Premium Partners

Connections

Paul Steinbach

Third-Party Web-Site Hosts Help Clubs Interact With and Retain Their Members

Now that the two-month mark of most New Year's resolutions has arrived, health clubs may begin to witness their client numbers thinning faster than their individual clients. By year's end, the attrition rate among club members is likely to approach 30 percent, according to a recent survey of the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association's 6,500 member clubs.

One reason members walk out the door never to return is a personal feeling of disconnect regarding their club, its staff members or its offerings. Another may simply be dissatisfaction with the club's services or conditions - things easily addressed, assuming staff members are made aware of the shortcomings.

Many clubs have discovered that the Internet, as impersonal as it may seem to some, can help create a greater sense of belonging among members through a variety of interactive tools. Clubs don't need to invest much of their own staff time and effort into building an attractive and interactive web presence, either. Several companies dedicated to hosting sites for health clubs have gained in popularity within the past few years by providing clubs access to programs that facilitate online communication with members while allowing each club to control its site's appearance and content.

"If you can utilize systems and processes that keep educating your members and communicating with them, you are going to build legions of loyal customers," says Larry Gulko, vice president and chief marketing officer of Wayland, Mass.-based application service provider MembersFirst, which currently serves 243 clubs nationwide. "The attrition rate is not going to be as high, because members are going to feel more connected to your club."

Because many clubs have only recently embraced the concept of third-party web-site hosts, before-and-after attrition rate analysis is difficult. However, a quick glance of online tools now available to clubs would certainly suggest that the potential to better retain members exists. These include:

Member profiles. When registering on a club's web site, members are often asked to enter basic information about themselves - from name, address, phone number and e-mail address to specific fitness interests. This allows the club to utilize demographic databases in its marketing efforts.

Targeted e-mail messages. Using the personal information secured through the members' registration process, clubs can reach target audiences with relevant information via e-mail. For example, only members with children are likely to be interested in the club's kids programs, and members who indicate an interest in group fitness can be sent information on upcoming class offerings.

Periodic e-mail greetings. Systems can be set up to automatically deliver e-mail messages at predetermined intervals. A message can be sent during a member's first week at the club, saying, "Welcome, and thanks for joining!" A few months later, the same member may receive another message: "We hope you are benefiting from your club membership. Let us know how we can better enhance your experience."

Member surveys. Surveying members using traditional mail can be time-consuming, costly and ineffective - garnering response rates in the 2 to 3 percent range. Using its web site, a club can achieve a response rate of 50 percent or higher, according to one service provider, with quick results allowing for immediate action. A club may choose to survey new members, or members who have taken a new class. Survey questions can cover programs, prices, instructors and club conditions, and even incorporate rating scales. The clubs decide what to ask and how.

Comments and suggestions. Surveys notwithstanding, feedback can be gathered at any time by offering members the opportunity to enter their opinions via the web site. Club members have been known to quit for reasons ranging from acerbic instructors to poorly maintained toilets, without ever communicating their grievances to club staff. The faceless nature of the web may actually make it easier for some to complain. Meanwhile, the club can respond to shortcomings it may not have realized existed, and even let the complainant know that corrective action is under way.

Newsletters and bulletin boards. Paper-and-ink newsletters and notices are still a staple in most clubs, but they have their drawbacks. Due to the nature of their production, newsletters may contain what members are likely to consider old news (by three weeks, or more). E-news allows for the sharing of, say, volleyball tournament scores, photos and captions mere minutes after the event concludes. Meanwhile, online bulletin boards may present visitors with a set of headline icons to choose from, avoiding the information overload and member indifference that might result from paper messages tacked to traditional lobby corkboards.

Customized content. Club web sites are educational tools, but the potential number of articles and breadth of topics can overwhelm some members. Profile filters can be used to route to a member's attention only the information germane to that member's interests. If the member cares to read only about nutrition, those are the only articles he or she will see.

Registration and calendars. The convenience afforded members via the web may be best illustrated here. Class descriptions can be outlined in detail along with point-and-click reservation capability. Systems can be set up so that a member's registration is instantly slotted by date and time in his or her personal online calendar.

Event invitations. This feature allows the club to program the distribution of invitations to special events well in advance and within specified parameters. If a club is hosting a Christmas party for its members on Dec. 20, the system can be instructed in July to begin posting daily reminders between Dec. 1 and the day of the event, and to greet party registrants with a confirmation message. If the party must be limited to the first 150 members who respond, a built-in counter will automatically change the message to say, "Sorry, this event is filled. You will be notified of any cancellations."

Fitness activity logs. Members who feel intimidated by one-on-one personal training sessions can still receive the guidance and motivation available through club staff. Workouts designed for a given individual can be exchanged online, with emphasis on such desired results as increased strength or flexibility, or weight loss. When the member types in that a workout has been completed, he or she automatically receives another workout.

Account viewing. Members registered to a club's web site can access dues balances and payment options without needing to make a phone call, saving both themselves and club staff time in the process.

Of course, these perks come at a price - typically a one-time startup and training fee, followed by monthly support fees - but client clubs are afforded unlimited use of system features. In other words, a club can conduct one member survey in a given month, or five, and the fee won't change. Clubs also receive any system updates as they emerge. In the process, clubs are spared much of the drain on staff time that comes from maintaining a site completely in-house, or the financial commitment of a full-time IT employee's salary and benefits. Training existing club staff to use such a system can even be accomplished online.

"All that person needs to know how to do is type in Microsoft Word," says Rick Holland, who handles sales and market development for Dallas-based Winning Habits, which hosts roughly 70 health club, YMCA, corporate wellness and military wellness sites. "If that person has a keyboard and an Internet connection, he or she can do all back-office updating on the fly, from a laptop at home, even from an airplane."

If handled properly, these remotely hosted sites offer members a dynamic medium though which they can interact with the club and its people - a noticeable improvement over the static, brochureware web pages that many clubs have clung to for years, if they have an Internet presence at all. The only indication of outside influence on the site may be an unobtrusive "Powered by" icon in a corner or at the bottom of its pages. "The site exceeds members' expectations and builds a greater sense of community at the club," Gulko says. "People feel a sense of belonging. They feel like they're really cared about, and they feel an emotional bond to the club. They tend to do a lot more at the club and their probability of leaving is going to be greatly diminished."

"The main reason that health clubs lose their members is that they're not servicing them," says Don Hoskyns, CEO of Phoenix-based Fitness Venture Group, which manages web sites for some 1,500 clubs nationwide. "If you set up an automated service scenario with e-mail newsletters and other features delivered through the club's web site, you're constantly in front of your customer. Your customers' perception is that you're spending a lot of time making sure that they're happy, but the reality is that the club owners are doing almost nothing, other than setting the system up to run."

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