Today's club landscape is quickly morphing and changing. Increased competition and higher-level competition (some at much lower price points) are making our industry an interesting and challenging business. In today's marketplace, consumers have many choices that, from their point of view, are hard to distinguish from each other.

In many markets, commoditization will threaten thousands of fitness facilities during the next few years. Commoditization occurs in industries when customers think that all businesses in the industry are doing the same thing in the same way.

In a commoditized market, the company with the lowest price-point becomes a dominant player in the eyes of the consumer. Two factors — price and convenience — reign supreme. In this kind of demanding, unforgiving environment, the customer asks only two questions about the product or service: Which is closer, and which is cheaper?

So, how do you drive differentiation and effectively compete in a commoditized market? If your consumers do not fully grasp the functional and emotional benefits of your brand, they are left with no choice but to purchase based only on price. To succeed and grow in an increasingly commoditized market, you must fully understand the core essence of your brand and translate it into a distinctly unique value proposition to your consumers.

In the April issue, I wrote about how a good brand can leave a good impression. But a good brand can also do three things for our stressed-out consumers: save time, project the right message and provide an identity. Does your club have an identity? Do your members know what that identity is? Does the community know what your identity is? If not, then perhaps your marketing efforts aren't as effective as you might think.

One way to effectively compete in the environment of commoditization is to differentiate yourself as a club rather than as “just a gym.” To compete against the “gyms,” you need to have services that they don't have — or you must be a better provider of those services — and you must let people know you are better at these things.

Everyone knows that clubs need to be clean, but many clubs could do a much better cleaning job. Quality childcare makes parents feel more comfortable and helps earn referrals, but poorly staffed or outdated childcare can hurt business. Quality group exercise programs such as licensed or pre-choreographed and branded classes can help increase retention and sales. Quality programs that keep the member involved help differentiate you from the gym down the street.

A club — whether it's a golf club, a dining club or an athletic club — is a place of warmth and welcome, a place specifically designed to make people feel comfortable, appreciated and cared for. If a club isn't warm and welcoming, if it isn't focused solely on making people feel comfortable, appreciated and cared for, then it simply isn't a club.

Some people think that people are born with or without a caring attitude and hospitality skills, but they can be learned. I have worked with some clubs where everyone is hospitable. Whether it's the fitness team or the attendants in the locker room, at the front desk or in the café, everyone understands that their most important job is to be warm and welcoming, and to make people feel comfortable, appreciated and cared for.

It's not a matter of genetics. It's a matter of training. And the lesson, as always, starts at the top. Hospitality is and always will be the heart of the health club industry and your key to differentiation.

Ed Tock is a partner in Sales Makers, a marketing and sales training consulting firm that has worked with more than 1,000 clubs and won the IHRSA Associate of the Year. He can be reached at 800-428-3334 or eddie@sales-makers.com.