During tough economic times, anything club operators can do to increase ancillary revenue is a good idea, especially if it also increases retention. Customized meal programs and dietary planning services can do both, some club operators say.

Diet-to-Go and eDiets are two companies that provide prepared, nutritionally balanced meals to clubs for members to eat at home. With both programs, club owners have no upfront costs. The club and employees make a commission on meal sales to members instead.

Brick Bodies/Lynne Brick's is a chain of seven coed and women-only health clubs in the Baltimore area that has worked with Diet-to-Go since 2005.

“The good thing about Diet-to-Go is it gives members looking at portion control, who have no time to cook and are looking for the second half of the equation for success, the missing piece to set themselves up to be more successful,” says Josh Gerber, marketing director, Brick Bodies Fitness Services Inc. “Having that nutritional aspect and having them provide that takes a burden off the clubs.”

He says 10 percent to 15 percent of the chain's members use Diet-to-Go, and although he doesn't have specific retention numbers related to the program, the club in general has a 60 percent retention rate.

“Every little thing we're doing is helping,” Gerber says of the Diet-to-Go program.

Last year, Lady of America clubs, Fort Lauderdale, FL, partnered with eDiets to offer meals and nutritional services to its members. The club chain has boosted retention and the bottom line with the program, says Toni Negas, director of marketing, Lady of America Franchise Support Center.

“It definitely helps with retention and it's an additional revenue stream for clubs to make a commission on sales of eDiets,” she says. “It does help with success stories and provides an all-in-one place to fulfill fitness and lifestyle changes.”

Lady of America's mostly female membership base makes it a prime candidate for such a program, she says.

“We've got almost the perfect demographic for eDiets. A lot of our members are working moms who are busy and don't always have time to cook,” Negas says. “A lot of the members said they were making a meal for the family, and a separate meal for the kids, then a separate meal for themselves if they were on a diet. This cuts out the last one.”

Online support augments the home meal delivery, says Lianne DeMoya, senior director of business unit development for eDiets, Fort Lauderdale, FL.

“There's a nutrition tracker online to log in what they're eating, and a fitness component to log in fitness activities at Lady of America, and we put those together to track their results,” DeMoya says. “Our philosophy is that the correct way to lose weight is a combination of a solid fitness regimen with proper nutrition, so this reinforces what we believe is healthy weight loss.”

The key to success with such programs is getting the club staff onboard to sell the meals, Gerber says.

“People are going to buy from people they know, rather than people from outside the club,” he says.

Both meal providers have support programs for club staff that includes on-site food tasting events, signage, marketing materials and education.

At Brick Bodies, the meal service is incorporated into a “Biggest Loser”-style program called Extreme Brickover.

“Diet-to-Go provides meals for Extreme Brickover contestants, and we've had people who lost 50 to 70 pounds in eight weeks,” Gerber says. “Between the regimented exercise and diet, they were successful.”