The growing number of U.S. Hispanics and their consumer buying power is lost on many fitness facilities nationwide. According to the U.S. Census, 43 million Latinos live in the United States, and the nation will add about 2.5 Hispanics to the U.S. population every minute between now and 2050. With the U.S. Hispanic buying power closing in on $1 trillion, some industries are aggressively pursuing this market. The fitness industry, however, is shying away from the opportunities offered by the growing number of Hispanics, says Jose Cancela, principal of Hispanic USA, a Hispanic marketing consulting firm, which aims to help corporate America understand the Hispanic market.

“The fitness sector as a whole has been slow to warm up to the market due to a lack of understanding,” says Cancela, the author of the book, The Power of Business en Español. “They see some challenges and would rather stay away from it than see the opportunities on the other side.”

One reason clubs should consider pursuing this market is the growth of the Hispanic middle class, he says. Census data shows that the Hispanic middle class grew 71 percent between 1979 and 1999 to 9.5 million. In 2000, 64 percent of middle-class Hispanic households owned or were buying a home, and 20 percent of Hispanic households had a person with a bachelor's or advanced degree.

“There is real buying power in the Hispanic consumers,” he says. “It's a young market, and the median age is in the low to mid 30s, which is right up the alley of the fitness demographic.”

Many of the Hispanics who live in the United States are second or third generation, and they want to be part of the American dream, says Shelly Larsen, the president of NYC Fitness in Manhattan, NY, and the daughter of a Dominican mother and a Norwegian father.

“I think it's a very influential community,” she says. “We're coming to the point where we're growing tremendously in numbers and economics. Our buying power reflects that.”

To help her community grow, Larsen opened a 10,000-square-foot health club in the neighborhood where she grew up. While some bodybuilding facilities existed, residents had to drive for miles to find a family oriented fitness facility. Her closest competitors, apart from community centers, are 20-40 blocks away, she says.

“When we grew up here, there was nowhere to go,” she says. “We believed that bringing top-of-the-line equipment to this area at affordable rates and great service would bring in the community, and if we supported them, they would support us. It's been a great partnership.”

During the five years that the gym has been open, the neighborhood has changed dramatically, she says. The club, which is open 24 hours a day on Monday through Friday and offers such amenities as personal training, a juice bar and a pro shop, initially drew mostly Dominicans, but now the facility is also attracting members from Central and South America. The health club has about 2,500 members and 14 part-time and full-time employees, most of whom are bilingual.

Forty blocks to the north, J's Big Gym, a 15,000-square-foot club in the heart of New York's Little Santo Domingo neighborhood, also serves a large Hispanic membership base. Of the nearly 900 people each day that come to the club, 80 percent are Latino, and most of the members are from the Dominican Republic, says Jay Hirschhorn, owner. Three years ago, when he was scouting locations for his club, he decided to forgo the saturated markets and operate a fitness center in the low-income neighborhood to serve the largely underserved Latino community.

“I'm the only full-service gym for two-and-a-half miles in any direction,” he says. “The Latinos are very into fitness. I've got men, women and people of all ages working out five or six days a week the whole three years that I've been here.”

Target Market

Clubs located in New York's predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods aren't the only ones pursuing the Hispanic market. Chicago-based Bally Total Fitness, which ranked second on the 2006 Top 100 Clubs listing, has aggressively pursued this market by partnering with Spanish language television stations, hiring a marketing firm called Grupo Gallegos to develop a media buying plan and purposely locating new clubs in Hispanic markets. Bally also offers Latino-themed fitness classes, hires bilingual staff members and partners with organizations that target Hispanics.

The Hispanic market is underserved, says Matthew Messinger, Bally spokesperson. While the fitness industry is starting to embrace the Hispanic market, there is a general perception that Hispanics don't want to use a health club, which is not true, he says.

In fact, J's Big Gym has more serious exercisers than at many other clubs, Hirschhorn says.

“They are as demanding of a bunch as anyone,” he says. “They are serious into working out. We have a heavy weight room that you don't see in most middle-class suburban gyms. We have dumbbells that go up to 140 pounds, and we have guys that push a fair amount of weight and compete in bodybuilding.”

Argentina Ortiz, who moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic 39 years ago, is one of the gym's avid exercisers. The 58-year-old spends four to five hours a day, five days a week at the gym and lost 40 pounds by working out on the cardio and strength equipment and by attending group exercise classes with her friends. She selected the gym over a neighborhood women-only facility because of its reasonable prices and proximity to her home.

When Latinos such as Ortiz immigrate to the United States, they expect the same quality and service as their gyms back home, says Jose Talledo, a sales manager who has consulted with 15 predominately Hispanic clubs in New York City and Dallas.

“Latin American countries are all up to date in fitness practices and group ex classes,” says Talledo, who has worked in the fitness industry for 21 years and is originally from Peru. “It's refreshing for Latinos to see that what they did in their home countries is available here.”

