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Fitness Industry Expert’s Five-stage Plan for Reopening

Membership experience expert Blair McHaney shares his data-driven five-stage plan for reopening.

As the nation moves away from shelter-in-place policies due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some facts remain irrefutably true:

  • Reopening businesses will be gradual. To quote numerous public health experts and political leaders, it won’t be like flipping a light switch but turning a dimmer.
  • There is a high likelihood that there will be a resurgence of the disease, perhaps later in the year.
  • Getting back to pre-pandemic “normal” will require a vaccine or cure, and that’s still several months—maybe even a year—away.

Business owners across multiple sectors are discovering another truism: Reopening will require more than governors and other political leaders proclaiming that gyms are now open. People won’t return to health clubs if they don’t feel they are protected from possible infection. It is up to the club itself to manage anxieties and convince members that it is safe to return.

Few know this better than Blair McHaney, founder and CEO of MXM, short for Member Experience Metrics. As the name implies, McHaney uses a data-driven approach to create member experience strategies dedicated exclusively to the fitness industry. Utilizing Medallia technology, MXM works with more than 700 clubs offering consulting services using operational member experience management.

“Operational member experience management is about constantly understanding the voice of your customer,” explains McHaney. “It’s about mapping metrics through with the skills and behaviors you need from your frontline in order to manage and fulfill whatever your customer experience vision is.”

A 40-year veteran of the fitness industry, McHaney owns clubs in the Central Washington area and applies his findings to his own businesses.

“We practice what we preach in our own clubs. In fact, those are our laboratories now.”

Actionable Data for Reopening Plans

Since April, McHaney’s company has been compiling actionable data via a Shutdown Survey System that measures member attitudes during the pandemic. To further fill his database and help others in the industry, McHaney has offered health clubs free access to two of MXM’s survey systems. Using unique links and login information, the clubs can place their logo on the survey, put it in an email and blast it out to members. (The survey is available at the MXM website.) While the survey system is free, you can’t customize it, but you can use it as a vital benchmark to better gauge what actions to take.

McHaney designed the surveys to be short and simple to maximize participation. When he receives the information back from the clubs, he’s able to aggregate the findings in a database that provides a fuller picture of what clubs must do to gain the trust of their current members and prospects. The same rich reporting and analytics are also provided for free to all who take advantage of their offer.

“The metrics are damn important, because that allows you to understand where your club ranks, and if you have more than one, where each ranks against the other. That’s why we're not just supplying a free shutdown survey but also restart survey to anybody in the industry."

The goal is to maintain direct communication with consumers. It allows you to create goals then resend the survey to see if you can move the needle.

“One of the most critical pieces of information that any organization can have coming out of this crisis is a constant voice of [the] customer,” stresses McHaney. “If you don't have that as a leading indicator of what's happening in your club, you'll be flying a plane without instruments through a fog.”

The bottom line, according to McHaney: “You can't market your way out of this. You can only behave your way out of it. Clubs should be listening to their customers right now, doing their best to adjust operations, and then monitoring member feedback information in order to adapt to the new expectations.

Member retention blair mchaney column

A Strategy in Five Parts

IHRSA has published content offering guidelines to club operators when considering reopening their facilities, such as the article: “18 Safety Considerations for Your Health Club Reopening Plan.” Some of these recommendations are sourced from Asian clubs that experienced the coronavirus weeks earlier than the U.S.

What’s becoming clear as clubs open their doors is that members will dictate whether your facility passes the necessary standards for a successful relaunch. McHaney says that whatever policies you adopt, they need to be visible and consistent. And no amount of messaging is going to make up for a lag in diligence.

“You need to communicate through action, through daily operations. Everything's got to be actionable and operational. You may think you're succeeding, but you won't know until you hear it from the customer.”

Based on the data he’s compiled from the member feedback, McHaney believes MXM has developed a solid template to draw from when reopening your club. These standards will continue to evolve. It’s a difference between “best” practices and “next” practices. That’s why you keep mining data from your customer base.

