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The ‘new’ normal actually looks a lot like the old normal, but without sleepers.  Members that were paying and not visiting are gone, and you won’t recover them.  So now is the time to focus on those who are awake; those that were using the club before the pandemic and have demonstrated by their behaviour that they are willing to return as soon as possible. 

The exercise landscape has changed, and yes there are more online options, but that doesn’t mean members will stop using your services.

During closures, given the choice, some members continued to pay their monthly subscription with the full understanding they couldn’t visit. They wished to support their club all the same. Why was that? Because they wanted their club to be there once the restrictions were lifted; they had built a connection with the staff and other members, they had in invested time, money and effort, and they didn’t want to lose that.

Many club owners found it uncomfortable that members were also spending money with alternative offerings. It highlighted the fact clubs simply have a share of the members’ exercise experience rather than exclusivity.

We’ve actually known this for some time, but really didn’t want to acknowledge it when the alternative was something a member could do for free, such as walking, running and cycling.

Now the alternative may be another paid option, and we have to recognise and accept members will spend their money where they get the best experiences, or elsewhere when their usual activity is not available.

During lockdown, on news platforms and social media feeds we saw companies with a vested interest in selling their product telling us that bricks and mortar gyms are dead and the age of digital is upon us, as well as interviews with individuals stating ‘I’m never going back to the gym again’. We have to accept some won’t return, but many will and have been counting down the days, hours and minutes to when they could return.

Recognise this: if you take away someone’s preferred option for training they will seek an alternative. Peloton took advantage of the situation and gave away three months of free access at the beginning of lockdown, in the hope that if you started using their services while the club was shut you may make a permanent move their online solution.

Many people took advantage of this and some even went as far as to buy the bike or treadmill. But even so, Peloton acknowledges that both before and after periods of lockdown many customers also maintain a gym membership, and Peloton doesn’t care, as long as they also continue paying their subscription.

Online training provides convenience. With prerecorded content people can choose the day, time and class that suits them. Social media has also taught us it’s possible to connect online and build huge communities, and Peloton and other online providers invest huge amounts of time, effort and money in creating these communities – checkout the 150+ different Peloton Facebook groups; mini communities of people just like you and me. Our members went online to find connection, when they couldn’t this connection elsewhere.

As we see the beginning of the end for the pandemic, the businesses that are recovering more quickly are those that had established a connection and community with their members. Not surprisingly, customer data shows operators with the lowest percentage of sleepers going into the pandemic are recovering the quickest. Members are returning despite restrictions and, in some cases, the biggest challenge is accommodating everyone who wants to return and is unable to book the times they traditionally attended.

Yes the pandemic accelerated change, particularly with online solutions, and it’s become more apparent the members don’t belong to us, we belong to them.  Hopefully it has made club owners and operators more aware of the importance of creating a connection and communities.

Ultimately, members make the choice where they spend their time and money. They choose to give you their patronage. And if we can’t make the bricks and mortar a great experience they will go elsewhere. So creating a connection and building communities with both new and existing members is the fastest way to recover.

Dr Paul Bedford