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Membership Retention: Takeaways from Outside the Fitness Industry

membership retention

To learn more about membership retention in the fitness industry I’ve begun looking at other industries. The best one I’ve come across so far is organized religion, being as old as 10,000 years. In comparison with the fitness industry – which has been around for 200 years – organized religion has had a lot more time to figure out retention than we have.

Churches face many of the same issues fitness centers do. They want their members coming back each week and they want them to be involved with as many things as possible the church offers. So do we – we know if our members continue to use our facility, they will be more likely to stay members and the more involved they will be in the programs we offer. Consistent, happy church members are more likely to refer other members also, just like the fitness industry. 

Assimilation is the word churches use to describe member engagement. It’s getting new church members involved in the programs the church offers, such as ministry and small-group involvement, like Sunday school or choir. Churches know the more involved the members are, the better they’ll do and the longer they’ll stay. 

Our industry knows this as well. We know members who do personal training, small group training, and Group X classes are more likely to use the club frequently – which improves retention – and are more likely to stay members longer, spend more money in the club, and refer their friends. Usage is the key.

In an article by Charles Willis titled “Early Assimilation to Church Member Retention,” he lists three-time spans as important to assimilation: 

  • The first ten minutes for assurance and growth.  
  • The first week for contacts from the church. 
  • The first month for outreach in small group involvement. 

These time frames could easily apply to our fitness clubs as well.  

The First 10 Minutes: In the first 10 minutes the prospect is making their first impressions. What impression are you giving them? Say a prospect comes in and they want to look around the facility. Did you give them a tour and ask them about themselves and their goals, introduce them to some of the other staff and show them everything you offer? Or were you busy on Facebook and told them to walk around and come see you if they have questions? It’s surprising how often the latter goes on. 

The First Week: In the first week they need to get started on a workout program, shown how to operate the equipment, maybe get signed up for a Group X class, or try a couple workouts with a small group trainer. Anything and everything to make sure they feel comfortable in the club and especially comfortable in approaching staff members for questions. 

Just about every club offers some free personal training sessions with a new membership, yet up to 70% of new members will not do it. These people become the “treadmill only” people. If a low-cost competitor moves into your area selling memberships for $10 a month, the treadmill only people will be the first to leave. Why would they pay $40-$50 a month to walk on a treadmill at your facility when they could pay $10 for the same service? We can be more proactive with onboarding new members into our programs, something many clubs don’t do. Set yourself apart from the competition and offer them the service that will keep them getting results and keep them at your gym. 

The First Month: In the first month, we should be staying in close contact with them to see how they’re doing, what things they liked or maybe didn’t like, if they have any more questions, and if they meet with a trainer, how it went. Did they try any classes and how did it go? Or have they become a treadmill only member? The number one metric we utilize is usage. For us, that is the best indicator of the health of our health club. 

People who use the club tend to stay members. Small competitions and challenges can be used to get these people engaged at the club. A race to 100 miles on a treadmill is a simple one that comes to mind. We have Expresso bikes and have had competitions on different courses for the best times. We will offer some kind of small prize, but most will do it for bragging rights. The more contacts we have with them in the early days, the higher the potential for them becoming long term members. 

Dr. Kirk E. Jeffery discussed getting visitors back into the church in “Coffee and Church Visitor Retention.” He said what people are looking for most of all in a new church is a place to connect and find community. That may not be the reason people join a gym, but it is a reason people stay at the gym. They meet some new people with the same goals and struggles as themselves, and they connect with staff members who can help them reach their goals. Engagement in the club’s programs helps new members get together and form these friendships and bonds. People quit gym memberships all the time, but they’re less likely to quit relationships. 

Dr. Jeffery also described the need for a visitor follow-up. He does this with a Sunday afternoon unannounced visit. He brings them a half-pound of coffee that’s custom imprinted with the church’s name, address and phone number. He does the coffee because it has a “sticky” factor. A coffee mug will be put away in a cupboard, or a t-shirt thrown in a drawer. The coffee, however, will sit out on the counter for the next week for the visitor to see every time they walk into their kitchen. I think this is brilliant. Not the unannounced visit necessarily, but the coffee, yes.

Giving something to a person who visits your club but does not sign up is a great tool. Something they will see frequently for the next few days and makes them think of us. Anything that will keep your club in their mind, even after they went to see some of your competitors, will give you an edge. We hand out purple Anytime Fitness lanyards to every person that walks in, whether they join or not.   

It’s all about setting ourselves apart from the competition. We do this with killer customer service.

Jeff Bissonnette

Jeff Bissonnette has a bachelors degree in Exercise and Sport Science and a masters degree in Exercise Physiology and Biomechanics from the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse where he was an assistant strength and conditioning coach for three years. He has taught anatomy and fitness testing courses for the American Council on Exercise personal trainer certification exam, as well as consulted on a children’s fitness and an exercise book for Acorn Publishing. Jeff has also spoken at the Club Industry convention. Prior to opening Anytime Fitness of Lake City, Jeff owned a personal training studio in Stillwater, Minnesota for nine years. Jeff and his wife Teri have owned their Anytime Fitness club since 2004.

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1 Comment

  1. Julie Rickman November 14, 2021

    Brilliant analogy! I think a staff challenge revolved around consistent new member contact would be helpful to keep it as a priority. It seems that once we onboard new members, they slip into ‘general club population’. The gym can be intimidating, it’s a big deal to sign up, they deserve the follow through on our part,


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