New Yorkers gathered at the windows of a high-rise building, and tourists snapped photos like the paparazzi after six models dropped their pants and skirts in front of Grand Central Terminal revealing underwear emblazoned with the words “Booty Call.” The attention-grabbing stunt was part of New York Health and Racquet Club's (NYHRC) strategic campaign to create buzz about its new butt-building class.

“The fitness industry is still talking about it, and it's four years later,” says J. Travis, brand manager and PR director of NYHRC, which owns 10 clubs in Manhattan.

Although Travis expected tourists to snap photos with their camera phones, he wasn't expecting the kind of visibility that the campaign created.

“The return on investment was huge,” says Travis, who says the company's advertising firm, Night Agency, didn't charge NYHRC anything for the publicity stunt because it wanted to prove it could work. “It was on Web sites from China to Zimbabwe to Alaska. If we had to pay per hit on Web sites, it would have cost millions of dollars, and as a small New York club, we don't have that kind of budget.”

NYHRC's stunt was a form of guerrilla marketing, which Casey Conrad, president of Communications Consultants, Wakefield, RI, describes as a put-on-your-sneakers, low-cost, grassroots marketing approach that can reach a variety of people and carries less risk than traditional campaigns.

Ten years ago, health club owners could sit around and wait for walk-ins. As the economy continues in a downward spiral, however, health club owners must come up with creative, low-cost, grassroots marketing efforts, or they'll go out of business, she says.

“Every single club out there is saying tours are down, and they have to work harder to get people in the door,” she says.

Different Moves

Although health club owners have heard about guerrilla marketing strategies for years, few actually do this kind of marketing, Conrad says. Instead, they're relying on the old standbys, such as radio and newspaper advertising.

“The competition is at an all-time high, and traditional marketing isn't getting the response rate that it used to,” she says. “People aren't reading the newspaper or looking at junk mail, and that's a huge percentage of where clubs got their business.”

Florence Auld, president and owner of The Women's Club in Chantilly, VA, knows this all too well. She spent many years advertising in newspapers and mailing promotional postcards with no return on investment.

“If you spend money on advertising, all you know is that you're spending money on advertising,” says Auld, who owns a 15,000-square-foot club with 1,300 members, more than 52 classes, an indoor cycling program, personal training, a day spa and a nutrition program. “There are no guaranteed results — that's for sure.”

Auld is part of a roundtable of club owners who meet four times a year. She says all of the roundtable participants face the same problem — a plummeting response rate to direct mail, decreasing circulations at newspapers and increasing postage prices. For that reason, Auld and other club owners have shifted away from traditional forms of marketing and more toward grassroots marketing efforts.

“We had to get quite creative because I found that nothing was working for me,” says Auld, whose club is in a metropolitan suburb of Washington, DC, and is bombarded by competition.

Taking Action

Rather than sit back and continue to watch the number of tours dwindle, Auld began inviting nonmembers to all-day women's health symposiums and guest lectures at her club. She also started exhibiting at corporate health fairs. Using a tip from Conrad, she engaged the attendees in a game of “Wheel of Fortune.” To play the game, the fair attendees had to write down their name and contact information. To redeem a prize, such as a free massage, they had to come into the club.

This strategy has also worked well for Andrea Metcalf, the owner of MBC Fitness Essentials in Westmont, IL, who has organized free food tastings and other events inside her facility.

“I think if you're not doing some form of guerrilla marketing, you're living under a rock,” says Metcalf, who has 26 trainers, 150 members and 300 personal training clients. “In the last six years, this has been a big part of how I've grown my business, and I think everyone should be doing something at this level.”

Jane Packer, associate director of marketing and communications for the YMCA of San Francisco, agrees. In the last year, the Y has created a page on Facebook, participated in another site called Yelp and tied print advertising promotions to personalized Web sites. During the Y's most recent community outreach program, the branches handed out guest passes, taught yoga classes and led bike skills training during a free open-air fitness festival called Sunday Streets.

“Thousands of people were there, and it was a great way for all of our Y branches to show off what they do best,” she says.

Even some university rec facilities are getting in on the guerrilla marketing efforts. Temple University condensed 20 pieces of literature into a calendar, which is published twice a year and is distributed to residence halls and buildings across campus. Rather than using photos of models, the recreation center shot edgy, black-and-white photos of patrons, faculty and employees.

“Every other dorm room has one of the calendars hanging on the wall, and many students have asked how they can be a part of a photo shoot,” says Steve Young, director of campus recreation.

