Posted February 9, 2020

Before You Build The Gym of Your Dreams, Do This First

A few years ago I made a big career switch. I moved from an employee in a commercial gym to an independent business owner, leasing space in a new facility that offered micro leasing opportunities, and essentially became a business. The challenge with this is that while my name is on my business, I still don’t have a lot of control over what equipment, atmosphere, or experience the clients I have get when they come through the doors.

That, and the gym I work in caters to more of an experienced lifter with competition style equipment, olympic lifters dropping pretty big weights, strongman implements and chalk dust flying everywhere.

It’s really appealing to the kind of people who work out there, plus the trainers.

The downside is that this kind of atmosphere can be fairly intimidating to someone who has never exercised before and is looking to get started, and can even be intimidating to seasoned vets who know their way around a squat rack or two.

So while I’m sure the readers of this who have a ton of experience in a gym will likely salivate over all the weights, space, and fun toys to play with, there’s also a lot of people who likely have never stepped foot inside a gym, let alone one like this, and are thinking of any way possible to get out the door and walk the other way.

Because this gym is set up to cater to a different set of clientele, a more seasoned lifter who likely knows their wilks score, it also caters to trainers to train their clients through a full range of goals and abilities, but the two far ends of the spectrum are hard to cater to entirely, so there’s always a bit of a growth challenge to finding the sweet spot. They’ve done an imaculate job at finding a niche market that’s highly underserved in the serious lifters and higher end athletes who want an accessible space, plus balanced it out very well with accessibility elements.

While the goal of the equipment is to be the best place to train possible, the goal of the service side of the business is to do everything possible to ensure clients are comfortable, feel like part of a family, and are given the tools needed to succeed in any goals they may have.

Outstanding personalized customer service is something that can make a dank hole in the ground feel warm and cozy, and make a potentially scary situation feel like a second home.

Now let’s say you run your own facility, have the funds to buy the stuff you want, and have the goals of making your clients absolutely amazing and get the best results possible. Do you stock it with toys you want to use, all the science-y stuff that lets you geek out, and play death metal all day long?

What if your target market would turn 16 shades of white thinking about ever being caught in a place like that and would likely choose to not sign up with you because the space you built was built for you and not them?

A few years ago, Micheal Keeler, famed top business unicorn for Mark Fisher Fitness in NYC, penned an excellent open letter to the fitness industry talking about how most trainers, gyms, and personalities in the fitness industry don’t directly appeal to him and what he is looking to do with fitness, and actually push him away rather than draw him in.

The biggest driver for this seems to be an industry focused on the outcome versus simply getting a foot in the door. By conservative estimates, less than 10% of the population are actually attending any kind of a gym with any type of regularity, and more than half of the North American population are considered sedentary.

The elephant in the room seems to be whether we’re actively encouraging people to come through that door or actively pushing them away without even realizing it.

If we’re concerned about getting enough clients, or actually making a difference in the worlds health and wellness, we need to find a way to meet people where they’re at. Does this mean ditching barbells, changing the wall colours, including amenities that feel more like home, and where everyone knows the name of every single person who walks through the door and treats them like family? It might be a start.

So the biggest step when designing your gym or setting up your business or rebranding your existing business should come back to whether your space will cater to your desired populations or to yourself. Slick marketing with ultra-fit bodies in artful poses and groundbreaking fonts will likely appeal to people who would want to be seen at that gym, but would turn off a significantly larger population. Rocking your hardcore edge will get athletes and intense personalities into the door, but won’t appeal to the stressed out mom who has never touched a barbell but who wants to take care of herself without thinking she will injure herself by just opening the lockers.

Essentially, are you listening to what your desired clients are telling you, and then building based on what they want? Do they feel seen and heard? For existing facilities, you do no one any benefit by asking for feedback, receiving it, and then doing literally nothing different.

People like to tear apart Planet Fitness for their choice in marketing by actively saying they’re not the place for bodybuilders or powerlifters, even going so far as to remove many squat racks, smith machines, etc and putting in client appreciation events like pizza Fridays.

But you want to know something? According to this Wall Street Journal article, their total number of locations as more than quadrupled in the past 10 years, and with almost 2000 locations each boasting an average of 7500 members, more than half of which have never previously belonged to a gym, they’re reaching their target market.

So what lessons can you use from this? They make fitness accessible ($10 a month for a base plan), they actively prevent their space from feeling intimidating to new members, they have incentives that are more valuable to their clients than a gym bag (pizza is life!!), and make it easy to get in the workout of the individuals choosing, whether it’s walking on a treadmill for 10 minutes or running through weight machines or dumbbells.

If you want to max out your client roster, actively work to meet your clients where they are and provide not only the best service for them, but also the best environment they could possibly ask for to help them get their workouts in. This comes back to equipment, lighting, wall colours, towel service, cleaning schedule, music choice, and any community elements that can keep clients and members feeling like they’re part of a family, and not just a number on a spread sheet.

You might feel your gym is the best place to workout possible, and have invested significantly into the equipment, environment, and onboarding process to make everything get the best results possible, but if your next potential client walks in, looks around, and then walks right back out again, it was all for nothing without knowing what makes them tick, what would make them want to workout in your space, and would make them want to come back again and again.