For many people, the word “senior,” conjures up images of little blue-haired women and frail old men cluelessly driving 45 mph in the left lane. That may have been true in decades past, but today's seniors are anything but frail or clueless. A more appropriate label for the 55-plus market would be strong and financially influential. Consider the following statistics and observations:

  • Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1963, comprise the largest single population group in the United States, accounting for 31 percent of the total population.

  • Between 1999 and 2010, the 55 to 64 age group will have a 55 percent growth rate. This is more than twice that of any other 10-year age bracket.

  • By 2010, people between 55 and 74 will outnumber the 25 to 34 year olds — the market traditionally sought after by the health and fitness industry.

  • The 55-plus age group, by sheer numbers and net worth, is the most affluent segment of the American population.

  • The 55-plus age group has more stability financially, as well as geographically, than other age groups.

  • According to the most recent “Profiles of Success” report by the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), 23 percent of all health club members were 55 years of age or older.

  • The newly published IHRSA/American Sports Data Health Club Trend report cited that between 1987 and 2001 there was an increase in 55-plus memberships of 380 percent, making it the fastest growing segment of all groups joining health and fitness facilities.

  • John McCarthy, executive director of IHRSA recently was quoted as saying, the 55-plus market “is a monster market…but what we're seeing now is only the tip of the iceberg. When more and more baby boomers hit 55 and over, this market will explode.”

  • The bottom line is that the 55-plus or seniors market is a huge opportunity — but this isn't news to anyone who has been in the health and fitness industry for the past decade. In fact, for years a host of industry experts have been pleading with club operators to cater to the aging population. Even if your club doesn't want to cater to the 55-plus market as a specialty, the fact still remains that many of your future members will fall into this category, making it even more important that you understand the market and provide a bare minimum of services and amenities to attract and retain an older population. Therefore, the only question that remains is, “What are you doing to attract the 55-plus market?” This article will explore the various marketing issues surrounding this population and provide you with insights and suggestions for creating an effective strategy to attain and retain the senior market.

    DEFINING THE SCOPE OF YOUR MARKET

    One of the first things every club operator needs to determine is the scope of the 55-plus market they want to target. Every club will have a certain percentage of its members fall into the senior market. It's what a club operator offers in terms of facilities and programming that will radically impact the numbers. If a club wants a larger percentage of the senior market they must cater to that market by offering appropriate programs.

    Water aerobics programs offered in the evening will attract a different crowd than a mid-day class. A fitness class called “Balance in Action” offered at 10 a.m. will attract a different crowd than an evening group cycling class. A center that offers equipment that is senior friendly will attract more 55-plus members than the free weight gym down the street. Furthermore, a club that has fewer stairs and provides ramps and wheel chair lifts will be more appealing to a senior crowd — even if it is only because of the message such facility design conveys. Although these things seem obvious, club operators must ask themselves, “How much of the 55-plus market do I want and how much programming and facility design am I willing to offer in accomplishing those market penetration objectives?” Once a clear market has been defined operators can turn to the specifics of club advertising and operation.

    ADVERTISING

    Although it is the norm for today's youth to participate in scholastic and extracurricular fitness activities, ask a majority of the baby boomer population what they think of when they hear the term exercise and you might be surprised at the responses. For many, gym class was more punishment than fun. Of course, the guys had one level of activities and the girls another because it was believed that girls shouldn't exert themselves too much for fear of harming themselves. I remember my junior high school gym class where the girls had to wear ridiculous looking one-piece jumpsuits — and I miss officially being a “boomer” by one year. It is no wonder my mother thinks the gym means a bunch of sweaty guys.

    The end result is that the senior population does not see themselves as exercisers. Add to that the fact that fitness centers have been using advertising images of the perfect body for years and what you have is a confused consumer. Not only do many seniors have misconceptions about exercise but they psychologically have many barriers to entry, which prevents them from joining, and in many cases, even visiting a facility. Here are some key things that you can do with your advertising to attract the senior population:

  • Change your media image as it relates to fitness. Instead of having the young fit bodies in your ads, use photos that are representative of the 55-plus market.

  • Avoid stereotypical ads of older adults. Keep in mind that people have a tendency to think of themselves as 10 to 15 years younger than they are. Some products make the mistake of offending the senior population by depicting them as old. Avoid condescending images.

    Make sure that your marketing efforts provide educational information — even if this means you have to mail additional materials or send prospects to your web site. Remember that these people need to see themselves as exercisers and that isn't going to happen with just image advertising.

  • Relate your advertising images and messages to daily living activities. Marketing efforts should show how their everyday life will be enhanced through regular exercise participation — not that they will have the perfect body or find a good-looking date.

  • Incorporate lots of testimonial advertising and photos in your marketing pieces. Provide the reader with details of how the featured individual through exercise lowered his or her blood pressure, relieved back pain or eliminated a prescription drug. Also insert information about helpful club integration programs and overall comfort in the facility.

  • Offer short-term programs that allow the individual to try the facility out at a low risk. A 6-week aqua aerobics program or introductory strength training program will lower the barrier to entry for many individuals who wouldn't have otherwise walked through the club doors.

  • Offer special population programs on diabetes, arthritis and osteoporosis. For more detailed information on marketing to special populations, refer to the 2001 Marketing Tutorial Series, which is available online at www.clubindustry.com.

  • SALES APPROACH

    With the club's marketing pieces designed to attract the senior market the next step is to prepare the sales team to embrace a sales approach that will adapt to the 55-plus mentality. In addition to following the basic steps to the fitness sales presentation salespeople need to incorporate two additional elements: education and patience. Many seniors don't see themselves as exercisers and a majority probably never have been a health club member. Therefore, extra time and attention needs to be taken on the qualifying and touring process, fully educating the prospect on the club and on the basic benefits of a regular exercise program.

    One way to provide quality education is to make handouts available to senior prospects. These could be as basic as the fundamentals of strength and aerobic training or an outline of how to choose a quality health and fitness club. Another way to add education to a standard tour is by incorporating a visit to a personal trainer or the group fitness coordinator. A quick introduction to these individuals, followed by a short conversation as it relates to the prospect's past history and goals for joining the club can lead into a personalized response by the trainer or coordinator or even an invitation for a free sample workout. These types of trust-building relationships will make the senior prospect feel more comfortable and confident in buying a membership at your club.

    Information is perhaps one of the most powerful sales tools a club can use when selling to seniors. Often these individuals can't get enough information in a 20-minute tour. Furthermore, because of intimidation and false perceptions, seniors may not even take the club up on a free trial. One way to lower the barrier and add education and information to the sales process is by offering individuals who don't enroll on their first visit to a new member orientation program. The orientation can be held once or twice a month, should be 1 ½ to 2 hours long and should provide information about the club, the staff and the services. Although the orientation process is designed for new members who want to learn more about how to get the most of their new fitness facility, such a program offers a perfect venue for missed guests to learn more, ask questions and, most important, be around a group of individuals who are just like them — new to fitness. To make such a program effective a club must first plan the function and establish a staff to organize and run it consistently. Next, implement an invitation process that automatically goes out to missed guests along with follow up phone calls by the sales staff to reinforce attendance. Although such a program can take time and effort to coordinate, it could become a successful tool with the 55-plus market.

    One final observation to keep in mind when selling to seniors is patience. These individuals may not be as quick to buy a membership as the average tour because they want to feel comfortable and confident they are making a good, educated decision. This means that salespeople and management need to plan for a longer selling process that might include multiple visits and any number of follow up marketing efforts, including educational pieces and trial offers.

    MEMBER SERVICES, AMENITIES AND INTEGRATION

    Once you have designed marketing pieces that attract this market, and your sales approach has been modified to create a successful sale, it is imperative that the services and amenities your club offers fulfill the expectations of that consumer. According to industry expert Sandy Coffman of Programming for Profit, seniors have five general wants and needs: socialization, mind stimulation, leadership, comfort and convenience and value. In addition, they like to be treated with energy and enthusiasm, receive personal attention and respond well to environments and individuals that show empathy and desire to build trust. With these things in mind, there are a number of services and amenities clubs must incorporate into their programming and culture in order to meet the expectations of the senior market. These include:

  • A variety of assessments that will identify special needs and accurately determine levels of fitness to aid in new member programming and integration. These might include a PAR-Q, EAR-Q, body composition analysis, VO2 Max and resting metabolic rate measurement.

  • Strength training equipment that is designed for seniors or can be adjusted in small weight increments (1 pound if possible).

  • A highly structured and extended new member fitness equipment orientation process.

  • Careful and thoughtful scheduling of group exercise classes to allow for seniors to use the club during the daytime and be surrounded by like-minded individuals.

  • Proper education and execution of classes that offer safe movements for the identified age group.

  • Beginner or introductory classes that allow new to exercise individuals to obtain a comfort level with basic movements and formats.

  • An environment that includes the best flooring for low-impact movements, proper lighting and appropriate temperatures.

  • Proper music in group exercise classes, as well as on the fitness floor or in specialty rooms.

  • Instructors that are trained to work with the 55-plus market.

  • Programs and activities that create a strong social component. These might include non-traditional classes such as line dancing, activity-based classes like sewing or cards and parties and small events designed for the senior population.

  • PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

    Time and effort is a normal part of the process when establishing any new marketing campaign. The rapidly growing senior population offers a tremendous growth opportunity for all health and fitness clubs. On a daily basis the media is bombarding the public with the benefits of regular exercise, especially as it relates to maintaining quality of life. In addition, boomers are highly concerned about slowing or reversing the effects of aging.

    By thoughtfully putting together a new marketing campaign, clearly defining the portion of the senior market your club wishes to attract and then modifying the sales approach and club programs and services to meet the needs and wants of those individuals, clubs can anticipate gaining and retaining a larger percentage of the 55-plus market. The result will be more memberships in the short-term and a proper positioning for market penetration in the future as the senior population continues to grow.