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Are you not entertained? Retaining customers in the fitness industry...

The fitness business is a big one. Big commercial investments, big commercial returns. The “2018 State of the UK Fitness Industry Report” complied by LeisureDB placed the industry market value at £4.9bn, with some 9.9 million members across 7038 uk based gyms.


The same report detailed some interesting key facts a 2% year on year growth of members, 275 new fitness facilities opened in 2018 but no growth in the overall market penetration rate. The true picture underlying these results may not be so pretty,or indeed positive. Many business within the industry calculate membership retention in different ways and to varying criteria so an accurate industry wide average of the UK is a little difficult to determine, however it’s reasonable to suggest that the industry in the UK appears to continue to merely recycle and replace members. Put another way, new memberships are masking the poor retention of many gyms. This rise and repeat cycle has been the same within the UK industry for many, many years, however one thing is for certain. It just isn’t sustainable.

Leaving the question of commercial sustainability aside, there’s a deeper issue to consider on a personal, service based level. If there’s no year on year growth in market penetration, yet an increase in the total number of facilities, why did so many people (customers) leave? There’s a range of theories put forward, the culture of the industry is changing, customers demand holistic programmes and more activity choices, or customers are more knowledgeable and basic expectations are higher. To be honest though it all comes down to one simple, unavoidable reason. The industry just didn’t fulfill their needs.

So we’d like to believe it’s about a failure to produce personal results. When the customer joined, we asked them what they would like to achieve, they started their journey but they either stumbled, went the wrong way or just simply broke down before they got to their first recognisable milestone. The weight loss didn’t come. The body shape they expected didn’t materialise or they simply didn’t get fitter. This lack of results created a lack of intrinsic personal motivation. This in turn created a lack of visits and activity, which ultimately compounded the original lack of result achievement.This cycle is often proposed as the sole underlying cause for poor retention, customers don’t achieve results, they leave. However for this to be true two key conditions must be met. First, the customer should be asked what results they expect to attain. Secondly, the customer should have an intrinsic desire to achieve these results. All too often the reality however is that no more than lip service is paid to goal identification, with the customer possibly providing a superficial answer at best. Moreover the depth of understanding and development of many fledging, front line fitness team members has not yet evolved enough to provide a sense of legitimacy or comfort in probing this issue further. The customer’s specific results therefore go unrecognised by the service providers, but worse don’t get fully understood by the customer themselves.

Lack of results is doubtless a huge lever in the decision to quit. There’s nothing on which they can evaluate the process, there’s no grounds for association with the process. Therefore by default there is a potential for a complete state of disassociation from the process. In this context the fitness industry is not one of health and wellbeing, it becomes one simply of entertainment. The provision is not directed towards the efficient and effective achievement of fitness and health goals, it is directed to providing a stimulus which distracts, engages and retains the fascination of the customer. The need for that next class format, the next generation of equipment, something with more lights, more whistles and more bells becomes increasingly important. In this environment the need to best meet personal goals and provide physiological results is gone. The challenge is now it is more about how best to distract the customer from the fact that the reality of activity they are undertaking has the potential to be routine, hard work and possibly a little boring. The customer’s need for a dopamine fix, distracting from the physical reality is now king. The screen in the group cycling studio, featuring this month’s beautiful alpine vista, is now becoming more important that the instructor themselves. The basic fact is that when we are entertained we are disassociated from our direct environment and our focus shifts.We are less and less focused on what we may be doing, therefore removed the idea from our activity routine becoming stale and somewhat routine. Every successful group exercise instructor will agree that the business is actually more about entertaining customers than it is ensuring they achieve results.

Fitness activity is fickle, it is affected by current fashions, fads and trends. Some of these come and stay, others come and go just a quickly. The ‘entertainment’ needs of our customers and commensurately of our activity provisions cannot be overlooked. There is and will always be a need for a fresh approach and new innovation. However, this can never fully replace the need we have to truly understand our customers. The need for ‘meaningful relationships’ can never be under emphasised. Taking the time and opportunity to invest in understanding what our customers want to achieve (and providing the appropriate interventions) is a fundamental of any effective customer retention strategy.

Staying fit isn’t an easy process. At almost every point of one’s fitness journey, there can be a temptation to quit. From the outset, fitness is difficult because one hasn’t yet developed the habit of routinely coming along the gym and working out. Even when that has been overcome, the motivation to maintain can diminish as the customer becomes more adapted to their activity and identifiable session-to-session progress slows down. Additionally, people often undergo life changes that make it difficult to keep up with their fitness routine – people go away to college, start demanding new jobs or have babies. There are many individual factors that can make someone leave a fitness gym or facility, membership retention strategies aside. There are simply factors that we cannot control, however by positioning that we provide in an informed and customer focused manner we can at least provide some positive influence. If, through our provision, we can engender a deeper understanding of the value that the customer has on those results (actually get them to understand “why” they want to achieve “what” they want to achieve) and equally meet his with a healthy dose of innovative programming and individualised activity choice, they are much more likely to positively manage their future exercise adherence.

People will buy a fitness membership based on “facility perception”, they will stay based on “service reality”. Provide a strategy which will acknowledge, enthuse (entertain) and provide results for those customers and they are significantly more likely to stay in your business. Sustainable membership growth and industry penetration can only be realised by maintaining a balance of focus on both sides of the coin, new sales (and new builds) and existing customer retention.

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