The Member Retention Crisis
Today’s fitness market is struggling with member retention at an unprecedented rate. New research shows that a quarter of the new members you worked so hard to attract will leave in less than 4 months.1 In fact, our recent study of over 1.3 million fitness center members determined that the national median membership life now sits at 11.5 months.2 That means that over half of your members quit before the end of their first year. By 36 months, you’ve likely lost close to 90% of your new members. So almost your entire membership base turns over every 3 years! As a result, this membership churn is costing operators billions of dollars each year.
How can this retention crisis be successfully addressed? To answer that question, it’s critical to first understand the market forces that are driving members to leave your facility.
Over the last ten years there has been a revolution in the fitness industry. Driven by the arrival of the millennial generation, CrossFiT gyms, boutique facilities, and yoga studios have burst onto the scene. In 2011, boutique facilities accounted for less than 3% of the fitness dollars spent in the United States.3 By 2016 that number had risen to 35% of the $25.8 billion fitness market.4
This new dynamic has completely disrupted the status quo of the industry. Millennials are willing to pay rates formerly reserved for “high-end” providers for the experience and personal coaching found at boutique studios.
At the same time, there has been an explosion of budget providers. These facilities cater to those who prefer lower monthly rates in exchange for fewer amenities and services. In 2015, the number of budget club members grew 69 percent, while the growth rate of mid-market clubs remained flat.5
High-end boutique and budget providers have been gobbling up marketshare while mid-market operators scramble to keep up. The result has been a “Mid-market squeeze.”6 Market share is being taken from traditional mid-priced and multipurpose facilities from both above (high-end providers) and below (low-end providers).
What Does This Mean for Me?
Simply put, the market is now more saturated than ever before. This has two immediate implications that all operators need to accept.
First, it is no longer possible to “outrun” member attrition. In past decades, if 20% of your members left in a year, it was not a real problem. It was possible to bring in 25% more members from the large pool of potential members in the community. You are now sharing that pool with a host of high-end and budget providers. Accepting attrition as an inevitable part of doing business is no longer a viable strategy.
Second, it is now more difficult to retain the members you do have. There are simply more alternatives available on which they can spend their fitness dollars. Now, more than ever, your competition has amenities and programs targeted directly at the preferences of the various segments of your member population.
In the new fitness market, the bottom line is this: it’s more critical than ever to have a solid member retention strategy.
Finding the Right Member Retention Strategy
If member retention is now paramount, the question now becomes, “What strategy is most effective at addressing it?” Many operators have responded by investing in campaigns supporting member engagement. These initiatives focus on welcome kits, orientations, phone calls, texts and in-app notifications designed to ‘engage’ members.
The problem is that there is no research that shows such engagement is effective at all in decreasing member churn. Predictably, their efforts have produced few, if any, significant results other than tying up valuable staff resources.
As it turns out, members aren’t leaving from lack of information or contact with staff. They’re leaving because they weren’t successful in whatever they joined to do. Whether it was losing weight, getting fit, or exercising consistently, they failed to achieve it. So they left, discouraged. They either gave up or started searching for another solution.
The Proven Member Retention Approach
If member engagement strategies are ineffective, how should we address retention? Surprisingly, research has repeatedly demonstrated a clear answer to that question.
Dr. Paul Bedford conducted a groundbreaking study of over 1,000 new members at a fitness center in the United Kingdom. Half of this group received a standard one-hour equipment orientation. The other half received the same orientation, plus three additional meetings, of 30, 20, and 15 minutes with a coach. During the appointments, the coaches used simple behavior modification techniques. These included helping them set appropriate goals, overcome barriers, and develop the necessary social support.
The results were eye opening. Over the course of a year, member retention improved over 75% for those who went through this simple onboarding process.7 Significantly, the impact of onboarding was not short term. As time passed, the gap between the onboarded and non-onboarded members didn’t shrink, it widened. The reason was simple, onboarding in the first month helped these members achieve the goals for which they joined the facility. Because they were succeeding and seeing results, they stayed.
