When Lauri Bradley, owner of a Lady of America franchise in Parker, CO, signed up for a national guest pass promotion, she hoped to pull in new members. Instead, she didn't get a single lead. But by participating in a similar promotion, the Nashua YMCA in Nashua, NH, had six people redeem guest passes, and one of them joined the Y, says Lynn Allen, membership services director.

“It's a way for us to get new members,” she says. “It also lets the general public know that not only is working out a benefit, but eating well will also make them a better person in the end.”

While cross-promotional campaigns may not bring droves of new members into health clubs, they can provide top-of-mind awareness at a relatively low cost, says Casey Conrad, president of Communications Consultants and owner of Healthy Inspirations, an international franchise of weight loss and lifestyle centers for women. Conrad has found that these types of promotions are more cost-effective than direct-mail campaigns, which often get a 0.25 or 0.5 percent response rate. When evaluating the results of cross-promotional campaigns, health clubs need to look at the big picture and keep the results in perspective. If club owners get more out of a promotion than they put into it, it's worth their time and money, Conrad says.

“I would do these kind of promotions all day long even though I'm not getting a high response rate because it gets my name out there,” she says. “You may get a higher response rate from personal interactions with potential members, but you can't always get that to happen.”

In addition to redeeming guest passes, clubs can also participate in cross-promotional campaigns by giving away free product samples. These campaigns can augment a club's marketing and sales plan, build a sense of community in their fitness facilities and thank their members for their support, says David Bunch, marketing/member relations manager for Promote It, a Lakewood, CO-based club promotions agency.

“I think it's a win-win for everyone,” he says. “The brand is targeting a very attractive audience in health club members, and the clubs get to reward their members with free stuff or promotional offers.”

Be My Guest

About 5,500 of the fitness facilities that participate in cross-promotional campaigns are members of Promote It, an agency that distributes product samples in health clubs and organizes guest pass programs. Clubs can select from one of three membership levels. For $250 a year, clubs receive three promotions and enough samples for half of their members. Silver members pay $150 per year for two promotions and enough samples for 40 percent of their members. Clubs can also sign up for a free membership, but they aren't guaranteed any promotions, and the number of samples depends on what is available.

Five hundred Promote It members participated in a Dannon yogurt guess pass promotion from Oct. 1, 2004, through Dec. 1, 2004. To receive a free, two-week health club pass, consumers had to buy two four-packs or 10 cups of low-fat or low-carb yogurt at the grocery store, tear off a coupon and visit a Web site to find participating clubs. While Promote It doesn't know how many new members joined the clubs after the cross-promotion, 1,400 passes were redeemed, Bunch says.

The guest pass program was a way for Dannon to advertise its product to consumers who were already interested in health and fitness, says Michael Neuworth, senior director for public relations at Dannon. Food companies want to be perceived as healthy, and by working with fitness facilities, they can send a message to consumers that they are interested in their health and well being, he says.

“Our product is low-fat or no-fat and low-calorie, and we thought testing a promotion with a health club was a very fast way for us to communicate with people who were interested in limiting carb consumption,” he says.

Promote It later ran a guess pass promotion program for Musselman's applesauce from Jan. 17, 2005, to July 17, 2005. By placing an advertisement in the Sunday newspaper, the company saw a dramatic increase in the number of consumers who visited the health club guest pass Web site, and the 750 participating clubs reported that about 1,000 guest passes were redeemed.

“It varied with each club, but some facilities had as many as 20 prospective members with eight joining,” Bunch says.

Not all health clubs are interested in participating in national guest pass promotions. Roger Furman, general manager of La Camarilla Racquet Club in Scottsdale, AZ, says by handing out free guest passes, a health club loses control over which prospective members come into its fitness facility.

“People use and abuse guest passes,” he says. “We're a very active health club, and we like to control the guests coming in. If someone picks up 10 guest passes and then tries to come in for the next 10 months, we can't turn them away. When we tell them that they're not able to use the guest pass anymore, it can turn into a negative rather than a positive.”

