Challenges & Opportunities in Member Retention as Gyms Reopen

Club operators face a looming question: How many members will return? Loni Wang, owner of Catic Wellness Group, details the member retention challenges and opportunities that her facility faced in reopening.

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, one in five Americans had a gym membership. Flash forward to early June, where 76% of respondents in a Drive Research survey said that they feel uncomfortable visiting a gym even if a face mask is required. However, two separate studies by MXM and ClubIntel show quite the opposite, both reporting that about 65% of respondents are likely to return.

It appears that just as the guidelines for reopening have been up in the air during COVID-19, so is the decision to return to the gym. No matter the case, in an industry that relies almost exclusively on members, fitness facilities will need to dig themselves out of the hole that COVID-19 dug.

This four-part series reviews the challenges and opportunities that Loni Wang, owner of Catic Wellness Group in Shenzhen, China, identified during the coronavirus pandemic. We have sorted Wang's advice for health clubs into the following topics:

  1. Strategy,
  2. Finance,
  3. Member Retention, and
  4. Leadership.

In Part 3, we cover member retention and the two challenges and two opportunities Wang faced.

Club Member Retention Challenges and Opportunities

The challenges with retaining members that Wang discussed are two-fold:

  1. Reduced Attendance & Public Fear of Communal Spaces
  2. Regaining Confidence with Members

Our conversation wasn’t all doom and gloom for the fitness industry. The Catic Wellness staff also maximized the following opportunities:

  1. Build Trust with Members Through Open Communication
  2. Show Increased Safety Protocols & Sanitation Guidelines

What do health and fitness clubs need to be successful? Members.

The impact of COVID-19 can be severe for fitness facilities if member relations are not handled correctly. So how did Wang and her staff preserve these relationships?

Challenge: Reduced Attendance & Public Fear of Communal Spaces

On average, data from health clubs that have reopened show 30% of members returning. For the more fortunate clubs, that number rose to about 50%, but others experienced a return rate as low as 10-15%.

Wang notes, “At the beginning, about 20% [of customers returned] because it is very difficult, they are [fearful] to go to a public place.”

Be prepared for fewer members initially, but don't let that get in the way of your gains. Members need to know that specific guidelines and protocols have been put in place to keep them safe.

You can also share research and information to help fight negative feelings caused by coronavirus updates, and ease the fears of members who are unsure if they should return. Early research in Norway shows that gyms do not pose any additional risk of spreading COVID-19 when following social distancing and hygiene protocols.

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Challenge: Regain Confidence with Members

Members in China were initially reluctant to return to the gym, so having online training was a win-win for both club and members. Through consistent, open, and honest communication about new safety protocols and sanitation guidelines, Catic Wellness reported visitation reached nearly 80% across all clubs after being open for about two months.

“Your customers need your help, your support,” said Wang. “And at this moment, if you have [a] close connection with your customers, you will win.”

Wang and the staff at Catic Wellness were not the only facility who struggled to regain confidence with members. Check out how clubs incentivized members to stay during the mandated closures.

What about the member retention opportunities for the fitness industry?

Opportunity: Build Trust with Members Through Open Communication

Wang stressed that, “We need to [stay] connected to our members.” We couldn’t agree more. Having an open dialogue with members shows that you care and helps adjust the negative perceptions of the industry while rebuilding trust and confidence.

It’s not enough to just communicate with members. You need to prove to them that they are valuable.

With the concerns about returning to gyms, everyone in the fitness industry needs to speak up and advocate for how safe facilities are and have always been. Tell members precisely what you’re fighting for—a space that provides numerous physical, mental, and emotional health benefits.

Research proves that those who are obese are at a much higher risk of hospitalization from COVID-19 than the average person. And annually, regular physical activity saves 3.9 million lives worldwide. Health and fitness clubs are truly a vital piece in keeping people healthy—you must keep demonstrating this to members.

Opportunity: Show Increased Safety Protocols & Sanitation Guidelines

To show all that Catic Wellness was doing for their members, Wang said, “We [implemented] a lot of safety things, like masks, [taking] temperatures, we put plastic wax on the machines.”

Along with that, their facility created a video to show members during classes all the cleaning that their staff is doing behind the scenes and the additional sanitation stations available. The point is to prove to members that they are doing everything possible to protect them and that their facility is as safe as possible.

It may sound tedious to constantly be wiping down machines or keeping equipment to one member at a time, but this is how you establish trust with members who are fearful of returning to your facility. Of course, members also play a role in keeping the facility clean.

Abiding by safety and cleaning guidelines needs to be a group effort between staff and members. Every time someone walks into a gym, they need to hold themselves accountable to sanitize their equipment, follow social distancing requirements, as well as every other safety and cleaning protocol.

If you’re eager to learn more about the best practices that facilities are utilizing to ensure the safety of members and staff, review the safety procedures health clubs are using to reopen.

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Keep Your Head In The Game

It can be frustrating to constantly have to testify on the cleanliness of your facility. Don’t give up on your members. The coronavirus pandemic has created a scary and turbulent environment. Reassuring members on the safety of fitness facilities and the health benefits of exercise can go a long way.

After providing members with a video of the cleaning process at Catic Wellness, Wang left the ball on the members’ side of the court. She said, “Come and see what we have done for you.”

Don't forget that when Wang's facilities started reopening, they only had about 20% of members returning before skyrocketing to about 80%. Positive outcomes can happen when you take the responsibility of leading a facility seriously.

Wang takes the responsibility of leading head-on. In the final part of the series, we’ll discuss her leadership challenges and opportunities.

Author avatar

Sami Smith

Sami Smith is IHRSA's Communications and Public Relations Assistant. On a typical day, she delivers communications and creates content for IHRSA's advocacy efforts, while working to shape IHRSA and the fitness industry's public image on multiple platforms. Outside of the office, you can find her traveling to new areas, indulging in food, or participating in just about any sport.