This year has been a challenging one personally, professionally and for the health and fitness industry. Our daughter died, and our family has had to deal with the fact that an important part of our lives is gone forever. Mother Nature decided to show her stuff and left a major city, millions of people and dozens of health clubs staggering in her wake. A major club organization is staggering on the ropes as this year closes and could even suffer a final knockout blow.

Club numbers grew, but a lot of clubs shut down. New membership growth did not come near to keeping pace with the number of facilities, indicating a widening discrepancy in the supply-of-clubs-demand-for-memberships curve. Profit margins for most clubs dropped from last year's levels, as did the average number of members per club. Huge increases in fuel prices, both for vehicles and to heat buildings, began to affect clubs' operating expenses and will continue to do so throughout the winter.

The growth of big-box, well-financed chains and low-price players was nothing short of phenomenal, causing thousands of operators in hundreds of regions to hunker down and take a hard look at their businesses. The recognized arrival of the “commoditization of fitness” has been accompanied by a slowed-down national economy and the return of substantial inflationary pressures on consumers' pocketbooks.

All in all, a tough year. And I think it has been exacerbated for many by their unwillingness to accept change in the marketplace and an obviously different consumer attitude, in some part prompted by economics and in some part provoked by the lethargy of club operators to update.

I have campaigned hard and long for health clubs to “climb out on the skinny branches” and seek to be different. In 30 years of serving this industry, I have seen enough “same old, same old” to last two more lifetimes. And, oddly enough, believe it or not, I am still seeing “more of the same” as new facilities enter every marketplace across the country.

Maybe people want to wait until they see business practices become conventional norms before they venture out. I find that strange because my experience tells me that if you wait for the market to get established, you usually miss the best, most profitable part of the market.

Maybe it's just human nature. I wonder how many club and gym owners have done things the way everybody else does because that's what they were taught? And I wonder if they know that doing things the way everybody else does them — with diminishing returns, hoping that eventually doing them that way will work out — is one of the definitions of insanity?

In my great-grandfather's Sioux culture, there were specific people called “heyokas” — contraries — whose life purpose was to be different, to do things exactly the opposite of everybody else, to not follow the norm. They were honored as special people.

While I am not calling on you to become a heyoka, I am saying that it is time for some contrary-to-ordinary thinking, because face it, folks, “ordinary” just ain't working that well anymore. More equipment or better colors or added classes does not make a successful club. Excitement, better marketing (externally and internally), catering to people's social needs, understanding age-difference requirements, staffing appropriate to demographic profiles and just plain having fun does make a difference in a club and promotes success.

I thought I would give you a few “you-ought-to-take-a-look-at-what-they're-doing” examples. I'm hopeful that if you see what some of the innovators in our industry are doing that you might be able to figure out some novelty for your facility…either by duplication, or by doing exactly the opposite.

  • Big-Box Superpowers: Lifetime Fitness, LA Fitness

  • Low-Price Quality: Planet Fitness

  • Express Clubs: World Gym Express

  • Group Fitness Only Studios: BodyTraining Systems

  • One-on-One to One-to-Small Group: Personal Training Studios

  • Senior and Children's Programs: YMCAs and Jewish Community Centers

  • Membership Sales Systems: Visual Fitness Planner and SalesMakers

  • Group Fitness Computerized Systems: Scifit

  • Club Marketing: MarketMyClub

  • Education and Training: Thomas Plummer, CMS, MSSFitBizConnection, Norm Cates' Club Insider News, IHRSA and Club Industry shows.

Perhaps most folks just don't like to take chances. That's odd to me, because I have always thought that opening and running a business, any business, is one of the riskiest things anybody can do.


Michael Scott Scudder is a 30-year veteran of the fitness industry. He is a personal business trainer operating Fitness Focus, a consulting company that offers private workshops on pertinent fitness business matters. Questions and comments are welcomed by Michael at 505-690-5974 or mss@michaelscottscudder.com.