The recession has been tough on most industries, but it also has created opportunities for companies in every industry. The fitness industry is no exception.
Some fitness facility operators, including commercial clubs and nonprofits, have gone out of business or filed for bankruptcy. However, some club operators—often larger club companies with deep-pocket backers—are finding opportunities for expansion.
That does not mean that small club operators also cannot find success today, even though the recession probably has hit the smaller fitness facility operators the hardest. Some people even have speculated that perhaps one day these smaller operators will be close to extinct. But I do not think that will be the case. Most big club companies, such as 24 Hour Fitness, Gold’s Gym and Life Time Fitness, started as small mom and pops. But that does not mean that every one-club operator must become a big club company in order to be considered a success. The industry is full of one to three club operators who have made a real difference in their communities and had financial success while doing so. Think of Red Lerille’s Health and Racquet Club in Lafayette, LA; Gainesville Health and Fitness in Gainesville, FL; The Atlantic Club in Manasquan, NJ; and East Bank Club in Chicago.
What have these club owners done to compete with chains and regional players? They have set their facilities apart for one reason or another—customer service, breadth of services provided, wellness programs, family programming. And they have operated smartly, controlling costs, charging what their programs are worth, not cutting prices to compete with lower-priced club companies who do not provide the same services. The owners of these facilities know that what they provide is worth what they charge. And when a club is marketed properly, members and prospects also see that these facilities offer something unique that’s worth a higher price.
So if you are an operator of one, two or three clubs, what can you do to set yourself apart? First, you must take a hard look at your market, its demographics, your competitors. This might require the use of a consultant. Then, find the need that is not being met in your community. Perhaps you have a large number of people who run marathons or participate in triathlons. Develop programs and staff to help them. Perhaps you have noticed that singles in your community are now marrying and having children. If no one else is serving them, ensure you have child care, summer camps or after-school camps. Or consider the green club concept if you find that the people in your community are active in the sustainability movement.
Small club operators cannot simply sit by and wait to be gobbled up by a large chain. Unless, of course, that is your exit strategy. And even if that is your plan, the large chain operators will only be interested in paying a fair price for your club if you can show some long-term success in your market. So plan ahead to do so.
Smaller operators are not going away. They simply must become smarter, quicker and more nimble in adapting to a changing market and changing consumer demands.