Language Barriers

While the Hispanic market offers many opportunities for club owners, serving mostly Spanish-speaking clientele can present a challenge for non-bilingual managers. The language barrier may seem like a daunting obstacle to some health clubs, but Hirschhorn found a way to successfully communicate with his members even though he doesn't speak Spanish. He hired an all-Latino and bilingual staff of 14 employees, and his club prints all rules, work applications and membership contracts in Spanish and English. While Hirschhorn's Web site and electronic newsletter are both in English, they have been successful tools to reach his clientele, he says. With the cost of advertising in the New York City market, they're also the most affordable ways to get the word out about his club, he says. J's Big Gym employees also pass out fliers and refrigerator magnets and get involved in local community events. Other advertising methods are beyond his financial reach right now, he says.

“There's a billboard around the corner from me, and they want $18,000 per month [to advertise on it], and the top two Spanish radio stations get $4,000 or $5,000 per minute,” he says.

Dealing with Dinero

Money is also at the root of a challenge related to a largely Hispanic membership. At most fitness facilities today, electronic funds transfer (EFT) is standard practice. However, clubs catering to Hispanics may find that some of their potential members do not have credit cards or checking accounts, because the language barrier has made them reluctant to walk into a bank and open an account. To encourage more members to sign up for EFT, some health clubs have invited local banks into their facilities to teach members how to open a bank account, which then opens up the possibility of a monthly EFT for the membership fee.

“You're affording them an easy way to pay for their membership,” Talledo says.

The members of NYC Fitness can prepay for one month up to one year. Many of the clients opt for the prepaid $348 per year memberships because of the large discount, but about 500 members have signed up for EFT, Larson says.

J's Big Gym charges $364 for the first year and $286 for each additional year. Few members select a monthly plan, which comes to about $450 a year. The lack of EFT registrations has less to do with the Latino market than with the fact that it's a low-income neighborhood, he says.

“They don't want [the bank] to take money that they don't have if they default on a $20 or $30 payment,” he says. “We try to work with them, and we're flexible. If they can't afford the whole payment, we take less than half the first time around.”

Other clubs charge an affordable flat fee for the year. However, Talledo advises clubs not to set a bargain basement price or they risk going out of business. Although clubs in urban areas may not be able to charge as much as clubs in other parts of town, they will make up for it in higher membership numbers, he says. Urban clubs can be successful because they generally face limited competition, especially from larger club chains that often don't venture into these areas.

“There are huge numbers of people in these cities, and it's really an untapped market,” he says. “I've always found that a yearly, comfortably priced program will be an allure. If you offer a nice club with good equipment, all of a sudden, the customer will be afforded a club that looks similar to what they see in a nicer part of town in their neighborhood.”

Hispanics' Health

Although the language barrier and EFT registration can be challenging, the Hispanic market represents a wealth of opportunity for clubs due to the high incidence of chronic diseases within this ethnic group (see the sidebar, “Prevalence of Diabetes Among the Hispanic Population,” on page 40). About 2.5 million or 9.5 percent of Hispanic Americans over the age of 20 have been diagnosed with diabetes. Mexican Americans are 1.7 times as likely to be diabetic as non-Hispanic whites of similar age, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Because nearly every one in four Hispanic American adults will be diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, fitness facilities, corporations and associations are working to turn the tide. For example, 24 Hour Fitness partnered with Coca Cola to reach out to the Hispanic community through the Activate 24 program. As part of the program, the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association offered free blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar level screenings at two 24 Hour Fitness clubs last spring in the Dallas area.

The National Alliance for Hispanic Health, a network of Hispanic health providers, is working to reduce the prevalence of diabetes in the Hispanic community by promoting regular physical activity and access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

During the past three decades, the association has focused on prevention as the best way to improve health. In 2005, the organization strived to increase physical activity in the Hispanic community to combat the increase in obesity, heart disease and diabetes. A California agency partnered with the Olympic training center, which offers community days to allow residents to work out with Olympic-level athletes, and a Texas agency set up community trails and safe family walking times.

“The big issue for our community is a lack of green space and recreational facilities,” says Adolph Falcon, vice president of science and policy for the alliance. “If you don't have a place to walk and play, it's hard to tell people that they should be walking and engaging in sports and activities.”

The organization is now trying to make fitness fun for the Hispanic population with its new program, Live Your Life, Get Up and Get Moving. Ten cities nationwide are organizing community health celebrations including city-wide sports competitions and family walking days.

Although some nonprofit fitness facilities and a handful of for profit clubs are serving this population, Falcon sees room for more growth in this market.

“It will take someone to recognize that the Hispanic community is not only one of the fastest growing populations in the country, but it's also one of the fastest growing economic markets. I think the industry will start waking up to that fact, and we'll see the economic power of our community driving that.”

