Tim Bainton is the President of Blue Chip Sports Management based in Washington D.C. Tim is a published author and frequent industry contributor.
This month: Part 1
1. An Introduction
2. Know Your Audience
3. The Buyer Persona
Alex Planes is the CEO of FoundEdge, a content marketing agency. He has worked with some of the world's largest brands and has published or syndicated thousands of articles in The Motley Fool, Business Insider, USA Today, the BBC, Fox Business, and elsewhere.
Alex leads all content strategy and development for Blue Chip Sports Management and has been integral in developing BCSM's market authority through content creation.
Club Management Mastery
A Full-Spectrum Guide to Building Better Fitness Facilities
1: An Introduction
Welcome to the health and fitness industry.
You might be just starting your career. You might have decades of experience.
You might own a specialty health club, tennis, or fitness facility.
You may want to open a new gym to serve the whole community.
Whoever you are, wherever you are in your career, and however you’ve approached owning a club in the past, you’re most likely reading this guide because you’re committed to taking yourself, your career, and your club to the next level.
In this guide, you’ll learn everything from the essentials of marketing to advanced tools and techniques for building and managing a health club workforce.
We’ll start with a detailed discussion of a critical, foundational aspect of any successful fitness business: how it identifies itself, both to its target market and to its team.
In addition to these branding essentials, we’ll also cover common legal tactics, operational systems, and common software tools and online services that can help you stand out from your competition and attract loyal customers.
Why should you trust us?
Tim has dedicated his career to the health and fitness industry. For nearly two decades, he’s held just about every position in your typical club.
He’s worked the front desk, trained aspiring pros and retired fitness enthusiasts, hired and managed teams, and tackled everything from business branding to personal authority-building to financial management.
For the past ten years as the founder and president of Chip Sports Management, or BCSM, Tim has grown his company into one of the most trusted names in fitness facility optimization. BCSM has helped more than 100 health and fitness facilities around the world improve their operational efficiency and maximize their profitability.
Alex began his professional career in the health and fitness industry as a personal trainer. Since then, he’s also worked as a financial analyst, online marketing consultant, and entrepreneur. These experiences have given him a unique perspective on how great businesses work, regardless of industry.
In his current role as founder and CEO of FoundEdge, a content marketing consultancy, Alex helps growing businesses define their brands, develop their roles as thought leaders, and reach more prospects online through both organic and paid channels.
In the course of our work, we’ve found that the most successful facilities in this industry often share a number of similar traits and adopt similar approaches to building their businesses. With this guide, we’ve collected many of these tried and true methods into a comprehensive first-of-its-kind guide to help you establish and grow a health club or fitness facility.
If you’re just getting started (or are thinking about getting started) as a health club owner, the first few sections in our Health Club Management Mastery guide will help you figure out exactly what you want your club to be, and what kind of people you’re trying to bring through your doors to become paying members and valuable, committed long-term clients.
The second sequence of sections will help you check off the right boxes for any licensing and regulatory requirements you might need to stay compliant while remaining profitable.
Subsequent sections will focus on common pathways to health club growth and long-term success. We’ll also cover advanced concepts and tactics such as personal brand-building, customer relationship management, practical approaches to health club human resources (that’s hiring, firing, employee management, payroll, and other related topics), and more.
Many of these sections have been written with new or even aspiring club owners in mind, but we believe health clubs at all stages can find value and opportunity in the guidance offered here.
Like any business, a health club must manage its costs, maintain or grow its profitability, build its brand, and expand its operations within its unique budget and talent constraints.
We’ll help you understand and master each of these core business and professional functions, and you’ll find more than enough details along the way to help you determine where your club might be falling short today, and where you can focus your energy and attention to gain the greatest return on your valuable investments of time and financial resources.
Are you ready to grow?
Great. Let’s get started.
2: Know Your Audience
The health and fitness industry is more robust -- and more fragmented -- than ever before. We’ve come a long way from the first Gold’s Gym on Venice Beach.
Today, there are nearly 40,000 health clubs and fitness centers in the United States alone, or roughly one facility for every 8,500 people in the country. Worldwide, there are more than 200,000 health clubs and fitness centers, with ten countries accounting for over two-thirds of global membership and over 70% of all worldwide revenue.
Today’s fitness consumers, many of whom live in developed nations and have higher-than-average household earnings, have more variety and specificity in their choice of club than Joe Gold could have imagined when he opened his first club’s doors in 1965.
Today’s consumers can join weightlifting-focused gyms like Gold’s or Powerhouse Gym, which are often sparsely decorated and built primarily to offer massive free-weight and weight-machine areas to aspiring Arnold Schwarzeneggers.
Consumers also have access to thousands of high-intensity group exercise facilities operating as CrossFit, Orangetheory, and other brands large and small. In more urban areas, fitness consumers can also choose between sports-specific clubs or massive upmarket facilities like Equinox and Lifetime Fitness.
If these options don’t seem personalized enough, consumers can choose to join private training facilities, dedicated to tailored one-on-one or group sessions operated by credentialed fitness trainers or sports coaches. There are even plenty of “mobile” fitness businesses operated in public or semi-private locations, particularly in warm-weather areas, which focus on high-intensity bodyweight workouts in more natural settings.
Not only do consumers have more facility options than ever before, but they also have many more opportunities to pursue their health and fitness goals independently.
This might involve purchasing equipment such as a Peloton (if you’re upwardly mobile enough) or a set of kettlebells (if you like Crossfit but aren’t big on working out in a group) for home use, subscribing to an online or digital fitness program such as P90X or DDPYoga, or simply communicating with a coach or trainer through one of any number of health and fitness-focused apps to develop optimal workout regimens and diet plans.
This creates more opportunities for you, but it also creates more risk.
