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Stay: Creating a Culture of Retention


Achieving a high retention rate isn’t accomplished by chance. In fact, clubs with low attrition work hard at ensuring their members stay. These clubs place a focus on retention into every aspect of their facilities, from the overall culture down to the nitty-gritty details.

In 2013, in the midst of the company’s mission to get its medical fitness certification, The Atlantic Club in Red Bank, New Jersey, decided it needed to reevaluate its customer service in hopes of lowering attrition by 10 percent. To do so, the company gathered eight teams comprised of different club departments and nailed down 48 items the club could do better over the following 60 days.

Photo courtesy of The Atlantic Club.

Photo courtesy of The Atlantic Club.

“When you bring 50 people into a room and they all say, ‘We’re accountable for the retention of our members,’ that’s effective,” said Kevin McHugh, the COO of The Atlantic Club.

The meeting sparked a key change, which was the transition of the title “front desk staff” to “member experience team.” As part of the transition, front desk staff (or the member experience team) took a tour of the club as if they were prospects, looking for things a prospect might see.

“It was interesting to get people’s perspectives as if they were members,” said McHugh. “If you’re a ‘member experience’ employee, you have a different job than if you’re a ‘front desk’ person. When member experience staff walk around the club, they’re not just plugged into the front desk, but the club as a whole.”

Additionally in 2008, The Atlantic Club made a similar transition. Instead of calling its sales team “sales,” it began calling them “wellness coordinators” who became incentivized by new memberships, and most importantly, the retention of current members. As a part of the change, it began looking for people who didn’t have previous health club sales experience, in order to prevent negative sales tactics from being carried over from previous positions. “[Now] we look for people with strong customer service backgrounds, a sense of empathy and a strong work ethic,” said McHugh.

Today, The Atlantic Club gears its customer service standards towards the hospitality industry. According to McHugh, this has helped attribute to the club’s low 16 percent attrition rate. McHugh explained The Atlantic Club’s employees now ask, “How does the [hospitality industry] train its teams to give that great experience, as if the customer is at a resort?”

Pura Vida in Denver, Colorado, gears its customer service more towards the hospitality industry. According to Keith Moore, the general manager and vice president of brand development for Pura Vida, the club’s emphasis on customer service and the member experience is what has lead to its retention rate of 81 percent.

To ensure the club’s member experience is at the highest of standards, Pura Vida ensures its staff — from trainers to managers — is on the same page. “Because Pura Vida runs the operations on a hospitality platform, hiring and retaining an excellent staff who understand the importance of service and high-touch is paramount,” said Moore. “By doing so, the member experience is superior to our competitors … I very much look at what we are doing as entertainment hospitality, but with results to a better lifestyle. The member has plenty of choices if they are looking for a typical gym experience. We make it clear we are not that.”

According to Moore, where many clubs go wrong is having fragmented departments who are focused on just their duties, instead of the overall success of the club as a whole. “Often, the sales staff is doing their own thing, are managed differently than other staff members and are pushed hard to achieve a unit number that is often aggressive by trying to cover a high attrition rate,” he said. “This creates not only sales staff burnout and employee attrition, but a culture that harks back to a way of selling fitness that was common 10 to 20 years ago. A culture of five different enrollment fees or special discounts daily is a sloppy way of selling one of the most important things a person can buy — health and wellness. If retention of the current member was thought about more deeply, the turnover of members and staff would minimize.”

Photo courtesy of Pura Vida.

Photo courtesy of Pura Vida.

Joe Cirulli, the founder of Gainesville Health and Fitness in Gainesville, Florida, realized early on that the retention of employees is just as important as the retention of members when it comes to fostering a culture of low attrition. “Whenever you talk about retention, you have to talk about the retention of your staff first,” said Cirulli. “If you can’t retain your staff, how can you retain your members?”

After all, many members forge close relationships with not only Group X instructors and personal trainers, but also front desk staff, childcare providers and nutritionists. To encourage low employee turnover, like The Atlantic Club and Pura Vida, Cirulli ensures his employees are all working towards a common goal — the service of members.

“I meet with all new employees for two hours and tell them the history of the company, who we are and our vision,” said Cirulli, which is to serve members to the best of the club’s ability. “Everyone should have a common goal.” As a result of this common goal, Gainesville Health and Fitness’ member attrition rate hovers around 20 percent.

Of course, a high retention rate doesn’t mean your club doesn’t have areas in which it can improve, which is why actively asking for feedback from members is an important aspect. To gather feedback, The Atlantic Club and Gainesville Health & Fitness use Club Works, part of Medallia, to survey members. Each survey receives a direct, verbal response from an employee.

“It really creates a difference,” said McHugh. “It helps us identify problems and fix them. It does take time — it adds about five hours a week to my schedule — but it’s worth it.”

Cultivating a culture of retention takes work. But the effort is worth it in the long run.

“I want the member to feel like they are walking into a five-star resort each and every time they visit,” said Moore. “I tell my staff to imagine they are having a wonderful dinner party each day they show up at work. Is the house spotless? Does it smell inviting? Do you know your guests’ interests and what they like? It sounds like a very ‘soft’ way to run a health club, but ultimately it’s about caring for the member in a way that they are not used to experiencing.”

By Rachel Zabonick

Rachel Zabonick-Chonko

Rachel Zabonick-Chonko is the editor-in-chief of Club Solutions Magazine. She can be reached at rachel@peakemedia.com.

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