Every year during the Club Industry conference, I venture outside the convention center and into the Windy City for some entertainment and culture. One of my stops is nearly always a visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art, which always gets my creative juices flowing. This year was no exception.

While viewing a remarkable exhibit on alternatives in living on the planet, a multi-room display that prompts “what if” thinking, I found myself suddenly postulating a bunch of questions about our business. Those questions and some comments (not answers) are offered below. But first, here is some background explanation.

For some time, I have been asking myself: Why can we only draw and keep 14 percent of the total population inside our doors? Given that we have greater exercise technology, more advanced trainers and instructors, greater awareness of the benefits of fitness, and government and societal support for exercise, why do we labor at keeping people engaged in physical pursuits?

Some obvious answers have been offered over the years: people have become too dependent on machines and technology; trainers and instructors have gravitated towards individual enterprises for the most part; while fitness benefits are on the rise, the eating of fats and sugars is on a faster incline; and the industry has paid too much attention to the sale of new memberships and not enough on retention.

All of the above are true. But so what? Our industry is making little difference except with those who are already active and thus “in the choir” or with those who want to give fitness a try but invariably exit after a two- to three-year period. Consider these questions: What if our present clubs are the end of the first generation of fitness facilities? What if what we offer in our facilities no longer meets the needs or wants of the majority of consumers? What if our fitness-delivery systems are in opposition to the needs systems of the average consumer? What if our methodology of physical training does not even come close to what we should be doing with members?

If our facilities no longer meet the needs of the majority, then what will the club of the future look like? We have spent gazillions of dollars on design and ambience, yet it hasn't had more than a temporary effect. Are we trying to contain fitness within our four walls and thus missing another market? It seems that with a lowered first-time-in joining rate and the lowest response-to-advertising percentage of the entire decade that facilities are creating a prohibition to participation.

If our clubs are, in fact, the culmination of a natural first generation of facilities, then will future facilities be smaller? Larger? Totally different? Will they have less equipment? More equipment? Will they be more program-driven? Less confrontational? I suspect that a major change in facilities is right around the corner, but I do not know what that change will look like.

Since our industry has been mired in a 14 percent-of-available-customers muck for nearly two years, evidence seems to show that what we present to the greater public is not what that public wants en masse.

Our fitness delivery systems are pretty much predicated on “get the members in, give them a quick sort-of assessment, introduce them to equipment a couple of times and get them the hell out of our way.” Consumers are now extremely aware that, for the most part, health clubs have a production-line delivery system of fitness that neither accomplishes the immediate task at hand nor promotes longevity of membership. One could say with some authority that the majority of new members are being set up for failure in most of today's health clubs.

Are our training methods based too much on the physical and not enough on the mental, spiritual and educational needs of customers? Judging by the low number of times per year the average member attends, it appears that we are concentrating on the wrong hot buttons to keep people involved.

Surveys tell us that the bulk of Americans want to exercise and even believe they should exercise. Yet, less than 14 in 100 do exercise (at least inside our clubs), and the obesity epidemic is testament to our failure as an industry.

I am hopeful that many of you will ask of yourselves and your clubs the questions I offered. If you do, I assert that some space for change will open — space that has not been evident up to this point.


Michael Scott Scudder owns and operates MSS FitBiz Connection, an online-based club consulting and training service. Scudder can be reached at 505-690-5974 or mss@michaelscottscudder.com.