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Change Starts at the Bottom

Change is happening and the box chains are off to Jurassic Park

My theme this year for my keynote at the Perform Better Summit was that we all have to evolve or we will figuratively die in this business. Part of my presentation on this subject stressed that the chains are not changing and will continue to suffer dismal numbers because the product they offer is one that fewer people want each year. The chains simply refuse to move away from the membership model as their sole product.


One of the attendees at the event, which this year went over 700 in Chicago, told me that my premise was essentially wrong and that nothing was changing in the industry and nothing would change in the near future. The chains have dominated, at least in his head, for the last decade or more and that they would continue to dominate in the future.

I quickly grabbed his shoulder and spun him around to look at all the bodies still in the room, "Look, there are over 700 here this year, up by at least 150 over last year. Change is happening and it is happening from the bottom up and these people are the ones that will bring down the chain guys unless they grasp the future.Ē

Innovation and change seldom if ever come from the top down. There is always too much, "we have always done it this wayĒ mentality at that level and if the organization is over a few units most are frozen in trying to recreate the past instead of looking toward the future.

In fact, I wrote on Facebook that most chains spend all their time trying to make failing, 30-year-old technology and ideas still work while trainer/operators spend all their time trying to figure out what is next. One group lives in the past, the other canít wait for the future.

I believe that change is happening faster than most people realize, which is why I predict doom and gloom for the next generation low-priced guys trying to get into the game way too late. The consumer is progressing faster than the club chain operators are changing their concepts and while the new low priced guys are just getting started the consumer has moved on and is ready for the age of results, not more of the age of just price.

The evidence is all around us. Look at the popularity of the new fitness books, such as: Born to Run,The Impact Body Plan, The New Rules of Lifting series and Female Body Breakthrough. All of these are changing mindset and all are selling serious numbers with the consumers.

The sad thing is that if a motivated consumer camps out on the Cross Fit site, reads a few of these books, hits all the blog sites of the gurus, such as Mike Boyle or Todd Durkin, this same consumer often walks into a gym better educated than the trainer he meets. Even Mrs. Johnson, the fictional consumer I use so often, will watch Biggest Loser, read Womenís Health and walk into the club asking for services and equipment that they donít even offer. Even this woman knows that a club with one TRX locked up in the training room is stupid and bad business.

Further evidence can be found in the spread of Boot Camps and the other specialty offerings that challenge and excite the consumer way beyond normal club offerings. The consumer is changing; the chains are not. The consumer wants results, and many, but never all of course, are more concerned about offerings instead of price as long as the price stays reasonable.

My theme for the year is that any club, no matter how big, can become a training facility. The only thing that truly has to change is the mindset of the owner and the culture of the club itself. Yes, you can offer a $19 price and be successful, but you also need to offer layered pricing on top of that low number so more people can get help at a price that meets their needs, age, training style and budget.

In the typical box club, training still only represents about 5% of the membership. No matter how you state this number, we have failed. We can sell memberships but the harsh reality is that we have created a system so elite that 55% of the membership or more canít afford help, which is bad business and also asinine as well since allegedly we are in the fitness business not just the selling of memberships business.

The last bastion of stupidity of course is the standard training options that most clubs still cling to so stubbornly. One session is $75, 5 is $250 and 10 is $400. We have used this discount system in the past to show a lower rate in order to attract more clients. This is also why we have gone to 30 minute sessions as well, a horrible concept meant to show a low price and give little service.

The training mindset represented in so many training clubs, and now in many mainstream clubs that have gone through our workshops, has already beaten this system and that is what we have been teaching. It is not the price that needs to change; it is the number of people who share the cost of the trainer/coach that is the answer.

If you want energy and action, take group personal training/boot camp and pay a lower fee because you are sharing the cost of one trainer with 15 other people. If you want more help, but still like group dynamics, then take small group and limit the number sharing the trainer to 4 people. If you still want one-on-one, the take it but you will pay full price and not a discounted priced that ruins the integrity of the trainer and the club as well.

Change is not only happening, it is happening at a blistering rate. We are truly living and working in the age of the enlightened consumer who wants help and who is willing to pay for a program that fits his budget and likes, but doesnít want to be forced into a one-on-one situation that represents technology that is over 60 years old. How many 30-year-old people do you see in a typical box working with a trainer? It isnít the money the prevents them, it is the boring factor and boring your clients may be the biggest sin of small business.

This change is grassroots. It is in the small training club near you, it is at the park at the boot camp and it is the next generation club that is smart enough to figure this out now, not later. Jurassic Park was created for a reason: it is where all the chains that refuses to change go to die. It is worth saying one more time; you donít want to be the last club in the world still trying to sell nothing but memberships to survive.

