Creating Your Re-Opening Strategy

Doors are open again, and gym owners across the country are heaving a collective sigh of relief. But the hard work may be just beginning.


The fitness industry has been turned on its head; there’s no promise of economic security in the months and years to come. So how do we make the best of this situation as our clients return to the fold? Where do we focus our attention now – and in the weeks to come?

Here are some key considerations and guidelines for handling your reopen smoothly and maximising both your client attendance and profitability in the next few months.

One: Your Model

Many of us will be changing our model as a result of the lessons lockdown has taught us: and because client needs and desires may have shifted significantly over the last few months.

The key here is that whatever changes you make, you need to future-proof your business against further disruption. This means building responsiveness and agility into your model, allowing you to change tack at speed without going under. This gives your business the resilience it needs to weather anything COVID may throw at you, from one of your staff or members getting the virus through to a re-lockdown of your area.

“Be honest, be transparent, and be human.”

What this future proofing looks like will vary from gym to gym, and from area to area. At the IFBA flagship gym W10, for example, we’ll be running an Indoor-Outdoor-Online sequence that has contingency plans for various scenarios.

As always, your business plan is the mainstay of your planning. For each of the potential disruptions, create a plan that you can swiftly implement and be sure that it lines up with your bottom line in both the short and the long term.

Whatever you choose, give yourself the option to flex in and out of a full in-person training model in response to government guidelines and member needs; and make sure that clients are aware of your plans.

Two: Communication

Whether you’re increasing prices, introducing blended memberships with a stronger digital element, or adding an outdoor offering to your timetable, you need to find the best way to communicate any changes to your members.

With major modifications like this, an email alone won’t cut it: you need to get people on the phone and engage them in a proper conversation. Curling up into the rocking buddha position and doing nothing is not only avoidant, it’s also a bit lazy.

Pick up the phone first and target initially the people who are influencers; and those who are most affected by the changes. Then send an email and/or a letter to lay out the details of the change. When it comes to member communication, the rules haven’t changed: they’re just heightened due to high stress and disruption. Be honest, be transparent, and be human.

You’ll need to acknowledge from the outset that some people will leave outright; some will be OK immediately; and others will need some time to adjust.

Three: Marketing Plan

With doors open and our initial return rate now clear, it’s time to get serious with marketing. As with anything in your business, this should be well thought through, systematised as far as possible, and tied in with your Key Performance Indicators and business plan. From these two documents, you should know what your breakeven rate based on average yield is, and be able to focus all your plans and calculations on that ‘big rock number one’.

We would advise a tiered approach that targets various segments of your audience. Start with segment number one – your existing members – then work your way through to new prospects. If your return rate is high (say 70-80%) you may only need to focus on steps one to four on the list below initially. If it’s much lower (around the 30-50% mark, for example), you may need to ramp up your game with prospects immediately.

The principle here is that we need to look after our current clients and get our house in order before we start looking outside our walls for new business. It’s a far more viable long-term plan to get a solid base of clients who are given a premium experience and can be depended on to stay loyal; than to have a gym full to bursting with new members, stretching your capacity to serve them in a consistently outstanding way.

Remember, once the first-week euphoria drops for returning members, the rose-tinted glasses will come off and they’ll start to be more observant – and critical.

Here are the stages broken down:

1. Existing customers

Start by securing your existing members and getting them on board with any changes to your membership model. Return rates vary widely across the country but all gyms will need to have a primary focus: to really look after their existing members for their first few months back in the gym and ensure their ongoing loyalty. Don’t get complacent here: trust is low and this is a precarious time, even for your most long-standing clients.

2. Lapsed members

Your next target segment is members that left as a result of COVID. These people still have one foot in the door and should yield a decent return rate if you communicate the measures you’ve put in place personally – and stay top of mind with consistent updates.

3. Pre-existing trials

When lockdown started, many of you will have had triallists either in the middle of a trial or waiting to start. These are your next port of call as you re-activate their interest and highlight the benefits of membership.

4. Referrals

More than ever, referrals are a valuable source of qualified leads for the business. Trust and consumer confidence are more important than ever, so maximising the quality relationships you’ve built with people is really important. Target the friends and family of the first three segments above with systematised campaigns – and don’t forget to communicate the fact that capacity is an issue and that spaces are limited.

5. Lapsed members from 2019

Building on the same foundation of valuing all your relationships, you can now turn your attention to members who left you last year. These people may well be ready to come back to you for a number of reasons.

6. Prospects

Once you’ve exhausted all your existing contacts, you can really dial down on targeting new members. As independent gyms who were already largely satisfying the government guidelines for capacity, we’re in a powerful position to meet consumer need. The principles of marketing remain the same, but don’t forget to be sensitive to the ‘live’ issues for your audience at this time.

Although we’ve broken these targets down into stages, many of these threads will be running concurrently as you lay the groundwork for your entire target population. But the ‘ask’, the call to action, will be staggered – based on your return rate and your breakeven rate.

“Focus on stability first: then consider expansion.”

Four: Risk Management

Whatever your situation, and whatever your plan, it is absolutely key that you act from a fortified position that has margin for unexpected situations. 20-30% of gyms are due to fail as a result of the pandemic, and most of these will be in the next six months. You need to look at the long game, picking up business steadily and in a way that has longevity.

For example: we’re hearing a lot of success stories about people selling a lot of trials – which is amazing news and indicative of the massive potential for independent training gyms to step in and offer clients what the big boxes can’t. But now isn’t the time to get cocky. We know that the market is unstable, so with every success we also need to be considering the risks and pitfalls that come hand in hand, and doing our best to mitigate them.

For example, if you’ve sold 50 trials in the last month (which is awesome) consider what happens if your gym has to close down again. Will these new members be loyal enough to stick around? What happens to your numbers if most of them up sticks and leave? On another note, what will an influx of new members do to the culture in the gym? How will it impact your existing members?

Always be thinking one step ahead to forestall potential pitfalls before they have a chance to derail you.

The name of the game between now and Christmas is to still be at the table in January. If you can grow during that time – great – but you will have far exceeded expectations. Focus on stability first and once that’s established, consider expansion.

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