Christine Thalwitz is director of communications and research at ACAC Fitness & Wellness Centers. She is an active presenter, continuing education provider and writer for industry publications. Having worked in a club setting for nearly 20 years, Thalwitz has found that walking in the members’ shoes is one of the best ways to take steps towards improving retention. She can be reached at christineot@acac.com.

Times are tough. Will your clients let go of their gym memberships or stop personal training to save money? Some might be tempted, especially if they are not seeing returns on their investment. However, if you add emotional value to your members’ club experience, you could safeguard your business.

At first glance, this suggestion may seem vague or incalculable, but you can take concrete, measurable steps to add emotional value to your members’ experience.

1. Interact with your members. It’s you that the customers want. What clients appreciate most is your hospitality and expertise. The best part is that adding value by enhancing service is simple, and it doesn’t cost anything extra.

A colleague of mine shared some incredible retention statistics that she heard in an educational session by Paul Bedford of the Leisure Database Co., an expert in member retention and attrition management.

Bedford cites that if members are spoken to (in a meaningfulway) every time they come to the club, they are much more likely to continue their membership and refer new members. If members are only interacted with occasionally, the likelihood that they will remain members after six months drops by 60 percent. If they are spoken to rarely or never, the probability that they will still be members after six months drops by 70 percent.

Bedford goes on to correlate member retention to the number of times a team member interacts with a member in any given month:

• One interaction: The member is 20 percent more likely to come back again.

• Two to three interactions: The member is 50 percent more likely to return.

• Four or more interactions: The member is 80 percent more likely to continue at the club.

It just goes to show the value of a personal connection. Simple actions, such as smiling and introducing ourselves to members we don’t know, looking for guests who need help and calling members by name, help build relationships that our clients will be less likely to abandon.

2. Facilitate strong member-to-member connections. Member-to-member interactions build a network of social support and create a sense of belonging.

We know that club members who participate in group activities, such as group exercise, basketball leagues or tennis, have higher retention rates than individuals who experience the club in a solitary fashion. John McCarthy, IHRSA’s executive director emeritus, makes a distinction between “group fitness” and “machine” members. He explains that “machine” members often interact only with the machines they use and are, therefore, “deficient in both member-to-member connections and member-to-staff connections.” They are not as loyal to a club because they see it merely as a fitness warehouse.

To draw members into group activities, have membership coordinators gather data about member interests at the point of sale. In addition to directing new members to group activities they will enjoy, this information can be used for program invitations at a later date. Encourage program leaders and department heads to contact new members personally to welcome them to the club and answer any questions they have about classes or programs.

Creating social space in your club also can promote member-to-member interaction. Clubs with cafés, lounges or other places where members can chat or meet for a cup of coffee tend to have higher retention rates than clubs without social space. Consider adding seating in places that members typically wait or congregate, such as outside the locker rooms and group exercise studios.

3. Factor in the fun. At Club Industry’s recent conference in Chicago, aerobics icon Richard Simmons was a featured keynote speaker. As you can imagine, he did not stand at a podium and lecture for 45 minutes. He interacted with audience members, bringing almost half the room onstage with him at one point or another. Simmons made the experience fun and non-threatening, turning what could have been a one-way lecture into a dynamic shared experience.

Similarly, strive to surprise and delight your members and guests every day. Map out their experience at your gym to find service opportunities. Grab an umbrella on a rainy day and offer to walk members to their cars. Wash dirty clothes left behind in the locker rooms so that when they are claimed from lost and found they are folded and fresh. Handwrite personal notes of thanks or encouragement. Generate excitement in your club and around town with group exercise launch parties, fitness “flash mobs” and “tweetups.”

The winning formula is very simple, and Simmons’ philosophy sums it up nicely. In addition to providing the fun factor, he advises clubs to “know no strangers” and make members feel “like a million dollars.” More often than not, it is the small, personal touches that create a standout experience. When members look forward to spending time at your club, they will make their workouts a priority. And regular attendance is the best way for members to be successful in your clubs, both in building relationships and reaching their fitness goals. The bottom line is that successful members are loyal members.