One of the most memorable TV theme songs of all time comes from the show Cheers. If you were around in the ‘80s or ‘90s, the mere mention of the show probably starts the lyrics cycling through your head: “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came…” The real genius of the song is not in the catchy tune, it’s in the fact that it taps into a fundamental part of our human nature. In truth, we all want to belong. Whether it’s fitting in at school, feeling part of the team at work, or hanging out with friends, we desire recognition and connection with other human beings. As the song says, we all want to go where people know our names and are glad we came. We stay at places where we feel this connection and leave places where we don’t.
It’s this personal connection that is at the very core of engaging members at your fitness center. The Science of Membership Retention states, “Effective member engagement, plain and simple, is when your members are having meaningful, face-to-face interactions with your staff AND with each other.” Too many times, fitness centers ignore this fundamental rule of human nature.
What Happens When Members Are Not Engaged
It’s very easy for facilities focus so intently on bringing new members in the door and giving them a basic orientation that they forget it’s vital to relationally connect with them along the way. One frustrated former member said,
“Generally, trainers would walk new members around the equipment, provide brief demonstrations, and then scribble down instructions on workout cards. At that point, the new members were left alone in a big room with intimidating equipment and no social connection to other members or the club. Not surprisingly, many of them quit.”
That’s frustrating, but how big of a difference does it really make? To find out, the International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) commissioned a survey asking former fitness club members why they left. While 24% said it was simply because they lost interest, the remaining 76% gave answers centering on relational connections, or lack thereof(favorite staff left, did not fit in, no exercise partner)! If you are trying to stop membership attrition, it’s clear that a powerful tool is within your grasp: fostering a sense of personal connection and community within your fitness center.
Help Your Staff Engage Members
In order to truly engage your members, your facility should be a place where people gather to enjoy themselves, socialize with friends, and strive together toward their fitness goals. But how do you create this type of environment? You have to begin with your staff. As a starting point, staff should regularly circulate throughout the club, shaking hands with members and offering assistance and guidance. Here are some other ways to encourage vital staff-to-member connections:
- Executives take the lead. In many service related industries, such as restaurants, hotels, and even casinos, it is not uncommon to see the owner on the floor directly interacting with customers. Sam Walton even regularly took time out of his weekly schedule to work a few hours at the customer service desk of the local Walmart. People in these industries have learned that the visibility of the executives personalizes the business and makes a major difference to customers. Yet many fitness centers have their executive staff locked away doing administrative work in the back office. If you’re a CEO, director, or other executive at your fitness center, take time during peak hours to shake members’ hands, learn their names, and ask them how things are going. You’ll be amazed at how it can set the tone for your entire staff and build loyalty in your members.
- Decide what your WOW factor will be. The staff at First Place Fitness in Hamilton, New Zealand got together and committed themselves to “Wowing” their members through great customer service and personal recognition. In order to set themselves apart, they decided to do all the “little things” exceptionally well. Each member is called by name whenever that individual visits the club, but that is just the beginning. The staff is also committed to remembering details such as what the member did the previous weekend, their children’s names, and their hobbies. Through these relational connections, they have seen their retention rates skyrocket. Your WOW factor may look completely different, but take some time with your team and brainstorm how you can set yourself apart by the way you relate to your members.
- Plan social fitness activities. People develop relationships by doing things together. Facilitate bonding by organizing a white-water rafting trip, a biking tour, a boot camp at the park, or a 5K for a good cause. You’ll give your members an excellent chance to connect with your staff and get a great workout!
Help Members Engage with Each Other
Just as critical as developing staff-to-member relational connections is developing member-to-member relationships. In fact, IHRSA, after studying clubs with the highest member retention in America, found that country clubs have higher retention rates than commercial fitness clubs. Here is their explanation for this fact: “This point underlines the importance of a fact that is seldom discussed: namely, that member-to-member connections… are integral to every club with high retention.”
- Organize clubs within your fitness center. Part of First Place Fitness’ WOW factor includes putting all their new members in a small group with 2-5 other new members. Their aim is to create an environment where these new members can connect, build relationships, encourage one another toward their goals, and perhaps even become workout partners. Other fitness centers have developed clubs for bikers, runners, new moms, men only, or women only. The possibilities are endless, getting people in smaller groups centered on a common interest is the key.
- Promote bringing a friend. Many fitness centers have days where a member can bring a friend for free. There is a double genius in this. It creates the opportunity for the member to find a workout partner in an already established friendship and increases the rate of member referral.
- Promote team challenges. Encourage members to find teams of 3-10 people and compete to see who can burn the most calories, exercise the most minutes, lose the most pounds, or whatever goal you choose. Publicly post teams’ progress and give awards to the winners. There is nothing that draws people closer than working together to reach a common goal.
- Recognize achievements. Let’s face it, all of us like to be recognized for what we have accomplished. Find ways to leverage this motivational driver in your facility. Post recognitions in a visible spot for milestones such as years of membership tenure, significant goals set by a trainer that a member has reached, or before and after pictures. Posting member success stories on your website both recognizes your current members and draws in new customers.
Creating an environment where members are connected to staff and to each other not only helps them adhere to their goals, it also encourages them to maintain their membership for years. Set yourself apart from your competitors by making your center a second home where people feel appreciated, inspired and surrounded by friends. Become a place where everybody knows your name!
Other articles in this series:
 Stephen J Tharrett and Paul Bedford, Why People Join, Leave, and Stay with Health/Fitness Clubs: The Ultimate Handbook of Member Retention (Monterey, CA: Healthy Living, 2012)