Member Retention in the Real World
Impacting retention in an academic setting is one thing, but what about in the real world? Is it possible to duplicate Dr. Bedford’s results in an actual fitness facility?
To find out, we studied an operator of 16 large multi-purpose fitness facilities in the Mid-South. After struggling for years with retention, the franchise adopted a member intake process similar to Dr. Bedford’s. They trained their staff in a three-appointment new member onboarding process called UFiT. It’s impact was then studied over the course of 22 months. Once again, the results were astounding.
They proved that effective onboarding was possible and scalable in a multi-unit environment. They actually exceeded the Bedford results and demonstrated a “dose effect.” Getting new members to just one onboarding appointment resulted in a significant retention improvement. Members who graduated all three appointments showed a 73% increase in retention and doubled their lifetime value!
In fact, this franchise saw membership revenue increase over 4% during their first year of the program. This was true even with slightly declining membership sales during that time. (For more information on the results seen at this Fitness franchise, check out our free webinar: Mastering the Critical First Month).
Putting Your Member Retention Strategy in Place
If onboarding is the answer to your retention challenges, how should you get started? What does the process look like to put a successful onboarding program in place?
1. Start with a Solid, Comprehensive Process
First, you need to see new member onboarding as a continuum. It’s not just the task of your coaches or trainers. It doesn’t ‘belong’ to membership or fitness or any one department for that matter. It belongs to the whole team.
Onboarding begins the moment a new prospect walks in the front door. From there, it requires a consistent member intake process aligned with best practices. A process map is a very useful tool for ensuring that everyone understands and is aligned with the process of the new member journey.
2. Measure Each Step
Once you have a research-based process in place, you need clarity into where the process is working and where it bottlenecks. In order to accomplish this, it’s critical to identify metrics that measure every step of the process. These metrics will allow you to see problem areas in real time, giving you the ability to address them immediately.
3. Find a Technology Partner
You’ll soon realize that the process of effective onboarding isn’t the tricky part. It’s managing the onboarding process without a dedicated technology partner that’s nearly impossible. Trying to use spreadsheets, calendars, checklists and cobbled together technology platforms is cumbersome. It causes too much friction, ties up too much staff time and ultimately undermines the sustainability of the process.
That’s where technology shines, removing friction, automating administrative tasks and reporting performance. The MobileFiT platform was designed to take all of these principles of effective onboarding and match them with process improvement methodologies. Together, the platform and the onboarding method give your staff the tools they need to effectively run an onboarding program.
How We Can Help
At MobileFiT, we specialize in helping Wellness and Fitness centers increase their membership revenue through effective onboarding. No matter where you are, if you have never heard of onboarding, or if you already have an onboarding process in place, we can help. Whether it is aligning your processes with industry best practices, training your staff, or providing the technology you need to streamline the new member journey, we provide the tools and training you need. When you’re ready to get serious about retention, MobileFiT can help with the proven, research-based tools you need for success.
For more information on how we can help you keep your members for the long haul, contact Kelly Kidd: (205)529-4616, firstname.lastname@example.org
1. This data comes from MobileFiT’s study of over 1.4 million fitness center members↩
3. (2014) IHRSA Health Club Consumer Report [online]. Available from: http://ihrsa.org/research↩
4. Henderson, Garnett. People love gyms like CrossFit and Pure Barre Because They’ve Made Fancy Fitness a Status Symbol. 24 Oct 2016, https://qz.com/816740/boutique-gyms-like-crossfit-and-pure-barre-are-raking-in-billions-by-making-fancy-fitness-a-status-symbol/↩
5. Steverman, Ben. Why You’re Paying So Much to Exercise. 30 Jan, 2017, www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-01-30/why-you-re-paying-so-much-to-exercise. Accessed 9 Nov 2017.↩
6. Algar, Ray. Health Club Industry Midmarket Report – Investigating How Brands are Repositioning in an Era of Rising Competition. p. 8. 2012. ↩
7. Tharrett, Stephen J, and Bedford, Paul, Why People Join,Leave, and Stay with Health/Fitness Clubs: The Ultimate Member Retention Handbook. Healthy Living, 2012. ↩