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by Jak Phillips


Whisper it quietly, but clubs are coming back strongly. After two of the toughest years imaginable, operators around the world are reporting bumper attendance and membership levels, with many outstripping pre-pandemic levels already.

And with January traditionally the busiest month for attracting new members, we’re heading into what is arguably the most important high season in fitness history.

Starting the year with a bang will turbocharge your club’s comeback and put a serious dent in annual sales targets. Better still, by onboarding your new members effectively, you can rely on a steady stream of monthly revenue from them (and the friends they refer) for years to come.

But as we all know, competition for new members will be fierce. In many markets, digital and TV campaigns from major players start even before the holiday season is truly underway. Meanwhile, promotional offers fly thick and fast, as gyms jostle their rivals with pledges of zero joining fees, discount rates, and an array of handy (or sometimes not) free gifts. And that’s before we even mention digital fitness platforms, many of which are backed by the world’s biggest tech companies and will be gunning for a hefty slice of the New Year fitness pie.

So, in a market where everyone is screaming ‘join us’, how can you cut through the noise? While many of the above promotional tactics are handy for attracting members in the short term, none are able to keep them as fully paid-up members once the New Year’s resolutions slip and their motivation begins to wane.

With this in mind, how are successful clubs around the world planning to start the New Year on the front foot? And what can we learn from them? Here are seven key plays:

1. Map the new market

Considering the macro-environmental factors shaping your market and the lives of your target audience is an important part of the planning process.

The pandemic has prompted consumers to prioritise their health, with 50 per cent focusing more on their wellbeing, according to the 2021 Global Fitness Report. Some 82 per cent of consumers regularly exercise (or soon plan to), while 75 per cent of this group do gym-type activities, making fitness the world’s biggest sport.

This presents latent growth opportunities for fitness providers as COVID restrictions recede and clubs return to full capacity. The key is identifying the groups your club is best placed to target. For example, the pandemic has spawned a new generation of rookie fitness fans who have taken tentative first steps into fitness and are now deciding what comes next, with 27 per cent of regular exercisers describing themselves as ‘absolute beginners’.

Opportunities abound for operators who can appeal to these groups and understand what they want from a fitness experience, as well as the unique barriers to exercise they face. Although 81 per cent of beginners are interested in group activities, 66 per cent say they currently prefer to exercise alone, suggesting a confidence chasm that needs to be bridged before beginners feel fully comfortable. Instructors and wider staff have a major role to play in ensuring they feel welcome, while helping beginners find intrinsic motivation to exercise is essential for their long-term adherence.



2. Make a marketing splash

With the cost of digital media edging ever higher, member referrals can be an efficient and highly effective means of generating new leads. Leverage social gifting as a way of encouraging members to share special offers with their friends and ‘give the gift of fitness.’

While saving money has always been appealing to consumers, the backdrop of economic uncertainty means the imperative to save is now greater than ever. Most people found ways to save during the pandemic, and 82 per cent plan to continue this behaviour moving forward.

A recent LES MILLS+ survey found offers that include discounts on subscriptions are the most appealing to fitness consumers, so emphasising value in your deals is critical. Offers like ‘one month free for each party’ or ‘buy one annual membership, get another half-price’ tend to work well, as can special gifts like gym wear.

Be sure to include something for existing members as well to ensure the promotion is a win-win. Rewarding members for encouraging their friends to join is a great way to acknowledge their efforts and importance, contributing to retention and creating strong advocates.


3. Onboarding is rewarding

Once you attract new members in January, how do you ensure that you keep them? Too often, clubs focus on the sale and then assume the member will be fine left to their own devices. But with roughly 50 per cent of members leaving their club each year, clearly this isn’t the case. How you onboard a new member is absolutely crucial to the long-term success of not only that member, but also your club.

According to Ish Cheyne – Head of Fitness at the 12-strong Les Mills New Zealand (LMNZ) chain of clubs, where group fitness typically accounts for 50 per cent of overall gym attendances – starting a member’s journey on a positive note is vital, and helping them build social connections is the easiest way to achieve this.

“Nobody ever left a gym because they had too many friends,” says Ish. “So, whether it’s allowing new members to bring a friend for free for a week, encouraging people to join as a group, or steering new members towards the ready-made community of the group exercise studio, do everything you can to help members develop friendships within the club.”

“This not only makes the experience more fun – and therefore something they’re more likely to repeat – but it also creates multiple points of contact for them in the club, meaning they’ll be missed if they don’t attend.”



