AND THE SURVEY SAYS…
I visit gyms across the country and throughout the world. I know you may think it is an odd way to spend my time. After all in any given city there are great restaurants, entertainment, historic sites, events and many other compelling attractions. For me, visiting a fitness club is a way to learn directly and through body language about the people that make a community. You’ve heard it said that you can learn a lot about a person just by watching them. It’s true. Stress, sadness, relief, optimism and many other emotional drivers are communicated through the way we move, act and physically express our self. How well our needs are being met is communicated too.
Gym owners, club managers and program directors often ask how they can retain and increase membership, create a better facility, and overall grow their business. One of the recommendations that I offer, which is most effective is for them to simply observe the body language of their members – carefully and thoroughly observe. It is tough for them to do. Carving even a half hour into their weekly schedule to simply watch their members doesn’t seem to them to be the best use of their time. Consistently observing their members over a period of months for most is way beyond their professional training and certainly beyond their interest level. When I suggest that they should directly talk with and learn from their members they quickly come up with excuses and refocus the conversation on the bottom line.
Yet Ed Tock, a partner in the marketing and consulting firm Sales Makers, recently reported in Fitness Business-Pro magazine, “In four markets I shopped eight to 10 clubs. Most of the people [staff] at the clubs I shopped asked only two questions, including ‘How are you?’ Most of the staff at the clubs I shopped seemed indifferent. Some people just seemed to be going through the motions rather than trying to make a difference to me.”
I, like Ed, decided to not just talk theory with club leadership. I wanted to see for myself. In collaboration with gym staff and managers at one gym, I developed a lifestyle survey to measure personal needs, personal goals, and programming interests. Then I took the survey into the gym lobby and talked directly with members.
Members most favorably responded to the personal goals section suggesting that they come to their gym with expectations. They are looking to improve their life. Most importantly they want to improve their ability to manage issues, stress and circumstances. When asked about their personal needs the majority of members simply want motivation, encouragement, hope and fun. Second on their list is a need for resources providing instruction, insight and empowerment. Their response to a variety of programming ideas was mixed. However, the one programming service they most wanted to see at their gym is opportunities to show compassion and serve others.
There are many insights gym managers will gain when they take a simple survey like this. One thing is quickly apparent – these members needs, goals and interests can be met with little impact on the budget.
THE CHURCH ADVANTAGE
The church, synagogue, tabernacle and mosque certainly aren’t being popularized in today’s media and culture as trendy hangouts. However, their position in human history makes them institutions with enduring legacies. These places of worship are respected as sacred. Yet they also have the reputation of being central to community. People go there to be in the presence of God but they also go there to be among others.
The church has recognized this dual role and for centuries has risen to meet peoples’ needs. It has given rest to the weary, strength to the weak, healing to the sick and direction to the searching. It certainly has given members motivation, encouragement, hope and yes, even fun in life.
The church has learned that meeting needs and giving to people has lasting value.
THE HISTORY OF THE GYM
Gyms too have a long history of being a gathering place. The early Greeks developed gyms and made them central to their culture. More recently YMCAs, precursors to today’s modern fitness centers, were originally created to be a place to meet a wide range of social needs for members. This social purpose for gyms formed a foundation that while more secular in purpose from that of churches, none-the-less gave gyms an intrinsic value to the people served.
That deeper purpose has diminished due to economic pressures, greater specialization, social and lifestyle distractions and a host of other cultural factors. Gyms are under pressure to perform and meet goals that their predecessors did not have.
WHAT GYMS DO WELL TODAY
The modern-day fitness facility delivers a wide range of services and features. Amenities include aquatics, group exercise, fitness equipment, sports programs, spa services, nutrition products and much more. New facilities open regularly with more lavish and comfortable surroundings.
Professionals staff these facilities with incredible knowledge and skill. Their education is often quite extensive and constantly being developed further with continuing training.
The exercise and sports equipment for these facilities features thoroughly researched designs. Improved developments are constantly being introduced with new advances in physical science.
The mega-gym, like the mega-church, stands as a beautiful example of the refined level of design that celebrates the evolution of these two institutions.
WHEN CHURCHES AND GYMS FAIL
However, somewhere along the way the original purpose has been lost. The grandeur of both gyms and churches has eclipsed the simple focus. The activity has all but silenced the need. That is not a fanatical or an alarmist perspective. It is unfortunately a reality that members find frustrating. If you are a member of a gym or church you know all to well that some of your most concerning needs are not being met.
