The introduction begins quietly as the letters T-H-E appear on the computer screen, as though they are drawn by a paint brush. Then the music kicks in while large, lime-colored letters spell out R-U-S-H. The right side of the “H” also doubles as an exclamation point, and the red dot of the punctuation mark drips a red splotch that becomes an even larger exclamation point.

This is what appears on the home page of the Web site for The Rush Fitness Complex, www.therush247.com. The Rush is a Knoxville, TN-based chain that recently expanded into North Carolina and has plans to open clubs in South Carolina. The Web site's home page is busy and loud, a lot like the club.

“We're not your country club facility,” says Chris Townsend, marketing manager for The Rush. “It's very bold, very bright. We're trying to make it fun and lively in our clubs, and our Web site reflects very much the same.”

For uniqueness, look no further than Equinox's Web site, www.equinoxfitness.com. On its home page is one of the provocative photos from the New York-based fitness company's “Happily Ever” advertising campaign launched earlier this year. In the photo, a man clad in only a pair of gold shorts arches his back in a yoga pose while a group of women dressed in Victorian-era costumes eat from a plate of fruit on his stomach. Click on the corner of the photo, and a short video appears involving the same characters.

The Rush and Equinox, which has clubs in seven major U.S. cities, have created Web sites that reflect the image of their companies, and they are mindful of the effectiveness their Web sites have on their business operations. Larger club companies need to make a similar commitment to produce a strong, productive Web site in a competitive landscape, says Leslie Nolen, CEO of the consulting firm The Radial Group.

“Compared to other consumer businesses, health clubs lag far behind in capitalizing on the power of the Internet, and that's true of national chains, regionals and small independents,” Nolen says. “The Web is slowly but surely replacing the Yellow Pages as the way people find local businesses like health clubs.”

Nolen adds that the Internet community has recently focused its attention on local searches — ways to help potential customers in a community find a business online.

“That is only going to accelerate this trend,” she says.

Web Wonders

No matter how big or small the club, a Web site's effectiveness is measured by leads generated and members retained. Few clubs understand this better than Gainesville (FL) Health and Fitness Centers (GHFC), which unveiled its revamped Web site on Jan. 1. From May 2007 to May 2008, membership leads at GHFC increased 351 percent, says Brian Russell, the company's communications specialist. Also, Web site traffic for unique visitors increased 28 percent, and the total number of contacts, including membership leads, personal training leads and small group training leads, increased 281 percent.

Russell says GHFC's Web site had much the same look from August 2005 to August 2007.

“Before, the Web site was an afterthought, but in the past six months, now that we've seen what an improved Web site can do for us, talking about the Web site takes up more and more time of our Monday morning meetings,” Russell says.

One of the reasons for the increased numbers for the Web site, Russell says, is its blog/RSS news feed. Last month, the blog featured a link to a newspaper article in Tennessee that featured GHFC. Russell warns, however, about the dangers of neglecting a blog.

“There's nothing sadder than a blog that hasn't been updated or a social network without friends,” he says.

One of the critical elements to a club's Web site operation, Nolen says, is a company e-newsletter that is distributed to club members. The e-newsletter can contain updates about the club and its services, as well as mentions of club members who are likely to forward the e-newsletter to family and friends. That helps the e-newsletter serve as a great word-of-mouth tool, Nolen says.

Unless clubs are large enough to have an in-house staff, most clubs need an outside developer or firm to develop or revamp a Web site, Nolen says. David Geller, the vice president of marketing for Equinox, says the amount his company spent on revamping its Web site was in the “seven-figure range.” The previous version of the Equinox Web site remained unchanged for about three years before April's re-launch, Geller says.

“Our goal was to have it set in the standards of fitness, luxury and lifestyle, and we think it has done that on all three fronts,” Geller says. “We wanted our online experience to really mesh with what is going on in the club, the design of the club, the aesthetic of the club, the experience of the club. We see the site as another real robust area for member acquisition, member retention and member experience.”

