Pushing software programs to their "max" can keep clubs growing.

Got a "wish list" for your membership retention program? Does the list include tracking member usage, more new member referrals and multiple report generations? If so, you may be able to fulfill that wish list with the flick of a finger - with club software packages.

Club computer consultant Michael Scott Scudder has seen the evolution of club software firsthand. A former club owner, Scudder knows the ropes of member tracking, retention and programming. He also knows the club software packages and how clubs use them. And his usage prognosis is poor: Very few clubs are using their existing software to its fullest capabilities.

Today's software features can handle a lot more than check-ins, receivables, revenues, inventory, and staff and program schedules. However, most clubs don't use their software for more than these functions, according to Scudder. That's because the club staff who knows how to use the software package often has a limited knowledge of what the product can really do.

Scudder recommends that club owners and operators learn the software with training from either the supplier or a professional who knows the package inside and out. After all, the operators set the club's goals and know in which direction they want the club to grow. Understanding the software package and its capabilities is like having an assortment of tools to build a bridge between today's needs and tomorrow's growth. And, as with building anything, one needs to know what tools to use and how to use them.

John Marchetti, manager of the Alaska Clubs, knows how to use his clubs' software. With eight club locations supporting 27,000 members between Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska, Marchetti needs all the help he can get with juggling memberships, check-ins and accounting, as well as pro-shop and cafe revenues.

Fortunately, Marchetti has found help from his software supplier. For example, the supplier worked with him and wrote a computer model for tracking members. Marchetti uses the data to market the club's programs to low-end users. The goal is to offer promotions that get members back into the club. Marchetti claims this proactive approach pays off when a team of club telemarketers contacts low-usage members with new club programs.

Although pinpointing infrequent users is an often-overlooked, albeit powerful, function of today's software, Scudder warns about being overzealous with telemarketing efforts. Nat-urally, clubs should phone members whom software packages identify as being dropout risks. But Scudder cautions that you shouldn't call members who have been absent for 60 days or more.

Members who have been away from the club for two months are "out of the loop" of fitness activity, according to Scudder. For that reason, a phone call from the club can inadvertently invite a cancellation rather than a sale.

Rather than wait 60 days, make your calls between 21 and 40 days, Scudder advises. Members absent for this period of time are still in the loop, but they are in the process of changing their fitness habits. Telemarketing driven by software tracking lists is the key to getting them back into the club.

Scudder says software tracking systems save club operators time in implementing a telemarketing or other promotional program. Software packages combine two tracking vehicles: member usage and visit patterns. By combining this information gathered from the software database, club operators can examine members' usage patterns and trends, and even understand what specific members like and don't like. Club operators can then take this information and plan targeted marketing and promotional programs, which, in turn, can support retention efforts.

Retention is crucial to a club's success. Consultant Sandy Coffman, of Programming for Profit, has learned through research that 80 percent of a club's profit comes from a retained member.

Coffman agrees that clubs should use software packages to develop marketing programs to retain members. She recommends operators go into the software database, checking which members visited the club during the past two months and when.

Not only should clubs be using software to see when members come in, they should be tracking what members do once they are in the facility. Thanks to software, clubs can be very specific, Coffman emphasizes. They can note what programs members prefer, then generate lists to target members who are interested in specific activities. For example, if you use software to log in the members who show up for a yoga class, you can pull up the list of these participants when it comes time to market another mind/body class, such as a new tai chi class.

In addition to gathering members' exercise preferences, software can show when members like to exercise. According to Coffman, this can help clubs design programs around the seven time frames for member participation. The first time frame, early morning, is when a club's most loyal members work out, Coffman claims. The next time frame is preferred by daytime users, who arrive weekdays between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. The noon-hour users come during the noon time frame (obviously), followed by users who favor late afternoon, prime time (5 p.m. to 9 p.m.), late evening (from 9 p.m. on), and the weekend.

Once club operators identify the time frames and usage information from software-generated lists, promotions and marketing plans can be developed to drive more members to more programs and increase membership retention. For example, if your club decides to offer a new indoor cycling class in the early morning, you won't want to promote it to members who like the late-evening time frame.

While you are promoting to existing members, why not take the opportunity to ask them to bring in some friends? That's what Equinox in New York City does, according to John Gordon, a facility director with the club chain. Specifically, Equinox uses its software to send letters, encouraging members to invite guests or recommend new members for the club.

