John McCarthy details IHRSA's 10 Mega-Opportunities and how clubs can benefit from them.

When the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) wanted to develop an objective that would garner the support of the entire industry (and excite both club operators and suppliers), the association decided to launch an initiative designed to double club membership in the next 10 years. Specifically, this initiative's goal is to grow the club industry to 50 million members nationally - and 100 million members worldwide - by the year 2010.

To help clubs reach this goal, IHRSA pinpointed 10 mega-opportunities that present unlimited possibilities with respect to growing memberships, revenues and profitability during the next decade. Below, John McCarthy, IHRSA's executive director, details the significance of each opportunity and describes how clubs can capitalize on them.

1 The Age Wave Opportunity. "Every seven seconds another American turns 50, and about 4 million Americans are going to turn 50 every year for the next 13 years," states McCarthy. "The 50-plus demographic is the fastest-growing demographic group in the United States." It's also the most affluent and stable, and the group who needs exercise the most in order to maintain optimal health.

In addition, members of the 50-plus market were the first to subscribe to the fitness advice of Jane Fonda, Richard Simmons and Arnold Schwartzenegger. They are, by all means, the fitness generation, emphasizes McCarthy: "This is the generation that has been the foundation of the industry for the past 25 years. They aren't strangers to fitness, and we have every reason to expect that the 50-plus health club participation will explode."

So basically, these people are ideal club members. However, when marketing to them, don't emphasize their age because that is the kiss of death, McCarthy notes. Instead, market to their needs. You do that by having the kind of customer service, programs, equipment, music, employees and ambiance that appeal to a mature audience.

2 The Special Population Opportunity. This correlates to the first opportunity. As people age, they begin to experience more health problems. And whether it's hypertension, arthritis or diabetes, the very best thing that these people can do for themselves is to get in a safe, effective, regular exercise program. In fact, anyone with unique needs - young or old - can benefit from exercise.

"The number of people with special issues is immense," emphasizes McCarthy. "And clubs need to get the credibility so that these people can walk into clubs and get sound and safe advice." The way you go about getting credibility is by certifying trainers to work with special populations, and developing hospital and physician group relationships to give oversight to the programs you are providing.

You can also look to groups like the Arthritis Foundation, which has developed special exercise programs that clubs can use for people with arthritis. IHRSA and The Cooper Institute are also running special population seminars that are very successful. "This is because more people are coming into clubs with these issues and they want to be mainstreamed, but they want to know that the staff in the clubs are knowledgeable and can give safe and effective instruction," states McCarthy.

3 The Benefits of Exercise Opportunity. People in the health and fitness industry are incredibly lucky. On an almost daily basis, they get fresh data and studies on the benefits of exercise. "Every day of every week the message is getting out there," notes McCarthy, "but we need to trumpet that message so that everyone in every community slowly realizes that there is only one healthy way to live and that's a physically active lifestyle. We need to take ownership of this message."

This approach worked in 1964 when the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society took ownership of the message touted by the Surgeon General on the dangers of smoking. They kept the message that smoking is bad for your health in front of the American people on a continuous basis. "As a result of the ownership of that message, we now have a culture in which smoking is becoming culturally unacceptable," McCarthy explains.

One day, we may also live in a society in which exercise is a basic part of everyone's life. But that will happen only if the health club industry takes ownership of the message that exercise is good for your health.

4 The Sales and Service Opportunity. "If you talk to smart people who have been running clubs, they'll tell you this opportunity has been here," says McCarthy. "We don't have to do anything. We just have to get incredibly sharp in sales and customer service."

The issue isn't whether a market is accessible. "The issue is whether the industry has the sales, service and hospitality skills to leverage it to the fullest," McCarthy says. But clubs must take responsibility for these skills.

5 The Member Integration Opportunity. "This one is huge," states McCarthy. "Membership attrition has been from day one the Achilles' heel of this industry." As a whole, the industry loses 35 percent of its membership every year. Some reasons are not preventable, such as relocation, illness, divorce, etc. But McCarthy believes that these reasons encompass only 15 to 18 percent of the attrition rate. "The other 17 to 20 percent is controllable if we just treat them better," he says.

