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Making the Mature Decision

Use these benchmarks to determine if your marketing plan and programming are sufficient to reach and serve the burgeoning mature-adult market

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Are you noticing greater consumer demand from the midlife to older adult population. That's no surprise as demographics continue to shift dramatically, thereby changing the face of the fitness and recreation industry. Twenty-five years from now, the over-50 market will have grown by 74 percent, while the under-50 market will have grown only 1 percent. The question is, how are you and your business responding to this dramatic demographic shift?

You have two choices. You can continue to perform the same ol', same ol', and allow this opportunity to pass you by. Or you can let the maturity market help you reshape your business for new growth.

What is the maturity market? Most of us have been coached to think demographics, particularly age, when defining a market segment. We often define the mature market with such labels as "50-plus" or "55-plus," or the catch-all, "seniors." But while demographics can give us information about age, income, marital status or geographical location that can point us in the right direction, it does not provide any information about human behavior.

To really understand a market segment like mature adults, you must look at the dynamics of what I call "Life Dimensions." First, look at human growth and development, and discover how we, as humans, mature over the course of a lifetime. Second, get in touch with value formation. Most of us begin to develop our own set of values at the time we are emancipated from our families (generally around 17 or 18 years old) and continue that process throughout our 20s. Early-adulthood values tend to march forward with us throughout life. Here's an excellent example: Those who experienced The Great Depression learned to save, save, save and pay cash for purchases. What are young adults taught today? To spend, spend, spend and purchase with credit. You can quickly see how these two values are in direct opposition and can become a barrier in understanding intergenerational consumer behavior. Third, pay close attention to current lifestyle characteristics. How do mature adults spend their time? What is important to them today? What motivates them? What is their passion?

By becoming sensitive to these three areas, you will know much more about your customers than if you simply see them as part of a particular age group. This is not to say that demographics aren't important. However, you need both to be effective. Demographics will provide quantitative information, while life dimensions will provide qualitative information that helps you discover the motivating values of maturity.

Drawing from gerontology studies, the current research on activity and aging, and my direct experience with the maturity market, I have developed the following list of 16 benchmarks that address both programmatic and marketing issues. Using these as a check and balance in program development will help you stay on track.

1. Does your mature adult program have the support of management? Management, including owners, needs to be involved and invested in your program efforts. Their experience, ideas and observations are critical during the initial planning stages and their involvement will often result in making an adult program a major part of the business plan. Having the backing of management will allow the program to receive the support it needs to grow.

2. Does the program have a dedicated budget? Like any other program or business venture, a mature adult program needs a budget. The budget will be dictated by how aggressive you choose to be in growing your program. Clubs often spend three to five percent of their budget on advertising and promotion for all programs. A conservative strategy is to take inventory of your physical resources, human resources and the current program schedule and determine how you can increase utilization of each. Often you will discover that you already have many of the resources needed to begin. A budget provides the assurance you can move forward on several fronts that influence the growth of the program. For example, you may want to add an instructor for a yoga class, plan a special event for marketing purposes or advertise in the local newspaper. Without a budget, your program will limp along, stagnate and get mixed results at best.

3. Is the program age-less? People's tendency in working with older adults is to stereotype them as a special category and see them as one homogeneous group. This is not a powerful way to communicate to the maturity market. Develop your programs based not on age (discard the worn-out "senior" label) but on function level so that all ages can experience the program if desired. For example, a Lite and Easy Aerobics class may be the perfect challenge for a 75-year-old retiree, a 35-yearold expectant mother and a 42-year-old male recovering from an injury. By keeping your programs age-less, you will capture a broader market segment.

4. Does the program incorporate self-actualizing values? Motives play a powerful role in human (and consumer) behavior. It is important for those serving the maturity market to know that there is a developmental shift in mid- to later adulthood - from values that are ego-centered and materialistic to values that emphasize growth and development of self and society. Both your programs and marketing communications should reflect these seven values: autonomy, sense of purpose, self-expression or growth, connectedness, contribution, playfulness and wellness.

5. Does the program address the diversity of the market segment? There is a principle in gerontology called "variability," which means that as humans age they become more unlike one another than alike. That's why mass-marketing strategies are suspect. You cannot approach this market as one homogeneous group. Individual fitness testing, personal training and providing a wide variety of classes, intensities and varying experiences - these are keys to success. You may experience members in this market segment who range from beginners to master athletes, so you must be prepared to serve both extremes.

