The last 18 months have been some of the most challenging in the fitness industry’s history. However, as we near the end of this chapter, and even if there are a few more bumps in the road ahead, many operators are optimistic for the future.
This includes the leaders of ACAC Fitness & Wellness, a 12-location, full-service fitness brand with clubs in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia. According to owner Phil Wendel, CEO Chris Craytor, and vice presidents of operations Joyce Steed and Kirsten Ryan, the industry has many challenges to overcome, but opportunity is plenty.
“Our industry regularly serves roughly 20% of the U.S. population, yet 80% of Americans believe in the benefits of regular exercise,” said Craytor. “Serving this 80% is where we see the opportunity for ACAC, and for the fitness industry generally.”
How exactly can this market expansion be achieved? According to the team at ACAC, ground can be gained through addressing common fears in joining gyms, integrating with the medical community and attracting great talent.
Reaching the Other 80%
According to Wendel, one of the main factors deterring “the other 80%” of the U.S. population from joining and actively using a health club is intimidation.
There are a number of factors that contribute to hesitancy surrounding joining a fitness facility. In 1998, IHRSA conducted research that revealed “the five fears” common among the general public in joining a gym — research that ACAC still trains its employees on today.
These five fears include the fear of feeling stupid, feeling isolated, looking and feeling like a klutz, physique anxiety, and last but not least, pressure to join.
“At ACAC, we manage these fears,” said Wendel. “We empathize with those who haven’t joined, or are not club fans, and try to mitigate potential buyers’ concerns.”
In addition, the industry is also fighting against negative misconceptions harkening back to the early days of the industry’s history, when high-pressure sales tactics were the norm. For decades gyms were viewed as places for only the young and fit.
“This is probably public perception more than actual reality, but we still have to overcome that,” said Craytor.
Craytor believes clubs can overcome this perception by being intentional about their sales practices, and prioritizing diversity in hiring and marketing. This ensures people from all backgrounds can find people they relate to within your four walls.
“You should be thinking about who you hire, how you market, and the images you use on your website and in your printed materials,” said Craytor. “Additionally, when you look at your staff, do they represent the members you’re trying to attract? If I come in, do I see people who look like me working out at the club? The degree to which you can represent your community is going to be really important in attracting new members to the industry.”
In addition, Craytor shared it’s vital for clubs to provide a broad range of programming and services so people can find their niche or tribe.
ACAC does this with classes like pre- and post-natal swimming, programs for those ages six and up, and much more. “We work very hard to diversify the offerings so that all participants can find something that is right for them,” said Craytor.
An additional piece to improving the industry’s image is clubs moving away from messaging surrounding just fitness. Instead, it’s more about the myriad of ways activity improves your quality of life and mental health.
“It’s about highlighting the stories that have a real, positive impact on the lives of our members,” said Craytor. “Our members stay active so they can play with their grandkids, walk up and down the stairs, have more joy in their life, or even ditch their medications. Those are the wins that we should continue to celebrate.”
Despite “the five fears” and misconceptions surrounding the industry, Wendel feels a tide is turning. After the COVID-19 pandemic, more Americans are recognizing the importance of health and fitness, and are turning to gyms as the solution.
This has been showcased through the resurgence many gyms are reporting upon reopening, including ACAC, which has added back 10,000 accounts — a mix of single and family memberships — since reopening its 12 locations in June 2020.
“The most optimistic thing that ought to come out of this pandemic is a wake-up call for the American consumer to get healthy,” said Wendel. “As we know, the inordinate number of deaths that took place because of COVID-19 came about in people with one or several comorbidities. It might have been Type 2 diabetes, it might have been weight challenges, or age. And a good number of those deaths, if America were a lot healthier, could have been prevented.”
This is where Wendel feels a huge opportunity for the industry lies, in forming partnerships with the medical community to improve health outcomes for Americans across the board.
“That’s my real hope, that at some point in time, our industry will begin to align itself pretty closely with the medical continuum,” said Wendel.
Integrating with the Medical Community
ACAC is setting the example through its proprietary Physician Referred Exercise Program (P.R.E.P.), founded roughly 20 years ago. Through the program, a doctor identifies a patient who would benefit from exercise and refers them to ACAC.
The program came about after Wendel began talking to physicians and realized many doctors recognized the benefits of exercise, but did not know how to teach or guide it. “We wanted to be the solution for the physician who prescribes activity to his or her patient,” he said.
