Amanda Harris is a management development specialist with more than 15 years of industry experience, including 13 years as a personal trainer. She has presented at both the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association and Medical Fitness Association trade shows. Currently, she is a faculty member of the Esquerre Fitness Group and is vice president of Fitness & Wellness at ACAC Fitness & Wellness Centers, based in Virginia. She can be reached at amandah@acac.com.

In today's economy, it's more important than ever for you as a club owner or operator to find creative and profitable ways to keep your members engaged in your club. As members begin to re-assess their finances, they will look to reduce any unnecessary spending. As an owner/operator, you must be sure that a membership to your club continues to fall in the necessary category.

In the "2007 Guide to Membership Retention," John McCarthy, former executive director of the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, cites member-to-member connection and fee-based services as two of several powerful retention tools. In addition, he points out that most members equate usage with value in their membership. For all of these reasons, you should consider fee-based fitness programming to capture and keep at-risk members.

Who do you want to save?
A good first step is to determine which member segment you want to target. Who among your membership is vulnerable but salvageable? Let's say you've decided that it's a middle-aged group of new exercisers who want to lose weight. You must first consider the format, which can include personal training, small group training and large group fitness programming. In this case, the large group programming format may work best because it allows you to touch more members using a single instructor, the members pay less per head (making the option more affordable than personal or small group training), and with the right number of participants, this format can allow you to pay the instructor more than you would for other services.

Find a champion
Now comes the tough part: finding a champion. In my experience, the person you put in charge of a program will make or break it, no matter how good the program is. You need someone with drive, lots of personality, and enough knowledge and talent to be both credible and compelling with your group. He or she will probably not be the least expensive team member but will be well worth the money.

Set your fee
Next, you must set a fee. Keep in mind the purpose of your program. You definitely want to make money, but charging too much could kill the program. In today's economy, it may make more sense to narrow your program margins, knowing that if the program works, you will keep members that you may have lost without it. By setting the fee appropriately, you can create a program that facilitates member recruitment as well as member retention and member referral.

Misconceptions and threats
Before you begin marketing your new program to members, develop buy-in among team members who might think your program will compete with them (personal trainers and other fee-based service providers). If you're concerned about membership retention, it's a good bet that your trainers, nutritionists and other fee-based providers are concerned about their businesses as well. It's important for them to understand that your program is meant to compliment their services, not compete with them. Some members may reduce the frequency of their sessions with these professionals, but your new program could help these clients continue to see great results. The best part about that is, the member gets results, the club keeps the member, and the professional keeps the client. It is well worth the time to talk to these team members. You could win both advocates and extra marketing for your efforts.

Measure and tweak
You're now ready to run your program. It's time to arm your champion with the mission and send him or her out among your members to recruit them into your new program. Remember to measure your program's success at regular intervals. For your weight-loss program, are participants losing weight? If not, you'll need to tweak it to make it work. How many participants did you get in the first run? Did you hit your goal? If not, you may need to tweak something. Consider using program surveys at the end of each session so you can hear from participants about what worked and what needs to be changed.

If you follow the above steps, you can create a great fee-based program that adds great value to your membership without adding excessive cost to your members. In summary, determine who you want to save, decide on the appropriate program topic and format, find a champion, price it responsibly, and measure and tweak as needed. Be sure to get your teams to advocate for your program. Retention is everyone's responsibility, and the time is most definitely now.