Besides the Booty Call campaign, NYHRC has launched several guerrilla marketing campaigns to attract attention in the community, increase brand awareness and increase membership. The company is now developing strategic sponsorships with businesses, from home video companies to beverage manufacturers.

For example, NYHRC invited Glaceau Smartwater to set up shop in front of its Cooper Square club in late August. The club gave a free bottle of the vitamin-enriched water to anyone who toured the facility. To attract attention, the club organized push-up contests, stretching demos and five-minute massages outside the club.

Conrad says working with local business partners is a smart approach.

“In a down economy, more businesses are more open to working with health clubs on a joint-marketing relationship,” she says.

Strike a Balance

Although Conrad applauds clubs that are doing more guerrilla marketing, she says it shouldn't completely replace a club's marketing strategy. Marketing has five pillars — external (newspaper, radio, TV and direct mail), internal (referral campaigns), guerrilla marketing, corporate (working with small businesses to promote the club) and community outreach (press releases and philanthropic activities). To be successful, clubs must consistently be active in each pillar, she says.

“If a club thinks that it can just do guerrilla marketing or just do traditional external marketing, that is not the case,” Conrad says.

Despite the success with the guerrilla marketing campaigns, the Y of San Francisco branches will continue to blend marketing strategies, Packer says. The Y recently invested thousands of dollars to advertise in 10 community newspapers, and it sends out a direct-mail promotion each January.

“I'm not ready to give up on the more traditional methods of marketing yet,” says Packer, who estimates that the Y currently has a 50 percent split between guerrilla and traditional marketing methods but will gradually shift to a 70/30 split.

As the economy tightens and competition increases, more clubs need to make guerrilla marketing a major part of their strategy going forward, Travis says.

“You can't sit back and wait for people to come in like you did 15 years ago,” he says. “Sadly, many clubs are still waiting.”

Eight Low-Cost, Creative Ways to Pull in Prospects

  1. Book a speaking engagement

    Build brand recognition and draw in new members by giving a presentation on fitness at a local business or organization. “This is an interesting way to get your name out there, and it doesn't cost anything,” says Andrea Metcalf, president/owner of MBC Fitness Essentials Inc., Westmont, IL.

  2. Go out into the community

    How to Get the Most From Guerrilla Marketing

    Increase foot traffic by pasting your business cards, guest passes or other promotional coupons to bottles of water and passing them out at local road races.

  3. Capitalize on the power of the Web

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    Draw visitors to your Web site, and ultimately to your facility, through blogging and social networking sites, Metcalf says. To make your Web site profitable and to connect with local partners, sell ads on your site to local businesses.

  4. Schedule a lunch-hour workout

    Reach out to the corporate community by offering half-hour classes at local businesses. Charge a fee to cover the costs of the instructor, and schedule the class during the lunch hour in a conference room.

  5. Partner with doctors' offices

    Design prescription pads with your club's logo on it and give that to doctors with whom you partner. Doctors can use the pad to prescribe exercise, and the prescription can serve as a pass for a free one- or two-week trial membership to your club.

  6. Be creative with brochure distribution

    Glue a strip of waterproof and durable material to the back of a tri-fold brochure stand. Then, when you park your car in a public parking lot, drape material over the car door and place the brochures in the stand. Include a sign with a catchy saying, such as, “Lose weight here.”

  7. Partner with local businesses

    Develop a business relationship with 12 vendors in the community. Once a month, ask one of the local business owners if you can set up a table in their building with a lead box to obtain contact information for prospects. You also can ask companies to donate prizes for competitions or offer another kind of benefit.

  8. Put your members to work for you

    Give members free bumper stickers with your club's logo. As members drive around town, they'll be getting the word out to non-members. You can also ask your members to give away fliers or coupons with their membership number on the bottom. When a prospect brings the coupon into the club, the existing member gets a referral credit.

  • Guarantee a return on investment

    When club owners put out a call for action, they need to determine how many new prospects they need to offset the cost of giving away a service or amenity, such as a class or a personal training session, says Andrea Metcalf, president/owner of MBC Fitness Essentials Inc., Westmont, IL.

  • Make guerrilla marketing part of your club's culture

    Clubs need to make the sales team part of the marketing process from day one. If you don't, when the economy turns sour and tours are down, the employees may be reluctant to lead grassroots marketing efforts, says Casey Conrad, president of Communication Consultants, Wakefield, RI.

  • Hire creative thinkers

    Whenever Conrad interviews a candidate for a sales position, she always asks him or her, “If you have no marketing budget, how would you drive your own prospects?” The answer to that question often determines whether or not the person gets hired, she says.