A group of club "regulars" were working out on steppers when an overweight woman came in for a tour of the club. It had taken everything she had to get there that day, to take that first step toward a healthier lifestyle.

As she passed by the regulars, they began to make snide comments: "Would you look at her!" "Glad I don't look like that!" The catty remarks were loud enough for the woman to hear.

"She ran from the club crying and never came back," remembers Fern Pessin of the New York City-based Retention Resource, a consulting business for the fitness industry.

The morale of this story: Your members have power over your fitness center, and it's up to you to make sure it's for the positive. In addition to being a source of revenue, members can be your club's biggest public-relations asset - or biggest downfall.

Put another way, members make (or break) your club's atmosphere. If the atmosphere is friendly and non-threatening, people will join your club and keep coming back day after day, week after week. But if the atmosphere isn't...

To maintain an atmosphere in which all people can feel comfortable, a club must insist on certain behavior from its members. "In a community, people have to abide by rules that keep the peace," Pessin explains. "A fitness club is a community.

"If there are a few insurgents who find it necessary to puff themselves up by putting others down, then it is our duty as professionals who want to encourage people to adhere to an exercise-driven lifestyle to maintain the peace by administering those rules."

All that's easier said than done, though. A club is not a baby-sitting service for adults. And while clubs do (and should) maintain rules to keep as many people happy as possible - whether it be by prohibiting profanity on the exercise floor, or discouraging equipment hogs - too many regulations turn people off.

So what can clubs reasonably expect from members? First, there are the basics: sharing equipment, wiping down machines when finished, etc. Then there is common courtesy: no yelling or cursing while lifting, for example.

Beyond the commonsense rules, clubs must develop policy based on their markets. Take dress codes. Most club owners and fitness consultants believe in a dress code, but the strictness of the code and the way in which it is enforced will vary from club to club.

"If you're a gym that's really a gym, and you cater to the bodybuilder types, then a dress code is going to be a joke," says Casey Conrad, consultant and president of the Wakefield, R.I.-based Communications Consultants, and founder of Healthy Inspirations Weight Loss and Lifestyle Centers.

If, however, your club attracts different kinds of people, you probably should consider a dress code of some sort. "Someone who is more mainstream and deconditioned - they don't want to stare over at someone who's not and is wearing almost nothing. It's intimidating," Conrad explains.

Comfortable Clothing
Doug Ribley, the director of Akron General Health and Wellness Center in Ohio, supports dress codes. "Some dress codes are important because you're dealing with a large segment of the population," he says. "You want everyone to feel comfortable."

Pessin finds that a dress code will actually attract more clients: "Too many `perfect' bodies and revealing clothes will make most unfit people uncomfortable if they believe that they must wear this type of clothing to participate.... [The] No. 1 reason people don't join a club is because they say, `I will go there when I look better.'

"Between the media's portrayal of fitness and club advertising that shows perfection and youth, the average consumer believes that only perfect bodies and health nuts belong to fitness clubs."

Setting up rules such as a dress code is relatively easy. However, getting people to adhere to the policies is an entirely different matter.

Enforcing your rules can be as simple as posting them at various locations around the gym. You can also write your regulations up in the member's contract. Just make sure you pay special attention to how you word your policies and how you present them, says Sandy Coffman, owner of Programming for Profit, a Bradenton, Fla.-based consulting company.

"Every club has got to have a code of policies that they write up," she explains.

"One of the important things is not to call them rules and regulations, but to call them policies," Coffman adds. "Now there is a nice, professional, soft way of putting it, and I like to say, `These are our club's policies to ensure a comfortable, professional, workout environment for everyone.' That statement is powerful in itself."

Coffman believes that if you expect members to adhere to these policies, employees must abide by the policies as well (e.g., dress codes). She also recommends that club owners print and frame the policies professionally. That means no handwritten flyers or photocopies.

"The success of the policy depends on how well you present it," Ribley adds. "Our policy is actually reviewed at the time of joining. A person actually signs and dates the policy and we have a copy, they have a copy."

How you present your rules is up to your club, but consistency, as far as enforcing the mandates, is crucial. "Use common sense and consistency," says Conrad, who also has a law license. "That's probably the most important thing - consistency, consistency, consistency. If you're inconsistent, that's grounds for a lawsuit.

