Now that 2007 is well under way, it is time to ask, “Where have we been, where are we now, and where are we going with the senior market?”

Where have we been? We have come a long way in our awareness of seniors and have acknowledged that they are an important part of our business. The numbers dictate that we cater to this niche to grow business. Clubs could and should play a major role in the lives of 78 million Baby Boomers who will live beyond the once expected 80-year-old mark. The 55-year-old-plus population is growing by 74 percent while the under-55-year-old population is growing by 1 percent.

Research shows that seniors need us, probably more than any previous market. We can be the deciding factor in the quality of life for people who are living in the “third-third” of their lives. Most importantly, we've learned that no one is too old for fitness, and individual's interests and abilities are broader and more demanding than we imagined.

The senior population has been redefined, and seniors have forced us to redefine how we serve them. Manufacturers have created specialized lines of equipment to accommodate seniors' range of motion, comfort and functional needs. Club owners have created classes and programs that emphasize mind-and-spirit fitness, in addition to exercises strictly for physical challenges.

Where are we now? After nearly 10 years of telling seniors that we are here for them, our clubs aren't showing the participation or the profitability that the statistics suggest. Exercise participation from the 55-year-old-plus market has increased 315 percent since 1990 and club memberships have increased 33 percent in that time, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association. But these numbers don't match with the potential, and the retention rate is not contributing to the growth of the bottom line.

Where are we going? The market is here and here to stay, but we have to take another giant step forward to attract and keep seniors. We must develop more diversified programs.

Although some similarities exist in how to market to the 55-year-old-plus population, the market varies, ranging from the physically elite to the physically frail. We must create better marketing tools directed to seniors who didn't grow up in our industry instead of spending our time, energy and marketing dollars on the physically elite and those who have been exercising most of their lives.

Seniors are concerned with how to get started exercising, whether exercise can be fun, whether they can do the activity, whether other participants will be like them, whether they will feel comfortable, whether the leader will understand and support them, and whether they can trust the leader.

Group activities appeal to seniors. Although single gender clubs have their benefits, many seniors enjoy mixed company. Friendship and fun is the antidote, and clubs are perfect for that. We need more groups of people exercising together, socializing, laughing and learning, and we need more classes in time frames other than between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

As we focus on the older adult market of today and tomorrow, we must focus on more professional leadership with training in communication skills and relationship building techniques. The military approach of training won't work, no matter how academically correct it may be. Professionals who will grow the market will be leaders with bright smiles, sparkling eyes and happy, energetic demeanors that will help older adults get started, feel a sense of belonging and enjoy a social environment that will keep them active.

Sandy Coffman is president of Programming For Profit, a training and consulting firm in Bradenton, FL. Coffman specializes in customer service, programming and retention. She can be reached at 941-756-6921 or at SLCoffman@aol.com.