The online train is boarding passengers and 24 Hour Fitness is one of the first to book a ticket. Since 2000, the national chain has offered potential members the option to sign up for memberships online. The number of people taking advantage of this option on the company's Web site has increased over the years.

“We're in the multiples of tens of millions of dollars that the site has generated since 2000 as a combination of direct and indirect sales,” says Bryan Andrus, vice president of information technology and business development for 24 Hour Fitness.

He expects online membership offerings to expand in the industry, but whether it will be a necessary component of a club's offering is yet to be seen. Nothing can replace the personal interaction of a visit, he says. Still, Andrus supports online membership options.

“It puts a lot more information into the hands of the prospective members,” he says. “If you can do it, it is a wonderful expansion of a company's product offerings.”

Town Sports International is considering offering online memberships but hasn't gotten past the point of exploration yet, says Maggie Stevens, vice president of sales for the company.

“A gym is something you want to see and visualize whether you feel you would be comfortable working out there,” she says. Online membership agreements could be a good option for people who have visited a club on a guest pass and want to sign up for a membership without having to go through the sales consultant, she says.

24 Hour Fitness has found that a segment of the population wants to understand the product before walking in the door, but most people who sign up online do so for the convenience. Many of them have been members of a gym before so they are familiar with health clubs.

Andrus calls the online process successful at 24 Hour Fitness. The company has a completely integrated system that automatically places a person in the system when they complete the online agreement meaning the person could sign up online in the parking lot, immediately walk into the club and be recognized by the system as a member, Andrus says.

If you are looking to add online memberships, here are some tips.

  • Be prepared to spend

    The process of getting an IT system that can accommodate this process is expensive and it is time-consuming, says Andrus. Once the initial cost of setting up the system is paid, the day-to-day costs are minimal, Andrus says.

    “It takes intellectual capital,” he says. “You need to be smart on how you use it.”

    He calls integration a “double-edged sword” because nothing can be done in isolation. The system must be able to carry someone all the way through the process from the time they click on the Web site to the time they walk through the front door and speak to a staff member. All those click points must have the same information available to them.

  • Be willing to tweak the system

    The 24 Hour Fitness online membership system can be monitored to the point where the company can see what pages the user is clicking on and on what page the user left the system. By monitoring this, the company can determine where to tweak.

  • Take your time

    Your paper systems and core business systems should work well before you embark on any level of online transaction, Andrus says. He also suggests researching the process and taking your time with it to make sure that you get it right. A smaller club and even some larger ones might want to call in IT experts to help them with the process. Once everything is in place, “test, test and test before you take it live,” says Andrus.

  • Get your staff's buy in

    The staff, particularly the sales staff, needs to know why online memberships are being offered and they need to buy into that. The sales staff also needs to know that rather than replacing them, the system is providing another option to potential members.

  • Know your disclosures

    If you operate in several states, you must know what disclosures are necessary online so that you can comply with them on the online membership agreement, Andrus says.

  • Keep it personal

    Just because someone signs up online doesn't mean they don't need to meet with a staff member to develop their workout program. The IT system in place should immediately notify the general manager when someone has signed up online for his or her club. At 24 Hour Fitness, the general manager then calls the individual to welcome him or her to the club and set up an appointment to receive a club orientation.