Only a fraction of health club members use their clubs on a regular basis, and people who don’t use their clubs regularly don’t generally remain members. Club operators can positively affect retention by providing the best facilities, equipment, programs and knowledge—but only if members take advantage of what is provided. Unfortunately, club operators cannot control an individual’s level of commitment or willpower.

One aspect of our business that often is ignored is the significance of the word “club” in health club. To keep members engaged, they have to see their club as part of their community and, in turn, part of their lives. The majority of people probably never will be as passionate about fitness as are those who work in fitness, even though they may know that it is healthy to work out and that it is important to be healthy.

The best approach may be to keep the uninitiated population connected to us with something they are passionate about, even if it has nothing to do with health and fitness. If a person is only working out once per week but they come to the club for other reasons, they may end up working out a little more. Connection is the key.

If we want the majority of our members—or the general population for that matter—to participate, we have to give them more options. Fitness may be at the core of what we do, but it doesn’t have to be all we do—and it isn’t all they want or need. After all, we are a club, a place where people congregate to work out but also to connect and share.

To provide members with what they want and need, you must first find out who your frequently attending members and your lax members are and what they like—both inside and outside the club. What do they do in their free time?

To find this out, you can either survey your members or hold focus groups. Which method you use depends on your style and your member demographics. For instance, older members may prefer to talk to someone while younger ones may prefer an Internet survey. Whatever vehicle you use, the incentive has to be motivating. Think dinner for two at a good local restaurant or a free three-month membership for their spouse or friend (another good way to get them using the club). You can barter some or all of the incentive to keep costs down. If you don’t get the response you need (about 25 percent of your membership should be the minimum goal), raise the stakes.

Once you have the information, you can create clubs within your club, such as:

  • Book Club
  • Dog Lover’s Club
  • Mary Kay
  • Cooking Club
  • Movie Club
  • Monday Night Football
  • Fantasy Sports Leagues
  • Wine Tastings
  • Ski Club
  • Bridge Club
  • Astronomy Club
  • Parenting Club
  • Dance Club

The list could go on and on. You may have tried some of these in the past without success, but did you really put the same amount of commitment, effort and resources into the program as you put into getting a new member? Probably not. This cannot be implemented with a poster and a sign-up sheet. It has to be championed by someone, either staff or a member, who is passionate about getting people engaged in their particular interest. (Think of someone like Julie on “The Love Boat.”)

Once you have identified the top three to five interests, create a strong following by providing the tools to get participants and keep them involved. To ensure participation, you might:

  • Hire someone to speak about the topic
  • Provide a section or blog on your website for each group
  • Host weekly/monthly meetings at the club
  • Give the groups a voice in your newsletter

As each group matures and gains traction, you can add more. You should always set a minimum level of participation to gauge member interest—reaching this lower threshold is a signal that it is time to re-evaluate the program.

Whatever you do, remember that the goal is to make the health club a place to do more than just work out. It should be a community within a community, and it should address the needs of the community, whether or not they are directly related to fitness. After all, we are the original social network.

Rick Bouza is the president and founder of RHB Solutions Inc., a management company that specializes in turnarounds and single source management for health clubs. With 22 years in the industry, he is knowledgeable in a variety of professional disciplines but focuses on organizing and directing turnaround situations. He’s held top-level executive and management positions with national brands Crunch Fitness International, Equinox Fitness and American Leisure Corp. He has served in various roles: manager, comptroller, general manager, executive director, vice president, executive vice president and chief operating officer. Bouza can be reached at 800-671-0343, ext. 301.