From educational tools and events to promotional programs and public policy initiatives, IHRSA brings you success... by association!

Join | Renew
Pledge Your Support


Designate space and a staff that cares for community feel

Ali Lucas, John Atwood, Brad Wilkins, Anthony Wall and Hervey Lavoie discuss what it takes in order for members to feel like their gym is a second home.

Q: "How does a club foster a sense of community that results in their members perceiving the club as their 'home away from home'?"

A. One of the most important aspects of an exceptional health club experience is having each member feel like the club has been built just for them. As we all know, the reason why most people DON’T join a club is because they are intimidated by the culture that exists in many clubs. That said, the goal of any successful venture should be to create an inclusive environment where the soul of the club is a true reflection of the members it serves. 

There is a great saying in our industry that rings true, “the person is the program.” Most clubs have equipment such as treadmills, spinning bikes, etc. What differentiates the great clubs from the good clubs is fabulous programming and the terrific staff who execute each offering. People are connected to people and by hiring “great connectors” you are well on your way to developing a “home away from home.” 

Here are a few specifics that go a long way:

  • Develop an engaging and informative new member integration program
  • Have comfortable communal places members can hangout
  • Offer special events like fun runs, charity nights, biggest loser, and other programs that help people people bond and develop friendships.
  • Encourage workout partners and workout groups
  • Casually introduce new members to the staff and to other members that are engagingThe biggest factor in creating a “home away from home” is having an all-out commitment by the owner, management and staff to be welcoming to every member every day. Easier said than done!

John Atwood
Atwood Consulting Group




A. There may well be operational and programming aspects that can promote in a club setting, the sense of “home away from home” but from a design point of view, the answer is quite simple … Space! 

Just as a club may allocate space for spinning, stretching or racquetball, the fostering of a community spirit requires space for a member to sit comfortably without feeling the need to lift a weight, talk to a salesman or buy something. A member lounge can be fueled by a TV, or a great view, free Wi-Fi or an abundance of reading material … but without a generous, well positioned allocation of floor space it cannot exist.

Ideally, this space allocation would occur in multiple locations around the club in order to be most effective. Locker room lounges, steam rooms, saunas, jacuzzis, observation lounges, sun decks and relaxation rooms are some examples of how clubs can create space for “community”.

Hervey Lavoie
Architect and President
Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative




A. Everyone likes to belong! Keep that in mind. How a club fosters a sense of community will depend on the type of club or facility, but at the end of the day it’s going to come down to making the members feel welcome. They need to enjoy their experience so much they want to come back more. Some clubs have running or hiking groups out of their facility. Other clubs provide a full complement of services for their members – towels, personal lockers, etc. Other clubs have the newest equipment; some have the oldest equipment! The one thing that all the successful clubs have that I’ve ever walked into have, is a group of staff who genuinely cares about their members and enjoy being part of their members’ experience. Being made to feel welcome doesn’t stop at the front desk it should start at the front desk. In a world that seems to always be moving to more automation and more electronic interaction having a club that creates a warm welcoming and personal environment will always win. That personal connection starts at the top though. It’s simply not good enough anymore for the upper management to expect the front line staff to be the best without any role models to show the ‘best’. “Treat your staff the way you want them to treat your members” is as true today as it’s ever been. Remember - everyone likes to belong.

Anthony Wall
Director of Professional Education
American Council on Exercise (ACE)




A. We recently had a member, Barb, cancel because she was moving out of state for her husband’s job. During a video testimonial she told us she was sad to leave Austin for two reasons – her church and her health club.

“Lots of gyms have nice equipment and good classes but it’s hard to find a gym with the same kind of heart.” The things she listed to describe this are great aspirations: staff knows all members by name and shows true concern and devotion; team culture of staff displayed thru referrals to fellow staff; high staff and member retention; members seeing the staff as a family.

Notice she didn’t mention specific community building events that took a lot of time or money to plan. She didn’t mention the fancy new Internet-capable treadmills or single out her favorite employees.

It was a whole club feeling – the club has “heart” because the people working here have “heart,” too.

The sixty-four thousand dollar question is how do you make this happen in a concrete way? Hire and fire the right people. Define a purpose and values to run every club decision through. Create systems to reward and compensate based on your values. Change the way you do meetings. Train your staff for a consistent member & guest experience.

Need a map to get started? My most recent read on this topic is Patrick Lencioni’s “The Advantage.”

Now get started so your members will say what Barb said to close: “It’s home, so it’s always hard to leave home.”

Ali Lucas
Director of Marketing
BodyBusiness Health Club & Spa





A. First of all, let me start by stating that company culture is a living breathing thing that exists in all businesses. Basically, it is the business’s personality; which steams from the heart of its core values and core purpose. Therefore, club culture begins at the top with its fundamental core ideology (values and purpose) and then resonates through all aspects of the club to both internal (staff/employees) and external (members/guests) consumers.   

To develop a “home away from home” sense of community within your club, you first have to determine whether or not your ideology/culture supports this type of community. (It is OK if it doesn’t.) At Cooper, our core ideology strongly embraces this type of community. Our founder, Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper, has instilled the belief that “people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Our culture is specifically designed to embrace our customers’ emotions and engage them in a proactive environment that fosters the development of meaningful relationships between members, as well as members and staff. 

If you feel that your club is a good fit for a “home away from home” sense of community, and you want to develop it or improve it, then I recommend you start by evaluating, implementing, and/or building from the four following items in your club: 

1.  Staff – Ensure that your staff (at all levels) is trained properly on how to develop relationships and service your members

2.  Programs – Develop internal programs and social events that integrate community interaction amongst members

3.  Facility – Create spaces within the club that allow members to relax and socialize

4.  Communication – Communicate to members regularly and effectively through all communication channels (e.g. staff, social media, e-newsletter, etc...) Also, make sure communication is a “two-way street” to create a sense of membership pride and ownership  

Brad Wilkins
Vice President and General Manager
Cooper Fitness Center and Cooper Spa 





This post is a part of our weekly Ask an Industry Leader series. We post a new question and answer every Monday morning. If you have a question you'd like our Industry Leaders to answer, submit your question today.


Reader Comments (1)

Great article! I strongly believe in the content. We are in the service industry and always need to add new and exciting ways to improve the members experience.
May 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRick Leonard

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.