Strength in Numbers : The Importance of Fitness Buddies
Exercise partners provide a powerful combination of support, accountability, motivation and, in some cases, healthy competition. “They can play the role of teammate, co-coach and cheerleader — all while working out,” says Michelle P. Maidenberg, PhD, MPH, clinical director of Westchester Group Works in Harrison, N.Y.
Maidenberg, who consults on wellness-coaching strategies, says finding the right workout partner (someone you care about and click with) dramatically increases your chances of success. “A buddy can motivate you to do one more set, continue when you feel like you have just had enough and want to give up, or when you are feeling hopeless.” The need for interpersonal support is primal, says Andersen. “We are social animals. We seek the company and positive reinforcement of others, especially when we are doing work”.
Another study, from the Department of Kinesiology at Indiana University, surveyed married couples who joined health clubs together and found that couples who worked out separately had a 43 percent dropout rate over the course of a year. Those who went to the gym together, regardless of whether they focused on the same type of exercise, had only a 6.3 percent dropout rate.
Ready to partner up? Great! But before you recruit the first warm body you see, keep in mind that not all workout buddies are created equal. “If you choose someone who does not share a similar commitment to fitness, that can be a distraction or even a deterrent,” Andersen says. “And if your partner is at a radically different level of health, fitness or ability, you could be held back, pushed too hard or even injured.”
Another key factor: Emotional connection. Your workout pal doesn’t have to be your best friend, but he or she has to be someone you like and whom you wouldn’t want to disappoint, Maidenberg says. “Psychologically, if you feel like you have a responsibility and commitment toward another person, you are more likely to
follow through on that commitment.”
The Social Nature of Your Fitness Center Affects Your Member Retention
Your fitness center is more than a place to work out; it is a place where members create a community. The atmosphere and culture of a health club plays a big part in member retention, according to a 2014 IHRSA Member Retention Report. In fact, almost 60 percent of members credit social motivation as the reason they attend their club, according to the report.
"The loners are the ones who tend to quit the gym—the ones that go off on their own to an elliptical, treadmill or for a swim," said health club consultant Laurie Cingle. "The more a gym owner can encourage group exercise and interaction, the better it is for the success of the gym. Member-to-member connection is the foundation for good retention. Friends don't leave their friends. They want to work out where their friends are."
Because club culture is a significant reason that individuals remain with their facility (or leave it), club operators would be wise to ensure their retention efforts include maintaining and improving social interaction among their members. Members' socializing outside of the club either through social media or social activities was the best predictor of exercise frequency, according to a 2010 study from the University of Southern California called "Social Relationships and Physical Activity in Health Club Members." Members who had workout buddies had fewer skipped workouts and greater exercise satisfaction.
Group fitness plays a large part in membership retention, especially for women and active seniors, according to a 2014 IHSRA report on group exercise and retention rates. Gyms that had a strong group exercise schedule had better retention, the report stated.
"As a trainer, I see it all the time," said Stephen Jandovitz, a NASM trainer at Gold's Gym in Princeton, New Jersey. "Members don't know what to do, so they go to an exercise class. It's either that or nothing at all for a lot of seniors. And for the more specialized classes, such as yoga, cycling, swimming, weight lifting, Zumba, the members go above and beyond. They will do a Zumba class for two hours to support a certain charity. It really brings everyone together, and of course, they post pictures on social media."
Part of what may make group fitness a retention helper is a sense of "team" derived in taking the classes. "Ask anyone who played team sports and they will tell you one of the things they liked best was the camaraderie between their teammates," said Bruce Carter, president of Optimal Design International and a past club owner.
Relationship, Retention, and Revenue in the Fitness Industry
A study by Stanford University demonstrates just how powerful social “nudges” can be. Researchers took a group of 218 participants, explained to them that their goal activity level was 100 minutes of exercise per week, and separated them into three groups. Group one received one call from a live person every three weeks. During the call, participants were asked how much they worked out in the past week, were congratulated, and cheered on. Group two received the same call at the same frequency but from a robotic message. Group three received no phone calls.
After one year, participants who received a call from a live person increased their weekly activity level by 78 percent. Participants who received pre-recorded calls increased their activity level by 50 percent. Even the participants that received no phone calls, but were present for the initial meeting, increased their activity level by 28 percent. Six months after the study ended, the participant’s activity level stayed the same.
Why do personal trainers still exist? Anyone with an Internet connection can watch videos on YouTube or read fitness blogs to find the best workout routine. Trainers exist because people are willing to pay them to hold them accountable to their goals, similarly to group fitness gyms like Crossfit, Soul Cycle and Zumba, which are exploding across the country.
With that in mind, it’s interesting to consider that the fitness industry is the only subscription-based industry that typically glorifies member acquisition over retention. Get ‘em signed up and hope they never show up so that you can get the most out of your gym space. However, focusing on retention as opposed to acquisition, can dramatically increase gym revenues and build a stronger foundation against market volatility.
When gym owners focus on increasing member attendance and the average length of membership, they reduce member acquisition costs by increasing word-of-mouth marketing. The best marketers are your customers, especially in the fitness industry. Increasing member retention also makes gyms more resistant to typical churn forces. So if a cheaper gym moves in across the street or a new fitness concept takes over pop culture, your members will be less likely to switch because of their loyalty to your brand.