So much effort is put into Equinox's software-generated memberships lists that a full-time marketing director handles the details. Promotions created from these lists always yield good responses, according to Gordon. Even when this target marketing doesn't get members into the club, it does encourage people to call and ask about the club's programs - so at least some contact is initiated.

By tracking (and reacting to) members' exercise habits, software can give clubs a powerful marketing tool. But clubs shouldn't just use software to promote programs and memberships. If used properly, software programs can let clubs build more than a business relationship with members. They can build a friendly relationship as well.

Take WOW! Work Out World, a club chain based in New Jersey. WOW! uses its software to add a personal touch. "We do birthday card mailings to members," says owner Steve Roma.

When members join, clubs can easily add their birthdates to the personal information in the software database. That way, clubs can set up the system to alert them when a member's birthday is coming up.

At WOW!, the club sends out birthday cards every month and offers a free month's membership to recipients. That encourages members who may have been inactive to get back into the club, and generates renewed interest for active members who may want to join in new programs.

Birthday cards aren't the only way to remind members that you are thinking of them. Contact can be made via e-mail. Scudder points out that a marketing study indicates e-letters are read by 80 percent of recipients, whereas printed newsletters, postcards, and letters are only read about 20 percent of the time.

Since a birthday greeting or other friendly correspondence won't be appreciated if it isn't read, make sure to gather member e-mail addresses. Then when it comes time to get in touch, contact members electronically.

Tapping into member interests and personalizing greetings and invitations all contribute to promotions that pay off. Coffman makes the distinction between marketing and promotion: "The difference between promotion and marketing is that promotion gets interest; marketing targets the promotions."

Coffman suggests that operators research member interests with software. This can be easy, as software can sort members by sex, age, etc. Say, for example, you want to schedule a special luncheon tied in with a seminar on nutrition issues for women. You can generate a list of all your female members and promote the session to them.

With this type of promotion, you can also bring in special populations, such as seniors. For example, if you want to bolster profits by creating a low-impact class for older adults, you can use your software to target senior members by sorting by a certain age.

On the other hand, you can't target anyone if you don't know how to use the software properly. Coffman finds that many club operators often ignore the attributes a software application may have, concentrating solely on the program's most basic functions. And some club operators don't even do that. Coffman has seen managers who simply turn the software over to the employees at the front desk, expecting the staff to learn it but never bothering to learn it themselves.

As a club operator, you must learn the software, Coffman advises. When new people join your club, fill in all the fields to gain as much information about members as possible. Other-wise, you won't be able to use software to its complete potential. "It's a tool," Coffman reminds. "It doesn't do the job for you; you have to know how to use it to its fullest extent."

Fortunately, with so much software available, operators have plenty of choices when it comes to pushing programs to their fullest extent. "There's a lot of very excellent software out there," Coffman says.

And, according to Scudder, software is only going to get better. In the future, he expects to see "smart software" that uses artificial intelligence. His concept for the club software of tomorrow? A member will check into a club. Every monitor in the club will have a pop-up screen noting who came in, when, his interests, and his motivation for using the gym. Information showing what programs and equipment the member uses will also be noted. The data gathered from the visit will be incorporated into promotions for new programs that employees can pitch to the member at the front desk or that trainers can market out on the floor.

Sound like science fiction? Not so, says Scudder, who believes that this comprehensive application is "right around the bend." While many club applications require users to run four or five programs to gather detailed information, Scudder predicts a wid-ening group of software parameters, with database managers writing in code. He says software suppliers will soon become data managers and this will really help clubs use their applications more efficiently.

In the future, Scudder adds, there will be integrated software, and there will be no reason for a club to keep all the data on a hard drive. Instead, data will be accessed through the Web, with club operators keeping members' information on a supplier's server for database management. And this member data will include health history, to serve customers better. Furthermore, software packages will "talk" better with each other, over the Web.

To survive in this future, club operators will need a background in both sales and information technology. But, for now, Scudder suggests that at least two people on a club's staff should have detailed knowledge of the software. Specifically, clubs need a database administrator and a club manager who comprehends all the intricacies of the software package. Once the club can harness these intricacies, the profits are sure to follow.