Over on the IHRSA blog, there’s an interesting post about how small gyms in rural towns tackle the unique challenges they face. It’s true that for any health club or sports facility with a small pool of members and clients to draw from, there are difficulties that clubs in more populous places don’t experience. You might compete with larger clubs nearby, vying hard for attention against brand-name franchises. Or you might struggle to fill up your classes or operate programs or leagues that are tricky to manage without a certain bulk enrollment.
The best strategy? Use your club size to your advantage. Sisters Athletic Club, in Sisters, Oregon, makes a point of creating a homelike atmosphere in its facility. First of all, the gym provides no membership cards. Instead, even though the club boasts 1,600 members, employees are required to know every member and greet them by name when they enter. Here’s where small-town advantages come into play: The town has only 2,000 residents. Chances are, the member entering is your neighbor anyway. Also, the club strives to create an anti-gym feel. Outside, the 19,000-square-foot facility looks like a lodge. Inside, a rock formation fills the lobby, classical music infuses the air, and an art gallery spreads out near the front desk. You can’t see the cardio court from the entrance, and you don’t smell anything that even vaguely suggests you’re in a gym. The hominess is complemented by fastidiousness; everything is spotless.
Playing up the sense that the facility is an extension of their members’ homes is crucial for Sisters Athletic, in part because the club’s biggest competitor is nature. There’s so much skiing, biking, and hiking nearby that the facility has to give members the sense that they’re getting something they can’t possibly get outdoors. It’s precisely its small, comfortable feel that allows it to do so.
The situation for B-Fit 24/7 Fitness in Adrian, Michigan, is different: The local population consists of 24,000 and there are big-name competitors not too far away. So, B-Fit has a bigger pool to draw from than Sisters Athletic Club, but there are more options for the folks who make up that pool. B-Fit has to really stand apart from the crowd in order to create a loyal clientele and attract new members.
Their solution? The club has made itself the only one in the area that’s open 24 hours, and it pitches itself as the “ungym” — unlike the traditional gym model, B-Fit does not require members to sign a contract, and it refunds members who don’t reach their goals. Also, the club works hard to forge relationship with the 80 percent of the population that isn’t naturally exercise-oriented.
For sports facilities in similar positions — either with only a tiny pool to draw from or with big-fish competitors nearby and a relatively small pool of potential clients — smart marketing, along with lots of event hosting, might be the key. Looking to fill up your baseball league? Try putting up flyers in towns one to two hours away; parents will go surprisingly far to keep their kids interested in an activity, and adult players who are committed enough to join a league probably won’t mind the travel. As far as events go, don’t limit yourself to birthday parties. Put the idea in the minds of potential customers that you are there for all occasions, from celebrations for specific events and holidays to celebrations for no reason at all.
The overriding lesson is this: What you think are weaknesses might be turned to advantages. Exaggerate the very qualities that seem limiting — your small size, the restricted pool you’re in — and figure out what about those things might appeal to those around you.