Get new populations into your club

Broadening your demographic reach and making your club attractive to different populations is a challenge. But in this day and age, it is something no club can afford not to do. Here's what experts think you should be doing to pinpoint-and attract-specific populations:

* Survey the area around your club. A simple questionnaire can tell you lots about markets you may be missing. Just remember that surveys take time and money.

"It's expensive to survey," acknowledges Mike Connors, of Optimal Fitness Systems International, in Longmeadow, Mass.

If you send 1,000 to 5,000 postcards, you're going to get back a very small percentage. "People hate filling out surveys," Connors says. Because of this, he advises asking a few quick questions: Are you exercising currently? Are you exercising at a club? What type of exercise are you doing? If you're not exercising, are you interested? What types of programs interest you? Though your response rate may not be high, you may glean enough information to go on.

* Commission demographic research. "You don't want to go to a chamber of commerce," says Connors. "While you may get decent information, it may be skewed a little." Specifically, chambers of commerce like to report good news about their communities.

An independent report that gives you the basics on income, age, gender, and maybe drive times of people living within, say, a 5-to-7-mile range of your facility costs, on average, $75 to $85. For a more detailed breakdown of how much money people spend on things such as sporting goods, expect to pay up to $300. "It helps to look at these statistics if your preliminary research raises a red flag," says Connors. With this information in hand, you can confidently zero in on a market.

* Use demographic information to establish the type of club you need to be. This doesn't refer to whether you should be fitness-only or multipurpose, but rather to whether you have the core programs, energy, design and environment that is going to suit your market, notes Connors. For example, if you play hardcore music all the time, you're not going to attract older adults. "If you can create the right energy and environment, you can target a bigger percentage of your population," says Connors.

Don't stop there: Be flexible. Slightly alter your environment (for example, play jazz instead of rap) to accommodate the different markets that come in during the day. "This will make you more versatile and open up your club to a majority of the population," says Connors.

* Offer trial memberships. If you're hoping to target seniors, for example, buy a membership list of people in your area over a certain age. Distribute flyers and passes to them. Do a direct mail campaign. If your targeted market responds, make this population feel comfortable in your facility. "By giving trial memberships, you get people into your facility to see if it will be a fit," says Connors.

* Train staff to deal with the new market you're targeting. "A lot of staffers have basic certification, but really don't know much about special populations," says Mirabai Holland, president of Mirabai Holland International Inc., in Ridgefield, N.J. Staff needs to know, for example, that an older adult may need a longer warm-up and cooldown. Also, kids comprise a very big market. But often, says Holland, a successful kids' program will flounder for lack of good teachers. "Teachers are a catalyst to keep the kids coming back," she explains. "To pull it all together, you have to have the right ingredients in place and you have to keep them."

* Develop relationships with target groups in the community. Are there retirement communities nearby? Are there schools where you could have after-school programs? Are there hospitals whose patients may be able to use a health and fitness facility during their rehab?

* Listen to your members. You may discover that the kind of club you were yesterday may not be the club you should be tomorrow. According to Holland, one club positioned itself as a singles' club and was successful at it. But in listening to members, management found out that as singles married, their needs changed. "All of a sudden, there was this burgeoning children's population," says Holland. "The club management realized it had to grow their membership."

* Make your facility attractive to your intended market. If you're hoping to bring in more seniors, you may need to run a special van for transporting them. If you're aiming to attract special-needs populations, establish relationships with medical experts, such as nurses, dietitians, physical therapists and doctors.


Five Target Markets to Consider

Seniors. "This market is going to become more mainstream in a few years," says Mirabai Holland, president of Mirabai Holland International Inc.

But tomorrow's seniors are going to be unique. "They will be baby boomers, a group that has reinvented itself every step of the way," says Holland. Programming for these groups is going to have to be "more hip" than traditional senior programming has been.

Women. While not an underserved population, midlife women have special needs that many clubs aren't addressing, says Holland. As women in their 40s and 50s start to confront and become aware of issues such as menopause, osteoporosis, heart disease and arthritis, clubs need to respond with special classes and seminars. Staffers need to be aware of practical issues. For example, a woman in her 40s or 50s may need a fan overhead during an aerobics class because she may be experiencing hot flashes.

The Overweight. "This is a hard market to capture because overweight people may have barriers to exercise psychologically and physically," says Holland. "You may have the best program in the world, but you need a pathway to it." Example: seminars about nutrition and exercise and how they work together. "An overweight person can't go into a mainstream exercise program," says Holland. "The class has to be something she feels positive about when she finishes."

Special-needs Population. As people grow older, they will need programs that address problems such as arthritis, osteoporosis and heart disease. But these programs need a medical stamp so that people feel safe participating in them.

Kids. Youngsters can provide a club with steady revenue streams. "You need someone who is kid-friendly to run the programs-who has experience with kids, a bachelor's degree in education and who is knowledgeable about the cognitive and physiological abilities of kids," says Holland. Environment also matters: "You need to have a room that's kid-friendly, that's colorful and looks like it's going to be fun," says Holland.

- C.W.