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6 Strategies for the Fitness Industry to Survive

With new challenges for the fitness industry come new opportunities to collaborate and communicate. The first-ever IHRSA Think Tank provided an excellent platform for senior executive leaders to reimagine the future and assess the external factors that impact the industry.

By mid-September 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had ravaged the health club industry for six months and threatened to continue unsparingly until well into the next year. Untold clubs had shut down permanently. Some had closed temporarily and were trying to cling to economic survival by using virtual methods to remain connected to members. Others had opened with reduced capacity and sparse offerings, and the demands of health and sanitization protocols largely consumed nearly every operator.

The industry felt isolated, misunderstood, and more than a little mistreated by those pulling the levers of power and exerting media influence. Around the country, lawmakers did not see health clubs as vital community resources for physical and mental well-being, but rather as “non-essential” and lumping fitness facilities together with bars, restaurants, casinos, and other leisure operations.

Public officials who had been quick to close clubs were proving slow to listen to reasonable appeals. The media was substantially unfair, while the medical community remained mostly silent.

To help clubs grapple with the mounting challenges, IHRSA held its first-ever Think Tank, bringing together C-suite industry leaders with an opportunity to address pressing issues and look toward the future for the industry. Moderated by Eddie Tock, CEO of REX Roundtables & Bill McBride, CEO of Active Wellness and BMC3, the Think Tank had one main goal: To foster a future-thinking approach and collaborative effort for industry success.

What follows is a topline summary of the conversation, divided into two themes:

  1. 8 Big Questions Facing the Fitness Industry, and
  2. 6 Strategies to Survive and Thrive.

We hope this summary will serve as a guidepost for subsequent Think Tank proceedings and support your tireless efforts to reimagine, reinvigorate, and rebuild your club. The IHRSA Think Tank has become an opportunity to reflect, take stock of the present, and compare visions of the future. The insights revealed below were hard-earned, forged in six months of operational and existential catastrophe.

8 Big Questions Facing the Fitness Industry

An important function of the IHRSA Think Tank is to identify questions and issues that will shape the industry’s future. Pinpointing these items is critical for determining where IHRSA should invest time and resources on behalf of its members. Below is a list of eight big questions that emerged during the event.

  1. How can we change the pervasive perception of health clubs as unsafe during the COVID-19 pandemic?
  2. How can we increase respect for the health club industry?
  3. When the COVID-19 pandemic is over, will health club utilization be higher, lower, or about the same as pre-COVID-19?
  4. How can we prevent the health club industry from being inappropriately subject to regulations intended to regulate “leisure industries,” such as stadiums, entertainment establishments, bars/restaurants, and amusement operations?
  5. Should the club industry embrace some type of regulation, such as facility or professional licensure, as a means for enhancing credibility?
  6. How can the industry encourage the publication of independent, third-party research?
  7. How can the industry increase the number of medical providers that consider “fitness” a patient “vital sign”?
  8. Will greater use of technology reduce the industry’s impact on older Americans?

6 Strategies to Survive and Thrive

Attendees of the IHRSA Think Tank were characteristically generous in sharing their operational successes and failures. The range of ideas was broad and included a mix of “back to basics” wisdom and innovative forward-thinking.

From this collaboration, we compiled an excellent list of six strategies and related tactics to help clubs survive and thrive during and after this pandemic.

  1. Cultivate Local Relationships
  2. Get Political
  3. Show Members That You Care About Them Individually
  4. Contain Your Costs
  5. Open Your Door as Wide as Possible
  6. Tell Your Story

Strategy 1: Cultivate Local Relationships

The first step on the road to cultivating local relationships begins with identifying who you want to target. Think Tank participants said to look at medical partners (e.g., hospitals, clinics, providers), large employers or the local chamber of commerce, schools and nonprofit organizations. Once you identify the targets, think about what value you bring to them––how can you solve their problems? What are you asking them to do?

You need to also think about how you want to structure the relationship. Do you want to cultivate the relationships on an informal basis, or do you want to do it more formally? Depending on your answer, consider creating an advisory board for your club of these local experts. Or, you could create an ad hoc group where you work with the partners to create a report or white paper that addresses a community need.

Strategy 2: Get Political

Engaging with the political process will help protect your interests as a business owner. Think Tank attendees recommended beginning that engagement by building relationships with your policymakers and educating them about the value that your club brings to the community. It is always important to build relationships with your elected officials (town, city, county or state). This crisis has also shown that it is important to build relationships with your public health officials.

Think Tank attendees also advocated for participating in state alliances (i.e., an alliance of fitness businesses in your state) and volunteering to contribute to policy task forces that are relevant to your business (and perhaps offering to host the task force at your facility).

Strategy 3: Show Members That You Care About Them Individually

In a world of isolation, social distancing, and Zoom calls, Think Tank attendees recommended taking time to personally connect with members. An old-fashioned phone call with a member can go a long way toward strengthening the member’s connection to your club, for example. Hosting a virtual town hall meeting is another idea to consider, which allows members to hear from club personnel and provide direct feedback. Lastly, utilizing various technology as a means of member communications––from social media channels, to phone calls, and emails––offers several options for the best channel to connect with each member. Create an individual experience as best you can.

Strategy 4: Contain Your Costs

Now is the time to contain all costs and preserve cash flow. Think Tank participants recommended several business segments that should be reviewed closely for potential cost savings by reviewing your contracts, such as insurance and music licensing agreements, all operational and recurring expenses. It’s also time to look at different staffing models. Think Tank participants also urged being a “fast follower” of best practices that can be learned from other operators through webinars, articles, and professional networks.

Strategy 5: Open Your Doors as Wide as Possible

In challenging times, when cultural stress is high and membership levels are low, it may be more important than ever to demonstrate your club’s commitment to the whole community by emphasizing values such as social equality, inclusion, belonging, and diversity. Think Tank attendees also recommended outreach to local groups serving at-risk populations that could benefit from your club’s offerings.

Strategy 6: Tell your story

Sometimes club operators are so busy providing a great experience and tending to administrative tasks that they overlook the importance of promoting the club’s outstanding value to the community. Think Tank attendees emphasized the need to communicate with existing and prospective members about membership benefits that go well beyond simply making equipment available to use. Ensure that the community understands the value of the expertise offered by your club, and the advantage of having a safe and effective location for physical activity.

With rapid changes to local, state and national restrictions, the impact on fitness clubs has been always-evolving since the early stages of 2020. That is why IHRSA brings together industry leaders for conversation and collaboration. IHRSA will host the next Think Tank on January 7, 2021 at 1 p.m. EST. IHRSA Think Tank events are by invitation only. If you are interested in getting involved, contact info@ihrsa.org.

Related Articles & Publications

  • CBI January 2021

  • The 2020 IHRSA Health Club Consumer Report

  • IHRSA Active & Safe Commitment

Tom Richards

Tom Richards is a contributor to IHRSA.org.