Every weekday morning, my sister-in-law heads to a functional fitness center and undergoes a grueling routine involving kettlebells, ropes, medicine balls, and heavy chains. The center is located in a small warehouse with a homegrown feel. There’s one instructor and a small number of regulars for each time slot; it’s the kind of place where the instructor greets everyone by name and asks about their kids and pets. My sister-in-law took me to a class recently. When I arrived, she introduced me to each person there, and they welcomed me so warmly that I felt I’d known them all for years.
The workout that followed made me want to lie in bed for three days and moan feebly, but I had a great time while I was doing it. It was great partly because functional fitness is just plain fun and the instructor was wonderful—but I know the main reason it was great, was that I felt instantly comfortable around all of those people. I felt accepted; I felt both gently teased (when I collapsed after the ten-thousandth burpee) and brilliantly supported (when I discovered a natural flair for kettlebell action); I felt a genuine interest in all of my classmates, and it was clear that feeling was mutual. I left with a whole new set of friends.
My sister-in-law lives far away, so I can’t join the class, but I know that if I could, I would (despite its tortuous aspects). There’s one simple reason why I would: to be a part of that community. Anthropologists and social scientists have long known that human beings function best when they function within a community. We have our ideas about independence and autonomy, but when it comes to basic questions of survival, or just to getting through each day—or, say, to getting through a workout—we need to have others around us, and we need to feel some connection to those others.
For owners of gyms, fitness centers, training facilities, and health clubs, these facts are crucial to running a sound business. If you build a supportive, intimate community, you’re much more likely to both retain members and find new ones. So where do you begin?
1) Introduce members to one another. This one is simple, but it works, perhaps even better than anything else. I don’t mean just play icebreaker games at the start of a class; I mean make personal introductions based on your knowledge of your clients. If a new member who is a schoolteacher joins, bring her over to the schoolteacher who’s been working out at your facility for years and get them talking. Of course, you can’t facilitate connections on this level without first knowing—or ensuring that your staff knows—members personally and thoroughly. Getting to know them personally and thoroughly takes a great investment of time and energy, but it’s one of the most worthwhile investments you can make. Members will feel valued, and their positive feelings will translate into referrals, loyalty, and longevity.
2) Form clubs to address specialty interests. Find out what your members are interested in doing outside of your facility (you can use surveys, registration forms, or just personal chats for this), and see what happens if you form a club around that activity. Outdoor biking, bellydancing, macrobiotic cooking — whatever it is, you can get things started, and you don’t have to do much else. Put up a sign-up sheet, and let the members themselves take care of the rest. They’ll form personal connections and you’ll benefit.
3) Get social. I’m talking about two kinds of social here: real and virtual. On the real side of things, host cocktail hours (or juice bar hours), get-togethers, and meet-and-mingle events. Match members up for training sessions. Hold talks and seminars. On the virtual side, welcome new members to Facebook, offer incentives to members who post to your Facebook page or comment on posts you put up, create a Facebook group that members can join in order to stay connected. Explore other forms of social media too. Again, your members will form a valuable community; you’ll reap the rewards.