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Health Club Retention & Engagement in the New Economy

“Each quality interaction increases the likelihood of usage, return, and retention—especially early on,” advises Sheldon McBee, personal training director at Universal Fitness in Lancaster, PA.

As gyms work toward getting back to business, keeping those new members that have joined over the past year will be instrumental for continued success in 2021 and beyond.

In a recent Club Business International article, Sheldon McBee, personal training director at Universal Fitness in Lancaster, PA—who has a proven track record of engaging members to keep them coming back—gave his expertise.

The following is his response when asked the question, “Our club is gradually signing up some new members since being allowed to reopen. How can we ensure that we keep these people coming back?”

Guiding New Members Toward a ‘Path to Success’

Member retention medicine ball mat woman stock column

Sheldon McBee: Retention is something we are always striving to improve at Universal Fitness, our multipurpose club in Lancaster, PA. Before the pandemic, we had well over 10,000 members, and our retention rate was 88% (versus the 72% industry average).

Our member journey is quite clear up-front. We show new members exactly what their first six weeks will look like. This reduces anxiety and fear, and increases the likelihood that they will show up. We hold their hands a lot. We don’t want them just jumping on equipment.

Within 48 hours of joining, new members are introduced to their “concierge”—a staff member who is part of a unique member services team. The concierge is dedicated to guiding the new member’s engagement and success for the first 24 weeks of their membership, with the primary goal of making sure the new member visits the club at least twice per week.

This post-sale handoff must be silky-smooth and frictionless. During the meeting, the concierge listens to the client’s needs, does an assessment, and creates a four-week integration pathway. If the new member is going to use digital/virtual services, the concierge also makes sure they know how to access them.

The member is then introduced to a small group training coach for two training sessions per week for four weeks. These sessions can be either live or virtual. Now the new member has two people—the concierge and the coach—to guide them toward their path to success.

Nurture the Relationship with Multiple Touchpoints

After those first four weeks, the new member can pay for additional group training classes if they choose (we have a whole sales process to support this). If the member declines, we don’t just walk away from them and say, “Good luck—you’re on your own.” They’ll still be connected with their concierge and have another follow-up (six weeks after their join date). The concierge will write them a program, or they can keep going with their group training program. They will also be encouraged to engage in more group exercise classes. The concierge continues to track their attendance for 24 weeks to be sure they show up at least twice per week.

“We want our members to feel over-catered-to. Make contacts with new members that they don’t expect—and make it personal!”

Make sure your relationship bubble with your new member stays full. Research by Dr. Paul Bedford, director of Retention Guru, shows that “touchpoints” matter. Each quality interaction increases the likelihood of usage, return, and retention—especially early on. A touchpoint, such as the meeting between the new member and the concierge, can be live or virtual. The meeting with the small group training coach is another touchpoint. Our new members have a minimum of 10 touchpoints in their first four weeks. We dedicate manpower to that in order to ensure high member retention.

Go Above & Beyond: Utilize a Rewards Program

We reward new members for behavior change more than for outcomes. For example, if they exceed their usage goal, we give them a reward. We also go above and beyond to engage new members and keep touchpoints as personal as possible. We want our members to feel over-catered-to. Make contacts with new members that they don’t expect—and make it personal!

Automate Communications to Strengthen Relationship

Finally, automated communications are a gamechanger for us. Our customer relationship management (CRM) software is structured to contact members on a set schedule, so we use a blend of automated communications and personalized tasks (such as phone calls) to keep in touch with our members and to keep them engaged with our club.


For more on this topic, download McBee’s IHRSA webinar titled “Game-Changing Member Retention Strategies for Gyms in 2021.” (Sponsored by VFPnext)

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Kristen Walsh @IHRSACBI

Kristen Walsh has worked for IHRSA for more than 20 years, and is currently the Associate Publisher. She writes and edits articles, e-newsletters, and research reports, among other things. When she’s not at work, you’ll find Kristen vacationing with her husband and daughter, volunteering for a local 5K, or attending a Boston Celtics game.