fitness clubs need to shape up

Like so many others, the fitness club industry is suffering these days.  The Denver Post recaps some of the difficulties chains like Life Time Fitness and the YMCA are facing.

Michael Robinson, chief financial officer of Life Time Fitness Inc. is quoted as saying, “When somebody looks at that Visa statement and they know that times are tougher, they’re making a decision a little bit quicker to leave the club if they’re not utilizing it.” The article reports, “Attrition rates are rising, forcing clubs to offer steep introductory discounts and spend more on advertising and marketing.”

I question whether those tactics are going to turn fitness businesses around.  These companies don’t need to increase their marketing budgets or promote the heck out of their prices — they need to deliver a better in-club experience.  Said another way, they shouldn’t be investing more in brand communications; they should be focused on brand operationalization — closing the gap between what they say and what they do.

Awhile back, I did an analysis comparing the image fitness clubs want vs. the reality of what members experience, as told on review sites like eOpinions.  The disparity was startling:

  • the brand image clubs intend to project about their staff:

  • the reality prospective members are reading about them:

–  “dishonest, unprofessional from club personnel to phone reps”
–  “when I went in to use my 2 week pass, they immediately tried to get me as a member using high pressure tactics.”
–  “the accounts rep was more than eager to sign me up and take my money. Shortly after joining and frequenting the gym, I discovered the staff was some of the most unfriendly and pretentious snobs around.”

  • the brand image clubs intend to project about their facilities:

  • the reality prospective members are reading about them:

–  “the locker rooms are not regularly cleaned. The locker room floors and showers continue to be consistently dirty. Simple ongoing maintenance is neglected. The floors are dirty and corroded.”
–  “Certain lockers are worn, damaged, or missing parts.”
–  “only one or two of the six showers in the ladies’ locker room work properly at any given time, or they’re missing a soap dispenser off the wall…The lockers also don’t all work properly.”
–  “the scale in the ladies locker room is probably STILL broken.”

  • the brand image they intend to project about their equipment:

  • the reality prospective members are reading about them:

–  “equipment is not maintained…[it] remains unusable for extended periods of time.”
–  “there is usually always something broken, worn out, ripped up.”
–  “machines that wobble, come unhinged, or remain un-repaired for months (they just frequently change the date of the “do not use-broken” notice)”

These are just a few of the disconnects my analysis revealed.  Indeed there is a rather large “say-do” gap when it comes to fitness club brands.

Because of the increasing availability of reviews for everything as well as the power of social media in general, fitness clubs — like all businesses — can no longer hide behind splashy advertising.    Plus, why wouldn’t clubs want to feed and leverage the power of positive word of mouth, particularly in a category that benefits from friends belonging together?!  What’s more, I’m sure the cost ratio of attracting a new member vs. retaining an existing one is quite significant.

Investing in delivering a great brand experience for their members seems a much more powerful approach than spending more on advertising and promotions. Tools and methods for delivering a great brand experience — for how to close the “say-do” gap — will be featured in a forthcoming post.  But for now, I hope this prompts a reconsideration among all business leaders who are deciding how best to combat the effects of the economy.

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