound Rescue League (or other rescue group) can set up a table of information and bring several rescued dogs. The local animal shelter provides a petting area. And an area Flyball dog relay team demonstrates the sport of flyball. The event is held on fitness center grounds or at a local park.

Marketing: Posters, flyers, T-shirts worn by staff prior to the event, a rented dog costume worn by staff for three days prior to the event.

Fee: $10 to $15 for each participant

Team Trek Program goal: Teams of four exercise to earn mileage points to four different virtual destinations over an eight-week period. Each time a team collectively earns enough miles to reach a location, a T-shirt is awarded to the individuals on the team.

Overview: Members are asked to form teams of four. Those members who want to participate but do not have a team are put on one by the fitness staff. All employees are required to participate by forming a team with three members. Being invited motivates members to participate. Each team decides on a name. A total of 10,000 miles can be earned during the eight weeks. Destinations can include other fitness centers, national parks, landmarks or major cities. Participants chart their miles in a log book according to an exercise/mileage conversion chart (see below). Upon reaching each destination, all team members receive a prize from that specific location. If you use fitness centers as your destinations, contact each facility, describe your program and ask them to send you a camera-ready logo. T-shirts can be printed locally with each logo. Double and triple mileage days help to motivate teams when the going gets tough.

Sample Team Trek destinations (mileage depends on starting point):

Fitness Formula Clubs, Chicago, Ill. 1,200 miles
The Houstonian Club, Houston, Texas 1,600 miles
Club Northwest, Grant's Pass, Ore. 3,200 miles
Honolulu Club, Honolulu, Hawaii 4,000 miles
Fitness staff adds up the miles each week, and posts the top-10 teams.

Fee: $25 per person

Mileage Conversions in Miles (sample):

Activity 5 min. 10 min. 30 min. 60 min.
Swimming 1.5 3 9 18
Running 2.5 5 15 30
Biking 2.5 5 15 30
Walking 2 4 12 24
Step class 2.5 5 15 30
Rock climbing 1 2 6 12
Martial arts 3 6 18 32
Rowing 2.5 5 15 30
Stair climbing 2.5 5 15 30
X-country ski 2.5 5 15 30
Tennis 2.5 5 15 30
Basketball 2.5 5 15 30
Cardio boxing 2.5 5 15 30
Inline skating 2 4 12 24
Strength training 2 miles for each set
Yoga/Pilates 6 miles for each class
Health seminar 40 miles for each session
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