The industry, according to McCarthy, has reached a consensus that the key to retaining members takes place in the first 120 days of a new membership. This is the period when members develop their habits and form a relationship with the club. Therefore, during the members first four months, clubs must integrate them and encourage them to make exercise a permanent part of their lives. "If that doesn't take place in the first 120 days, it won't happen at all, and the member will leave fairly quickly," McCarthy emphasizes.

6 The Health Care Industry Integration Opportunity. One of the connections that IHRSA hopes to strengthen in the next 10 years is the one between the health care industry and the health club industry. Such a partnership can be a powerful motivation tool for deconditioned people who have never exercised regularly.

"Nothing is more persuasive to get people to start and maintain their exercise program than a doctor telling them to do so and telling them where they can find quality [fitness clubs]," relates McCarthy.

This isn't a hard relationship to build since growing evidence proves that exercise prevents sickness and helps rehabilitate patients with injuries and chronic illnesses. Clubs, however, are going to have to be the proactive partner in this relationship because it will not happen if clubs wait for it to happen, emphasizes McCarthy.

7 The Easy Access Opportunity. The health club industry has been so successful in selling one-, two- and three-year memberships that it hasn't really looked at other options, which might bring in more members. On two different occasions, IHSRA surveyed people who were not members of health clubs and asked them what would make them more likely to join a club. Their answer was, "If only I didn't have to join for a whole year. If I could just join for six months and try it out."

Now clubs are starting to realize that they can sell program memberships such as a six-week "get fit" program or a 12-week weight-loss program, and the marketplace is responding enthusiastically. "Millions of people in the marketplace are interested in exercise, but don't want one- or two-year memberships," notes McCarthy. "So give the customers what they want."

8 The "All of America" Opportunity. This is the most important opportunity of all of them, emphasizes McCarthy. By 2010, 35 percent of the U.S. population will be African American, Asian American and Hispanic American. These are three of the fastest-growing populations in the country, but at the present time compose no more than 2 to 3 percent of the health club population. "This presents clubs with an enormous challenge and opportunity," McCarthy says. "We have to ask ourselves why have we as an industry not made any significant penetration among minority populations. And so as an industry we now need to wake up and smell the coffee."

The industry needs to find out what it can do to be more attractive, appealing, welcoming and hospitable to minority groups, who up until now have almost been invisible in most health clubs. "Once again this has to be the industry being proactive," McCarthy points out. "It's not going to happen unless we make it happen."

Clubs must reach out to these populations. The most significant way the industry can show minorities they are welcome is to have them on their staff. That sends a clear and unmistakable message.

9 The Generation X Opportunity. This group - born between 1964 and 1980, totaling 46 million and comprising 49 percent of all club members - is in danger of becoming the forgotten health club population. It is a population that the industry has gotten and retained almost by dumb luck, notes McCarthy. The industry has done nothing to deserve this group. Gen Xers have stayed because they are keen on exercise and sports. But the industry could lose them if clubs don't pay attention to their likes and dislikes. This is a fickle generation.

IHRSA has done a lot of research on Generation X and found that this group wants more excitement and more variety in programming, and is very sensitive to appearances, notes McCarthy. It's important for clubs to make it their business to understand this generation's recreational and fitness interests, as well as the lifestyle values and perspective of Gen Xers. If they don't, they will have a hard time retaining a very important health club population.

10 The Multi-Generational Family Club Opportunity. According to the IHRSA book "50 Million Members by 2010," "in the past 10 years, no clubs have enjoyed more definitive success than have multi-purpose athletic clubs that appeal to the needs of the entire family and demonstrate a particular competence in youth programming." Parents are looking for friendly places to give their children healthy activities such as swim lessons, tennis lessons, basketball leagues, etc. If you appeal to the children and they like your facility, you will keep their parents in your club. If you don't offer programs for kids, you may lose their parents as members, too.

In addition, if you get children into fitness at a young age, exercise will become part of their natural lives, and they will remain members as they age. And by helping children stay fit and healthy, you would also be doing a greater good by reducing the growing obesity rate that plagues the United States.