I knew we couldn’t replicate the Retention Convention in its traditional way, so we didn’t try,” says Paul Bedford. “The event was a mix of pre-recorded and live material designed to be more like an extended webinar, with our speakers sharing their know-how on turning customers into communities.”
The event kicked off with Bedford playing an emotive video from Magna Vitae, demonstrating how the trust had created a true, family-like community within its facilities. Bedford said as an industry we need to showcase this type of content more widely, to demonstrate what we do and prove to the outside world that we are not just about hard-core training, but that we’re health care providers that contribute massively to society.
Spreading the love
Award-winning Australian studio owner Amanda Bracks from Soulful Fitness opened the convention with her session, ‘Making people feel as though they belong’.
She explained how her techniques, which work on both mental and physical health, can be used across any size of club or studio, and showed videos of members describing the importance of their Soulful Fitness community.
“For some people the gym is a place they go. For others it’s a place they belong. This is what you want,” she said.
Bracks advised giving something tangible to new joiners, so they instantly feel part of the community. Soulful Fitness gifts a branded t-shirt and yoga mat, which have been a big hit on social media, as well as two key tags; enabling a friend to support the member during their first week.
Bracks’ top tips revolved around getting members to attend. She said: “Use any excuse you can to get them into the club. We even arrange little gifts and tell members it will be at reception next time they come in.”
Events such as Community Month, where staff encourage members to introduce themselves to each other, Crazy Pants Month, with a prize for the brightest leggings, and regular workshops, such as mindfulness, support the community feel, as well as in-class experiences such as Monday Mat Fundamentals for older people – a session where 70s and 80s music is played.
“These all create an atmosphere where people feel as though they belong, because they’re with others who like the same things,” said Bracks. “Everything is about inclusivity and encouraging people to attend as much as possible.
“We run Mates Mondays and Free Friend Friday – loads of events to get friends and family to buy in to what their partner loves,” she said. “We want them to be supportive and encourage their loved ones to attend; not to say ‘why are you going to the club again?”
Offering free meditation and yoga for local students during their exam period has also been a big hit with local parents, who are grateful and feel part of the community before they even join.
Soulful Fitness’s postcard programme was a big winner with delegates, who loved how such a simple, traditional gesture could make all the difference. ‘Thank you for joining’, ‘gratitude for touring’, ‘congratulations on your achievement’, ‘thinking of you’ or ‘sorry to see you go’; all with a handwritten note, so they feel like a loved member of the community.
The Soulful Fitness community came into its own during lockdown, when members interacted through a Facebook group, sharing images of their activities, their pets joining in, and their home-cooked recipes. “We ended up with communities within communities,” said Bracks. “On our social media platforms the images are all of people having fun. It helps prospective members understand who we are.”
One nifty trick Bracks shared was a way to give to charity and draw potential members into the studio at the same time. She explained: “Schools often ask if we can donate fundraising prizes, but we give them more than that; cards to sell to the local community offering three classes for $10. We get the leads and they get valuable income!”
Wrapping up, Bedford said: “Everyone is telling us the whole world has moved to digital, but how much of what Amanda does is traditional? It’s all based around the context of building a community by getting people to visit, and we know the more people visit the longer they are likely to stay.”
Member to employee
énergie Fitness’ learning and development manager, Lauren Moate, told us about her journey from énergie member to énergie employee in her session: ‘Creating a community, not just a club’.
The Australian former scientist said she understood customer service from working in a pub: “Ask anyone in a pub if they have a local and they’ll all say yes. Gyms are the same, we all have our local.”
As part of énergie’s ‘Take the stage’ training course, franchisees learn the énergie promise; five things all built from service:
1. Here to wow you – wowing customers by getting to know them.
2. We play – make it fun. Customers must sweat and smile if they’re to keep coming back.
3. A place for you – a home from home where everyone’s welcome.
4. Got your back – what do they need and how do you support them.
5. It’s personal – celebrate victories along the way. When they win, we win.
“Delivering the énergie promise is about members feeling they belong. When a member cancels, take it personally. They are actually breaking up with you. You’ve stopped motivating them to want to be there,” said Moate. “I’ve literally lived ‘a place for you’. I once sold a membership to a girl called Andrea. She’s now my best friend and I was a bridesmaid at her wedding. We are changing people’s lives.”
Moate also shared her super six tips: 1) a world-class VIP welcome, every visit; 2) daily dialogue with members to create a deep and meaningful relationship; 3) every shift is showtime, so put on your best performance for the members; 4) go tribal by promoting group exercise, as members that work together stay longer; 5) yes, it’s personal, get to know each member so you can deliver an experience on their terms and; 6) until next time – no one wants to leave someone they love, so find out when they’re back and start all over again.
Summing up, Moate said: “If members aren’t getting good customer service it’s because you’re choosing not to give it to them. Embed this in your team as a non negotiable as this will create a community and that will inspire members to stay.”
Gillian Reeves delivered a thought-provoking session around ‘Building communities; the difference between big box and boutique’. Reeves, who owns the Yoga Hub studio, was previously responsible for Virgin Active’s group exercise, as well as doing a stint at EMD UK as head of instructor development.
Reeves encouraged delegates to close their eyes and remember how they felt the first time they stepped into a gym or studio, reminiscing about the elation she felt after her first ever aerobics class, which led her to volunteer at the Croydon YMCA, interacting with customers on the gym floor.
She said: “I have a fascination with connection – what it is to have meaningful relationships that encourage and uplift others. How do you feel when you think about a good relationship you have with another person? This is how you want customers to feel when they come to you.
“Have you asked your customers how they feel about their experience with you? Do you know their names? Why they come? Where they’re at in life? It’s really easy to set business values and a mission statement, but it’s harder to live by if it doesn’t come from the heart.”