6. Is the program user-friendly? Gyms, athletic clubs and fitness centers are intimidating environments, especially for the inactive and older adult population. This issue is perhaps the greatest barrier for fitness centers to overcome in attracting this market. You must soften your approach by using strategies that allow customers to feel welcome and not out of place. Your considerations will range from altering your image to training personnel.

7. Does the program offer choice? An excellent strategy to reinforce autonomy (a powerful value) is to offer choice with respect to program and price. We already know the market is very diverse and, thus, has many likes and dislikes. We also know older adults resent being told "this is a special program designed especially for seniors." Break out of categorical thinking and give consumers choice, freedom and flexibility.

8. Does the program speak to aging's possibilities, as opposed to its limitations? Our society still perceives aging as a gradual process of decline, degeneration and disease. Yet, research clearly shows that the human organism has the capacity for growth, development and potential, regardless of age. The body and mind are extremely plastic, which means that we are adaptable, changeable and modifiable. Beyond physiological potential, mature adulthood is prime time for expressing one's creativity and spirituality.

9. Does the program offer a progression of experiences that challenge individuals to reach their full potential? We have to stop treating older adults as wrinkled babies (a term coined by Maggie Kuhn, former director of the Gray Panthers). If we perceive older adults as weak, sickly and incapable, then we risk treating them with sympathy. Older adults are intelligent and very resilient human beings. Research has shown that to get results from an aging body, one needs to work with stress levels of between 60 and 100 percent, the same standards governing younger exercisers. Further, any program, whether individual or group, must be progressive to get desired results.

10. Does the program offer opportunities for both individual and group activity? You will find that most exercisers prefer one over the other. Cater to both. Over time, you will also discover a crossover effect where personal training will lead to group exercise and vice-versa.

11. Do entry-level programs and classes emphasize fundamentals (such as safety, language definitions and equipment operation)? This is key to developing a user-friendly environment. If you think about this, most adults above 60 years of age did not grow up with the fitness industry. They are intimidated by sophisticated equipment and the emphasis on vanity. Begin with the basics so users can develop a fitness self-esteem before working out with the crowd.

12. Has the "gateway" principle been applied? Exercise for young adults is often an end in itself. For older adults, it is the means to an end. As you think about programming, consider ways you can show exercisers how newfound function levels can enhance their life and be a "gateway" for new experiences. Examples include how developing upper-body strength can help a person carry groceries in from the garage, or lift a grandchild up and down, and how conditioning can help a person enjoy a foreign trek by keeping the pace without injury.

13. Does the program have motivated leadership? The program should have an assigned leader, someone accountable for the success or failure of the program. Select someone who is excited and self-motivated about working with midlife and older adults. Some people simply aren't comfortable with this age group, so keep looking. The person you seek doesn't need to have a degree in gerontology, but it helps if they have worked directly with this market or have had a significant personal relationship with one or more older adults. Find someone who will champion the program daily, both inside and outside the program. Also, select someone who will commit to the program for at least three years. Continuity is a key ingredient of your success, so try to reduce turnover as much as possible during the screening process.

14. Is there an evaluation system in place? You are in the behavior-changing business. The more tangible results you can show your customers (particularly a beginner), the greater likelihood they will be motivated to continue their program and make exercise a part of their life. Several companies now offer assessment tools and tracking systems to help motivate customers.

15. Are you selling feelings, emotions and experiences? Most of us are taught to sell the features and benefits of a product or service. In late adulthood, consumers are far more responsive to buying experiences rather than stuff. Emphasize the emotional side of your programs (feelings, experiences) and de-emphasize features (gyms, pools, weights).

16. Do you walk your talk? Older adults all have Ph.Ds in consumerism. They have seen and experienced all the "deals" you can imagine. At this point in their life, they want to be assured that your product can be trusted. You absolutely must deliver on your promises to be a credible business in the minds of mature consumers.

Again, your choices are: Remain passive, or embrace the burgeoning maturity market. I believe the choice is obvious. By addressing the aforementioned benchmarks, you are well on your way to repositioning your business for a bright future.

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