Building brand loyalty can also be defined as increasing “switching costs.” The cost a member incurs by switching from one gym to the other is usually low. Most gyms offer similar amenities, equipment, classes etc., and as Warren Buffet would say, “it’s an awfully thin moat to cross.” But one of the few ways a gym can retain its members is by building relationships with them and making members feel accountable to working out in the context of their gym. This could be achieved through social media, phone calls, text messages, or face-to-face communication, all which can increase attendance among members.
Occasional social nudges can dramatically increase member activity level. Increasing member activity level and attendance increases the points of contact they have with your gym, and more points of contact increase the lifetime value of your members, which ultimately reduces member acquisition costs, and increases brand loyalty.
15 Surprising Facts About Health Club Member Retention
A summary of the IHRSA's comprehensive Member Retention Report, (Volume 3, Issue 3): Focus on Member Interaction. Conducted in partnership with The Retention People, the report is based on a survey of more than 13,000 health club members in the United Kingdom. Here are 15 key takeaways…
- Almost 90% of club members say they value communication from staff members.
Email is a more effective means of communication than phone calls (across all membership groups).
Every two interactions fitness staff has with a member in a given month results in one extra visit from that member the following month.
Every additional visit by a member in a given month, in turn, reduces the risk of that member cancelling in the subsequent month by 33%.
Social interaction affects renewals. The risk of cancellation was 56% higher among members who just use gym equipment vs. those who exercise in groups.
- Social interaction also affects overall member satisfaction; 70% of club members who had made new friends through their membership self-identified as club "promoters" rather than club "detractors."
- Your best salespeople are your fitness staff. The TRP study determined that fitness-staff members can generate 600% more income per member than salespeople alone. Frequent interaction between fitness staff and members results in more member visits, and members who visit more often have higher renewal rates.
- Longtime members are the group most likely to become dissatisfied and convert from promoters to detractors. So don't take your most established members for granted—keep them happy and engaged.
- A TRP analysis of 40,000 member surveys generated "word clouds" associated with both "promoters" and "detractors" at top-performing clubs. The word that promoters used most frequently was "staff." The word that detractors used most frequently was "crowded."
- Reaching out to a member—whether by phone, email, text, or social media—more than doubles the likelihood that they will be a "promoter" rather than a "detractor."
- At any given time, one of the highest-risk groups for membership dropout are those who have not attended for more than a week—but have attended within the last two weeks.
- Your best promoters are both your youngest (ages 16–24) and your oldest (65+) members.
- Your memberships are expensive—for you. IHRSA's Industry Date Survey (IDS) found that leading club operators spend a median of $118.65 in sales and marketing costs per new membership account.
- On the other hand, the survey found that leading club operators generate a median of $793.40 in annual revenue per member.
- Doing something—anything—to try to retain members is better than doing nothing. Said Jay Ablondi, IHRSA's executive vice president of global products, "Results show that any type of interaction with a member at risk of canceling can reduce the likelihood of dropping out by nearly 10%."
Social Environments Help Health Clubs with Member Retention
In a 1995 study titled "Social Relationships and Physical Activity in Health Club Members," University of Southern California researchers examined three social variables and found that socializing outside the club with people met at the club was the best predictor of exercise frequency, having friends at the club was the best predictor of the infrequency of skipped workouts, and exercising with a friend was the best predictor of exercise satisfaction. Wrote Jennifer Unger, a professor in USC's Department of Preventive Medicine, "These findings suggest that friendships that involve exercising together and the social contacts that result from exercising in public places such as health clubs may motivate exercise behavior."
More than 15 years later, group exercise programs are exploding. "Clubs that have a strong group exercise component have a much higher retention rate than those that don't," says industry consultant Casey Conrad. "The statistics that have been coming in over the past couple of years are absolutely compelling."
By offering as many as 20 specialized classes in yoga, cycling, water aerobics, swimming and weightlifting, health club chain Life Time Fitness, which boasts 90 locations in 20 states, cut its attrition rate from 42 percent in 2009 to 36 percent last year, while revenue increased 10 percent in the last quarter of 2010. "Say you tell us you were a swimmer in high school. Well, if we can get you connected with a social network of swimmers, it works," Life Time spokesperson Jason Thunstrom told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in March. "It's a place you want to be, rather than a place you have to be."
Certain clubs, such as those offering racquet sports, are inherently equipped for member interaction. "Anytime you have a component that involves playing partners, such as tennis or racquetball or squash, there's always a social component, because you have to schedule a match and play with other people," Caro says. "The challenge has been in the fitness areas and the rest of the facility. In some ways the fitness equipment area has led to a lot of advances, but it's also led to people becoming very isolated in their experience."
Some facilities offer clubs within their club, linking fans of professional sports teams or individuals with shared interests ranging from investing to wine tasting. Whereas member profiles and word of mouth once served to facilitate the formation of affinity groups and friendships, today's club operators can tap social media to find common bonds. Conrad is a passionate proponent of Facebook, for example, if it is used properly. "I'm not just talking about having a Facebook page, but utilizing the group element of Facebook," she says. "If clubs aren't utilizing the group feature of their Facebook account, they're not going to get near the same level of socialization between members that they will if they are using it. A lot of people don't know that."
"We are in the club business," says Coffman. "People join a club to be with others like themselves, with similar interests, skill levels, schedules, personalities, ages and genders. No one joins a club to be alone. It doesn't make sense."