As summer draws near, many club owners are dreading the summertime blahs when families exit the clubs and venture into the great outdoors for softball, swimming, camping and vacations. However, “summertime” doesn't have to mean “slow time” for clubs. In fact, some club owners find that with a bit of planning, the summer months can be a profitable season.

For the most part, keeping families coming to the gym involves giving parents a reason to bring their children to the gym while they work out. The more a club can meet a parent's needs for the summer season, the more chance the club will see the parents continue their workout schedule. That means a club will have to do more than baby-sit. While a club should have programs that children can participate in while parents work out, it also should create programs and services that encourage family participation, says Kevin Steele, vice president at 24 Hour Fitness. “Something that would stimulate and challenge them to do things together,” he says.

Here's some ideas for programs to lure those families back in. Some are one-time events or monthly events. Others are programs that can continue throughout the year.

Go outdoors for fun

Clubs can reach beyond their doors to grab families' attention. 24 Hour Fitness sponsors fun runs/walks to get children engaged. They also sponsor skateboard competitions. A club can organize hikes for members or take children (and maybe even their parents) to area amusement parks, swim parks or other local attractions. The club owner just needs to ensure that there are enough staff members to handle all the children and that the parents have signed a liability waiver.

Hold special days

A “school's out” day in spring allows staff to not only hand out ice cream, but also to pass out information about some of the special summertime programs for children and family. It is a perfect opportunity to enroll children and parents in the various summer activities. A mid-summer picnic reminds lapsed members about the club and may pull them back in before summer is out.

Host family nights

The Ashford-Dunwoody YMCA in Atlanta, GA, focuses more on family nights than specific programs. Once a month, the club hosts a family night that generally includes some sort of dinner — either a cookout, spaghetti or six-foot sandwiches — indoor pool games, crafts and sometimes a DJ and dancing.

Because of some other commitments, the Ashford-Dunwoody YMCA missed a family night this past fall. “The parents were devastated,” says Kristin McEwen, executive director at the facility. “The kids were devastated. They started to look forward to that time with their kids. You start doing it and it becomes a habit.”

Host a parents' night out

While most club activities focus on bringing families together at a health club, helping busy parents get a night away from their children can work wonders for a family's togetherness. The Grand Health Club in Tulsa, OK, hosts a once-a-month parents' night out event throughout the year. Parents can drop the children at the club while they go on a “date,” secure in the knowledge that the club will provide a balanced dinner for their children along with popcorn, a movie and a fun activity, says Kristin Williams, Kidz' Klub supervisor at The Grand Health Club.

Develop special group exercise classes for children

The 24 Hour clubs have some specialty group exercise classes to help younger children develop balance, foot coordination and other physical skills sets. Some of the 24 Hour clubs also offer aqua and swim lessons. Clubs can also develop general education classes about nutrition and exercising for children. Last summer, the Grand Health Club offered ballet classes through a traveling school of ballet. The club keeps up its gymnastics and Tae Kwan Do classes throughout the summer.

Run leagues

Summer is the time for softball, soccer and swimming. Why shouldn't a club create its own league? If space allows and the club has softball or soccer fields, the club can organize a league for children. Even if the club does not have space of its own for fields, the club may be able to find a nearby open field that can be organized (with permission of the owner) into an impromptu playing field. Regardless of whether the play is organized into a league or an informal “every Tuesday afternoon softball game,” the club needs to ensure that it provides a structure for the play as well as supervision and referees.

“The key is to keep them engaged in the club all year round so that if you provide the organizational support and structure for that (a league) they will associate your club with that,” Steele says. “It's critical for that link to stay in place. There's reinforcement all along.”

Sponsor a children's team

A club that doesn't have room for softball diamonds or soccer fields can still get involved in these sports by sponsoring a team of boys and/or girls. The children can be club members' children or they can be children from outside the club. Either way, the club can get its name on the uniform (free advertising) and can invite the teams to the club for a season kick-off party and a season wrap-up party. The parties get the children and their parents into the club. The club might consider having a staff member help coach the team or at least send a representative to each game with treats for the team. The club can also include a group picture of its team(s) in the lobby along with a schedule of their games and their record.