"Even if you upset one or two members, you've got to enforce the rules all the time, not some of the time," she says.

Sticking to the Rules
That means your staff must react the moment a rule is broken. "It's awfully easy to turn your head when these things happen," says Ribley, "but it really makes things worse. We can't ignore it. That's a sign of a loose organization."

On the other hand, you don't need to resort to extreme repercussions whenever someone breaks the rules. Most infractions can be worked out with good communication skills.

"If you approach it correctly, then very rarely do you have to [cancel a membership]," says Ribley, who adds that he has only had to take this kind of extreme action "maybe three times" in his 20-year career.

Indeed, your whole attitude can help diffuse a situation in which a rule has been broken. "`Please' andthank you' are the magic words," notes Terry Ferebee Eckmann, the co-owner of Fitness First, and an instructor at Minot State University in North Dakota. Just by respecting the other person, "you're going to be able to negotiate a reasonable solution to the problem. Listening is an important rule to practice. Also, understanding people's personality styles is key to conflict management."

The styles of conflict management are all based on the personality of the member, according to Eckmann. She names five personality types: the teddy bear (the accommodating type), the turtle (the negative, pessimistic type), the fox (compromising), the shark (competitive) and the owl (collaborative). Once you can categorize the member, you'll know which style to apply to the situation.

"So, for instance, the shark personality. These people want to get their way; this is a real power-oriented individual," Eckmann explains. "For those people, can you somehow make it look like they are getting their way?

"If you know that that's their personality style, it's best to let them think they've won."

Before you can reach an agreement with a member, however, you first have to make the member aware that she has disobeyed a club policy. Bret FitzGerald, the director of corporate communications for Las Vegas Athletic Clubs, offers some advice for approaching a member who is out of line.

"I recommend having a somewhat experienced female talk to the guy so that you won't have the usual `pissing contest' that happens when you have two guys," he says.

Likewise, have an experienced male talk to a female violator. "The more you have the person of the opposite gender approach the person, the less confrontational it is, or not confrontational at all," FitzGerald continues.

"Pull that person into an office or aside and speak to them quietly, rather than on the gym floor. Once you get someone into an office, they realize that it is important," he adds. "The next step is to be as professional as you possibly can. If the rule wasn't posted in the club, I would make sure that it was clearly posted before I talked to them."

Management Matters
Other sage advice from industry experts: If at all possible, have upper management talk to the offender. If you must have a floor person talk to her, then make sure that the employee received the appropriate training. FitzGerald recommends role playing, or having a new person watch how a manager handles a situation.

While a calm discussion may be enough to solve many problems, you may find yourself facing a stubborn member who won't cooperate. In this case, canceling a membership may be your only recourse. "If there's someone who absolutely refuses to follow those rules," Ribley says, "then you can make the decision to `fire' them as a member."

But when should you invoke this last resort? Many industry experts and club owners agree on a three-strike rule. A first warning is given to the member in person, and in private. The second one is written, outlining the consequences should the person continue to ignore the rules. After the third offense, the person would be asked to leave.

Still, some clubs would never want to do anything that severe, opting for other ways to get members to conform. The Las Vegas Athletic Clubs, for example, favor the "annoyance" approach.

Says FitzGerald, "We don't want to kick anybody out, but if you take up enough of their time by explaining the dress code over and over, then hopefully they will start to think that `I'd rather be working out than talking to this person.'" In other words, they'll begin following the dress code just so they'll be left alone.

Sandy Coffman recommends a "reward" approach for offenders: If a member is wearing inappropriate clothing, "offer them a clean, logoed T-shirt from your club to wear. Write them a thank you note afterwards for being understanding."

Punishment Practices
Pessin believes that enforcement will differ from club to club. "One club may find that asking a member to leave - either temporarily (like a school suspension) or permanently - is necessary," she says. "Another club may find that posting names of offenders is needed to consistently uphold rules. Another club may find that setting different membership fees for people who can't follow the rules is equity enough to hire additional staff to keep the peace (rather like car-insurance rates - higher for people more likely to have accidents)."

Who should determine the punishment for the member? Pessin has opinions about that as well. "I recommend that the consequences of deviation from following the stated rules and regulations should be determined by a committee of club staff - not just high-level managers - and some long-term and/or heavily involved members," she says.

