When I looked at the calendar and realized the topic for this month's article was about the family market, my first reaction was, “What the heck does a single, 38-year-old whose only real ‘family time’ is an occasional weekend watching nieces and nephews write about in regard to marketing to families?”

Well, the term “families” is actually much broader than children. For some clubs, a full family menu means programs for infants right on up to seniors. And, in addition to age diversification, family marketing also means providing a wide variety of programs ranging from specific sports training to educational courses to social activities. For many clubs that service the family market, this emphasis on age and program diversification makes them a community resource that not only brings families through the doors, but also fuels individual membership growth for the future, because children who grow up in a health club are more likely to join as adults. The bottom line is, although it isn't for every club operator, marketing to families is full of opportunities.

The International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association agrees. In its 1999 report, “50 Million by 2010,” the “fFamily athletic club opportunity” was identified as one of the 10 mega-opportunities for health clubs. In fact, when you look at the 10 mega-opportunities, a family-oriented fitness facility is ideally suited to tap into all of the segments identified in the report: the 50-plus market, special populations, Gen X'ers, and minorities.

WHAT ROLE TO PLAY?

Of course, being ideally positioned for a clientele and wanting to market to that clientele are two different things. Therefore, club operators must decide if they want to market to families at all. Unlike many programming decisions where time and effort are the two biggest factors, marketing to and successfully meeting the needs of families requires an additional element, which is the actual physical space. Let's face it, although you might be able to have a small child care center or offer a few classes in a group fitness room, if you are a small club perator your ability to be everything to everyone is impossible. Therefore, space alone limits the number of clubs that can market to the entire family on a large scale. This isn't to say a small club can't offer special family programs throughout the year to increase revenues — they can — but the typical family-based club is 50,000 square feet or more.

What is offered inside a family club is as varied as any other club. Some of the more common club offerings would include aquatics programs (often with multiple pools), an outdoor center (especially for summer camps), a kids' fitness room, large nursery and child care areas, one or more activity/function rooms, multiple group fitness rooms, court sports and family changing rooms — which is a must. Of course, successful marketing to families really requires a two-pronged approach: first create an image in the consumer's mind that projects a family image; and second, properly advertise and sell each individual program to generate revenues.

MARKETING AND ADVERTISING

When you think of family fitness for many people (me included) one of the first things that comes to mind is the local YMCA. Although many club operators might cringe at the mention of that, it's true. The reason, of course, is that many of today's adults were exposed to their local YMCA as a child — whether it was through the traditional swim lessons, a basketball league or perhaps even Karate lessons. Y's have been around for decades. Yes, you might argue that today's YMCAs aren't servicing the population they originally intended but that doesn't enter into the scope of this conversation. The fact remains that whether it was through conscious marketing or simply branding over the years, the Y's are synonymous with family programs.

Having a consumer think of your club (vs. the local Y or any other club) when they want to find health- and fitness-related activities for their family is the first key to a successful, long-term, marketing strategy. This means that your club's marketing materials will have to reflect a family-friendly attitude and offerings.

In order to do this, consider the following:

  • Change your media images to reflect family fitness. This means using photos that depict activities for everyone — young and old — as well as an adequate listing of offerings that support those images.

  • Be sure to match your marketing images with the appropriate advertising mediums, ensuring that your target market is “seeing” you. For example, this could mean advertising in community newsletters, places where parents network, school systems, senior newsletters or centers, as well as pre- and post-natal care providers, just to name a few.

  • Get involved in your community. I heard a speaker recently who made the following great point. “Marketing is what a business does, branding is what happens in the consumers' mind, not as a result of marketing but because of the businesses actions and reputation.” By getting involved in your community you show consumers that you care about their families.

  • SALES APPROACH

    Selling to any specific population always requires some modification. The great thing about selling family memberships, however, is that at least one of the individuals influencing the purchasing decision should fall into the adult fitness profile. This means that salespeople can feel fairly comfortable that certain traditional touring approaches will apply. That said, it is often kids who influence buying decisions when it comes to family memberships. Furthermore, we know that parents will spend a lot more on their kids than they will on themselves. Therefore, ensuring your club provides family-friendly tours is important.

    Providing a family-friendly tour begins at the front desk. One way to do this is to make sure your lobby has something of interest for the kids, whether it be a small television playing cartoons, kids reading books or perhaps a toy or two. Remember that if parents can't keep their kids entertained they won't stay for a lengthy sales presentation. Another easy way to make tours more family orientated is by offering the guest the opporunity to leave their child in the childcare or youth fitness room while the adults finish looking at the facility. This is a win-win situation for everyone. The kids would much rather play than be bored listening to adults talk and the parent will feel more comfortable knowing their child is enjoying the facility.

    Of course, being family friendly goes farther than just handling the kids. With the aging population, more and more families have parents living with them. This means that your club should consider trial visits for senior and special population programs as well, allowing these individuals to sample a class before having to make a full commitment.

    Another great way to lower the barrier to entry for families and increase the comfort level before buying a membership is to regularly run open houses and informational sessions. At an open house, families can bring the entire clan along to get a first-hand experience of the facility. Another added benefit of such events is the enthusiasm that is created, as well as the opportunity to meet other like-minded families.

    As it relates to selling new family memberships, one of the most important things a club can do is to offer full memberships and short-term programs. With full memberships some clubs find it advantageous to offer a “one price pays for it all” option, allowing members full access to any activity throughout the club. Yes, the families may pay more but they don't have to worry about add-ons each time a family member wants to participate in something. Of course, clubs that are considering this option need to fully think through the price point before locking themselves into such arrangements.

    Short-term programs, on the other hand, allow clubs to drive individual family members through the doors for a specific activity or event at low cost and low commitment. Such short-term programs can really fuel the future family membership base for the club that focuses their marketing efforts on “up-selling.” For health clubs, although short-term membership up-sells present one of the best sales opportunities, they also are one of the most challenging because of the organization necessary to complete — requiring proper data collection, entry, and then marketing and follow up.

    Finally, salespeople need to actively reach out to existing members with families to cross-sell club programs. For instance, if a family is participating in swim lessons, maybe tennis, Karate or ballet lessons would be of interest. Salespeople can't assume that just because the club offers a program the members know about it.

    PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

    There has been no better — or worse — time in our history where the need for family-orientated programming is more prevalent. With the rising obesity levels across all age groups, the ever-expanding senior market, the lack of physical education programs in school systems, the demands on time with both parents working (just to name a few), the need for healthy, family activity is greater than ever. Add to that the daily mounting evidence regarding the benefits of regular exercise and clubs are ideally positioned to meet the demands of family memberships.

    And, whether a club wishes to offer just a few family-oriented programs or opts to go full-out with large facilities, opportunities abound. By taking the time to clearly define a marketing and programming strategy and adjusting sales efforts appropriately, both small and big clubs can reap the financial benefits of offering services to the family market.