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A killer business plan is the key to getting the loan you need. Here’s what you should know.

The days of easy credit are definitely over, as any small business owner can tell you. While a few years ago you could get a loan from a bank without too much in the way of a business plan, now a solid plan is the only way to grow your business with bank supplied funds. Unfortunately for most health club owners, business plans weren’t part of their educational background, so here’s a quick course in what makes a plan that will appeal to your bank.

Look at it as an opportunity. Believe it or not, the hassle of putting together a business plan can have big payoff for club owners, since it forces you to really think about-and articulate-what makes your club so special. What does it do that’s different from other clubs? What are its unique features? Where do you see your club 5 years from now? Ten years from now? You’ve probably got all this information floating around in your head already, but you may be surprised by how it feels to actually commit it to paper.

Start with a summary. The first 5 to 10 pages of your business plan should serve as a quick summary, giving the bank a clear idea of what your club is and what problem it is solving. Here’s the place where your club’s uniqueness should be clearly spelled out: Is your club designed to appeal to a group that’s not currently being served? Does it include popular features that other clubs don’t? Do you or your staff members have some notable expertise? You should be able to clearly articulate the special features of your club in a few short pages, so don’t ramble. Keep it clear, concise and honest-overselling isn’t going to help your cause.

Consider your competition. Many business plans fail because they don’t acknowledge their competition-and however unique your club may be, it definitely has competition.

Be honest about your weaknesses. Your business plan should show that your have a thorough understanding of the health club industry and your own business, which means pointing out your weaknesses. Trust us, the bank will be able to figure them out without your help, but acknowledging them in your business plan gives you the opportunity to address them in a positive way-by showing how you’ll deal with them. Include both your strengths and weaknesses as a club, in the health and fitness club industry and in the marketplace in general.

Be clear about how you plan to use the loan. The more specific you can be about your intended use of funds, the better. If you’re vague about how you’d use a bank’s money and simply mention “club expansion,” for instance, you’re asking for rejection. Detail the equipment you’d buy, structural upgrades you’d make, personnel you’d bring on board, etc. Think carefully about how you’d spend the money if you got the loan and detail that information in your business plan. Also be sure to include information about how you intend to pay back the loan over time. Detail any information about specific assets your company might have, accomplishments you’ve made or will make and milestones in your future. The more information you can include, the more likely it is your loan will be approved.

Know your company. Don’t put together an incomplete business plan. You’ll need to spend time working through your financial records, including all your taxes and accounting paperwork.

Don’t be disheartened if you follow all this advice and still have your loan application rejected-the market for loans is particularly tough right now. Consider looking for other sources of funding (see the chart below for some ideas) or putting your plan on hold for a little while.

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