Customer Retention in the Fitness Industry

Gym Membership Retention: It Matters

So, you’ve got the fitness company of your dreams. You’ve pushed through hours of conceptualising your brand and business model, creating the best facilities, hiring the best employees. You’ve even been successful at getting customers in the door. All the hard work is over now, right?

Wrong. The key to real, sustained success in the fitness industry is not member attraction, but member retention. This article will explore why this is the case, why it’s not necessarily easy to achieve a healthy membership retention rate, and why you should make improving membership retention a top priority, starting right now.

The importance of retention

 You probably don’t need to look at your bank book to know that a strong membership base is really important for any health and fitness business. However, if you do, you’re likely to see that membership fees account for around 80% of overall revenue, as Helen Watts discovered was the case for a significant proportion of businesses studied in her paper “A Psychological Approach to Predicting Membership Retention in the Fitness Industry” (2012). This means that member fees are a vital component of revenue (and consequently, profit) generation for fitness businesses. And yet, according to the Fitness Industry Association’s figures in 2002, the average retention rate for a fitness club is 60.6%. This means that each year, a club loses approximately 40% of its members! It is unsurprising, therefore, that the IHRSA has referred to membership retention as the “Achilles Heel” of the fitness industry.

“But who cares?” You might question. “Even if people leave, new members will just come in and replace them.” However, the statistics indicate that this may not necessarily be true. The 2018 State of the UK Fitness Industry Report shows that the rate of growth of the fitness industry is slowing – during the 12 months to March 2018, the number of fitness facilities increased by 4.6 percent, as compared to increases of more than 5 percent in the previously recorded period (March 2016 to March 2017). IBISWorld, an international market research company, has made a similar warning, recently predicting that Australia’s gym market may reach saturation in the next five years. This means that there is no guarantee that there will always be new members to make up for the revenue (and love) lost if your current members leave.

Additionally, apart from ensuring the longevity of your business, there are also inherent benefits to higher membership retention rates. Firstly, focusing business strategy on retaining existing members rather than attracting new members is likely to result in some real costs savings, since, as the Harvard Business Review notes, the acquisition of new customers entails unique costs. For example, the costs associated with advertising, new member discounts, and the practice of giving ‘free trials’. These costs are not incurred with the retention of existing customers. Thus, a shift in business focus towards retention will bring about costs savings, and accordingly, higher profits.

Secondly, improving your membership retention rate can also improve your rate of growth. With a more consistent consumer base, meaningful relationships between these regular members (and even between staff and members) are more likely to develop. This sense of belonging can drastically improve the member experience. As Phillip Mills once said, “people join to get results and motivation, but they stay because they make friends”. When people enjoy and have confidence in your business, they are more likely to recommend your business to others, bringing new customers to your door! Retained customers, therefore, could also be a valuable form of word-of-mouth advertising for your business. 

Sources of the problem

In the first part of this article, I showed that membership retention is really, really important for any successful health and fitness business, and that it is often a problem for businesses within the fitness industry.  Why might this be the case? I suggest three reasons.

Firstly, fitness culture is changing. The concept of holistic fitness is becoming more popular, people are demanding greater variety in their fitness regimes, and companies such as ClassPass and GuavaPass are stepping up to meet that demand. This means that the idea of long-term commitment to just one type of fitness facility or workout is becoming increasingly unattractive to consumers. In the Internet age, there are also an increasing number of resources available for free online that allow people to work out from the comfort of their homes, without spending any money!

Secondly, staying fit isn’t easy. At almost every point of one’s fitness journey, there is the temptation to quit. At the beginning, fitness is difficult because one hasn’t yet developed the habit of regularly turning up to the gym and working out. Even when that has been overcome, the motivation to keep exercising diminishes as one becomes more experienced, and session-to-session progress slows down. In addition, people often undergo life changes that make it difficult to keep up with their fitness routine – people go away to college, start demanding new jobs, or have babies. There are many exogenous factors that can make someone leave a fitness gym or facility, membership retention strategies aside.

Thirdly, and most importantly, health and fitness businesses simply aren’t doing enough to ensure that their members stay in the long-run. If businesses don’t actively prioritise membership retention, they won’t account for it in their business and resource allocation strategy. Many businesses even actively divert energy and resources into attracting new members rather than retaining existing ones. As has already been discussed, this is a big mistake, and is likely to be a significant source of the retention problem in the industry.

Don’t wait. Act quickly!

If you’re reading this article, you’re probably interested in improving your health & fitness business’ retention rate. Although every situation is unique, one thing to be mindful of is the existence of ‘first-mover advantage’. First-mover advantage is the advantage gained by the initial significant occupant of a market segment. Although this phenomenon usually refers to the gaining of technological leadership or resources, it is also applicable when a business emphasises membership retention amidst an industry that does not. As illustrated earlier on in the article, low membership retention is a striking problem throughout the health and fitness industry as a whole, and businesses haven’t caught on yet. But you have.

So, start thinking about your membership retention today. Look closely at your demographics, the people behind your profit line. Think about how to make them feel happier, more included, and more engaged. Think about developing relationships with them for the long-run, not just for the now, and start considering the resources you may need to do so. Start today, get that first-mover advantage, start retaining your members, and watch your business grow!