Fitness center marketing, an outsider perspective

As news of Equinox fitness chain’s opening in Houston makes the news, I find myself pondering what I would recommend to my fitness center chain.

One of the things you can’t help but do if you truly love marketing is playing the “what if” game: What if I knew enough about the business model to suggest changes in their marketing plan, what would I recommend?

As news of Equinox fitness chain’s opening in Houston makes the news,  I find myself pondering what I would recommend to my fitness center chain.

First, some caveats/assumptions:

  • I don’t think my fitness center will be impacted that much, the price points are vastly different. But any time is a good time to assess your current market strategy, right? So why not now?
  • I’m assuming that my fitness center wants members to actually come regularly. In comparison, inexpensive gyms don’t want you to come.
  • I don’t know anything about my fitness center’s goals, revenue structure, etc. A review of these would probably completely change my recommendations, but it’s a fun mental exercise anyway and these may be good ideas for other fitness centers.
  • There’s a lot of things I think my fitness center does right, which is why I’m a loyal member. For brevity’s sake, this post will focus only on improvements.

Maintenace and equipment

Maintenance of equipment and new equipment has to be a huge line item in any fitness center’s budget and, unfortunately, I think it needs to be a much heftier part for most gyms. Nothing frustrates a “regular” more than broken machines. On Monday, I jumped between four treadmills before I found one that worked. Sadly, not as gracefully as the video below.


As I’ve written about before, facilites can really impact your marketing.  When thinking about location, you have to think beyond the interior of the walls. My fitness center’s locations are very convenient, but parking is usually a huge nightmare (especially at peak times) and the lots aren’t well-lit or very safe (said the warning poster at one of the local center locations about crime in parking lot).

Insert Fun

Fitness centers often try to insert fun into the atmosphere by getting members to dress up (i.e. “wear your Halloween costume to the gym”). These efforts usually fail because a) employees don’t participate b) I’m here at the gym at 6 am, what more do you want from me? c) My workout outfit cost over $100 already and I have several of them. I’m not spending any more money.

Instead, why not do something that involved the employees having fun and the customers just being part of the experience? Every day I walk in to a stack of square towels. Boring. I so desperately want to stealthily sneak a creative towel folding book onto the employee front desk and watch the employees take initiative and get creative. Imagine the impact. Social media posts, selfies, and “I have to get up and go to the gym to see the towel of the day” motivation. This may also increase employee retention.

A towel animal, possibly a ray, hanging from a ceiling with sunglasses on it
“Towel animal” by Klobetime, via Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Review System for Classes

We can review items we purchased on Amazon, we can review businesses on Yelp, how about being able to review classes and read other member’s reviews of classes offered at our fitness centers?

There have been several times I’ve walked out of a class and thought, “That was a waste my workout time.” If a review tool exists that showed me the difficulty level, intensity level, and attendee comments about classes, I’d not only use it, but contribute to it too. And be more likely to attend classes. It may also make instructor evaluation for the fitness chain easier and more efficient too.

Revise the Trainer Model

So far, my suggestions have been pretty simple. Here’s my radical one: Somehow, I’m not sure how, but somehow, change the personal trainer model.

Opposite goals are not ideal, but tolerable in a short term seller/customer relationship (such as a car sale); they never a good idea to create long-term relationships. A client’s goal is to reach their goal as fast as possible. In contrast, a trainer’s reward system is to have the client improve just enough to make them want to come back, but not enough as the client no longer thinks they need them.

This also usually means the trainer is solely focused on their clients (they are paying by the hour), usually at the expense of treating other gym members as potential clients or potential referrers of clients, which is ultimately bad for the gym and for the trainer’s future business.

What would you add? How would you revamp the fitness center business marketing model?


Dear Houston: “The rent price goes up $200 per month”

On March 25, 2014, I wrote the City Council of Houston a three part letter that included my thoughts on improving the city’s transportation, health, and economics. This is part three of that letter.


“The rent price goes up $200 per month”

My realtor and I worked hard and we found a place that was “semi-walkable” by my definition but that would allow me to walk to work. When I first toured the complex, it was $1,260 for a 700 sq. ft. one bedroom. A week later, when I went back to sign the lease, they informed me that they would only allow me to sign a six month lease at that rate. “What happens after that?” I asked. “The rent price goes to $1,460 per month,” the leasing agent replied.


