Most clubs are confronted with problems that need to be solved on a daily basis. However, as with most small businesses, operating a small, independent fitness center presents a unique set of trials and tribulations.
Often, small clubs have a lack of marketing savvy and expertise, explains Michael Scott Scudder, club consultant and owner of Michael Scott Scudder's FITNESS FOCUS, a club consulting and motivational/management/marketing/seminar production company. “Get education in how to put ads together, when to market and when not to market, what times of year are most favorable and what times are a waste of money,” Scudder suggests.
He also suggests looking at ways to co-op with other small businesses in the health, recreation or nutrition industries.
When it comes to marketing, however, larger clubs will always have more money to spend and, therefore, small clubs must be innovative with their budgets, says Gayle Winegar, founder and president of The SweatShop in St. Paul, Minn.
“It's not really apples to apples because big chains spend more in one month on advertisements than we do in one year. They will always have more apples, so we started going with kiwi fruit and raspberries,” Winegar says.
The SweatShop's version of kiwi fruit and raspberries translates to more print and public relations coverage. “People are reading about us instead of looking at an ad and there is more credibility with that,” she says.
The SweatShop also has developed a newsletter that is distributed in about 20 locations around town. The eight-page newsletter is very readable and features two to three articles in addition to club information, Winegar says. “We get more calls from the newsletter than anything else.”
Often smaller clubs are unable to get the price breaks and deals that larger clubs can when it comes to buying products for your club or pro shop. “I've learned to negotiate prices,” Winegar says. “I gathered some chutzpa and now tell people ‘we can only buy three of something, but we will be long-term, dedicated clients.’”
Many small clubs lack the expert sales skills seen in larger clubs. “Go to trade shows, attend sales courses and call in a qualified sales training consultant,” Scudder suggests.
“In a small club you hire one person to do six jobs instead of one,” Winegar says. She recommended hiring staff with diverse skill sets and using them to their maximum ability, which she says allows clubs to keep people longer because they are fully employable.
“The advantage of that overlap is people who are fully integrated know the business better and have a much larger concept of how the business works.”
Winegar also says smaller businesses have to be more creative at providing opportunities for staff members to advance. She adds that allowing staff members to create new programs and helping them to change and grow their responsibilities in the club allows the club to keep good employees when it couldn't move them up the ranks as quickly as they would like.
Sometimes small payrolls and lack of personnel can hinder a club's ability to deliver quality member service. To resolve this problem, Scudder recommends training all personnel at every level in customer service. “Concentrate on superb front-desk service skills and fitness-floor personnel service skills. Remember that every member visit is either an opportunity for retention or a risk of attrition.”