Frank Kole 3 years ago
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its so here and now! Can you hear it, it the fitness train coming in and the band is playing our song and its called "Help Them" and you will get paid in more ways than one! Its from the hit CD The Plummer will fix it if you are willing to change! Pick up some Thomas Plummer at your next semiar its worth the trip! Still triping from Long Beach!
Rick Mayo 3 years ago
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Ah, the 30 minute session. So true about why that turd was ever introduced. Show a lower rate and convince folks that 30 min is enough. Not good!
Lesa Stone 3 years ago
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I absolutely agree with the trend, unfortunately, this is difficult for clubs, because the trainers seem to use the facilities to make connections (meet clients) and then talk them into quitting and going to the nearest park because they want 100% of this money for themselves. I think this may be one reason many clubs havent changed... the trainers make ti difficult to! In my opinion, unless you "Own Your Job" ie own the facility and train people yourself, it is difficult to implement this model!
Thomas Plummer 3 years ago
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Hi Lesa, You get what you manage. Instead of hiring a strong lead trainer to control the programming and trainers, most clubs let the individual trainers write their own programs and sell their own clients. We teach them to be independent businesses in our own businesses. Clubs can hire a strong lead and then use a separate sales/trainer, as we teach and advocate, to fed the trainers. You should also have a strong non-soliciation agreement in place with each employee. Club owners lose control because they have people in their businesses who have knowledge and skills that they don't have, which is why I so strongly try to drive all owners/operators to gather more training skills. As I have said too many times, it is like owning a restaurant but not being able to cook or tend bar. You will always be held hostage in your own business by people who have skills you don't understand. You don't have to be a great trainer, but you should at least be able to understand the job and create systems that enable the club to protect its clients.
Lesa Stone 3 years ago
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Hello Thomas, First of all, I appreciate all you do for our industry. I have been a proud supporter of you since 2005, when I purchased your first book. Since then, I have followed your blog, and have also purchased other books as well. I can tell you that I have always been inspired, and impressed with your insight into our industry.That being said, I would like you to know, we have, and continued to to this day, use many of your principles, and recommendations in the Fitness Industry, That being said, there are many issues that if in person I would address line by line, but due to many reasons, will keep to a minimum on your public blog.You are always on the cutting edge of the trends in this industry, and I respect your experience and knowledge. However, as you know, if you are not a "box gym" the dynamics change alot for a small operator. I myself have been involved in Fitness and Business on many levels for the last 20 years. Our area however in many ways. The gutwrenching changes you address may apply to a broad group on a National level, but, you and I are in the same small town in Florida from what I understand, and our region is different. I would love to learn more of your approach, and how it could apply to our facility.
Thomas Plummer 3 years ago
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Perhaps on of the hardest lesson for any owner to learn is that "everything is different but everything is the same." This means that every club has a different set of nuances that make it unique but the important rule is that good business is good business no matter where you operate. Has Florida been hit by the low priced guys pretty hard? Yes, but the rules of pricing and layered training applies to you. Will your folks pay what they pay in CT? No, of course not, but a proven pricing system itself can be applied to your club. The advantage you have, quoting a friend of mine Dave Wright, is that it isn't the big that eat the small, it is the fast that eat the slow. You can change things much more quickly in a small business than you can in a chain, giving you a strong advantage in the market. What you do not want to be, nor should any other small club in a smaller market, is a shrunken box club meaning that you try to be a full gym offering a little of everything in a smaller box but really not having enough space to do anything well. Smaller clubs should be heavy training clubs and your training revenue, based upon group personal training and other tools but not just 1/1, should be bigger than your monthly membership dues. Yes, you are in a different market but you are still a small business and there are rules that you may follow that will help you make more money and be more successful. If you need help, call the office and book an hour or we will be in Louisville, KY in a few weeks. Come get some new ideas that might help you get where you want to be. Thank you for taking the time to write. Thom
Frank Kole 3 years ago
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Hi Lesa we had the issue a few years back with trainers trying to take our members to the park I fired them all on the spot. It makes a statement. Do not hire trainers you need! Hire trainers that need you! Its different. If i interveiw someone and they have tried the park thing or have a client or two in the park now or have a business card they give you on the interveiw with there pt services on. I DO NOT HIRE THEM! They don not need me or my club they have there on thng going on. And to quote Thom why would I hire someone who cant run there own business. And I am going to have them run mine! Lol Hire young and trainers that want to learn and teach them its ok if you hire someone and they dont have all the skills you need but they have a willing to learn Hire Them! Its more work but they will stay with you the longest. And thats is waht it is all about trying to keep someone on staff as long as you can to make as much return as you can! Hire Young! Get a intern or two from your local coolege and teach them. Just some ideas for you. We had this issue and i wil neber let it happen again to us!
Ian McHugh 3 years ago
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Great post Thom and what a good point you made about us owners needing to have more knowledge now more than ever: "Club owners lose control because they have people in their businesses who have knowledge and skills that they don't have, which is why I so strongly try to drive all owners/operators to gather more training skills."
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