Wellness Programs Open a New World of Opportunities for Clubs

And the payoff can reach beyond health club members into revenue streams.

For most of us, the word “wellness” evokes a pleasant response and a general positive feeling—for good reason.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “the quality or state of being in good health, especially as an actively sought goal.”

But what, exactly, does wellness entail?

The National Wellness Institute, Inc., founded in 1977 by a group of health and wellness professionals in Stevens Point, WI, identifies six distinct dimensions: physical, emotional, intellectual, social, occupational, and spiritual. Other groups, such as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), suggest two more: environmental and financial.

Over the past decade, wellness programs, services, and products have proliferated in health clubs, which now offer their members a wide variety of options that touch upon these areas.

For participants, the payoffs are clear, numerous, and far-reaching, and include, among others, a healthier lifestyle; a stronger feeling of well-being; adherence to a customized workout regimen; and attainment of personal goals, such as weight loss and smoking cessation.

For providers, the business benefits, though less obvious, are equally impressive.

Grow Revenue, Gain Recognition, Build on Differentiation

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The six distinct dimensions of wellness: intellectual, social, occupational, spiritual, physical, and emotional.

As nontraditional business models—CrossFit boxes, boutique studios, mobile apps, and online streaming—continue to proliferate, ratcheting up competition, clubs have to work harder and smarter in order to win out. They need to differentiate themselves, attract new members, improve their retention efforts, develop new sources of revenue, and secure their position in the market.

Over the years, wellness initiatives have demonstrated that they can help achieve all these objectives.

“A well-defined wellness program provides clubs with an opportunity to increase spend per member, while at the same time improving retention,” says Michele Wong, the vice president of operations for Active Wellness, a San Francisco-based club management firm. The company operates more than 50 commercial, corporate, tenant, medical, and community fitness centers nationwide.

Jessica Matthews, the director of the Master of Kinesiology in Integrative Wellness Program at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, says out, “In addition to enhancing the member experience, a clear wellness focus diversifies a club’s offerings in a meaningful way, conferring a plethora of business-related advantages in the marketplace.”

Ralph Rajs, the senior vice president at Leisure Sports Inc., headquartered in Pleasanton, CA, which owns and operates four upscale ClubSport facilities, regards wellness programs as a valuable tool that can be leveraged in countless ways.

“At ClubSport, we employ nutritionists at all of our properties,” says Rajs. “We use this as a differentiator in our sales process, in our new member integration protocol, and as an ongoing value-added for existing members.

“This reinforces our positioning as a high-end, full-service club,” he continues. “It also lets members know we appreciate that a healthy lifestyle encompasses many aspects of everyday life, with nutrition key among them.”

Reach the 80% ‘Not-Yet-Fit’ by Moving Beyond Typical Services

Another valuable business blessing that wellness imparts, says Wong, is that it permits clubs to move beyond the 20% of the population that’s already utilizing their services, to reach and engage the 80% that isn’t—individuals who need additional encouragement, support or services.

People generally know they should try to live a healthy life, but can be hard-pressed to figure out where and how to begin, and overwhelmed by the vast number of choices available. Feeling a bit lost makes it easier for them to opt out, rather than buy in. And, complicating the situation, some clubs and fitness centers may not be as welcoming as the industry would choose to believe.

Clubs, if they hope to reach more people, sell more services, boost profitability, and maintain their viability, must recognize and address these issues.

Bill McBride, the co-founder, president, and CEO of Active Wellness, acknowledges that commercial facilities can sometimes be intimidating, and advises operators to do whatever they can to cultivate trust and confidence. “We still have much work to do when it comes to communicating the fact that clubs are a safe place—both emotionally and physically—for the nonexerciser,” he says.

Matthews, a national board-certified health and wellness coach, firmly believes that a thoughtfully designed program, based on a more holistic, whole-person, approach to health, will resonate with individuals who may not be drawn to the “traditional” club environment.

A multifaceted wellness offering affords various points of entry into the club environment that may be more inviting and less intimidating to a prospective member, and may address their interests, needs, and goals more directly.

A shift in mindset and approach also may be required to tap the deconditioned or disadvantaged cohort in a significant way.

“We’ve spent decades training and helping the interested and the fit,” says Greg Degnan, the medical director of the acac Fitness and Wellness Centers, based in Charlottesville, VA. “But we’ve been unable to reach, or help, many of those who would benefit most from our skillset. With this population, it’s hard to market directly to the consumer, so there has to be a strategy for marketing to, and partnering with, the ‘keepers’ of this group—their physicians, employers, or allied healthcare providers, such as physical therapists.”

