If you are childless, perhaps you've noticed them. If you are a parent — particularly one who has children under the age of 15 — you are living it day to day. What I'm referring to is “SKIPPY's”, which stands for School Kids with Income and Purchasing Power. Now, the term SKIPPY's might sound cute, but this population of the market is more than cute, they are down right influential when it comes to how a family spends their disposable income. Consider these observations:

  • As it relates to a majority of the vacations both my siblings have taken with their children, the destinations have been chosen based around where the kids would like to go. Our parents, conversely, took us on one vacation a year that was family oriented, but all other times went away with friends or grandparents and left us at home with a babysitter.

  • My sister began taking her daughter at age 5 out to go clothes shopping because “she might not like what I picked and it wasn't worth the aggravation.” And not just any old clothes store — today's kids want Gap, Limited, Abecrombie & Fitch, and all the other trendy brand names. Although it may be just a poor memory, as a Baby Boomer, I don't remember being taken clothes shopping until junior high school. Instead, my mother would come home with clothes for us she had bought while out shopping (stay at home Mom, of course).

  • My sister spends most of her afternoons shuttling kids from one event or activity to another. Before getting into junior high school and structured athletics, I remember being driven once a week to tap lessons. I rode my bike to little league practices and games. For swim lessons, which were only in the summer, a school bus picked us up (not a short one).

  • My sister spends an incredible amount every month on activities for the kids: karate ($85/month), gymnastics ($52/month), piano lessons ($60/month), ballet ($125/session, not including the recital costume), baseball practice ($45 registration, plus the cost of a uniform), and swimming ($48/session). These are just the structured activities that go on year-round. Add to that summer camp programs and I'm glad I'm just the Auntie.

    Compare this situation to 30 years ago. Aside from ballet or tap (during school year), and little league and swim lessons (mostly in the summer), we were sent outside to play on our own. “It's too nice of a day out, don't come in this house until it's supper-time,” my mother would say.

  • For their birthdays, kids today get pre-packaged adventures — everything from a Chuck-E-Cheese party to paint ball competition to an afternoon playing and swimming at the local health club. My mother would let me invite my friends to the house, we'd play pin the tail on the donkey (and other silly games), eat cake and soda (special occasions only), open gifts and then everyone would be sent home. A birthday party certainly wasn't a $250-plus event.

  • I may not have grown up in the “Cleaver” household, but I certainly wasn't a deprived child in any way, shape or form! That was just the way things were — the “norm.” The kids revolved around the household, not the other way around.

    Most certainly, as it relates to kids and buying power, times have changed from years past and more than just my casual observations back up that statement. According to James U. McNeal, a professor of the children's market for over 30 years at Texas A&M, back then (30 years ago), “You weren't a consumer worth considering unless you were at least 12 years old.” Today, McNeal's research shows that children under the age of 12 are in control, or have a say in, about $500 billion of purchases. That is a lot of power, considering the last statistic put the entire health and fitness industry spending at about 14 billion per year.

    And speaking of health clubs, according to the 2000 IHRSA/American Sports Data Health Club Trend Report, children between the ages of 6 and 17 represented 10 percent of all health club memberships. More important than the percentage of memberships is the potential revenue stream. A recent IHRSA member census showed that 30 percent of polled health clubs offered structured children's programming BUT that roughly 7 percent of all clubs reported that children's programming was one of the five most profitable programs at their club. Statistically that is a significant number, considering only 30 percent of all clubs offer kid's programming.

    KIDS SERVICES AND PROGRAMS

    In considering adding or expanding kids programs, the first thing any club needs to do is determine the levels of offerings. In order of complexity and investment these would typically be:

  • Day care only: IHRSA statistics cite that 67 percent of clubs polled offer some sort of day care services at their facilities. Although providing day care services is a convenience for members, unless it is a full-fledged, all-day, licensed program, it isn't usually a profit center for clubs. But it is an entry point into the category.

  • Summer camps and swim programs: For clubs wishing to take the next step in kid's programs, venturing into summer camps and swim lessons is a great opportunity. First of all, they don't require major renovations or much in the way of additional capital expenditures. Secondly, they are for a finite period of time, hence much less risky in both short- and long-term. Third, they potentially can bring significant amounts of revenue into the club.

  • Kid's only area: Once you have been running successful summer camps and/or swim programs, you may decide it is time to take the next step in kid's programming and actually create a dedicated “kid's only” area in the club. Keep in mind that this area needs to be much more than a holding tank for older kids — it must provide youths with activities that they like to do, in an environment that they want to do it in. Kid friendly exercise equipment, activities that build cognitive and social skills as well as technology that will keep them interested are all important to a successful program.

  • Family friendly areas (small to large): Although having a dedicated kid's area isn't a pre-requisite to having family friendly areas at a club, usually one goes hand in hand with the other. Family friendly areas refer to sections or activities at the club that are open to both adults and kids, like group fitness areas, court sports, the pool, café or outdoor areas. Once kids get past the daycare usage age, often parents will cancel their membership unless the club offers a way for them to keep coming without the guilt of leaving the kids at home with a babysitter, especially if both parents work. Having a dedicated area for the kids is great, but some families want time doing activities together.

  • Regardless of what level of kid's programs your club plans on offering, a few general rules need to be followed to ensure success.

  • Make sure you design the services and programs with both parent and child in mind.

  • Don't offer any kid's programs without providing the proper space, age-appropriate equipment, and staffing.

  • When offering any type of class or event, make sure you split up into appropriate age groups to maximize participation and the experience for each child.

  • With activities, look to offer non-competitive games that build endurance, flexibility, and self-esteem. Keep in mind that most kids don't want to come to another “gym class.”

