Chris Stevenson Looks at First 20 Years in Fitness

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My name is Chris Stevenson, and I am addicted to the fitness industry.

Chris Stevenson is owner and founder of Stevenson Fitness in Oak Park, Calif.Chris Stevenson is owner and founder of Stevenson Fitness in Oak Park, Calif.

I've been in the industry for more than 20 years and have pretty much done it all. I've taught group exercise classes. I've trained people. I've sold memberships. I opened a small personal training studio in 2003. It was a simple model. We sold 10 and 20 packs of training sessions. That was it.

After years of running a successful training business, I decided to take the jump and open a full-service health club. Located in Oak Park, Calif., Stevenson Fitness is on the smaller side, just under 8,000 square feet, although we offer most of the same amenities as full-service health clubs. While we don't have a pool, or courts for tennis or basketball, we do offer general memberships, group X, personal and small group training, towel service and locker rooms.

Throughout this journey, I've been able to celebrate many successes. I've also made plenty of mistakes that have allowed me to learn even more. My extensive experience has led me to present at events all over the world — including at AB Show. It has been a wonderful rollercoaster of a journey, and I love it. Did I mention I'm addicted?

Smaller, more expensive
There has been so much change in our industry over the years. When I use the word industry, I am referring to those of us who support people getting and staying healthy. Anything that helps people lose weight, get stronger and improve their health is part of the fitness industry. For a long time, the fitness industry was mostly traditional health clubs. These clubs tended to be fairly large and full of equipment. Some were nicer than others, but overall they were similar. Value was driven primarily through size and amenities.

Then we saw the advent of the studio market. Bigger and better no longer drove value — service and experience did.

Now, studios are smaller, tend to offer only one exercise format, and often cost three to four times more than a traditional club. It is crazy when you step back and think about it. Smaller studios with one format often charge more than traditional clubs with more equipment and amenities. This doesn't make sense. What we now know is that consumers are willing to pay a lot more for something that they feel is a better and more personal experience.

Most recently we had the low-cost revolution. These types of clubs range in size and amenities, but have one thing in common: low monthly dues. While they may not have some of the perks or levels of service of the other players, the low-cost model is appealing to many consumers, especially those who are new to the gym experience.


In-home and outdoors
Industry changes did not stop with brick-and-mortar locations. Exercise videos first hit the market decades ago, allowing people to work out at home. VHS tapes turned into DVDs. DVDs became streaming videos. Regardless of the medium, these represent convenient options for people.

Once smart phones became commonplace, apps started to appear. There are hundreds of fitness-related apps that can track your run, monitor your nutrition, lead your workouts — and so much more. These apps are often inexpensive or even free.

Now, in-home fitness options such as Peloton and Mirror are becoming increasingly popular. Wearable fitness technology is commonplace. Many people have Apple Watches, Fitbits or some other sort of activity tracker. Technology is evolving at a rapid pace, and there is no stopping it.

In addition, we have also seen the popularity of outdoor fitness activities increase. Nature has always been a fitness option. People walk, hike, jog, run, bike and swim outdoors. However, communities are now putting fitness trails complete with exercise stations in public parks. Adventure races such as Spartan Races and Tough Mudders are incredibly popular.

A consumer's dream
The number of diverse fitness options is unbelievable. Consumers can get fitness where they want it, when they want it and the way they want it. They can choose to spend hundreds of dollars or get it for free. This is a fitness consumer's dream.

The downside is that all of these diverse options have created the most competitive environment that we have ever witnessed in the fitness industry. It has never been harder to attract new members and retain current ones. This leads us to the ultimate question. How do clubs survive in such an environment?

The key to succeeding in this crazy and tough environment is to create an unparalleled member experience. When consumers have so many options, they don't have to come to you. It is your job to make them want to come to you. People want to go places where they are getting the best experience. This experience is created by doing two things: finding ways to surprise and delight clients, and offering a product that efficiently and effectively meets their needs.

Is it easy to join your club? Is it easy to book sessions? Do members have easy access to equipment? These are the questions you need to ask yourself to find out if your product efficiently and effectively meets members' needs. Put yourself in your customers' shoes. Look at your club experience from your members' point of view. Study the customer journey and figure out strategies that make every touch point they have with you as convenient, simple and pleasant as possible.

At the same time, you want members to say, "I can't believe my gym did that" — in a good way. We have all heard horror stories about bad experiences people have had at gyms. Your goal should be to have people so surprised and delighted by their experience at your gym that they truly can't believe it. You do this by systemizing customer service. Continually challenge yourself and your staff to come up with creative ways to wow your members. Checking them in when you see them approaching so they don't have to scan their card, sending them a handwritten note for any reason, or gifting them a onesie when they have a baby are all examples of easy, inexpensive ways to really wow members.

Through day-to-day convenience and the occasional surprise, you create an experience that consumers can't resist.

The industry has changed dramatically, and it is going to continue evolving. We will see new types of competition entering the market at a rapid pace. This no doubt will continue to challenge fitness facility owners and operators, but when you invest time and energy into creating an unparalleled experience, you give yourself a huge competitive advantage. A great experience drives people into your facility, where you empower them to live happier and healthier lives. As a business owner, there is nothing more addicting than that.

This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Athletic Business with the title "A learning experience, this fitness addiction." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.


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