Find the Right Stuff—and Staff

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A coach with the acac Fitness and Wellness Centers helping out a member.

To ensure that a program produces positive results, both for the end-user and the provider, there has to be a well-defined strategic plan that addresses design, implementation, and sustainability.

“Clubs should begin by aligning their offering with their mission and purpose,” says Rajs. “Operators must design a curriculum that solves problems for members, and the menu of services should support the overall positioning of the club.”

But implementation and, therefore, sustainability require more than simply crafting a list of interesting classes. Finding the right staff also is critical, Wong indicates.

“What’s overlooked, most frequently, is the staffing that’s required to offer a diverse set of programs,” she explains. “The staff must be passionate about the groups they’re serving, be able to adapt in a supportive way, and must provide personalized solutions.”

While several professional educational programs and certifications for wellness and health coaching do exist, the field still isn’t well regulated, Matthews say. For that reason, she stresses the importance of investing in highly qualified staff. “Club management,” she says, “should take great care to make sure that the people they hire to design, deliver, and/or manage a wellness program possess a strong combination of formal education, reputable professional certifications, and documented work experience.”

Developing Hospital and Healthcare Affiliations a Win

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Equally important are fostering relationships and entering into strategic partnerships with local hospitals, medical centers, and other healthcare providers. These groups are committed to helping people stay well, and would like to demonstrate that in addition to treating illness and injuries they can provide preventive services.

If they’re not offering wellness options, aligning with a club that does makes perfect sense.

Matthews believes that collaborating with clinicians who refer patients to clubs to savor wellness experiences reflects a true integrative approach to healthcare and well-being.

“Partnering with the medical community and offering them safe and effective programs to support patient care is the best route to attracting the ‘not-yet-fit’ population,” Wong says. “An established physician referral program has the potential not only to increase the number of leads, but also to enroll clients who are likely to remain longer than the average individual, who may have joined simply because of a club’s equipment or convenient location.”

Stephen Capezzone, the CEO of Healthtrax International, a medically oriented chain based in Glastonbury, CT, has compiled a tally of benefits that accrue from such affiliations. Among the items on his list: an increase in prospective member traffic via active referrals from physicians and clinicians; an increase in “not-yet-fit” prospect traffic; higher closing rates produced by the medical “halo” effect (e.g., credibility and a sense of safety); and a very high retention rate for “not-yet-fit” members who stay more than a year.

He even notes that “a hospital affiliation implies higher occupancy and payroll costs, which can help justify slightly higher membership and personal training costs.”

A crucial prerequisite, though, is for clubs to earn the trust and respect of the medical community. They can do so by hiring qualified staff with the expertise required to care for people who are at increased risk or have a chronic disease, and by being able to quantify results for healthcare providers.

“Health clubs must operate at a very high level in terms of member care, service, safety, and risk management, since hospitals and physicians are very protective of their brand and reputation,” McBride says.

A Fully Integrated Business Model Takes Time

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Industry professionals such as Wong, Rajs, McBride, Degnan, and Capezzone who have had success with wellness offerings value their potential to increase member loyalty, retention, nondues revenue, brand recognition, community standing. ...

“There’s a ‘person-centered-care’ movement in healthcare today,” Matthews says. “Healthcare services are being tailored to the individual patient’s needs to enhance their experience. Likewise, high-quality wellness programs can have a positive impact on member loyalty and retention.”

“Anything we can do to help members see true progress in their wellness journey helps foster loyalty and member retention,” Rajs says. “In our group weight loss program, for example, members hold one another accountable for workout and diet adherence. This peer-to-peer approach, coupled with professional coaching, keeps them on track and creates a stronger bond with the club.”

Making the philosophical, financial, and operational commitment to move into the wellness arena might seem a bit overwhelming. However, the good news, Wong says, is that, “There are many wellness providers that can help clubs expand their offerings, and, in the process, claim a larger market share.”

“When evaluating expansion opportunities, Active Wellness looks at the programs we can develop directly, as well as established programs we might want to license,” says McBride. “Partnering with firms with established programs creates credibility upfront.”

McBride sees a world of wellness opportunities on the horizon, but advises operators not to pursue them until they’re really ready to do so. “Don’t rush it. Be strategic. Be prepared. And do your homework.”

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