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Ten Things Every Fitness Center Operator Must Do Moving Into 2021

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Bonnie Patrick MattalianBonnie Patrick Mattalian

Newsflash: The fitness industry is on the precipice of becoming an integral part of people's lives once again. Opportunities abound, and savvy operators are embracing the alternatives in the industry's evolution. With a careful assessment of the current situation and the development of multiple strategies, here is a structured process to consider for businesses to succeed in 2021:

1. Frame Your Decisions with Strategic Thinking - First, look at the cycle of development your fitness business was in pre-pandemic. What was the health of your operations before and during the crisis? This will give you a jumping-off point to begin your assessment.

2. Clarify the Customer Experience and Market Demand - Right now, one of the most significant pain points I hear from operators is that usage is down.

We are missing the mark on creating holistic, curated experiences based on our consumers' current needs. And, there is an opportunity for better communication and engagement through Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Who was your fitness customer? What are their preferences now? What experience/service/products are they looking for, and how do they want that delivered?

What we as consumers cared about in February is not what we care about now.

Probe market demographic and psychographic analytics to see what has changed versus pre-pandemic. Assess the target market outside of your membership database. There are only one or two data aggregators out there that have this information available in real-time. Look at the 80% of the inactive population who needs to come in to your center. What does that look like in your market? What are the new things that consumers most care about and drive their buying behaviors now?

Your customer base may likely have changed. In some cases, it may have grown. In others, there needs to be an adjustment looking at new customer sources. Where are they? How can you best connect and engage with customers now? Their behaviors and expectations have changed. Your service delivery, programs and communications need to mirror your market's changes.

3. Retool Your Program Offerings - Be wary of discounting populations who may be timid about exercising, such as seniors. In fact, they need to be moving more so than any other group. Programs need to be tailored to their particular health needs, in the end, helping to improve immunity.

In my opinion, fitness and community centers need to embrace this opportunity to become more clinically integrated. Yet, this must be done strategically and executed well. Promote exercise as a primary prevention tool to improve immunity and cost-effective treatment option for people with chronic illnesses. Understand how to best align with providers. Include a Medical Advisory Board or Committee as part of your organizational structure.

Program delivery can and should be done both in-person and virtually. There are multiple providers out there who have these solutions ready to go, including clinically integrated offerings and wellness specific programming. I'm happy to talk with you about those that I think are most effective. Partner now so that you can establish relationships more deeply within your communities during the winter.

4. Identify KPIs and Benchmarks - Identify new KPIs and benchmarks for success. Customer engagement should be high on the list. Contact MXM for a proven tracking solution. Identify resources and processes for data collection and trending. How will you collect customer feedback to ensure you are on track? This should be fast and easy, with an opportunity for feedback with every customer interaction.

Did you notice on election night how all of the commentators had data to the single voter in a particular county at their fingertips? They provided instant analytics and predictions based on the data they saw in real-time. Imagine being able to do the same thing at your center. If you do not have a dedicated data analyst in place, I strongly recommend looking at this resource's value to your organization. This role is much more than a Membership Management System SME.

5. Map Out Resource Requirements - To provide the desired experiences and programs to your new market, what are the resources that are now needed?

The business of the future will become increasingly reliant on AI. That's not to say that technology replaces any of our teams, but instead, it helps them to scale the experiences for our members. Invest now in substantial upgrades for data management and enhance the in-person experience with multiple virtual options.

How well do you understand your Membership Management software or your Customer Management software? Do you use it to its fullest extent every single day, analyzing trends and reacting in real-time? If not, approach your software provider now. Get up to speed on better understanding your customers and your business through the data you already have at hand.

Utilize AI to enhance customer communications. Frequent, individualized participant and prospect communications are a business imperative for ongoing engagement and retention. Stay connected with the JCCA and the late Stephen Tharrett and Mark Williamson's ClubIntel for the latest benchmarking trending data.

6. Identify Business Goals and Funding Needs - Create assumptions with a zero-based budget to support the strategies above, considering seasonality and the potential for additional closures or partial closures. Use multiple options to help look at realities in each case study and plan for additional capital and operational cash needs.

Perceptive business operators are diversifying offerings in the event of additional full or partial closures. Solutions can include retail and online product sales, and obviously, virtual classes and workshops. Begin clubs-within-a-club meet-up groups and sessions. And, I always ensure there are holistic, clinical and lifestyle in-person and virtual programs to attract non-members and engage current members.

7. Embark Upon Long-Term Scenario Planning - A critical step for long-term planning is to participate in scenario forecasting. Typically, this is a process that will take three to four months. The stakeholder group will discuss what influencing factors might be present in three, five or ten years. These elements can include demographics, communication, environment, culture and society, technology, health, politics, housing, transportation and the like. Usually, four or five final scenarios are presented with potential implications to identify long term organizational goals. Include upsides and downturns since we will likely see a bit of both over the coming months and years.

McKinsey & Co. has several excellent templates and articles to support scenario planning. I always secure feedback on my scenarios from multiple peer executives or industry consultants. The JCCA has been instrumental in leading this charge.

8. Clarify Roles, Responsibilities, Outcomes - The chances are good that your organizational structure has now completely changed. After eliminating many positions, build new roles to ensure the fulfillment of ongoing safety requirements.

Map out every step of interactions within the customer experience. Who and what is needed when, where, how and why to reach your full potential. Develop outcomes and accountabilities for each role. Measure success and identify areas to fulfill any needs for additional training or support. As roles evolve, so should your team. The current talent pool is quite deep, eclectic and willing.

9. Give Your Team TLC - Our teams are shellshocked. Likely only some of your staff have returned. Everyone is juggling work, home, family and health. Their lives are not the same by any stretch of the imagination.

Jobs have changed. Pressure and stressors from work and home weigh more heavily on workers. Managers should be spending time listening and providing emotional support. A happy workforce will help our members to stay engaged and productive.

Consider offering structured employee wellness programs for your teams. And, don't forget to have fun and laugh. I like bringing in guest speakers via Zoom or in-person to help lift teams with frequency, especially now.

10. Work Together - The pandemic has made the world a smaller place. We are working together towards a common goal: Improving the health of our communities.

Reach out to your associates around the country. Learn and evolve together. Join your state's fitness alliance. Attend any of the countless webinars weekly on case studies and best practices. Work LinkedIn.

Many commercial fitness organizations are already diversifying their business model and changing their footprint, strategy and service delivery. The operators who evolve and diversify will make it through these next crucial six months and will be ahead of the pack as we come out on the other side of this crisis.


The disruptive normal will be with us for a while. Every market has seen a change in its customer profile. Those businesses that shift gears to accommodate the current customer needs in a fiscally sound way while staying loyal to their differentiated brand will continue to thrive.

Keep your finger on the pulse of your market, and customers will remain engaged, even in tough times.

This is a time for transformation. Let's work together to recreate our industry as we provide our essential services to improve our communities' health.

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