Key elements of the program include registered nurses at each club and dedicated physician outreach professionals to drive referrals. Each participant receives three fitness assessments over a 60-day program, along with two exercise sessions a week. ACAC also tracks outcomes for patients and delivers these results to the referring physician.
The program has been a phenomenal success, with ACAC filling over 50,000 exercise prescriptions since starting the program. Once the program is complete, about 30% to 40% of the enrollments purchase a membership at the club.
“Prior to COVID-19, we were getting 180 memberships a month, system wide, for medical referrals,” said Wendel. “These were not people who just joined the P.R.E.P. program. These were people who were graduates of the P.R.E.P. program, and then decided at the end of the 60 days, ‘I need to become a member.’ Looking at 16 months ago, 20% of our membership was driven by people who had joined P.R.E.P.”
With the success of the P.R.E.P program as evidence, the team at ACAC feels confident doctors will continue to prioritize long-term prevention, and that the fitness industry is a part of the solution.
“Ninety percent of healthcare costs are driven by chronic disease in the U.S.,” said Craytor. “If we’re looking at what the future holds, it’s how do we prevent someone from becoming diabetic, for example? That will be more important than ever, versus treating diabetes itself. You’re going to see health clubs play a more integral role in health care.”
With this in mind, Craytor envisions more health clubs hiring nutritionists, registered dietitians and other credential staff, in addition to offering programs surrounding disease management and preventative care.
“I think this will be an opportunity for our industry to really develop its kind of thinking, its strengths, and its good habits around delivering medical and preventative programming,” said Craytor.
Attracting Great Talent
An important piece of the puzzle to reaching “the other 80%” and establishing partnerships with the medical community involves attracting and retaining professional, credentialed and talented staff.
According to Craytor, this can be a challenge in an industry that relies heavily on entry-level and part-time positions to operate. “How do you find a way to actually recruit people to our industry, which isn’t known as being extremely lucrative in terms of the overall pay?” he asked.
For ACAC, overcoming this challenge involves prioritizing people — increasing pay for top talent when possible, doling out recognition, providing upward mobility and training, and supporting staff wherever possible. These efforts have resulted in the fitness brand boasting a higher-than-average staff retention rate, with many employees sticking with ACAC for 10, 15, 20 or more years.
This includes Steed, who has been with ACAC for 29 years. When asked what’s kept her at the company for so long, she emphasized the company culture.
“We care about our employees,” said Steed. “Not just in financial ways. Although that is important, I don’t think people stay for money. I think they stay for culture, and the culture in our clubs is more family, community oriented. People feel like they’re part of our family, and therefore, they don’t want to leave that family.”
Ryan echoed these sentiments, explaining one of the brand’s core values is “people first,” and that is evident in the decisions made daily by all team members.
“Our team is constantly supporting, celebrating and challenging each other,” said Ryan. “It is not unusual for the team to celebrate not only the professional accomplishments of each other, but also the personal milestones in each other’s lives. There is no question that ACAC is not only committed to helping the members live their best, but our organization is dedicated to making sure each person on the team receives the support and challenge to be their best.”
A great example of ACAC’s attention to employee care originated around 10 years ago. An employee’s son, Ber, was diagnosed with neuroblastoma cancer that he has since recovered from. To show their support, ACAC created a fundraising event called Ber’s Bowl that’s run for 14 years, and raised close to $200,000 for charitable causes.
“The event showed our team how much we care about them, and what we would do for somebody who needed help,” said Steed. “I can give you tons of examples like that. It’s not policy oriented — although we do have team-friendly policies. It’s more about the investment we make in our team, the ways we show them we care, and the lengths we’ll go to make them feel like they’re part of something bigger than just a business.”
As ACAC continues to recover after the challenges of the last 19 months, it’s proving its impact goes beyond just a business.
“At the end of the day, our product does good things for people,” said Craytor. “It’s really important to not shy away from the positive things about working in a health club as we tell our story to potential hires and new team members. It’s really important we don’t back down from what makes us great, and celebrate it.”
In fact, Craytor, Wendel, Steed and Ryan are confident the industry has winds at its back pushing it in the right direction.
“I’m really optimistic,” said Wendel. “I take the long view on this industry, and I think the winds behind us are not headwinds, but tailwinds. I’m looking out over the next five or seven years and thinking, ‘This is a really good place to be.’”