Five Keys to Successfully Opening a New Facility

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When I opened our last club well over 10 years ago, I remember it being a very stressful, crazy and exciting time. We weren’t a franchise, so we literally had to do everything from scratch and by ourselves — from finding the location to creating all of the operating systems, and everything in between. We had no compass. It was just us.

Having been through that process, I thought it might be helpful to prime readers on things to consider when opening a club. As I started prepping this column, I had a hard time figuring out where to start, since there are so many concerns that have to be addressed. Then I came across a great article that IHRSA recently published, “Top 5 Things Americans Consider When Choosing a Gym.” I figured that since IHRSA identified what consumers are looking for, why not use these same ideas to guide best practices for opening and operating a facility?

The following five points of emphasis include what consumers consider to be crucial “must-haves,” as well as my thoughts on how these can be used when planning to launch a brand-new business. Side note, this is also useful information for those currently operating a club.

1. Location.

Or perhaps better stated, “Location, location, location!” It’s no secret that a great location is key to success.

I have seen well-run facilities in bad locations struggle, I have also seen poorly run facilities in a great location succeed. The real question is: How is a great location determined? Ample parking, easy ingress and egress, sufficient visibility, high volumes of drive-by and walk-by traffic, and of course, proximity to homes and businesses are all extremely important. The best location is one that offers convenience for prospective members.

The other thing I highly recommend is doing a “joiner” study. This is a study that quantifies the number of people residing or working within a certain radius of a prospective location who fit the age, gender and median income demographics of a typical gym member. It should also identify any potential competitors in the area and their typical capacities. This information will give you an idea of whether there are enough underserved individuals in your target market to allow you to be successful. While location isn’t the only thing to consider, it can be the linchpin and is certainly a good starting point.

2. Does your gym offer the right equipment?

In addition to “right equipment,” I would also include “right programming” as another essential consideration that should be settled prior to opening. While it is easier to change up programming once you pick your equipment, you are married to it for a while.

It is important to know who your typical client will be. Look at the demographics and psychographics of your chosen location, as well as the desired clientele to whom your brand will cater. For example, if your location is in a college town, there is a good chance you will have a younger membership base, and one likely to have campus-based fitness options at its disposal. As such, you may want to skew the equipment to more free weights and functional equipment, with programming that emphasizes HIIT classes and the like. On the contrary, if you are eyeing an area with a lot of retirees, you may favor more user-friendly selectorized machines and low-impact programming options, perhaps even including an aquatics component.

Once you are up and running, survey your members regularly to make sure that you are always providing the right equipment and programming as your operations evolve. Bottom line, continue striving to give the people in your area what they want.

3. Does your gym offer the right value equation?

In recent history, the trend has been to focus on competitive pricing — open a new club and make sure it is less expensive than the current clubs in the marketplace. However, consumer behavior has shifted, placing more importance on value than on price point. Consumers are now mostly concerned with getting value for their investment.

Think about it as positioning your new club as the area’s best value in fitness. As you consider pricing, understand that you don’t have to be the least expensive. You must simply make sure members are getting their money’s worth. I would still advise to run an effective presale, with special offers and discount pricing for early adopters. People should be rewarded for demonstrating their trust in your yet-untested product. In short, know your value, pick a price that represents that value, and always deliver on that value. Strategic and value-based pricing is key to the successful launch of a new facility.

Perhaps the shift in consumer attitude toward value was pushed along by the pandemic, raising both the importance of proper physical activity for a healthy life, as well as the importance of cleanliness standards in the eyes of consumers. Which brings me to the next point on our list.

4. Is your gym clean?

When I saw this among IHRSA’s criteria, I had to laugh a little. Shouldn’t cleanliness be a given?

Unfortunately, we are in an industry notorious for being dirty. I recall many times at clubs I’ve owned and operated when members told me how nice it was that the club was clean. I took this to mean other clubs they had used were not. COVID influenced members’ desire to be in a clean facility so much so that it is now a top-five buying criterion. Keep this in mind as you design your facility. Think about open floor plans to facilitate sanitation practices and more wipe stations to give patrons an active role in the cleanliness of their club.

Moreover, cleanliness is also reflected in organization and lack of clutter. Minds may subconsciously perceive inorganization and clutter as dirty. As you are planning your club, all of this applies to your strategic presale — an indispensable best practice for a successful open. Apply all of the above advice to your presale area. Make it clean, not cluttered. A first impression will set the standard for your new club and establish an ongoing operational benchmark. The saying “cleanliness is next to godliness” is no longer cliché in the gym industry. It is dogma.

5. Does your gym have a great atmosphere?

While the physical environment is essential for the successful launch of a new facility (walls, roof, design, layout, equipment, etc.), so is the atmosphere.

Atmosphere, simply defined, is the experience you create for members and the way that you make them feel. Once operating, this means well-trained staff members who are positive, engaging, demonstrating great body language, owning questions and going out of their way to make every single member feel like the most important person in the world. The goal should be to have members leave feeling better than when they arrived. I always tell my teams that I want members to say, “I can’t believe my gym did that,” but mean it in a good way.

Surprise and delight always. Like the last point about cleanliness, this starts in your presale. For a club to open successfully, the presale must be successful, and for the presale to be successful, the atmosphere matters. In a presale, people are buying the promise of not only a great facility, but an exceptional experience. Prospects need to be met with energy, enthusiasm and an immediate sense that they’re the VIPs that they truly are.
A great atmosphere, combined with a clean and organized physical environment, is the one-two punch of any first impression — and the foundation on which future success will be built.

Find a great location, offer the ideal equipment and programming based on your target clientele, provide the best bang-for-your-buck value, maintain high cleanliness standards, and train your staff to create the warmest, most inviting atmosphere possible.

These are the indispensables of success. Not because I told you. This is what consumers are telling us. Any business — in any industry — will achieve success if it delivers to consumers the experiences they desire.

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