Have you ever walked around your fitness club and noticed how few out-of-shape people there are? The belief is that people all get fit once they join a club — that's why you don't see many overweight, deconditioned people walking around in shorts or spandex. But do you ever stop to think about whether your facility and staff might be sending out subtle signs that “the unfit are unfit” to become members of your club? You can teach your staff to be sensitive to the needs and concerns of people who feel out of place or embarrassed because of their size and fitness level, and in so doing, dramatically boost your revenues and membership base.

Fitness centers can be incredibly intimidating to people who are extremely overweight and out of shape. Club managers pay lip service to the concept of “health for all” — and then use size 2 bikini-clad supermodels in their advertising campaigns. Sure, this is a valid marketing tactic, but in the current economic climate, fitness clubs can't just sit back and assume that they'll thrive strictly by attracting “regular exercisers” — the 10 to 12 percent of the population that already understands the benefit of being in shape and working out regularly. Clubs need to find ways to reach out to people they haven't actively marketed to in the past — and they'll need to change their approach in order to be successful in marketing to a more sedentary, deconditioned audience.

Wearing Someone Else's Shoes

It takes courage and desire for someone who's sedentary and fat to visit a health and fitness club. If you're slim, strong and fit, you can't possibly understand what it's like to be large and flabby, clumsy and stiff. At least, that's what will be going through the minds of your prospective club members if they're at the opposite end of the “fit lifestyle” scale from you.

When an overweight, out-of-shape person finally summons the courage and self-esteem to walk through your door to discuss membership, she'll arrive with her internal radar scanning for signs of distress. If anything in the environment or the actions of your staff causes her to feel embarrassed, uncomfortable or unwelcome, odds are she'll leave without signing. You'll lose not just a sale, but potentially a source of referrals and long-term revenue as well — and the club visitor loses out on fitness.

Simple Steps To Being Sensitive

But there are simple things you can do in how you handle your facility tours (see sidebar), and in the membership packages you offer, even how you choose to involve your current members in promoting your facility, that can make a tremendous difference to an out-of-shape potential member — and allows you to convert them to membership. Above all, teach your entire staff to consider the guts it takes for someone who's really out of shape to walk in to a fitness center and get started on a new lifestyle. They should be warmly congratulated and encouraged.

Laura Higgins is vice president of marketing and business development for Hood Exhibits, a leading museum, trade show, and retail exhibit design firm in California. She has been involved in fitness marketing for nearly a decade. She can be reached at laura@wriprodir.com.

Use Your Membership to Sell The Club

  • Create member evangelists — find your most successful, most improved members, the most dramatic “before and after” photos — and make them part of your marketing and outreach program. Ask for volunteers to provide orientation tours, or to speak with new or potential members about the club.
  • Prepare before and after stories with photos of successful members — with their permission — and use these in your new member orientation.
  • Friendly Sales Tactics for the Deconditioned

  • Privacy is important in the sales office. Make your potential members feel secure, so they feel free to talk frankly about their fitness goals and any health challenges they face.
  • Set the stage for physical comfort — have a sturdy, armless chair available. If you have bookshelves, acquire several books and videos on “fitness at any size” and keep them on display. Highlight the flexibility of your programs, even for a beginner.
  • Make it easy for visitors to “ease into” the commitment. Offer liberal “trial membership” programs — create introductory offers that give people enough time to make sure they'll feel at home, before requiring an annual commitment.
  • Consider creating short, simple “Getting Into Fitness” workshops, which can serve as an overview of your facility's programs. Encourage connection and discussion among new members.
  • When you give tours, highlight the flexibility of your programs — make it clear that you have many types of activities suitable for getting INTO shape. Don't show off your all-pro, high-impact aerobic dance classes to someone who's clearly not conditioned enough for them — instead, show off a gentle yoga or stretching class, or water aerobics.