You have seven elliptical machines at your health club. The large chain down the street has 17. You feature six on-staff personal trainers. The chain is trumpeting a dozen. You've just put in a new swimming pool in your facility, but the mega-club has built in both a new heated indoor Olympic size pool with sauna AND an outdoor pool and water park for the new children's summer camp. In your local newspaper ads, you publicize your membership fees as $60 a month. Meanwhile, the other club has bought out a block of television and radio advertising on the local stations for dues as low as $199 a year.

In the competitive nuclear arms race many health clubs find themselves in in order to keep up with the Joneses, the smaller club inevitably loses out. Obviously an independent club with a smaller budget can't outgun a larger club chain, but it can out service them. And you don't have to spend an arm and a leg to boot.

“People don't need health clubs to have fit, healthy lives. The only reason they would choose a health club is if they have extraordinary experiences there,” says Jamie Fairley, the general manager for Courthouse Plus out of Vernon, Conn. “What we're doing in our health clubs is creating an environment that people look forward to.”

While having a walk-in steam room and Jacuzzi or fluffy white robes for your members are certainly nice touches to any environment, it's not necessarily the big things that keep members coming back to your health club. Knowing there's a soft bathrobe to slip into after a grueling workout won't motivate many people out of their beds in the morning. But having friends and social activities and friendly staff that members enjoy being with do motivate. A staff member that knows your name goes a long way over an impersonal key card scan at the front check-in where the counter person doesn't even look up to say “hi.”

“The average health club can't afford all the shampoos and lotions and shower gels and big fluffy towels,” continues Fairley. “When Bruce [Carter, a health club consultant] was talking to me about low cost amenities, I thought to myself, ‘Is there any other kind?’”

Some of Fairley's low cost solutions included trading a local fruit farmer and his wife a club membership in exchange for free fruit for the members on what the staff has dubbed Fruit Fridays. “And if we don't bring it, the members remember it,” he says. The club also has instituted Water Wednesdays and Thirsty Thursdays in the summer, in which water is given out to all the members; and Car Wash Saturdays, in which a local charity will volunteer to wash members' cars for a small fee. The proceeds benefit the charity (who provide the buckets and soap), the members get their cars washed, and Courthouse Plus gains the goodwill of both their community and their members.

As an added spin, the North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo has staff do the washing, with donations again going to charity. “The members love it because they're going to be hit on for donations anyway… That costs us nothing but the employees' time,” explains Hank Boerner, the director of the Wellness Center at the Medical Center.

“Members love this kind of thing,” says the founder of the Longmeadow, Mass.-based consulting firm Optimal Fitness Systems, Bruce Carter. “I don't see a lot of clubs really offering a lot of amenities,” he adds. “We're probably going to see more clubs doing this when they do their homework.

“If you're in a competitive environment, you need to differentiate yourself but you do need to monitor yourself and look at the cost. You need to read articles and ask around and talk to other clubs owners and see what worked for them and what they're happy with,” he continues.

In Boerner's case, a little food and friendship was the answer. Taking place in the facility's Teaching Kitchen, a Coffee Club was organized for the seniors after their circuit training class every Wednesday. “We provide cookies and coffee and once a month we have a physician come in for a Q&A,” he says. Close to the holidays, the theme was changed to a Cooking Swap. All the seniors each brought in a dish, along with its recipe, and got to eat a full buffet lunch compete with appetizer, meal and desert.

“We took all the recipes they brought in and made a holiday cookbook,” Boerner says. “That cost us virtually nothing. I would say we did the whole thing for less than 50 dollars.”

The key to finding your own success story is to be creative and try and offer something for everyone. This isn't to say that each of your ideas should be for everyone, but rather, you should offer several ideas in order to reach everyone. “I think [amenities and activities] improves retention and keeps your membership active, [though] no one thing is going to hit every member,” Boerner says. “You've got to have activities that hit different groups.” Some examples include seniors bowling trips, or summer games and fitness challenges, which may appeal more to the younger members. “The key is finding things for different groups and making it fun… If you can make it a fun atmosphere, the more they're going to keep coming back.”

You can also be a little more creative about where exactly the money comes from. For example, says Carter, some funds could come from the marketing budget. Spending 35 cents each for water bottles to give to members will make more of an impact on retention and word-of-mouth praise than any display ad ever could. “It's a way of promoting what you do,” offers Doug Ribley, the director of fitness and wellness at Akron General Health System in Ohio.

While not all health clubs may take advantage of offering amenities and other personal services to their clients, Ribley argues that it is in their best interest to do so. He offers the following example: “We've adopted a whole new philosophy here [at the club] which I think is pretty significant,” he says. “We call it out value added approach to customer service.”

Ribley came up with the idea by way of a basketball team. Every year, he buys season's tickets to the Cleveland Cavaliers who “are terrible,” he explains. “But, even as bad as the Cavaliers were, as the season went on… there were a bunch of other little benefits that came with those season's tickets.” For example, Ribley got a letter in the mail inviting him to bring his son on a certain afternoon to come and play basketball with the team. “It was not something that they told me about when I bought the tickets… I got more than I thought I was buying.”

Because of all the little extras that came with those tickets, “As bad as the Cleveland Cavaliers were, I almost felt obligated to buy seats next year,” Ribley says. Taking this lesson to his health club, Ribley decided to give extras to his members for their membership — everything from going out and buying smoke alarm batteries and handing them out one day to having the staff wash members cars for free. None of the events were promoted. He explains, “When people get extra added value, they tend to want to stay and tend to want to renew.” Getting something extra builds loyalty amongst members.

“In a lot of cases, clubs offer what they say they're going to offer [during the membership sign-up],” Ribley says, “but what I'm saying is go beyond that and give them something unexpected that's added value.”

Successful Service

What has your club done to exceed members' expectations? Tell us all about it! Drop us a line at: Letters to the Editor, Club Industry, One Plymouth Meeting, Suite 501, Plymouth Meeting, PA 19462. E-mail: lshelley@primediabusiness.com.
Fax: (610) 238-0992.

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How to be nice to your members and offer inexpensive amenities

  • Offer orange or lemon water in a punch bowl in the locker rooms.
  • Provide fresh fruit at the check-in counter.
  • Have staff members wash members cars for free on an unannounced day.
  • Offer free coffee in the mornings.
  • Get connected with a samples program and offer free products for your members.
  • Get a couple of computers with internet access (you may even be able to get them donated) and set up Internet kiosks in the club.
  • Get some sand and a volleyball net and make a court on your grass for some summer volleyball action.
  • Play fitness games and challenges (make sure all fitness levels can participate).
  • Trade a membership with a DJ or musician and have him or her perform during your group exercise classes.
  • Put aromatherapy in the locker rooms or diffuse scented oils in the mind-body classes.
  • Buy Halloween candy on Oct. 31 and let members go trick or treating at each machine they work out on.