Hispanic Population Boom

The Spanish-speaking Hispanic population will grow by 45 percent between 2005 and 2025. This table shows the estimates for the Hispanic population for people aged 5 years old and older.

Year Hispanic
Population*
(000)
Spanish-Speaking Hispanic Population*
(000) (as percentage of total)
2005 37,324 27,797 74
2015 48,686 34,446 71
2025 61,341 40,191 66
*5 years and older Source: Hispanic USA
Spanish-Speaking Hispanic Population Estimates
Market 2005
(000)
2015
(000)
2025
(000)
Percentage Shift
2005-2025
Los Angeles 5,137 6,348 7,306 +42%
New York 2,883 3,569 4,140 +44%
Miami-Ft. Lauderdale 1,267 1,574 1,819 +44%
Houston 1,179 1,485 1,761 +49%
Chicago 1,188 1,480 1,685 +42%
Dallas-Ft. Worth 1,021 1,280 1,519 +49%
San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose 960 1,195 1,381 +44%
Phoenix (Prescott) 794 1,001 1,211 +53%
San Antonio 790 977 1,107 +40%
Harlingen-Weslaco-Brownsville-McAllen 668 839 1,016 +52%
San Diego 610 773 939 +54%
Sacramento-Stockton-Modesto 608 759 909 +50%
Fresno-Visalia 604 755 856 +42%
El Paso (Las Cruces) 488 620 733 +50%
Denver 478 592 691 +45%
Albuquerque-Santa Fe 454 560 640 +42%
Washington, DC (Hagerstown) 394 498 603 +53%
Philadelphia 359 451 543 +51%
Orlando-Daytona Beach-Melbourne 321 410 498 +55%
Atlanta 328 412 496 +51%
Tampa-St. Pete (Sarasota) 311 397 463 +49%
Austin 294 374 456 +55%
Las Vegas 288 366 445 +55%
Boston (Manchester) 271 342 420 +55%
Tucson (Sierra Vista) 255 320 367 +44%
Source: Hispanic USA

Six Ways to Reach the Hispanic Market

  1. Spend as much time and money on your advertising and marketing in Spanish as you do in English.

  2. Offer Latin-flavored group exercise classes like Salsa and Zumba.

  3. In your advertisements and marketing materials, emphasize the importance of fitness and how it relates to the family.

  4. Translate your membership and employee contracts and applications into Spanish.

  5. Hire bilingual members on staff who can effectively communicate with Spanish-speaking clientele.

  6. Hire a native speaker to correctly translate your marketing and advertising materials into Spanish.

Reaching Out With the Language of Emotion

Spanish-speaking Hispanics need an emotional hook to pull them through the door of U.S. clubs, says Jose Cancela from Hispanic USA. He suggests using Spanish in marketing materials and hiring professionals to make sure the translations are correct. “You're always looking for a hot button when you advertise, and reaching out to them in their own language is critical,” he says.

Rather than running an entire ad in Spanish, a club can translate the headline in Spanish and leave the rest of the ad in English, he says.

Clubs also need to be aware of the different variations of the Spanish language. If clubs are marketing to a specific subgroup within the Hispanic community, they can use some of the local colloquiums, but he advises clubs to refrain from colloquiums for national advertising and marketing efforts.

“At the end of the day, we all use the same dictionary,” he says. “Everyone will understand it.”

Prevalance of Diabetes Among U.S. Hispanics

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied the prevalence of diabetes among Hispanics in six regions and found that where Hispanics live may have an effect on how diabetes affects their lives due to varying access to quality health care, social and cultural factors, and the genetic makeup of the Hispanic population in the area. Here are five key findings.

  1. The prevalence of undiagnosed diabetes among adults aged 18 and older is 7.4 percent in the U.S. regions with the highest proportion of Hispanic residents — California, Florida, Illinois, New York/New Jersey, Texas and Puerto Rico. About 6.2 percent of Hispanics in Illinois and New York/New Jersey and 9.3 percent in Puerto Rico are diabetic.

  2. Diabetes rates more than doubled for obese Hispanics. Seven percent of those with a body mass index of 25 or less reported having diabetes while 15.3 percent of those with a BMI of 30 or more had diabetes.

  3. About 3.2 percent of Hispanic adults aged 18 to 44 years old had undiagnosed diabetes in California compared to 1.3 percent of non-Hispanic whites in that age group.

  4. The incidence of diabetes in all geographic areas increased with age. In Illinois, adults aged 45-54 were diabetic and 25.8 percent of adults 65 years old or older were diabetic.

  5. The Hispanic population is younger than the non-Hispanic population in the United States. When taking into account the age distributions, the prevalence of diabetes among Hispanics was 9.8 percent compared to 5 percent for non-Hispanic whites.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention