As club owners and operators, we spend an inordinate amount of time and money troubleshooting, brainstorming and researching the best ways to keep our members engaged, exercising in our clubs and continuing to pay their membership dues year after year. Many of us have developed a new member orientation program. Some of these programs make a dent in attrition numbers, but no one has yet found the member retention holy grail.

In his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” Daniel Pink examines what differentiates the most motivated individuals from those who struggle to stay on task. Although Pink’s research is focused more on career-related motivation, many of his concepts are directly applicable to our customers in the fitness industry. Pink demonstrates that at work and in life, carrot and stick motivation (if you do A, I will give you B) is not enough to keep most of us going. Although this type of incentive may work initially, at some point people lose interest in the reward (savings on club programs, cash incentives, etc.) and the whole thing begins to feel like work. Pink says the carrot and stick scenario could even demotivate some people.

To understand this phenomenon, consider how you would feel if you were tasked with an important project at work. Perhaps it is your idea, and you are excited about what the end result will be. You’re ready to throw yourself into it heart and soul. Your supervisor then tells you that if you can finish that project on time, he’ll give you a small bonus of $50. It sounds great, since you weren’t expecting anything extra at all. Then, as you face obstacles and push-back from co-workers, that $50 starts to look miniscule. You start to wonder if it’s worth it—all this work for a measly $50. In the end, when the boss thanks you for a job well done and hands you the $50 gift card, are you eager to jump into another project?

It’s best to reinvent the reward system. One method explored in Pink’s book is a surprise reward. This could come in the form of seemingly random recognition of a member meeting a milestone, such as attending a certain number of classes, completing a certain number of personal training sessions or visiting the club a particular number of times in a month. It may even be a milestone for which you advertise a reward already, but only the staff knows in advance the “magic number.” The member would be pleasantly surprised and touched by the attention. The reward itself could be any of those you might currently offer members in the carrot-and-stick way. The only difference would be that this reward would be a surprise to the member.

To illustrate this seemingly small difference, consider that big project again. It is your idea, and you are looking forward to jumping into it. This time, your boss encourages you but doesn’t offer anything outright for the project’s completion. You still encounter obstacles and push-back, but this is your baby and you will make it work. In the end, your boss surprises you with public recognition and a $50 gift card for a job well done. You’re genuinely appreciative, as the reward is unexpected. It’s not much, but it still feels good.

Members are not so different from us. Their experiences in our clubs may already feel a lot like work. To keep them returning, we need to reward them for their commitment—both to us and to their exercise program. You may already do something like this for your employees; if you don’t, it’s worth considering. By including employees in your reward and recognition philosophy, you begin to create a “pay it forward” culture. Members are pleased to see their favorite employees recognized and may begin to do more to draw management’s attention toward those whom they deem worthy. Likewise, employees will want to see members recognized for their accomplishments, allowing management to get input from multiple sources on who deserves the next recognition award.

Creative and well-managed incentives can contribute to club engagement not only when members or employees are new, but even when they’ve been with us for five, 10 or 15 years. So create some unexpected ways to recognize members and staff throughout their tenure with you. Everyone loves a good surprise.

BIO

Amanda Harris is vice president of fitness and wellness at ACAC Fitness Centers in Virginia. She also is a management development specialist with more than 15 years of industry experience, including 13 years as a personal trainer.