We all know those gyms that have staff members who corner you into buying a membership and lay the pressure on thick when you try to cancel it. So here’s the thing: You don’t want your fitness center to feel like one of those gyms. The secret to operating a successful fitness center is creating a unique experience that values your members’ personal health just as much as your profit.

“One of the things you see in the more profitable sites is they typically don’t discount membership dues, so you’re selling on a value proposition versus constantly trying to sell on price,” says Bill Bourque, EXOS president of account management and field operations. He explains that this approach stabilizes your revenue per member, but it also forces you to deliver on your promise.

Think about it: If you slap some weights in a room, collect checks, and leave everything else up to each individual member, you’re not offering your community a real chance at healthier living. It’s like sending cubs into the wild without offering a few pointers first.

Instead, you have to do some hand-holding. Bonnie Mattalian, EXOS vice president of community services, stresses why providing guidance in the first 30 to 60 days of a member’s experience is absolutely critical. “These people are motivated right when they get started. They want to jump in, and it can also be really overwhelming,” she says. That’s where you come in. It’s all about personalizing a game plan that works for each member’s strengths and weaknesses.

At EXOS, we use our EXOS Journey program as well as a four-pillar approach involving mindset, nutrition, movement, and recovery to track progress and provide a path to positive results. That’s part of how we create an experience that leads to higher retention of clients as well as success for fitness center members. In addition, there are some basic strategies fitness center managers can and should consider when it comes to crafting an unforgettable user experience.

Layout should cater to your clientele by considering how they work out and what creates the least intimidating environment.

Most fitness centers tend to be laid out based on equipment, not based on the user.

1. Analyze your target market.
You can’t successfully market to your community if you don’t actually understand who lives in your community. Find out how many families live in the area so you know how many children may come in with their parents. If a lot of seniors live close by, think about the programs, classes, and even equipment that will best serve them.

“There are certain reports we can also run that tell us more about the segmentation of who these people are, what they like, where they come from, how long they’ve lived there, what do they spend their money on, what are their hobbies,” explains Mattalian. “We encourage people to call us and have us do that for them. [Those are] the building blocks. That’s the very first thing that has to be in place.”

2. Design for function.
“Most fitness centers tend to be laid out based on equipment, not based on the user,” says Bourque. For example, cardio machines are usually separate from the strength training equipment, even though this arrangement may not cater to how people actually structure their workouts.

He explains one process that tracked members in a 10,000-square-foot fitness space. He describes how the members were crisscrossing the space, which made it hard for them to be successful in meeting their workout goals. You can avoid this problem if you design the facility with the user’s actual behavior in mind.

The other aspect to consider is how the layout looks to potential new members when they walk in the door. “If your free weights are up front and the big, strong weight lifters are near the front desk, that creates an intimidating environment,” Bourque says.

Programming that speaks to your demographic by keeping families in mind can lead to better member retention.
Locker rooms should make people feel comfortable, not vulnerable.
Group classes for the win: Creating a social environment can set your fitness center apart.

At EXOS, we use our EXOS Journey program as well as a four-pillar approach involving mindset, nutrition, movement, and recovery to track progress and provide a path to positive results.

3. Invest in locker rooms.
The first thing that comes to mind when starting a new fitness center is the equipment; and, like bathrooms in restaurants, locker rooms tend to be an afterthought. However, as Bourque aptly points out, “People are most vulnerable in any of these facilities in a locker room.”

Remember, everyone battles with insecurities about his or her body, and if your privacy rooms don’t make members feel comfortable and safe, they probably won’t enjoy coming back.

4. Engage your demographic.
Once you know more about who your target demographic is, think about how best to engage those people. “If someone is participating in three additional programs or services within the center, they’re more likely to be successful, and they’re more likely to stay a member longer,” Mattalian says.

Bourque adds, “Kids may be involved in summer camp. They may be taking swim lessons. They may use the fitness center. The more things that they get involved in, the retention level goes up much higher.” And this applies to the adults just as much as the kids.

5. Create a social environment
Your goal is to put the “community” in community fitness center. Depending on the size of your space and the market you’re operating in, adding amenities like cafes, pools, and outdoor training areas can go a long way in making members fall in love with your facility and look forward to coming back.

“I went to one of our centers one day,” Mattalian recalls. “I was sitting in the restaurant and all of a sudden all of these women, 60 and up, came in, with wet hair. There were about 20 people that came in from the group aquatics class, and they all had lunch together.” Never underestimate the social element. Connecting members to people they can form relationships with is part of what keeps them coming back for more.

6. Focus on holistic health, not just fitness
With the growing landscape of boutique fitness studios and name-brand gyms, it’s not enough to simply put equipment in a room. In fact, Bourque ranks the trap of being a fitness-only facility right down there with poor customer service. Instead, community fitness centers should be looking to adopt a more holistic model for their members.

“We’re going to learn about their mindset and nutrition and their movement and their recovery so that we’re changing the conversation from purely fitness to one that is more holistic,” he says, adding that partnering with nearby hospitals to leverage their name also provides a certain comfort level for people.

Tailored programs for your target market coupled with bonus perks that further engage your members will put your center on the right track. The most successful fitness centers create an entire experience for their members, going above and beyond the minimum requirements. You need to walk a mile in your customer’s shoes and think of managing your fitness center to meet their full range of wants and needs.

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