The issue of employee retention is a hot topic among health and fitness managers at most conventions and management retreats. It surfaces whenever managers review recruiting and training costs or discuss the quality of member service. It directly impacts member retention and the club's public image in the community. Hence, the reason that I, as general manager for the Columbia Associations (CA), Columbia Athletic Club, have a vested interest in the subject.

Due to the lack of data collected specific to health club turnover rates, it is unclear how large a problem this is for our industry. Therefore, I turned to similar industries for insight into the general problem of voluntary employee turnover. According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor for 2001-2002, voluntary turnover rates rose to 44 percent in the retail industry and 22 percent in the services industry. So, in similar industries it seems that employees exercise their choice to leave in large proportions. If larger industries are struggling to control voluntary resignations how can health club owners and managers control this problem?

The Athletic Club management team approaches the process of hiring, training and managing employees with the philosophy that managers should “Seek first to understand and then be understood.” We do this through open-ended interview questions, training quizzes that identify knowledge and weaknesses, and provide regular opportunities to express opinions and concerns.

The following details the process we follow:

INDUCTION

  • Provide a clear set of standards before a new employee steps behind the front desk or teaches his or her first exercise class.

  • Provide a comprehensive on-the-job training that includes all areas of the club — nursery, fitness, front desk, program knowledge and customer relations. Training times may vary but overall club knowledge will be gained.

INCLUSION

  • Recognition. The Columbia Association program (called Cause for Applause) uses cards and treats to recognize exceptional performance. We give “Thanks for popping up with a great idea” cards with a bag of microwave popcorn or “You're a life saver” card with a pack of Life Savers.

  • Professionally personal. We send birthday, graduation or get well cards to show our concern and care.

  • Job development. Is there room to grow in the organization? We send employees to free regional training, give education dollars for meeting monthly quotas, and encourage them to complete the manager on duty and sales training.

  • Social outlets. Plan member events and encourage staff participation. Plan holiday and seasonal get-togethers to encourage employee bonding.

IMPACT

  • Make employees aware of the impact they have on the club.

  • Express ideas. Designate a portion of every staff meeting to the staff for challenge and solution time.

  • Educate them about their impact on the members, your club and the community. CA requires all new employees to attend a three-hour training, which includes Columbia's history and role in the community.

INTROSPECTION

  • Provide feedback throughout the year in order for employees to reflect on their performance. Create a clear path for them to improve and earn recognition.

  • Create opportunities for new adventures. What projects can your front desk team help you complete? Can you enlist personal trainers to represent the club at community events? How can you make your employees experience more interesting?

These ideas represent one approach for improving employee retention, thus improving member retention in the long run. Whether you adopt this approach or another, the fact remains that focusing energy on your employees is essential to running a successful health and fitness business.

Leah Carrubba is the general manager for the Columbia Associations, Columbia Athletic Club. She is an officer of the MidAtlantic Club Management Association board and has spent the last 16 years as a personal trainer and club manager. She also teaches fitness theory courses at a community college. She can be reached at Leah.Carrubba@columbiaassociation.com or 410-730-6744.