Product Promotion

Health clubs are participating in guest pass programs to bring in new members, but what are fitness facilities doing to retain existing members? Some clubs are turning to product giveaways. For example, clubs that belong to Promote It work with companies such as Clif Bar to give free product samples to their members.

For the Clif Bar promotion, ambassadors set up a branding and sampling station at 250 clubs and passed out samples of its protein bars. Rokia Madore, manager of Beacon Hill Athletic Club, a regional chain with 7,000 members and six locations in and around Boston, says the product was a hit with her members.

“It was not a gimmicky kind of protein bar and was based on natural products, which my members tend to appreciate more,” she says.

Her club distributes free samples of various products to its members every month to two months, most of them eliciting a positive response from members.

“Our members love having first dibs on trying out a new product,” she says. “Nine times out of 10, they're likely to go out and buy the product in the stores.”

The La Camarilla Racquet Club gives away free samples every few months, and an employee designs a special display table for the products. The club's most successful product promotion was one in which they gave away Ghiradelli chocolate, Furman says. Next to the chocolate samples, they placed a reprint of an article stating that dark chocolate was good for you.

“Generally when we get product samples, it takes two or three days to get rid of them, but the chocolates were gone in one hour,” he says.

While club members respond well to product samples, cross promotions involving coupons aren't as successful, Bradley says.

“People are so busy now that using a coupon takes more energy than just going to the store to buy the product for 10 cents more,” she says.

By being involved in a cross-promotion, clubs are providing added value to their members in the same vein as a free lecture or a complimentary training session, says Neuworth of Dannon. These promotions can also help a club differentiate itself from its competition.

“Marketing and promotions make a club seem more contemporary,” he says. “Doing nothing leads to stagnation and burnout for your members.”

He cautions clubs, however, to not overdo promotions because it can lead to backlash.

“As long as it doesn't become too bothersome or intrusive to members, it can provide added value,” he says. “You don't want it to become like the advertisements in the movie theaters.”

Planning a Partnership

While guest passes and free product samples are one way to cross promote, health clubs can also partner with local businesses, says Kare Anderson, author of Smart Partnering. She advises clubs to find out members' favorite local businesses and then approach these companies about providing reciprocal benefits.

“The goal is to find an even trade that pulls our most lucrative customers into each other's places,” she says. “With each new partner, a club can increase its credibility and visibility.”

While individual health clubs can partner with local businesses, larger fitness chains can take their cross-promotion to the next level. For example, Equinox Fitness, a high-end club chain, joined forces with a luxury automobile manufacturer for an April 2005 campaign to celebrate the launch of the redesigned 3 series. As part of the “P3FORMANC3 STARTS H3R3” cross-promotion, Equinox designed a six-week group fitness program and worked with BMW to sponsor a prospecting/member referral sweepstakes with the grand prize of a three-year lease on a 2006 BMW 325i.

While Emily Schwinge, director of member marketing, wouldn't say how many new members Equinox gained from the promotion, she says it helped to align Equinox and BMW brands to support common lifestyle and performance positioning, raise awareness of the BMW 3 Series launch and drive traffic into the clubs.

Whether cross-promotional campaigns involve free product samples, guest passes or luxury automobiles, they can be powerful marketing tools for health clubs, Bradley says.

“The more connections you have, the better off you are,” she says. “Clubs should think of these promotions as an additional overall experience to their club.”

Tips for a Product Promotion

  • Organize a customer appreciation day and pass out free samples of different products or coupons for healthy foods.
  • Give your members protein bars when they sign up for a personal training session or body cream when they attend a yoga class.
  • Pass out samples of sports drinks at tennis or racquetball tournaments.
  • Offer free samples of shampoos, shaving cream and other beauty products in your locker rooms.
  • Include leftover samples in gift bags for new members.
  • Attach your business card to product samples and pass them out at community events.