Health clubs get flexible to help hard-hit members

Wed Jan 20, 2010 6:53pm EST
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By Deborah L. Cohen

CHICAGO (Reuters Life!) - When some of its affluent Silicon Valley clientele lost their jobs, Fitness 101 quietly paid their monthly fees.

"It's the right thing to do," said Gordon Bliss, president and part owner of the independent health club in Menlo Park, California. "In these times you have to do the right thing."

Bliss has been waiving the $64-per-month individual membership fee for up to three months for a small pool of customers struggling with unemployment; after that time they can opt to renew or cancel their membership.

The 22,000-square-foot club, which Bliss referred to as "middle of the road" in terms of fees and offerings, has focused its efforts on making existing customers happier. Bliss said that entailed maintaining extended hours, providing personal training in small groups as an alternative to costly one-on-one sessions, and investing in new equipment.

"That's one of the things that set us apart from the chains," said Bliss, who added the club doesn't make its members sign an extended contract. "It's a no-risk, heavy reward situation."

This kind of customer service and attention to detail is what is separating independent health clubs, like Fitness 101, from their larger competitors.

According to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), a trade group, independent clubs outperformed the median industry retention rate of 72.4 percent in 2008, the most recent full year for which data is available. They also fared better in that area than multi-chain rivals.

Offering customers the ability to get away from it all - even for a little while - seems to be helping the fitness club industry overall; IHRSA said its 2009 survey respondents posted average revenue growth of 2.6 percent in 2008.   Continued...

<p>People work out at a health club in Arvada, Colorado on June 15, 2009. REUTERS/Rick Wilking</p>