"Thus, whatever the consequences are in the future would be concrete and would have been deemed `fair' by both the club management, the staff and the members. Implementation and decisions on each case-by-case basis for infractions would be left up to the club management."

On the other hand, if you have a club like the North Mississippi Wellness Center in Tupelo, you won't need a committee. You won't even need to lift a finger. Your regulars will take matters into their own hands.

"We have a lot of older members," says Hank Boerner, the center's director, "and you really don't have to worry about policing members because the older members will do it themselves. And they aren't necessarily as nice as we would be!"

Boerner offers this example: "One time we had an incident where a person was leaving towels and splashing water all over the locker rooms. So one of the members went home and wrote up a sign and posted it up: `Unless your mother works here, clean up after yourself!'"

He adds, "It's just like dealing with school children a lot of times."


When Good Club Members Go Bad

Club Industry asked fitness industry experts to share some of their horror stories involving bad member manners.

Bible Belt Justice
Hank Boerner, director of the North Mississippi Wellness Center in Tupelo:

"We're [located] in the Bible Belt/deep South, and one day we had a girl come in from out of town who wore a bikini into the swim area, and the members pretty much took care of that for us [by making comments, etc.]. The next time she came in she was wearing a one-piece."

Steamed Customer
Doug Ribley, director of Akron General Health and Wellness Center in Ohio:

"We had a member that had a ritual in the steam room that involved making very high-pitched sounds. Consequently, people were afraid to go into the steam room while he was there. We had to sit down with this member and not criticize his actions in general, but just point out that it was having a negative impact on the rest of the members. He didn't particularly like it, but he understood where we were coming from and the problem went away."

Pool Ghoul
Terry Ferebee Eckmann, co-owner of Fitness First, and an instructor at Minot State University in North Dakota:

"One time we had a prominent physician who would come to our deep-water classes. He would come and put goggles on and spend most of the time underwater just watching people. That got pretty uncomfortable." Eckmann handled the situation by approaching the doctor and telling him that his actions were making members uneasy.

Cop a Plea
Bret FitzGerald, director of corporate communications for Las Vegas Athletic Clubs:

"Back when I was in California, there were a few times where I actually had to call the police! [One incident involved a case of "'roid rage" with a large biker hopped up on steroids.] I went over to the police department [located in close proximity to the gym] with an invitation for any of their officers to work out in the club at any time, seven days a week, free of charge.... So, at any given time, the police would be working out in the club. It was a very secure feeling. We always had LAPD in there, so if anything ever did happen, we had lots of backup."

Making a Stink
Casey Conrad, consultant and president of the Wakefield, R.I.-based Communications Consultants:

"One time a club worked with a member who stunk - literally! He had a hygiene problem. He was offensive to the other members. The manager had to step in and revoked [his] membership because [he] wouldn't comply. It's a very delicate situation. How do you bring someone into the office and say, `Look, you stink'?"


Common Fitness Faux Pas

So, you want to put together a policy for members, but don't know what rules to include? Club Industry can help. The list below includes 12 common club regulations, written in language any member can understand. Feel free to copy them verbatim into your policy manual, and watch your members' manners improve.

1. Before starting any exercise class or using any equipment, wash your hands and wipe off any cologne or perfume. Washing prevents the spread of germs, and wiping off scents is kind to any asthmatics or allergy sufferers.

2. You know you're going to sweat, so put on some extra deodorant for the courtesy of other members.

3. Be neat and tidy in the locker rooms.

4. Use a towel to wipe off aerobic equipment, mats, weight machines and free weights after use. We also supply squirt bottles and paper towels for cleaning equipment when you are finished. Please use them.

5. Be considerate of other people waiting to use the machines and other equipment by respecting the time limit posted.

6. While waiting to use a machine, please don't hover. It distracts people who are working out.

7. Don't talk to people in the middle of their set, as it breaks their concentration.

8. When finished, return your weights to the rack.

9. Be respectful of other's concentration and avoid loud talking, profanity, sing-a-longs on your personal stereos, or loud grunts.

10. If they don't flirt back, don't pursue it. Not everyone goes to a gym to hook up.

11. Be on time to all your scheduled classes. Coming in late is inconsiderate to the instructor and other members.

12. Keep your workout clothes clean and odor-free. Wash them as often as possible.