What is the rap on the church? For starters most of them follow a cookie-cutter routine: Sing a song, take an offering, pray, do the short preacher sermon and bam! --- you’re back out the door finished with the obligation or inconvenience. That is somewhat of an overgeneralization but quite honestly it is the perspective many people hold. Unfortunately, it isn’t too far off. And – for those churches that are working to do better they can easily get their spiritual mission sidetracked with clutter like trying to be attractive to the marketplace or supporting a social agenda. The focus on members’ needs doesn’t get the pinpoint attention. Helping members get real solutions to critical issues doesn’t happen. A handful might get some help but the majority of needs are not treated with a plan that will lead to real life growth.
And getting a membership to a gym doesn’t improve your chances much. If gyms are doing such a great job why is obesity a continually growing crisis? Why is general wellness not improving like it should? Why are gyms trying to figure out how they can attract a stressed-out, over-worked and out-of-shape population that truly is looking for a good time. Gyms don’t deliver either. Great equipment is great. Clean facilities are very nice. Friendly staff is expected. But gyms, like churches are in the lifestyle business. As a member you can do cardio, group exercises, strength training and sports… when you leave the gym if your deepest needs have not been addressed you are still going to be dissatisfied.
Both churches and gyms can justify their positions all they want. When they really start to meet members’ needs they won’t have to worry about member retention and they really won’t have to go looking for new members.
WHAT ARE THE REAL NEEDS?
Hey members --- you tell us. Are you going through a divorce? Does your sex life suck? Do you have money problems? Are you in need of a real friend? Maybe you just want to find some greater purpose in life and more meaning for your day-to-day. The real needs have to be honestly identified.
Surface needs are more easily recognized: Maybe you want to lose weight, find religion, gain strength, read the Bible, just have some exercise and down time or do something meaningful on Sunday. Churches and fitness clubs can help you do that. They can do that well – and everyone can tally success. For quick-fix marketplace economics that approach works.
The deeper needs are the problem. They keep screaming for a solution. So, people keep looking for ways to get those needs met. New constructs are being created. Do you have a My Space (“a place for friends”) or a Face Book (“a social utility that connects you with the people around you.”) profile yet? These and other web services have eclipsed the membership growth of both churches and gyms.
CHANGING DIRECTIONS (WHAT CHURCHES MUST DO, WHAT GYMS MUST DO, WHAT MEMBERS MUST DO)
Churches and gym aren’t failing by any means. Members are generally satisfied. However, there is a better direction that can be charted. It is a direction that will position these facilities to be far more effective and play a more important role in their community.
It starts with honest and active conversations between members and leadership. Out-of-the-box creative thinking balanced with dogged knowledge and understanding must be applied to developing new solutions. It requires some risk-taking on both sides. Everyone must be willing to invest and maintain commitment. Daily focus and regular evaluation can sustain the change.
MODELS THAT ARE WORKING
There are many examples of fitness facilities and worship facilities that are developing good working models. Those leading the initiatives below will be the first to recognize that they want to do more and do it better. They are however, bridging the gap toward meeting deeper needs. They are achieving success now and all anticipate further growth and success for their business and especially their members.
YAKIMA ATHLETIC CLUB, Yakima, Washington
ARTHUR JORDAN YMCA, Indianapolis, Indiana
Lifestyle Survey, Chapel, and Christian Emphasis Committee
YMCA OF MIDDLE TENNESSEE, Nashville, Tennessee
Restore, a life-changing ministry of the YMCA
THE LORD’S GYM, Cincinnati, Ohio
Inner-City Counseling, Instruction and Support Services
FIELDHOUSE FITNESS CENTER, Dallas, Texas
THE ROCK TOTAL FITNESS, Mount Vernon, Ohio
Conversion To A Faith-Focused Facility
FAITH COMMUNITY CENTER, Lafayette, Indiana
Church-Developed And Managed Facility
CEDARVILLE UNIVERSITY WELLNESS CENTER, Cedarville, Ohio
DAYTON AREA YMCA, Dayton, Ohio
CRUNCH FITNESS, New York City
Does your gym meet your real needs? The next generation of gyms has the ability to do exactly that. These facilities will give a much greater emphasis to their human resources recognizing that people want people. They will develop combined networked services so that more solutions can converge at one place at one time. They and their members will commit to education recognizing that needs are met through a solid foundation in lifetime learning. They will restructure the marketing, communications, business style, services and even their mission to support a better approach to lifestyle needs.
Expect to see business, organizational, community and member partnerships that join together in sharing cost, developing structure and shaping vision. The most rapid advances will be seen among those who provide for and allow a fluid process. They’ll bring to the marketplace first generation models to test and refine. They will budget for research and development. How will you find these places? Look for happy members that are getting their real needs met.
Brad Bloom shared these and other insights with gym leadership at the annual Club Industry conference in Chicago IL on Oct. 11, 2007. Click on the banner for more information.