Playing Your Cards Right

One of the things I love about this job is the excitement I get when I find a club that is doing something impressive. For example, when writing this month's Industry Outlook article on Life Time Fitness (see page 14), I discovered that the growing club chain has invested big bucks in its Life Time University, a program of courses that teach staff everything necessary to run a club successfully. This dedication to education, a rarity in this industry, impressed me.

More recently, I was impressed by something a little closer to home. Literally.

I'm like most people. I separate my mail into two categories: bills and junk. So when I received an envelope that didn't seem to belong in either category, I opened it with curiosity. At the time, my birthday was about a week away, so I assumed a distant aunt - knowing that I had a birthday coming up, but not remembering the date - decided to send me a card early, just to be safe.

I was half right. The envelope did contain a birthday card. However, it wasn't from a distant aunt. In fact, it wasn't from anyone in my family.

It was from my gym. My health club had actually wished me a happy birthday before any of my friends and relatives.

Now, the fact that my club had sent me a birthday card wasn't what impressed me (even though the card came before anyone else's). Yes, I appreciated the birthday wishes, but it was the card's presentation, the message it contained, that really wowed me. Here's why.

The card: This wasn't some generic birthday card with dancing puppies in party hats on the front - the type of card you can buy by the pack, dirt cheap, in the closeout bins of your local drugstore. No, this card featured the club's logo with the message "Happy Birthday." Somebody designed the card, then paid to have it printed. That's professional - and not the sort of thing I'm likely to forget. Not only will the club's gesture stick with me, so will the club's name.

The message: My dentist sends me a birthday card every year too, but I usually toss it into the trash after a quick glance. Why? Because it's obviously preprinted. Some computer spits out my birthday card with a pile of others. Why should I care? It's impersonal.

The card from my club, on the other hand, was handwritten. Using careful penmanship, somebody took the time to address the card to me, wishing me a happy birthday on behalf of the club's staff. This kind of personal touch makes a person feel important.

The offer: No birthday would be complete without presents, and this birthday card came with gifts. Two.

First, the card contained this handwritten postscript: "Come in on your b-day for a free drink!" No, not a scotch on the rocks. More like a protein shake.

My club has a beverage bar, and in the nine months I've been a member, I've never been a patron. But since I can get a drink on the house, I'll pull up a stool on my birthday. If I like my free refreshment, I may pay next time. At the very least, I'll be happy. That's smart marketing on behalf of my club.

The second gift also demonstrated smart marketing. The card contained a free guest pass.

I know - as a member, a free guest pass isn't something I can use. I'm supposed to give it away so my club will get a fresh prospect. Essentially, then, the card is worthless to me, right? Nope. The pass clearly stated its worth: $15. By attaching a price, the club made me appreciate that I had received something valuable. And when I give the pass away, the person who gets it will see that I've presented him with an opportunity to exercise at my club for free, something that would normally cost him 15 bucks.

Working in this industry, I realize that most software packages allow clubs to track member birthdays, making it easy for clubs to mail out birthday wishes. However, I also realize that most clubs don't send out birthday cards. That's why I've dedicated a page to this simple and effective - yet overlooked - technique.

If your club doesn't see a marketing opportunity in member birthdays, consider this: Three months from now, my membership expires. The birthday card has given me yet another reason to renew. And my membership fee will more than offset the birthday card and the free offers that came with it.