Health Club Member Retention Is a Team Effort

Every team member contributes to member retention in your club. Make sure everyone is working together for the best results.

The average health club has an annual attrition rate of 28.6%, according to IHRSA’s Profiles of Success.

Some attrition is inevitable, of course. Members relocate, change jobs, etc. However, chances are your club is losing at least a few members each month that you could retain with some additional effort on the part of your team. And by “team,” we mean every single employee. Each one contributes—either positively or negatively—to each of your club members’ long-term satisfaction, or dissatisfaction, with their experience at your facility.

Consider the following, which is excerpted from IHRSA’s Guide to Membership Retention, written by former IHRSA executive director John McCarthy:

Few clubs attach compensation opportunities to improvements in membership retention.

The message that almost every club’s compensation plan sends to its staff is that membership acquisition is more important than membership retention.

One of the ironies of contemporary club management is that almost every club manager gives lip service to membership retention, yet relatively few put hard cash on the line. Even more alarming is that whereas every club manager assigns two to five people to sell club memberships, and each of these people is accountable for a monthly sales quota that is the basis of their compensation, there is no equivalent allocation of responsibility, accountability or compensation for membership retention.

At many clubs if one were to ask who is responsible for membership retention, the answer would be: “Everyone.” Yet, as we know, whenever “everyone” is responsible for something, it means, in effect, that “no one” is responsible.

If membership retention is as important as everyone affirms, and if it is measurable, and if it is a responsibility that can be allocated, then there is no reason not to provide financial incentives to those who are accountable for improvements in this arena.

Accountability continues to be the missing link in the way most clubs approach this issue. In this respect, membership retention stands in the sharpest possible contrast to the way in which most clubs approach membership acquisition in which accountability is standard practice.

“Every hiring decision is a retention decision.”

The bottom line with respect to membership retention is ownership. Who owns this opportunity/challenge? Until someone senior in the organization takes ownership of this opportunity, and until compensation opportunities are attached to it, and until budgets reflect a commitment to success in this arena, creative solutions and significant improvements will continue to be unlikely.

The front desk is on the front line for combating attrition.

A friendly, welcoming, hospitable and efficient front desk is an important piece of the membership retention puzzle. Conversely, a cold, unfriendly, unwelcoming or hostile front desk can be a major factor in accelerating membership attrition.

Whereas a warm and welcoming front desk is no guarantee of rising retention rates, a cold, impersonal and hostile front desk is almost certainly a leading indicator of a club that is destined to have higher membership attrition. If there is any single litmus test for the personality of a club and, in particular, for the personality of a club’s general manager, it is the hospitality (or lack thereof) of the club’s front desk.

Courtesy is a factor in membership retention, and the lack thereof can be a factor in membership attrition.

When staff members open doors for club members, or when they step aside for them in lines at the club café, or when they ask them if they would like a towel, etc., these are all factors that make a favorable impression on club members and tell them, often in non-verbal ways, that they belong to an organization that places a high value on the quality of their membership experience.

The credo of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel chain comes to mind: “The Ritz-Carlton Hotel is a place where the genuine care and comfort of our guests is our highest mission. We pledge to provide the finest personal service and facilities for our guests who will always enjoy a warm, relaxed, yet refined ambience. The Ritz-Carlton experience enlivens the senses, instills well-being, and fulfills even the unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests.”

A staff culture that appreciates every member every time they enter the club can be a factor in membership retention.

It is a basic, but all-too-often overlooked fact that members delight in being appreciated, recognized, and acknowledged. Club cultures that emphasize this will tend to have higher retention rates than those for whom this is not a priority.

Strong staff/member connections boost retention.

Clubs in which a large percentage of members have strong personal connections with front-line staff personnel, such as personal trainers, tennis pros, yoga instructors, etc., will have higher retention rates than clubs where this is not the case. Such people are the Pied Pipers of the entire industry. They are internal magnets drawing people into the club again and again and again.

High turnover rates in front-line staff personnel are a factor in member attrition.

Anecdotally, we know that clubs with high front-line staff turnover also tend to have high member turnover. These are the staff members who are most visible to the average member on a day-to-day basis. Implicit in this fact is the importance of acknowledging the enormous contributions that front-line personnel make to this industry. They are the foot-soldiers in this industry, and, as so often happens, the praise and glory goes to the generals (the general managers) who are far-removed from the front lines.

The great WWII journalist, Ernie Pyle, noted the same phenomena in his classic, The Battle is the Pay-Off. He noted that in every engagement the soldiers who really won the battle were the front-line soldiers, but all too often they were the last and least to be honored.

This industry cannot expect young people (or any people) to continue for long in jobs for which there is little acknowledgment and no upside opportunity. But if from the outset these ‘front-liners’ are acknowledged at every opportunity, and if they can envision an upward career track, then not only will they be inspired to perform at the highest possible levels, but they will also be much less likely to resign when the first alternative employment opportunity is presented to them.

Back-office inefficiency can create hostility between a club and its members and can also engender negative word of mouth.

For example, whenever a club makes billing errors, such as double-charging or losing records of payment, such inefficiencies can become triggering factors in membership termination.

Every hiring decision is a retention decision.

Every person hired either strengthens or weakens a retention-based culture. They either make the club more hospitable or less hospitable, more appreciative of members or less appreciative, more welcoming or less welcoming, more responsive or less responsive, and more proactive or less proactive.

“It is a basic, but all-too-often overlooked fact that members delight in being appreciated, recognized, and acknowledged.”

Every company has at least a few employees who set the standard for being hospitable to members. These people need to become the model or prototype for all future front-line hires.

Disney’s ‘moments of magic’ philosophy is relevant to every long-term retention effort.

Rewarding and recognizing staff members who create moments of magic for members is another way of consolidating member retention initiatives.

Employee esprit d’corp will always be a factor in membership retention.

From a membership retention perspective, having employees who like one another and who enjoy working at the club is, to say the least, better than having employees who dislike one another and dislike working at the club. In short, there will always be a correlation between staff morale and member morale.

This raises the issue of firing—and not simply firing staff personnel who poison the morale of their fellow workers, but also of ‘firing’ members who poison the well of membership morale. If a club member is a chronic complainer and is continually communicating his or her misery to other club members, the club may be well-served from a membership retention perspective to invite that member to take their business elsewhere.

Author avatar

Kristen Walsh

Kristen Walsh previously served as IHRSA's Associate Publisher—a position focused on the creation and distribution of Club Business International, as well as writing and editing articles, newsletters, and research reports.