Talk to an old-timer out here in the Southwest about nearly anything, and you're likely to hear him say “time was” when he's speaking about a particular subject, i.e., “Time was, there was only one main street here in Taos…and that was a dirt road!”

Well, time was in the fitness industry that the fitness industry was the health club industry. No more. Now, there are more vertical markets for fitness than there are standard (horizontal) markets, and the game has changed — for all of us.

I see three distinctions to make in reference to this phenomenon:

  • Fitness is now a vertical as well as a horizontal marketplace.
  • There are definite challenges being made to the basic way of doing business.
  • There are clear opportunities present within these changes.

VERTICAL, TOO

Clubs dominated the fitness markets of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and still do to a great extent. But fitness has taken on greater dimensions than the outdated, members-only paradigm in which we have operated for decades.

Consumers are beginning to drive fitness — not clubs. And with that comes the realization that other methods of doing business need to be created — and soon. Clubs can no longer deliver their brand of fitness to the average consumer and hope that the consumer will stay a loyal customer for very long.

Competition for membership is stronger than ever…and promises to be even greater within the next two years. In addition to the 25,000 traditional clubs offering every feasible variegation of fitness known to humankind, the United States has another 15,000 vertical players competing for the same consumers, among them: not-for-profits (whose businesses are growing faster than the commercial for-profit sector), group exercise studios, personal training studios, express clubs, 30-minute workout havens, weight-loss centers with exercise equipment, medical facilities, chiropractic and physical therapy facilities, gated communities with captive “fitness centers,” condos, co-ops, apartment complexes, senior communities, religious fitness facilities, military bases, colleges and universities, at-home training services, Internet fitness services, home gyms — and that is not the entire list.

Many of the vertical-market players do not demand membership obligations of their users. Instead, they offer appropriately timed and appropriately priced program modules that have a beginning, a middle and an end. And they offer an educational component as well as a fun experience with people who are usually in the same age and demographic set.

THE CHALLENGES

Conventional health club operators are facing the fact that membership is not the only way to go but may indeed be the way that is going out of style — at least for many of today's potential consumers of fitness offerings.

Clubs are beginning to recognize that the majority of customers are not coming for fitness; they are coming for a pleasing total experience. And they are coming for that experience every time they come in the door.

Owners and managers are trying to get their hands around the notion that people are not coming solely for equipment usage; they are coming for socialization, fraternization, education and a getaway from their time-challenged, hassled, everyday lives.

Because of this mindset, the club industry needs a massive amount of quality employee training. Employees at the levels of reception, sales, fitness, group exercise and management are obligated to understand different behavior sets, likes and dislikes, and usage patterns of a variety of customers. The majority of those users are not particularly interested in fitness nor are they highly self-motivated people.

Clubs' fitness delivery systems will undergo an overhaul in the next few years as we start to cope with the test of producing better services to a wider assortment of customers.

OPPORTUNITIES

Savvy club operators will participate in a windfall of paid-program business that they have not heretofore cashed in on.

Stressed-out, beat-up, under-appreciated employees and managers will explore the career possibilities inherent in small, private studio/program businesses.

Consumers will ultimately have the choice of joining a gym or buying a program. Forward-thinking entrepreneurs will capitalize on the buy-a-program-try-us-out mentality of the modern consumer, and ironically, make offerings that not only satisfy the customer but also make the business profitable from the outset.

Consultants and advisors will finally be able to offer quality training work to eager constituents, resulting in higher levels of customer service and consumer experience in quality facilities.

Every industry changes, fragments, consolidates and grows in different directions from whence it started. Ours is no exception. The broadening of the fitness industry is at hand. Climb on board!


Michael Scott Scudder is a 30-year veteran of the fitness industry. He is president of FITNESS FOCUS, a club management training company. He can be reached at 505-690-5974, by email at mss@michaelscottscudder.com or at his Web site, www.michaelscottscudder.com.