To date, our series on the wellness center development has taken us from concept to construction and everywhere in between. Whether your wellness center is fitness-only, corporate wellness or a medical-based health and fitness center, it's important to consider each step of the process in order to bring that dream to life. Now that the center is up and running, managers and facility owners must answer a couple of very key questions: "How do I recruit members?" and then, "How do I keep members happy?"

 Pre-Planning for Member Recruitment

            Member recruitment begins long before the doors to your center are open for the first time. Even while construction is underway, pre-sales (or those memberships sold prior to the completion of construction) should take place three to six months ahead. Such a strategy will create an awareness of the new center to spread quickly as well as maintain enthusiasm for your brand new equipment, services and staff in your community! In reality, however, construction, typically, lasts longer than expected. Perceived delays, such as this, can quickly damper first impressions and slow the momentum you hope to have. Therefore, this is a good time to remember a common marketing strategy: promise long, and deliver short. In the early stages of planning, construct a timeline that extends past the dates that you have anticipated. Then, communicate this timeline to your potential members and the community as a soft opening date. So, when the opening of the center occurs earlier than expected, you will have already exceeded expectations. Once open for business, your membership growth in the first few months should be the highest of any given period from then on.


The Membership Marketing Plan

            So, how do you keep memberships growing after the honeymoon phase is over? Marketing is all about brand recognition and consumer awareness. Therefore, when friends and relatives are asked about health facilities in the area, you want them to have your wellness center in mind and immediately recommend it as a top choice. The more recognizable and respected your center's name is in the community, the better the response. In fact, marketing strategies tell us that consumers put products into three primary cognitive categories when considering a purchase: awareness, evoked and consideration. While the awareness and evoked categories are those that consumers remember and think through, the consideration category is the "short list" of those they ultimately choose from. If only a few options exist in your demographic area, your center can get to that "consideration set" even more quickly. Therefore, attractive attributes and services must immediately set you apart! The following are a few recommendations for attracting the members you need to produce the results you want:


  • Become involved in the community during the planning phase of your center, and then, stay involved once you are open. Create a presence in area homeowners associations, rotary clubs and charitable organizations. Personal relationships play an ever-growing role in consumer decisions. And community activities provide a proactive opportunity to market your wellness center through face-to-face contact.
  • Consider non-member services. Activities such as summer kids' camps, group team building, summer membership plans and health education lectures are a great way to expose the public to your center. But a word of caution, using these activities to hard-sell your rates and member services defeats the purpose. Educate participants on the value of membership, but don't overwhelm them with pressure. It is also important to establish value to membership initiation fees. Many facilities institute "joining fees," just for these to be discounted during a promotional period. Instead, budget in a portion of each member's initiation fee to subsidize an in-depth fitness/health assessment session ' and a tailored exercise routine by the personal training staff. Not only does the member receive a personal benefit from the transaction, but the dedicated time also exposes him or her to staff expertise, which, in turn, translates into potential further revenue.
  • Establish a member referral program that rewards existing members for bringing new memberships into the center. Spa services, training sessions, gift certificates or prizes from area businesses are great incentives for your current members. Creating happy and satisfied members is vital in creating additional "sales representatives" in your community. In corporate wellness programs, "champions" are those who believe in health activities and want to get others involved. Among your own members, you have similar champions who will seek out opportunities to market person-to-person.


The Key to Success: Retention

            In the fifth installment of this series, I targeted the importance of facility culture and branding during the design phase of your project. But remember that the center's culture is a dynamic concept that is always evolving and never just materializes. Your facility may set the stage, but now, your services must conduct the show to retain the members you have gained. In the past, many facility owners lived by the popular business model that centered on "selling memberships." However, with the emerging trend of smaller, boutique-like facilities, this philosophy is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Instead, the future of commercial fitness and wellness centers is driven by member retention programs as a more cost-effective process than the redundancy of the new membership turnstile. When you factor in the time spent on following up on leads, giving facility tours and new member orientations, it proves far more cost-effective to keep them than to gain them. 

            The most effective way to keep your members happy is to effectively integrate them into the community of your wellness center. Therefore, concentrating on programs that achieve this goal is paramount in retaining these members. The following are examples of some programs that can regularly engage members with other members as well as center staff:


  • Utilization Challenges: Structured exercise adherence programs involve a point-based fitness tracking system to encourage members to use the center and its services. Prizes are awarded for completely pre-determined levels and can either involve competition by individuals or within groups. These programs can typically last six to eight weeks. For added fun, tie in each seasonal program to a larger annual goal. At the end of the year, host an awards party or banquet to enhance member recognition and interaction. Such gatherings don't have to be elaborate and can be held during business hours in the group exercise studio. Remember, members love recognition and thrive when competing against others.
  • Group Training: An ever-growing profit center within fitness facilities is the group session. Not only does it increase revenue per session for both the trainer and center alike, but it also provides members with a more cost-effective option for accessing health professionals. Therefore, creating ways to get more members involved in these services enhances facility commitment and loyalty.
  • Enhance Non-Traditional Services: The ideal wellness center members are the 20% that will likely stay, no matter what. However, the other 80% are those that are in special need of something more to improve their healthy behaviors. These behavior-changing strategies could include nutritional consultation, weight management classes and physical therapy/integrated rehabilitation. This group is willing to pay additional fees for such services and appreciate access to these enhanced options. Each of these areas presents a unique chance to meet and exceed your members' needs.
  • Lastly, Sweat the Small Stuff! In an effort to cut costs, businesses must look for any advantage to control unnecessary spending on all levels. But it is the smaller, less costly amenities that show members that their satisfaction is paramount. Birthday messages, holiday cards and motivational phone calls can go a long way in enhancing the sense of facility community. 

            In a competitive market, consumers still expect traditional services like convenience, updated equipment and coordinated classes to accommodate all their exercise needs. They have, in fact, become accustomed to seeing these basic ingredients in each facility they visit and consider. While this collection of programs and services is a proven component for long, sustainable memberships, long-term retention cannot be guaranteed. No marketing piece, monthly promotion or service discount can attract and retain consumer interest like the quality relationships between members and the center's staff can. Service desk associates on the front lines, fitness specialists walking the floor, group exercise instructors leading a class and management staff marketing the center will be your members' reference for service satisfaction. 


            David Atkinson, CPT, CSCS, is the Director of Program Development for Cooper Ventures, the wellness consulting and fitness management division of the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas, Texas. For more information on his commercial club and worksite wellness consulting services, visit


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