Reeves revealed Virgin Active’s mission to be the most loved health club in the world, and to treat others as you want to be treated, which staff bought into because the leaders exuded those values themselves.
She said: “Real staff featured on our posters, on bus stops next to George Clooney’s next film release. Our staff and members felt proud; they had a sense of belonging to something and we found members stayed longer because they connected with us.”
Reeves quoted EMD UK research which showed that people crave a social experience that can’t be replicated virtually, and she explained how loneliness can be more harmful than smoking or obesity, telling the audience that we need to create a vibe in our facilities where people feel safe.
She touched on something many clubs have experienced; that members follow their favourite instructors. She explained the popularity of indoor cycling at Virgin Active and how important it was for self employed instructors to feel valued as part of the company. “These teachers had amazing rapport with the members. They were the unsung heroes. We ran a Pedal to the Medal Guinness Book of Records event and got instructors involved from all around the world. It was just 10 minutes of cycling, but people still remember that now. The instructors felt part of something bigger, not just someone who turns up twice a week. It’s so important to engage with your team. They’re the ones in front of the customers. Ask them what they need and what they like too.”
At Yoga Hub, Reeves no longer has the budget of a big club, but has been creative, buddying up with others, such as local bloggers, to help promote her studio for free. “Connection with the local community is everything,” she explained. “I worked with a charity that had already built the trust of inactive women – those who wouldn’t usually come to a yoga class – and created a successful, virtual 12-week programme for them.”
Summing up, she said: “You can have all the qualifications in the world, but the people that succeed are those who have soft skills and can interact. Good community builders simply love people.”
In it together
The all-female cast for 2020 included Stacey Seward Vandiver, owner and CEO of US-based group fitness education and subscription brand, SoulBody Fitness. Vandiver showed videos of health club owners using SoulBody Fitness classes to demonstrate ‘The Power of Community through group fitness’.
One advocate, Carrie Kepple, who is IHRSA chair as well as owner and CEO of Styles Studios, explained their ‘best of boutique’ concept, which sees four unique studios offering completely different experiences, all within one big club.
She said: “We’ve flipped the traditional model. We have a village of studios in one big space and classes are king. The gym floor is just a nice-to-have. We use a lot of technology to make the member experience as frictionless as possible and hashtags such as #neverbeboredagain and #allstyleswelcome to break down barriers and welcome everyone. All this helps us keep members engaged; they don’t have to go all over town to fulfil their exercise needs.”
The club had only been open eight weeks when lockdown hit. But they had secured 500 members and were determined to keep them. “If you were with family when a disaster struck, everything would be about protecting them. We did the same with our 500 members. We set up private Facebook groups, with classes every day, virtual PT, mental fitness and good nutrition habits, etc. Our members survived a crisis together and now they all talk to each other,” she explained.
“We actually grew our membership to 720 during a pandemic, and 90 per cent of those were from referrals. Get emotional about your customers. Love them up and create opportunities for them to be a community. Protect your core and those that love you will sell it for you.”
Jeni Morrison from Dallas YMCA talked about the difficulties of serving 16 very different communities, saying: “COVID has helped us prove that group exercise drives traffic and builds member retention. In every location we had to look at who we’re serving, and what they want. Adaptability was key to success. In some areas we have a big Indian community, who are not ready to come into the club, no matter what’s on the schedule, so I started virtual sessions with their favourite instructors.
“In another area we have a strong yoga and barre community and so I had to create the same experience and emotional connection outside as we do in the studios. The pandemic has forced us to evolve and move forward and we will never go back to the way it was.”
Named one of IHRSA’s Women Who Inspire in 2019, Marisa Hoff didn’t disappoint as she talked about building communities through social media.
Hoff stated the similarities in social media marketing across all industries, explaining how her brother-in-law wanted to connect with old school friends and managed to create a 15k-member Facebook group within just two months. “He did something right,” she said. “He wanted to build a community.”
Hoff fell in love with social media and marketing when she was general manager of a successful Californian health club. Now, as the director of operations for fitness consulting firm Empower Group, she’s working with Be Military Fit (BMF) to bring the brand to the US.
“The key word in social media is social. It’s not about selling, it’s a place for engagement, and consistency is vital to success,” explained Hoff, as she worked through her three top tips:
1. Recruit – follow complementary businesses, run events together to reach people you might not otherwise meet. Follow and engage in meaningful interactions with competitors’ top fans, and offer them a free trial.
Make time to engage every day, commenting and liking, to help with your organic reach. Respond to queries quickly. Answering a complaint on social media can increase customer advocacy by 25 per cent. Forty per cent of people expect brands to respond in the first hour, 79 per cent within the first day. Most brands aren’t doing that well enough!
Response times for leads should be within five minutes. After that conversion decreases significantly; you need to get people when they’re really motivated.
2. Retain – encourage staff to follow and tag members; engagement should go beyond your walls. The more people interact, the more your posts will be seen and your organic reach boosted. If you’re worried about staff interaction on social media they shouldn’t be part of your team anyway.
Keep your audience in mind and keep an eye on what works; the most popular posts always feature staff or members. You can sell your business without making it obvious. Engage followers in discussions.
3. Refer – user generated content is a great tool for referrals. Create spaces in and around your club that encourage people to post; perhaps a feature wall with a logo. Offer prizes for members checking in and tagging you, using a branded hashtag or posting about why they love your club. It’s the little things that make a difference. Don’t forget the power of testimonials and repurpose your NPS scores and Google reviews on social.
More to watch
Two further presentations are available online; Catherine Edmunds, a specialist in equality, diversity and inclusivity, and Super Monkey in China, which Bedford described as a very successful business that has built a community and member trust despite the volatile environment. ●
For a copy of the event details, email [email protected]