The New York Times interviewed me a few weeks ago for a story about how the fitness industry has changed in the last 25 to 30 years. The reporter's first question was, “Isn't it true that the gyms in the 1970s and 1980s were considered to be more like meat markets than places to work out? Weren't the guys and gals just going to the gyms to meet other guys and gals? Has that changed in the gyms today? How? Why?”

I must admit that I was taken aback. First of all, the word “gym” sounded passé, outdated and somewhat inappropriate for the more sophisticated market in our industry today. I suggested that “health clubs,” or “athletic facilities” or “fitness centers” were more accurate descriptions and have taken the place of the word “gyms.”

Secondly, I was about to suggest that indeed the culture of our industry has changed 180 degrees from 30 years ago, but ironically, hearing the words “meat market” gave me second thoughts. If you change the spelling of the word “meat” to “meet,” the culture of our clubs today are more like meeting places than ever before. And as we look at the changes, we will see why the concept remains the same.

For example, 30 years ago, the majority of our members were between the ages of 18 and 24 years old. They were most likely going to the gym to meet potential dating partners and work out. Today, the average age in most clubs is around 46 years old, and the 55-plus market is growing at a remarkable rate. Health clubs that are embracing this market and realizing its effect on retention and the bottom line are also seeing how important socialization is to them. Therefore, these fitness facilities will actually create chatting spots, group programming, educational classes and periodic luncheons to foster sociability and to make the club their ultimate meeting place.

Clubs that have an area set aside with educational materials, pictures of other members like themselves and articles pertaining to osteoporosis, diabetes, staving off Alzheimer's and combating depression will attract seniors of all ages with common interests and concerns. They will meet and talk together, encourage each other and motivate each other to continue to exercise.Most importantly, they will likely join a class or program at the club — if it's promoted and marketed at this meeting spot — and continue to meet each other in that class on a weekly basis.

A meeting corner or chatting spot can serve as a sign-up area for other programs in the club and for other social programs as well. For example, local physical therapists, pharmacists or group exercise instructors can give a bimonthly luncheon talk or a snack-time series of lectures. Clubs that foster this type of a social environment for their senior membership not only see an increase in participation from their membership but also an increase in members from the outside. Educational lectures and trial classes for non-members have proven to be productive marketing tools. Next to socialization, mind stimulation is a key ingredient to the health and well being of the senior focus.

One of the major barriers to getting the 78 million older adults in our clubs is that they do not have the sense of belonging that a club should offer. Many of our clubs today still market to the younger member looking for a meat market rather than to the majority of the new millennium of people 55 and older looking for a meeting place. Creating a club-within-a-club concept that has built in sociability, mind stimulation and a feeling of camaraderie and familiarity will change this. This small physical change in your club will create a sense of belonging to your senior membership that will result in retention and growth.

Leaders who recognize the importance of a senior meeting place will also use this area to recognize performance, attendance or special achievements as well as for promotions and trainings. Giving awards, praise and recognition to people by the leader and in front of their peers is sure to increase participation and enjoyment in your club.

Don't worry about your younger members. They will find a place to work out in the club, jump from one class to another or try new equipment just for the experience of it. They are comfortable with individual workouts in various areas of the club. Many seniors need a home base, or starting point, to gather together for confidence and a true sense of belonging.

The culture of our industry may have changed a great deal during the last 30 years, but the importance of our members meeting one another in our clubs has not, regardless of their age.

Sandy Coffman is president of Programming For Profit, a training and consulting firm based in Bradenton, FL. Coffman specializes in customer service, programming and retention. She can be reached at 941-756-6921 or at SLCoffman@aol.com.