10 Ways Member Engagement Drives Health Club Retention

When you turn members into a community, they’re more likely to stick with your club. Here are 10 research-backed ways to drive engagement.

Retention continues to be a significant issue for fitness facilities of all types.

A report by Dr. Paul Bedford, the Retention Guru, found that only 67% of health club members in the U.S. and Canada retain their memberships for at least 12 months. Other countries, like the U.K., have it worse, with just 52% of members maintaining their memberships for a year.

In all, the average health club has an annual attrition rate of 28.6%, according to IHRSA research. Your mileage may vary, as the saying goes. Reasons for poor retention can be blamed on regional factors and wider industry trends, but most causes of attrition are based in human nature. Consumer habits change, but people are people. Engagement matters.

Many club owners are realizing how important it is to create a human connection with their members. IHRSA data backs that up. One IHRSA report found that members at risk of cancelling who received a “successful commitment interaction” were 45% less likely to cancel in the subsequent month than those who didn’t have an interaction.

So, how do you build and maintain a connection with members? And how do you know who needs your attention?

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A Checklist for Member Engagement

The health club industry has changed from being a sales cyclical business. These days, you can’t get just sell a membership and walk away. You need to build a community.

Karen McNenny, speaker, facilitator, and coach for McNenny Enterprises, believes community is a key to success. Speaking at a session at IHRSA 2017, McNenny said: “Often I encourage people inside the industry to think of their club as a community center where exercise happens to take place, and a lot of the research that IHRSA has done will show us that relationships equal retention.”

It’s never too late to build a stronger community atmosphere. Here’s a checklist of action items to consider when creating an effective engagement program for club members.

  1. Train your employees to be “people persons.” According to IHRSA’s Guide to Health Club Retention, almost 90% of club members say they value communication from staff members. “Results show that any type of interaction with a member at risk of canceling can reduce the likelihood of dropping out by nearly 10%,” says Jay Ablondi, IHRSA's executive vice president of global products. In fact, IHRSA’s report found that every two interactions fitness staff has with a member in a given month results in one extra visit from that member the following month.
  2. Build group exercise programs. One of the reasons functional fitness programs like CrossFit have taken hold is the communal atmosphere forged by group instruction. Members enjoy the group dynamic. As IHRSA’s researchers determined, “Risk of cancellation was 56% higher among members who just use gym equipment vs. those who exercise in groups.”
  3. Encourage interaction in fitness programming. People who identify your club and your brand as a destination for fulfilling personal encounters is a powerful incentive to maintaining memberships. Further, it turns your members into your best brand ambassadors. IHRSA researchers found that 70% of club members who had made new friends through their membership self-identified as club “promoters” rather than club “detractors.”
  4. Have a solid onboarding program for new members. The first six weeks are the most important in cementing a commitment with a new member. “Ultimately our goal isn’t to sell a membership—it’s to help people get healthier. And when they don’t get that guidance right off the bat, the odds of them continuing are very slim,” says Chris Stevenson of Stevenson Fitness in an IHRSA webinar, “Member Engagement: The Key to Retention.”
  5. Foster employee loyalty. Frequent staff turnover can also harm member retention. Keeping employees motivated and focused on member interaction goes a long way. Positive attitudes are contagious and create a stronger staff-member bond. “In a committed work environment everyone sees to the high function of service to members,” says Karen McNenny. (Read more tips on increasing employee retention.)
  6. Empower your fitness staff to have a sales mentality. Your salespeople are important, but other employees are crucial to the bottom line. IHRSA’s Member Retention Report determined that “fitness staff can generate 600% more income per member than salespeople alone.”
  7. Don’t take longtime members for granted. In fact, this group is the most likely to become dissatisfied, according to IHRSA research. Find ways to engage them if they’re beginning to show up less often.
  8. Regularly reach out to your members. Contacting members via phone, email, text, or social media more than doubles the likelihood that they’ll be more committed to your club. Host events (seasonal parties or special sales promotions) to create opportunities to communicate with members and bring them together.
  9. Maintain high efficiency in your back-office. Poor record keeping and billing errors can quickly alienate members. It devalues them as a member of the club community. Investing in top-of-the-line billing software should be a priority.
  10. Have a strong data/software feedback system in place. You need a software system that can tell you what’s happening with your membership down to the smallest details. You need to know which members are in danger of quitting, so you can take action.

This latter point is essential. And this is where many clubs are missing opportunities.

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The Right Tools for Effective Engagement

Club management technology that handles billing is only the start of what you should expect from your software supplier. Sean Kirby of ASF Payment Solutions believes in building a partnership with clubs to help them with engagement and retention. ASF has been in business since 1973, and they’ve learned the value of relationships through the many trials and trends of the fitness industry.

“We have a tool in our software called Service Notes,” says Kirby, who serves as Vice-President, Client Relations for ASF. “That's where our representatives can flag notes that they think need to be brought to the attention of the club.”

For instance, if somebody calls and says they can’t make their payment, traditionally payment processors would resolve that issue by saying, “When can you make the payment?"

“It was always focused on the payment,” says Kirby. “But at ASF, we can look at an attendance record and say, ‘You were going quite regularly, and over the past month you haven't been in very often. Did something change?’ We've gotten responses from ‘I'm injured,’ to ‘a certain trainer is no longer there.’ We’ll begin a discussion that leads to the member communicating back with the club.”

ASF is soon launching a significant enhancement of its club management software called My Club Business 1.1. This new platform will have greater security features, and give club owners and their sales staff more versatility in managing accounts and prospects. The software also includes an updated version of their My Scheduler, which can be a powerful tool for engagement.

My Scheduler allow trainers, club staff, and members to coordinate appointments and events of all types. “Anything that you can possibly imagine as an event at your facility,” says Kirby. “One-on-one training, small group training, large group training, fitness assessments, birthday parties, even sales appointments. By being able to link these tools to social media, you can start engaging more members to create a stronger community. ”

To learn more about My Club Business 1.1 and how AFS products can help you build engagement and increase retention, visit their website, or call ASF to learn more at 800-227-3859.

Jim Schmaltz

Jim Schmaltz is a contributor to IHRSA.org