Through a feature called MYEQ, Equinox members can personalize their schedule, book a studio cycling bike, purchase and track personal training sessions, provide friends with e-mail invitations, renew their memberships online and update their contact information. About the only function someone cannot do through the Equinox Web site is sign up for a membership.

“Registration [to MYEQ] has exceeded our expectations,” Geller says. “We are in the business of helping our members get results, and this is another way through the Web site that we can deliver those results.”

Online Info

The Rush is exploring the possibility of creating a function on the Web site for prospects to purchase memberships online, Townsend says, as the company planned to revamp its Web site this month. Townsend adds that most of the members of The Rush typically go to the Web site to check class schedules, club locations and potential specials.

The fancy introduction, along with the music, will be gone from the revamped version of The Rush's Web site. The newer version has additional content and is geared to attract more of the corporate culture as well as the younger generation, Townsend says. A fitness blog will be one of the added features.

“[It will be] a lot more about the information and about the company now,” Townsend says. “Content is king. Seventy to 80 percent use the Internet for research purposes. They're not there for the bells and whistles. We have ways of still conveying our brand and our value without having that Flash intro.”

Like The Rush, the New York Health and Racquet Club (NYHRC) had not changed its Web site for about two or three years before its scheduled re-launch this month. The NYHRC has been in the New York market for35 years, and the Web site (www.nyhrc.com) provides a way to keep up with competitors, says J. Travis, NYHRC brand manager.

“Consumers are smart, and they're getting savvier by the minute,” Travis says. “If you don't have the core elements to what they need, you're going to lose them. Nobody wants to cut through three or four Flash pieces to get to the information that they need. We want to get them the information the moment that they come on to our site.”

The first three features members typically look for on the NYHRC Web site are locations, hours and classes, Travis says. Leads are especially important to the club. In fact, all leads go directly to NYHRC CEO Howard Brodsky, who disperses them to the clubs' managers.

“He is very keen on what's working and what's not,” Travis says of Brodsky.

The effectiveness of a Web site to the operation of a fitness facility is not reserved for just for-profit health clubs. The Campus Recreation Center at Georgia Tech in Atlanta is run much like a major corporation or a business, says Jonathan Hart, director of facilities and operations. Through its Internet software, Hart can instantly check a variety of information, including how much revenue was generated in the first two weeks of a semester.

“It's right here at my fingertips,” Hart says. “I can generate over 356 different reports from the actual software platform itself. With my revenue stream right now, I can tap into all my fitness classes, I can tap into all my locker rentals, I can tap into all of my facility reservations, all by a click of a button.”

The difference between a thriving and a struggling fitness facility may be determined by a click of a button, too.

Four Features of A Sound Web Site

Leslie Nolen, CEO of The Radial Group, a business consulting firm, offers four tips for operating a health club Web site:

  1. It needs to work every time

    Don't let your developer use Flash, JavaScript and other cool bells and whistles that don't work on everyone's PC. Keep it simple. And don't choose the cheapest hosting firm out there. Check your hosting company with the Better Business Bureau.

  2. Start with the basics

    Make your home page about your customer and what matters to them. Include the basics — descriptions of programs and services, your staff, your hours, class schedules, location, etc. Create a reminder system so that this core information gets updated frequently. Nothing's worse than a Web site that still has 2007 data on it or the May class schedule when it's August.

  3. Add useful content

    You want a mix of content, something for people who are just beginning to think about a club, something for people who are pretty close to a buying decision and something for people who are already members. Just saying that you have a gym full of certified trainers is not useful content. Try-before-you-buy offers like a “free week” coupon are fine, but you also need to have content for people who aren't ready for a trial membership. They can turn into your customer someday, but only if you start building that relationship now.

  4. Integrate your Web site and newsletter

    After adding an e-mail newsletter, put a newsletter sign-up on every page of your Web site. Otherwise, you won't know who visited your site, and you won't be able to stay in touch with them. The value of having the newsletter is that it lets you proactively point people to your site every month so your club stays top of mind until people are ready to join.

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