4. Tap into the live revival

After a period of lockdown-enforced home workouts, appetite for live fitness experiences in groups is soaring. The 2021 Global Fitness Report found two-thirds of gym members (67 per cent) prefer working out in groups, while live classes in club are nearly twice as popular as doing live-stream classes at home (favoured by 44 per cent of members versus 23 per cent).

One of the best ways to show your club at its lively best is through events. Anyone who’s felt the electricity of a live fitness class will tell you it’s one of the most powerful and motivational workout experiences you can get. Live classes remain the pinnacle fitness offering, because it’s where your people come into their own, building connections, and inspiring participants to beat their best. By tapping into these notions and showcasing your facility at its best, events have long been a crucial pillar of building a successful club business.

One option could be to follow the lead of the YMCA Association of Northwest North Carolina, which kickstarted the busy New Year period with a group fitness rock concert as a means of engaging the community through a dynamic event. Of course, you'll need to ensure you continue to adhere to all Standard Operation Procedures (SOP) and keep the safety of your team and members at the forefront.


5. Ramp up the social experience

In addition to high-octane events, clubs are ideally placed to meet the more basic daily needs around community and human interaction that consumers have been missing. Across clubs that have made strong recoveries, dialing up the social experience has been key to re-engaging members.

The 2021 Global Fitness Report found that group exercise classes are now the single most popular gym activity, outstripping both strength and cardio training. That’s why a growing number of clubs are driving their recovery through group exercise during the January sales rush, to achieve both member acquisition and all-important retention by delivering members the results that will keep them coming back.

What’s more, clubs are able to service a lot more members in their group exercise studios than on the gym floor, helping to avoid those common high-season grumbles around endless queues for the treadmill and bench press.

“Since reopening our sites, we’ve seen a massive rush from members eager to get back into the club and we’re pretty much back to pre-COVID attendance levels,” says Ant Martland, Co-Founder and Marketing Director of fast-growing UAE chain GymNation.

“Group fitness and the power of our club communities have really shone through and we think this will be a key component in the wider industry’s recovery. Having been locked up and isolated for so long, people can’t wait to get back to the thrill of a buzzing live class and we’ve got members queueing at the studio door early to secure their space. People are desperate to get back to working out in groups and the past few months have been the best new sales period we’ve ever had.



6. Rockstars to the fore

High-season is also an important time to think about how you leverage your star Instructors – both in-club and online via your marketing and social media channels. With strong consumer demand for social connection driving the live revival, it’s somewhat inevitable that the people fronting our clubs will have a vital role to play.

Rockstar Instructors are identified as the single most important factor for gymgoers when choosing a live class, favoured by 28 per cent, ahead of the quality of music (24 per cent) and type of class (21 per cent). Quality Instructors are cited as a key component of the live revival, meeting strong consumer demand for added motivation and deeper connection in their workouts.

Having great people is particularly important for winning new members. Thirty per cent of club prospects say “a good atmosphere” is a key factor in choosing a gym to join, while 59 per cent say staff are also a consideration.

The push towards social fitness will see Instructors at the heart of these experiences, mixing hard and soft skills to bring enjoyment and results. In many cases, the quality of your Instructors will determine whether your new members fall in love with fitness forever or fall away to form part of the February attrition numbers. Look after your Instructors, and they will look after your members!


7. Double down on digital

The ability to reach beyond your existing membership and attract fresh faces into facilities will be key to not just the New Year rush, but ultimately your long-term growth. Consider how your digital offerings can drive new leads and prospects in the bustling beginner segment by bringing your authentic club experience into the home to reach groups who wouldn’t typically visit your club. This will help them build their fitness skills and confidence at home, graduating into your facility.

We’ve entered the age of omni-channel fitness, with 80 per cent of members planning to continue using digital workouts post-pandemic. Apple, Google and Amazon are making digital fitness moves, but clubs remain uniquely placed to meet consumer demand for a 60:40 blend between live and digital workouts. Combining digital with live workouts in club to provide a truly omni-channel offering can give you the edge over digital-only rivals.

Seamlessly linking live and digital will be key to winning members in a crowded market. High-class digital offerings can help clubs win new fans online, build brand affinity, and then eventually convert them to becoming full members of the club.


In summary

Standing out from the crowd is never easy during the January peak, but a credible and coordinated focus on social fitness experiences can help to attract fresh faces and set them up for a long and valuable stay at your club. By making an impact with your marketing, leveraging events, creating close communities, driving digital, and onboarding with aplomb, your club can get ahead of the competition and put itself on the fast track to a year of stellar success.



The Les Mills 2021 Global Fitness Report can help you learn the new rules of fitness and how your club can win.