“Once you open and people start coming in, we suggest that you begin sending our Healthy Clubs survey out to every single person who has visited your club. Then those metrics can be mapped back to what we’ve already compiled. You’ll see where you stand and what members are saying that you’re doing right and wrong.”

The data all points to answering one key question for members: "What would be most important to you in coming back in?" When McHaney sat down with the numbers and comments, he found five key areas that every club operator should deploy for best practices, then figure out what the next practices are from there.

1. Every member must be an extension of housekeeping.

To succeed here you have to do everything you can to make it easy for members to police themselves when it comes to cleanliness and responsible behavior. How easy are you making it to sanitize equipment before and after use? Do your members know what’s expected of them? Rules and regulations must be specific, easy to understand, and easy to implement. And when members find a violation from a fellow member, there must be clear policies to report and adjudicate without causing inter-member issues.

2. Every staff member has to be trained to be a “compliance ambassador.”

“We know from years of doing customer experience that two of the biggest drivers around customer loyalty is staff friendliness and gym cleanliness,” says McHaney. “You have to be able to teach your compliance ambassadors to keep cleaning practices in place while maintaining staff courtesy.”

This can be a delicate balance, and club operators need to set clear standards of enforcement. “This can't be done by memo. It's not, ‘Hey everybody, remember to hold the members accountable.’ You can't do it that way.”

3. Cleaning tools have to be broadly distributed—and replenished.

These are one of those issues filed under “next” practices. It requires communication from members to know if you’re thorough enough.

“You think you have enough spray bottles or sani-wipe dispensers out there, then you get feedback saying, ‘It's too hard to find a spray bottle,’” explains McHaney. “You think, ‘Good lord, I thought 50 was enough,’ but your scores are low on this and the voice of [the] member is loud when it isn’t easy.”

Going through his research, McHaney found one key term kept coming up.

“With our text analytics, it took me about three minutes to get through nearly 100,000 comments by following key themes. Then in a few minutes I read about 40 comments. The word ‘empty’ started to appear a lot. It was a little bit of a revelation. Not only do you need wipes, towels, and cleansers, you have to make sure the supplies are never empty.”

4. Hand sanitizers have to be broadly distributed.

In the MXM data and text analytics, making hand sanitization easy is critical to “Likelihood to Return.” There is a lot of “noise” from members when they can’t easily sanitize their hands. This heightens even more when members perceive other members as not diligent in wiping down equipment after usage.

“This is our biggest category: ease to sanitize hands. I would coach people to start with the comments from members giving you the lowest scores here. Maybe it's not hand sanitizers stations everywhere, but personal hand sanitizing bottles that people get and refill that have your logo on it.”

5. Make sure your members know you’re doing everything necessary to keep them safe.

“You better be damn good at communicating that you are best in class at this,“ offers McHaney. “And, remember, what you do operationally is another form of communication. That’s why you need feedback coming in.”

You also need to interpret the data in an actionable way. This is what defines next practices, says McHaney.

“I love market research, but that's different than operational data. Market research does not serve the needs of daily operations.”

The Demand Will Be There

Not just McHaney finds that the public wants to return to clubs, many health clubs and industry groups find the demand is growing, according to reports. It’s not just anxiety over the “quarantine 15,” a term for the weight gain experienced by many who are isolated and stress eating. Many consumers miss the structure and motivation that health clubs provide.

But knowing people want to come back to your club isn’t enough, warns McHaney. You have to be aggressive and communicate with your members, not just through traditional marketing channels but operationally.

“Some clubs are just saying, ‘Stay strong,’ or they're doing nothing, and trying to figure out how they're going to spend their marketing budget when they reopen to get members in. I'm spending my frickin' budget right now. When you're taking in member feedback and you are making changes, you have something powerful and relevant that you should be saying loudly in the marketplace.”

It’s never too late to build that bond with the customer, to create that feeling of security they’re seeking. The clubs that do it successfully will survive and eventually thrive.

“The delta between excellent companies and mediocre ones is going to be stark coming out of this. You'd better have an extremely high level of trust.”

For more on MXM, visit the MXM website.

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Jim Schmaltz

Jim Schmaltz is a contributor to IHRSA.org