  • Offer a wide variety of classes and activities, ensuring that there is something for everyone.

  • Remember that what parents want for their children are fun, preferably educational activities that are done in a safe environment with high quality staff members overseeing them. This gives the parents the freedom to get their own workout in (or other errands) while the child is happy. What the kids want is a cool place to hang out with friends.

  • ADVERTISING

    Of course, simply adding summer camp programs, swim lessons, or actually building a dedicated kid's area in your club doesn't ensure succeess. Like any product or service, you must advertise to successfully enter the market. One benefit of adding kid's programs to your club is that you already have access to hundreds, if not thousands of qualified leads — that is your existing members.

    In her 16-plus years as a general manager of a large Ohio-based club chain, Cindy Cordes, brought dozens of kid's programs to the facility, starting with simple day care, moving to swim lessons, kids camps, and eventually the J.Y.M. (a “Junior Youth Members” area dedicated specifically for 7-13 year olds).

    “Because we knew we were ‘selling’ first to the parents, we tailored our advertising efforts accordingly. Therefore, with the dedicated youth programs we focussed most on internal advertising to our existing members through posters, banners, newsletters, announcements and a grand opening party,” says Cordes. “With things like swim lessons and summer camps, which were absolutely huge, we externally advertised in local papers and the local areas' Parent's Magazine.” Although the club never did specific external advertising for the kid's programming, the information became an integral part of all of the club's marketing pieces. Obviously, if a parent is interested in a fitness membership and they learn that the club also has programming specifically for children, it is may be a big selling feature.

    Another more creative way Cordes advertised the kid's programs was through the local school systems. Specifically she made arrangements for the kids to visit the club for a health class field trip. This is a relatively easy sell for the club because it can be educational and will not cost the school or the parents anything aside from transportation. For the more organized and assertive club, arrangements can be made to go directly to the schools to give talks on the benefits of staying active and fit at all ages. This is of particular interests to school systems with the increased awareness to fight obesity and get kids more active.

    Regardless of how your club advertises and markets any children's program, remember that it is their parents who will, most likely, decide on the visit and, ultimately will be the ones shelling out the money. This fact needs to be taken into consideration with all advertising, marketing and in the actual sales process.

    THE SALES APPROACH

    You have created a program and done your advertising and marketing. Now comes the next step where you must actually sell the membership. Unlike an adult membership where you bring one or more prospects through the club emphasizing similar things, selling a kid's program adds a level of difficulty because you are selling to both the parent and the child simultaneously. Although the basic steps to selling a fitness membership apply, there are a few strategies and techniques that should be followed during the parent/child tour. (Assuming both are present.)

  • First, build rapport by saying nice things about the kids (yes, even if they are being little monsters!).

  • During the qualifying stage, find out specific information about the childrens' likes, what activities they do now and where? Also, find out if they have friends whose family are members?

  • Be certain to qualify the family as a whole, determining whether they will be coming together or alone. Also, find out how important this might be to the family's decision.

  • Make sure time is taken to touch upon the challenges facing today's society where kids and parents must find time to do things together but that often leaves the parent with no time for individual activities or just time alone, emphasizing how the club provides a solution.

  • On the tour start with the kid's areas and get them excited AND involved. If both parent and child allow, leave the child to play with others while finishing the tour. Not only will this make the rest of the tour easier but when the parent comes back for the child and he/she doesn't want to leave it is a great selling point!

  • Although it seems obvious, remind the parents this is where their kids will be having fun and getting activity, all in a safe and friendly environment.

  • Once dedicated kid's areas have been covered, go to the family-friendly areas. If other families are there, make it a point to identify them and, if possible, introduce the parents to one another. Leading into the conversation by letting the member know the prospect is “considering” membership may elicit conversation, encouraging the prospect to join.

  • Be mindful of other club members when touring with children, trying to keep them in control and off equipment — even if the parent isn't taking charge. Often the biggest “sale” that needs to be made when bringing in new kid's programs is with the existing members. Every effort to make the transition smooth and painless will be appreciated.

  • Finally, even when in areas of the club that the child might not use, try and find ways to keep the child interested and excited. Remember, the parents needs to feel good that joining the club is truly a win-win situation for both them and their children, not just a place where they can dump their kids while they selfishly get in a workout.

  • PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

    The kid's market offers clubs with tremendous opportunities to add more memberships and revenues. But entering the children's market should be taken very seriously, as a poor launch and development of a program also has the potential to hurt the club both financially and in terms of reputation. There is also the risk that, if not done well, adding kid's programs will upset existing members. Therefore, decide to enter the market based on a real member and community need, not just because the club down the street has begun some sort of program. Once the decision is made, take time to develop a well-thought out plan, offering quality programs in the proper space with professional staff members. Add programs slowly and, before you know it, kid's programming could be one of the top revenue producers at your facility.

    BENEFITS TO BUSINESS

    If you are considering bringing in or expanding children's programming at your club, consider the benefits:

  • Adding kids programs to your club gives you a new marketing tool to assist in attracting family memberships to your club. Remember, where the kids go, so to will the parents!
  • Aside from adding new memberships, children's programs can help a club retain family memberships. Instead of dropping the membership because the parents don't have time to use it, the family can come together to the club. With most families having both parents working, finding fun, healthy things that can be done together is a powerful attraction.
  • As mentioned earlier, children's programs can generate new or expanded profit centers. (Parents will spend a lot more on their children than they will on themselves.)
  • Depending upon your marketplace, offering a strong, children's program can give you a competitive advantage over other clubs.
  • Finally, getting today's kids to establish a behavior of exercising at a health club will create future members — not only for your club but for the entire industry.
  • Added all together and what you have is a huge market for children at your club-when done correctly with appropriate services and programs.