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Clubs in small towns think outside the box

Sisters Athletic Club looks like many other lodges in the area, making members feel at home.A small club in a rural town can run into problems that the bigger outfits don’t encounter, like fewer members or less chances of raising membership numbers due to fewer prospects.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t tricks to real in the new members or keep your current members in tow.

Two IHRSA members have come up with tried and true methods that have worked in their small towns. And the beauty is their ways could work in all markets in any country.

Mark Murray is owner of B-Fit 24/7 Fitness in Adrian, Mich. With only a 24,000 people in a town hit hard with a tough economy and auto companies leaving the area, opening a health club in 2012 may not have been the advice some would have given. 

However, Murray is no stranger to running a business, having put his name to a coffee shop, laundromat, car wash and tanning salon, to name a few. Having seen success in those ventures he decided to employ the same methods – keep the place clean and tidy and provide personal service.

“I get the impression that (the five bigger facilities nearby) don’t really care about their members,” said Murray, who owns B-Fit with his wife, Mary. “What we do is try to be different. It always comes back to the same thing for us, we are the ‘ungym’.”

His “ungym” has no contract, refunds fees if members don’t reach their goals, and the club goes after the 80% who are not in great shape and typically belong to a gym.

What Murray has done is hire two full-time personal trainers who do a little bit of everything, but a whole lot of customer service, for lack of a better term.

B-Fit’s personal trainers are certified, but they don’t run any classes. They greet members, check out their individual workout plan (or set one up for new members) and are on the floor to help out in any way they can. When they aren’t assisting members then they are cleaning the club and working on “special tasks” as Murray called them, but sounds like “side work,” probably similar to his waitstaff in the coffee shop.

“Our personal trainers are there to help members on the floor, not sit in an office (when they don’t have a client),” Murray said.

B-Fit 24/7 Fitness treadmills.Doing things a little differently than his competition is exactly what Murray wants to do. For example, he opted for a 24-hour club because there weren’t any of those options in and around Adrian, which is in southeastern Michigan, about 70 miles from Detroit. He figured there would be one, sooner or later, so why not him?

“I think we do it better than anyone in our area,” Murray added. “We saw changes in the industry and we thought we had an opportunity to make an impact in the market. We wanted to imply a little disruptive mentality in the community.”

Sisters Athletic Club in Sisters, Ore., has a similar approach as it caters to making members feel comfortable and at home. You can see how it goes about that even before walking in the front door. The outside has a look of a lodge, which fits perfectly in the tourist town 20 minutes from Bend. Nestled among state and national forests and only three hours from Mt. Hood, lodges and cabins are certainly the norm.

Then as walk in the 19,000-square-foot facility you can hear classical music playing as you see a local rock formation in the lobby and an art gallery not far from the front desk.

“We’ve have members here for years … and  they think this is the norm,” said Tate Metclf, owner and general manager. “We are very unique here.

“I think it is very important to make an entrance not feel like a gym. not have a gym smell and not immediately see the floor. I think (our lobby) sets the tone of what are club is.”

That homey feeling continues throughout the rest of the facility. Metcalf said that they don’t have ID cards because it is imperative that all staff knows every member’s name. 

The club boasts 1,600 members in a 2,000-person town so many of those you are taking a class with or are next to on the treadmill are probably your neighbors. Having that homey and comfortable feel is very important..

“If people come in and you recognize them, then it feels like an extension of their home (the club) will be a place they want to go,” Metcalf explained. 

Like B-Fit, Sisters also stresses cleanliness. He noted that almost every club will have iffy areas but keeping them to a minimum and dirty for only a short time is key.

“If we only those two things right then we will be OK,” he added. “Every club feels it is not clean enough. We might be better than most but when we walk around and see a dust bunny, we cringe. The staff takes it personally when something is not clean.”

Interestingly, Sisters Athletic Club is not really battling with other clubs. While Metcalf said he is wary of franchisees coming into his area, it is actually the surrounding area that he feels is his biggest competition. There is so much to do – skiing, biking, hiking – that nature is his biggest challenge. 

“Since we are trying something unique at a premium price we had to push the boundaries,” Metcalf said. “We have to make sure we do everything to the best of our abilities.”

The smoothie bar at Go M.A.D. FitnessGo M.A.D. Fitness in Monroe, Mich., a town of 48,000 that is smack dab in between Detroit and Toledo, has six competitors – Anytime Fitness, Planet Fitness, Curves, YMCA, Snap Fitness and a family-owned facility. So, owner Jason Reinhardt knows he has to be original in his programming and live by his mission statement and beliefs.

One way he does it, is by branding everything in Go M.A.D. (Make a difference) so his company’s name is synonymous with the place to work out and, you guessed it, make a difference.

Classes have names like M.A.D. Fit Class (instead of CrossFit), M.A.D. Corporate Wellness and M.A.D. Kids Boot Camp. And having classes for everyone – kids to seniors – shows that the club is truly trying to make a difference in the community. The smoothie bar even has a sign, “Smoothies that make a difference.”

“We put M.A.D. in front of everything. It is how we are branding,” said Reinhardt. “Really, the community, our members, guests, they are all excited that we are here and are trying to make a difference (in the community and people’s lives). And we are backing it up.”

It is one thing to say you are doing something, but to back it up, too, is definitely a way to stand out and get noticed in a small town or a place fraught with competition.

Other ways Reinhardt tries to be helpful in the community and to get Go M.A.D. Fitness’s name out there is he is at three local elementary schools to help get youth moving and in shape, he is a member of the local chamber of commerce, even achieving ambassador level in one year instead of the normal two-year requirement.

“We continue to add more and more and hit a wider variety of the community,” Reinhardt added. “We came in knowing we would be true to ourselves and make a difference to as many people as we can.”

Are you a small club, or a club in a small town with many competitors, that has a unique way of brining in and keeping members? Let us know.

Are you a small club that has a unique way of brining in and keeping members? Let us know.


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