Your health club must be able to stand out to local consumers by providing a compelling rationale for them to sign up for a membership and make regular visits. If you can’t stand out, you might not be able to generate enough revenue to pay your bills and build your business.
Standing out and demonstrating value to your target audience begins with one thing: understanding that audience. Every health club has a purpose, and that purpose is ultimately to improve the health and fitness outcomes of its target audience. This purpose is often determined by a club owner’s background.
A former tennis pro, for example, is far more likely to open a tennis-focused facility with multiple courts than they might be to open a hardcore bodybuilding gym. On the other hand, someone who played football in high school and fell in love with the weight room might rather pursue their dreams of an iron paradise, where 24-inch pythons can run wild and big stacks of weight plates clang and bang against each other at all hours.
Do you know your target audience?
It’s impossible to appeal to everyone, so you’re typically better off being highly appealing to a particular niche of fitness consumers than you would be if you try to make your facility “for everyone.”
Even successful general-purpose fitness facilities know their niche and understand how to appeal to that niche. For example, Lifetime Fitness is a successful general-purpose club offering many exercise options for stable middle-class suburban families. Its branding, messaging, and pricing all reflect this focus.
Equinox Fitness, on the other hand, offers much of the same options as Lifetime, but these options are generally presented in more high-end formats. Equinox is a luxury fitness club that appeals to upper-middle-class or high-earning urbanites. Its clubs are often located closer to densely-populated city centers, and the combination of location and perceived high quality allows Equinox to charge higher rates for its memberships than Lifetime.
There aren’t too many different reasons why someone might join a health club, but the people behind these reasons come in all shapes, sizes, ages, and colors, and income levels. By staking out a claim on a particular type of consumer -- a particular niche -- every health club is simply working to maximize opportunities to sign up new members and to keep those members coming back and paying dues (and buying upsells) month after month.
How do you understand your audience, and thus your niche? You can start by developing a buyer persona, which we’ll cover in the next section.
3: The Buyer Persona
Knowing your audience begins with understanding the type of person you’re trying to attract.
You’ve got a specific vision in mind for your facility. Who will respond most strongly to that vision?
If you’re not sure if you’ve targeted your audience well enough, creating a buyer persona can be a great way to start figuring it out.
At BCSM, we use buyer personas to develop much of our marketing and messaging strategies. This helps us target the right people in the right places. You may very well fit our buyer personas, which target health club decision-makers and aspiring health club entrepreneurs.
A buyer persona can be as detailed or as generalized as you need. Most buyer personas include, at a minimum, these demographic criteria:
Gender (you may target only men or women, or you may target both)
Marital status (single or married, children or none?)
Income (are you targeting high-income consumers or the middle class?)
Housing status (do they own or rent, are they in the suburbs or the city?)
Race (not always important, but can help for some niches)
Additional demographic criteria can include:
Personality identifiers (competitive, calm, easygoing, nervous, etc.)
Employment (are they an executive or staff, or do they own their business?)
Employment history (is their career stable or uncertain?)
Buying style (are they analytical or emotional?)
Goals (what do they want to get from your club?)
Challenges or roadblocks (what’s getting in the way of their goals?)
Opportunities (how can you help them overcome challenges and reach goals?)
Preferred communication channels (mail, email, Facebook, phone, or something else?)
You can add on additional details or criteria as necessary, and you can also flesh out your buyer persona with multiple identifiers. Your prospective customers might have multiple similar goals, or they may have several divergent goals they all nonetheless believe can be reached through membership to your club.
There’s often more than one valid “buyer” for which you can create a persona, so you should feel free to fill out details on multiple prospective buyer personae. Doing so can give you a more comprehensive understanding of your audience than a single persona profile that’s been spread too thin with a number of demographic identifiers.
Remember, buyers are real people, not caricatures, and your buyer personae should resemble real people, too. We saw a video with Rob Lowe discussing his acting process the other day, in which he noted: “the root of all cliche is lack of research.” This is true in acting, and it’s true for buyer personae as well. Do your research and make your buyers seem real. Your marketing will be better for it.
Modern digital marketing tools allow you to focus on a highly granular, or narrowly-targeted, audience. You could run Facebook ads for working moms within five miles of your facility, or target people who’ve already liked pages that relate to what you’re offering.
We’ll return to this topic in a later section, but for now, you can work on creating detailed personae for the type of consumer you know will find your offer appealing.
If you’re already established, your existing member and/or client data can serve as a valuable source of information from which to build your buyer personae. If you’ve collected demographic data from your clients when they sign up, you’ll be able to identify the most common demographic identifiers, as well as other less common identifiers you might be able to target more effectively. You can and should be collecting information on your customers -- another thing we’ll cover in greater detail in a later section -- and if you haven’t been doing so, you’ll learn how in this series.
Thoroughly developed buyer personae can not only help you identify your ideal prospects, it can also help you understand your competition.
Any reasonably-populated area is likely to have several fitness facilities, but each may have its own niche. This might involve targeting aspiring bodybuilders, helping amateur athletes hone their skills, or working with suburban homeowners who’d like to lose their spare tires.
If you’ve kept your eyes open and your ears to the ground, you might find yourself recognizing familiar personae as the types of people to which your nearby competitors are already marketing.
Recognizing these targets in your competitors’ messaging can help you assess your value proposition against theirs. This should lead you to better understand how to pull your target audience away from your competition, through superior offers or better marketing messages.
Take your time to develop your buyer personae. A little effort towards understanding the type of people for whom your facility is best suited can pay dividends for years to come.
No matter what your target audience looks like, they’re bound to notice you for the first time thanks to one fundamental, foundational aspect of your facility: its branding.
We’ll look at how to start building your brand in the next section.
Next month: Part 2