This third installment in our "War on Obesity" series offers savvy strategies for developing marketing plans that attract new patrons for weight-management programs.

Marketing strategies for promoting weight-management programs require both sensitivity and careful planning. According to Brian Lewis, manager of the wellness services department at Akron General Hospital in Akron, Ohio, the public is "very sensitive to negative stereotypes" sometimes used in media ads. Ads with photos of overweight people may identify your target market, but overweight people-who are often self-conscious about their appearance-may feel exploited by these photos.

In addition to the images you chose, you should remain wary of the copy you include in your marketing. "Use the key words 'weight management' and 'lifestyle changes' in marketing weight-management programs for your club," Lewis explains. Words like "fat" and "diet" can produce negative images for those who are overweight or may have been unsuccessful previously with other weight-management programs.

Lewis says Akron's LifeStyles weight-management system, which incorporates the nationally distributed Think Light! nutritional plan and lifestyle program, has been going strong at Akron for more than four years. The system is part of Akron's wellness center, which is located off-site from the main hospital. It has its own marketing strategy that includes participating in community service programs, such as health fairs and outreach activities.

Jan Rubins-general manager of LifeCenter plus in Hudson, Ohio-knows an opportunity when he sees one. He, too, offers the LifeStyles weight-management program through an affiliation with Akron General Hospital.

Located 25 miles from Akron in an affluent suburb, Rubins' club formerly had a weight-loss program with its own nutritionist/dietician providing lectures and program overviews, but the service only enjoyed minimal success. Rubins believes potential participants wanted the credibility of a medical referral for the program. He indicates that potential participants feel more comfortable with programs where medical professionals perform nutrition and weight evaluation and fitness center pros direct the exercise program.

By working with a medical facility, LifeCenter has broadened its market, according to Rubins. All marketing materials promoting LifeCenter's weight-management services mentions the hospital and the LifeStyles program. And the hospital refers interested prospects who either live or work close to LifeCenter into the club's weight-management program.

This partnership has paid off for LifeCenter. Rubins says attendance for the club's weight-management program increased by 200 percent with the hospital affiliation. And with his new base of customers, Rubins takes the marketing opportunity one step further: He offers his new weight-management members the opportunity to register for any regular club program without purchasing a full club membership. In the end, many buy a full membership anyway. This is because once weight-management participants successfully complete the program, they're more likely to join the club as full members to maintain their new lifestyle.

While LifeCenter has enjoyed success by working with Akron, such an arrangement isn't plausible for all clubs. If a health center partnership is out of your ballpark, Lewis recommends another professional alliance. "If I were with an outside vendor," Lewis says, "I would send out letters to physicians with a brochure on programs my club provided." He adds that a large percentage of weight-management participants with whom he has had program experience have never been a fitness club member. But his program feedback and club experience has taught him that weight loss often begins for people with a visit to the doctor's office.

Selling the doctors on weight-management programs can take much less effort than selling to the community at large. They already know fitness's benefits. Therefore, you may want to offer physicians an alliance with your club for weight-management consulting and ask them to refer overweight or obese patients into the program.

To put the doctors at ease, provide them with accredited documentation for the personal trainers, nutritionists and other staff members to whom they will refer patients. This documentation should include copies of health care training certificates or diplomas or a list of successfully completed professional courses.

Medical Advice
Besides giving information to doctors, you should get information from doctors. Ask for their input on what they want to see in weight-management programs and consider the benefits of tailoring your program to meet their criteria. The next step could be patient referrals that keep on coming.

Referrals are effective, but in most cases, clubs must rely on their own iniative to market weight-management programs. Rubins suggests a first-contact approach. "People don't come in and say they have a weight problem," he explains. "They just don't do that."

Therefore, when staff members take a prospective member on a tour, they should look for "little clues" (e.g., the person's physical appearance, specific questions, interest in programs, etc.) that would tip them off to a potential recruit for weight management. The staff members should stress the importance of getting involved in a healthier lifestyle and point out several programs, including weight management, for the prospect to consider attending.

Once people complete the weight-management program, trainers can integrate them into the main facility. At LifeCenter, for example, personal trainers soft-sell an eight-week club membership to successful weight-management participants.

Not only can clubs market memberships to successful weight-management participants, they can market weight management to active club members. Cheri Smirles, program coordinator for Evanston Northwestern Healthcare at Highland Park Hospital's Health & Fitness Center in Buffalo Grove, Ill., says she has seen program flyers placed in the facility's bathroom stalls get results. Now that's marketing to a captive audience since the current members are already active, but some may need weight management or lifestyle changes to increase their use of the center's programs.

Felicia Gonzalez, fitness director at Club Fit in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., has also found that in-house promotions sometimes supply the best results. "Why should I market outside [the club] when I can fill up the program with our [existing] members?" she notes. "We're lucky!"

To get existing members involved, Club Fit occasionally circulates survey cards to gauge people's interest in weight management. Gonzalez says these surveys often reveal that club's members "know what they need to do" about nutrition but require the support of a personal trainer and personalized fitness program to help them reach their weight-management goals. By understanding this, Club Fit can develop weight-management programs suited to individual needs.

Club Fit isn't alone in realizing that members want experts who can personalize weight-management programs. Marcia Haug, program manager for the McKennan Center for Health & Fitness in Sioux Falls, S.D., says the success of McKennan's weight-management program comes as a result of a well-educated staff who work one-on-one with members and offer individualized attention to participants. McKennan touts this one-on-one support in its marketing efforts, and people respond to the promotions favorably, according to Haug.

Outside Sales
This isn't to suggest that clubs should limit weight-management marketing to in-house efforts. Clubs can sell weight-management packages to local organizations, community groups and companies. And since obesity is such a hot issue right now, clubs can even send press releases about their weight-management programs to local media. This is a good way to get some free publicity.

Clubs can also take their weight-management programs on the road by setting up tables at local health fairs. To get people into the club, they should book tours. This works especially well with schools. Community Hospital Health & Fitness Center's program coordinator, Michelle Rabe, says teachers "love" to bring their students into the center to learn about nutrition and weight management and to use the gym. This is one example of community-based involvement that can be a springboard for other broader-based marketing efforts. Calling local schools and offering a tour of your facility for field trips or providing an alternative site for a phys ed class activity can produce excellent exposure to the students. And if the students have a good experience, they may return with their parents in tow.

By offering tours-and even the first weight-management class free-clubs encourage prospects to become comfortable the club environment. Reluctant prospects' fears fade when they see sensitive and supportive professionals leading participant-friendly, flexible programs. The goal is to make the prospect want to return, and, eventually, enlist in a long-term membership.