Run a sports program targeted to high school teams

24 Hour Fitness has a team sports program targeting high school students, specifically athletes. During the school year, the clubs allow school athletic teams to use their facilities from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. During the summer, the clubs have a high school summer membership promotion where teens get three-month memberships for a reasonable price.

“There's some down time for the kids not going to school or working,” says Steele with 24 Hour Fitness. “The idea is to get them active and engaged.”

Provide a summer camp

Summer camps are more than day care facilities. They are an opportunity for children to learn about nutrition and exercise in a fun way as well as get involved in various craft activities and become familiar with the gym. The camps should be divided by age and should be age appropriate in their activities.

The Ashford-Dunwoody YMCA offers summer camps, some of which are specialty camps for gymnastics, soccer, swimming and other interests. All the camps cost extra. For children under 5 and for some of the specialty camps, the camps run half days. For the 5-year-olds to 15-year-olds, the camps run all day from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

To get parental interaction with the camps, the YMCA hosts a lunchtime cookout every other Friday to which parents are invited. These lunches allow parents to see the camp and interact with their children, the other campers and the other parents.

“We thought we could capitalize on their running around to soccer and keep them coming into the Y,” says McEwen. “I don't know that they are working out when they come in, but it gives them a place to come in and be a family.”

The Ashford-Dunwoody YMCA has 350 kids a week in its camp, but the camps don't make much money for the YMCA because the non-profit club must hire college students and teachers to teach the camps.

“There's no revenue increase over the summer, but we do keep the traffic in the facility,” McEwen says. “If you keep your traffic, then people don't forget you and cancel you out as one of the things they don't need.”

Facilities that have some space, a pool for aquatics programs or soccer fields and tennis courts for lessons and leagues could make a profit with specialty camps, McEwen says.

Start a Kids' Club

At the 80,000-square-foot Grand Health Club, almost half of its 1,700 members have children. That makes family programming extremely important in keeping up summertime attendance. The club has two Kidz' Klubs, one for younger children that is open all year and the other for older children (6 to 12) that is open in the summer. The older children play video games and participate in swimming and tennis activities to keep them busy during the day. The younger kids have swimming activities as well as crafts. The 24 Hour Fitness clubs have a Kids' Club in which children are encouraged to be active while their parents work out.

STAFFING

All these programs may require some additional staffing depending on the number of children that participate. The need for additional staff often can be reduced if the children's activities are scheduled during down times at the gyms.

Because the older children's Kidz' Klub is active only in the summer, the Grand Health Club must hire an additional staff member to help out during the summer months. The Ashford-Dunwoody YMCA also must hire additional staff to run its camps.

Clubs can hire high school students, college students or teachers to help out. However, the club staff must train the high school and college students in how to work with children. It would also be advisable that a staff member always be on hand in addition to the high school help.

A club also must be aware of safety during the summer. Children who may never have been in a club environment need to be taught about club rules and must be kept off equipment if they are too young. Swimming pools must have lifeguards and sanitary requirements must be taken care of. Staff must have training in first aid and CPR. A club owner also should do a background check on employees that will be working with children.

SOUND ADVICE

Before a club starts a summer family program, the club owner should conduct a focus group consisting of the club's members, McEwen says. Focus groups inform a club owner about what members want to do with their families. Focus groups at the Ashford-Dunwoody YMCA showed that at family nights, the families wanted to play in the pool together with floats and noodles and they wanted to play bingo. They also wanted dinner served so that they didn't have to rush home from work to feed the family before going to family night.

“You have to find out what your community wants and what will work there,” McEwen says. “They are the ones that you have to listen to because you can program all day long and it doesn't mean that's what they want.”

Regardless of how an owner tries to pull in families, he or she should ensure that the offerings for children are fun or kids won't come.

“It has to be fun and different than the traditional stuff,” says Steele. “It has to be perceived to be cool with their peer group.”

Activities that get children involved not only show them the importance of exercise, but they also keep children off the street while they learn new physical and social skills. Exercise helps children develop discipline, and it exposes them to a new career option in the health club industry.

The more a club can get a family to focus its summer fun around the club, the better chance that club will have in retaining its adult members and laying the groundwork for future adult members.