Since the start of the temporary health club closures from COVID-19, it seems that operators have been planning on reopening their facilities and defining what the new normal will look like. COVID-19 has affected our communities in different ways. Some cities are itching for a return to the daily grind while others are taking a more conservative approach. What all operators can agree on though is that they do not want to be the epicenter of the next hot spot. In preparation for reopening, operators should be focused on messaging their plans and policies and reinforcing them.
Of course, reopening won’t simply be about unlocking the front door and letting everyone in. Aside from your members, clubs have other constituents and concerns that must be considered. There is no one-size-fits-all plan or strategy. Many state governors have published reopening plans, and because the federal government—the group with the biggest platform to deliver a plan—has not done so, it falls on each of us as operators to communicate a succinct and clear reopening message to our members and staff keeping in mind that there is no such thing as over-communication right now.
Creating a communication plan that addresses the fears of your direct stakeholders, as well as the general public, is the approach that successful operators will take. It should be no surprise that the basic rules of communication apply more than ever. Be clear. Be direct. Be honest.
Leverage Your Employees In Promoting Your Brand
Although our members are the sources of revenue for our clubs, our employees are the lifeblood of that revenue. There have been several examples of good and bad communication that we can point to in other industries as we begin to plan operational communication with our employees. The first is the meatpacking industry. We are all undoubtedly aware that the industry was categorized as an essential business but that rather than focus on employee safety, they instead focused on supply shortages as one processing plant after another was shut down wreaking havoc not just on the industry but also on the local communities they are a part of. Conversely, and from the first days of the pandemic, the airline industry has continuously focused on cleanliness, operating standards, and employee health and safety. They have made their employees the storytellers of how to keep safe and maintain proper protocols. I have not heard of an adverse news story that has gained momentum regarding the airline industry and believe that they are similar to gyms in the employee/customer experience.
In conclusion, your employees should be aware of your plans, procedures, policies, etc. long before your members or the general public. Inspiring confidence in them will have a viral effect and help to shape the general public’s perception of your business and you as a leader.
Build Trust And Set Expectations With Your Members
A return to the gym will not happen right away. Sixty-five percent of respondents to a recent survey worry about the virus, and 27 percent of respondents plan to go to fitness clubs in the next three months. These are staggering numbers for an industry that focuses on selling and often draws a direct line between usage and retention. It’s going to take time before people truly feel comfortable not only coming back to the gym but just going about their pre-COVID daily lives outside the gym. Spend time explaining to members every step you have taken to ensure their safety and give them the time they need to comfortably come back. Most importantly, ensure your community is aware that you recognize that while opening is an economic necessity, it is also a public health concern.
It’s All About The Fine Print – Ummmm No
Walt Disney was once quoted as saying: “There is no magic in magic; it’s all in the details.” Those words were never more true than they are right now. Members will want to know how you clean, what you clean and how often you will be cleaning. Most importantly, they want to know how you will keep them safe from each other and, based on surveys, what they can do when someone else misbehaves. Train employees to respond to customer questions and complaints with facts so they can establish trust. Consider creating a path by which members can provide you with real-time feedback. One club operator I know has established a customer advocate position whose sole function is to be a conduit between the club and the members for two-way communication.
Above all, be flexible in your policies and procedures. Tell people from day one that policies will evolve and be fact-based with an eye on safety and service.
I have seen two types of operators emerge during the past 12 weeks: those who have crawled into their shells with the hopes that members will come back when the doors open up and those who have continued to speak to their members throughout this crazy time. It is clear to me who will win and who will suffer. If there is one silver lining in all of this for our industry, it is that the sleeping dog has finally been put out of his misery. Rest assured that if you are not speaking to your stakeholders, someone else is, and your stakeholders are listening.