This year, you're going to plan early for the January rush.
For kids, the "Most Wonderful Time of the Year" is Christmas morning, when they finally get to open presents. For retailers, it's Black Friday. For us, that magical time follows New Year's resolutions, when people are suddenly determined to make lifestyle changes that require the services of our fitness centers.
People are bloated from the holidays, and the fun part of winter is over. (Nobody sings carols that romanticize rotten January weather.) All that's left, at least in the northern states, are short days, low gray clouds and frozen precipitation. Nobody wants to be outside, and everybody wants to get in better shape. For a fitness center owner, does it get any better than that?
Actually, it does - it's better when you're ready for this so-called "January Effect."
If you are not implementing your plan for the new year by the time you read this, you had better get busy. Anything that needs to be in place for January needs to be put to bed by mid-December, because nobody pays attention to anything during the holiday season.
There are surely many aspects of the business that a club owner or manager could focus on in anticipation of the new year. What follows are the five we think are the most important to organize now, in 2010, so that you have a profitable 2011.
1. Pricing. If you plan to raise prices, January is the time to do it. In this economy, any price increase has to be carefully considered, but you might as well do it when your prospects are more motivated to join and your existing members are less likely to quit in response.
By mid-December, you should have produced new price sheets, sent letters to existing members, trained staff members how to respond to the inevitable complaints, and made necessary changes to employee manuals, sales books and training scripts. Other changes need to be queued up to go live on Jan. 1, including changes to your website and marketing e-mails. Raising prices cannot be done on a whim, so leave nothing to chance, and don't leave your planning to the last minute.
2. Cleaning and maintenance. If you want your club looking its best in January, then you have a lot of work to do in December. Scrub that grout. Service those treadmills. Shampoo those carpets. Polish that group fitness floor. And then prepare your staff and your cleaning crew for the increased usage (and in much of the country, the slush, mud and road salt) that your club will experience from January through April or May.
The first few months of the year are different than the rest of the year. You might take your eye off the ball a bit during the summer slowdown or around Thanksgiving. But once January comes, attendance shouldn't drop off until late spring. Get everyone's head in the game so that after you get your club spic-and-span, it stays that way.
3. Marketing and program calendar. You need a calendar for every month of the year that describes every program, retention project and marketing campaign you are going to offer. (Yes, you do need this. Don't argue.) If you are going to run retention activities every month, write them down now and even assign start dates, regardless of how wrong those dates may turn out to be. If you have group fitness special events, personal training sales, membership drives, even child-care events (Halloween parades, visits from Santa), then you need to get them all listed in one document to manage and track.
You will not be able to anticipate everything - you will surely be more accurate about what you are going to do in the first quarter versus Q4 - but do your best and then make it a living, breathing document. Naturally, you will need to engage your department heads (and even more naturally, they will hate doing it), but this is one of the most valuable tools you can have entering the new year.
Why? So you don't have to think as much. In January, you should be looking at what's coming up in February and March, so you can prepare how and when to promote your events. You can avoid conflicts between departments when staff responsibilities overlap and you need coverage for various special events. Your sales staff will know what they can rely on to drive new memberships, and your managers who own profit centers will be forced to think about driving business all year - not just tomorrow. Make updates as you go so that doing this same task next year will be easier, even though you may never get it perfect. That's okay.
4. Staffing. Are you entering the new year with the right people in the right jobs? If not, bite the bullet and make changes now so you can reshape your schedule, and hire and train before the January rush. This can be a very unpleasant task, but you owe it to yourself and your business.
5. Training and retraining. Make time for staff training in November and December. This training will be dominated by discussions of new pricing and procedures, but you also need to reemphasize those day-to-day tasks and skills that can make or break your business. Drive home the behaviors that are most important for your staff to exhibit. Remind them of the high expectations you have for them. Role-play the most common interactions they will have with members.
Do they answer the phone the way they are supposed to? Do they greet people properly? Does the weekend staff represent your facility as well as your regular weekday staff? Even the best employees and hardest workers need to sharpen their skills and focus going into January, and don't underestimate the impact of your own leadership by word and example.
These are our top five; you may have some of your own ideas about areas on which to focus. The important thing is to work on your most important issues now. Getting ahead will pay dividends in revenue, retention and your sanity when the new year arrives.