One of the key selling points for young professionals to move to Houston (and, often, to accept a lower salary in doing so) is that it’s an inexpensive city to live in compared to the North. This isn’t true. Housing prices are rising steeply and quickly because of limited supply and increased demand.


Skyrocketing housing prices and stagnant salaries mean less money to donate, to spend at restaurants and during social activities, to invest, etc. and that doesn’t bode well for the city overall.  If this balance isn’t changed, it’s going to be much harder to attract people to come and live/work in the City of Houston and those of us who do live here will spend less due to being “rent poor.”


I applaud your efforts thus far, but wanted to write you to encourage you to do more. We need commuter rail, we need more living areas that are permanently walkable, and we need housing options that are affordable relevant to our salaries.


I will also be publishing this letter to my blog, not as a means of social pressure, but in hopes of gaining additional thoughts on the subject.


Thank you for all you do for our city.



Nicole Finkbeiner

Dear Houston: “I want to live somewhere walkable”

On March 25, 2014, I wrote the City Council of Houston a three part letter that included my thoughts on improving the city’s transportation, health, and economics. This is part two of that letter.

Part 1: Dear Houston, “Where’s the commuter train station?”

Walking stick figures walking away from the hazard sign to a sign that says "walk more"
From Flickr: Walkable Neighborhood, Mike Licht

“I want to live somewhere walkable”

Using Chicago as a lens in my life, I’ve always wanted to live somewhere where I could walk to work. Or, at the very least, walk to shops and restaurants.  So, when I decided to move into “the loop” I explained to the apartment locator that I wanted “to live somewhere walkable.” Unfortunately, we found that there were very few options in Houston that fit my “walkable” definition and those options were well beyond my budget (defined as 25% of my take-home pay with utilities not factored). That is, unless, I wanted to relive my college days and live in 570 square feet.

Imagine the health benefits if we got in our cars less and, instead, could find affordable housing in truly “walkable” areas.


Part 1: Dear Houston, “Where’s the commuter train station?”

Dear Houston, “Where’s the commuter train station?”

On March 25, 2014, I wrote the City Council of Houston a three part letter that included my thoughts on improving the city’s transportation, health, and economics. This is part one of that letter.


Dear Houston City Council,

I recently read the article in Culture Map about the new Sunday Streets program and would like to share my thoughts on reducing obesity, increasing health, and making Houston a more attractive place to live.


For context, I’d like to share a little about me. I’m a young professional in my early 30’s. I moved to Houston two years ago for work, living first in Tomball/Willowbrook and now in the loop. Originally from Michigan, I frequented Chicago quite often. I am in very good health and work out six days per week on average. While the below comments are constructive, I’d like to emphasize that overall I absolutely love my adopted city of Houston and these are provided as suggestions of making the city even better.


“Where’s the commuter train station?”

One of my first questions when I moved to the Tomball/Willowbrook area was “Where’s the commuter train station?” which lead to some puzzled looks but mostly polite laughs of my ignorance. Having only visited Houston once before moving here, I hadn’t caught on to the fact that transportation isn’t like Chicago, there is no commuter train and you need a car to go practically anywhere.


The City of Houston has made great strides in the past few years to incorporate public transportation into the city, but a lot of work still needs to be done. Adding more lanes, or another tollway, isn’t a long-term solution. As painful as it is, we need to invest in serious commuter rail. That is the only significant way to reduce the congestion.


Not only will it reduce the congestion, but it will also improve the quality of life for many of us. For a while, I was spending an average of 2 1/2 hours per day commuting. Imagine what else I could have been doing with that time.


Unfortunately, however, the project couldn’t end there. The problem still exists when you do arrive in the city. I was shocked at the lack of taxi options and public transportation options within the city.  The trains you’ve built have helped, but there still needs to be more transportation options in the city.


Lifetime Fitness model too thin. This billboard needs to come down.

A Lifetime Fitness billboard with a model that is too thin, anorexic-looking. The copy says "I can do it all in my lifetime"
A Lifetime Fitness billboard with a model that is too thin, anorexic-looking. The copy says “I can do it all in my lifetime”

Dear Lifetime Fitness,

Normally I don’t use this blog to openly criticize advertisements and the companies that put their brand on them, but I find the above billboard for your fitness centers in Houston, TX absolutely appalling.

This woman is not fit, she’s anorexic-looking. Particularly, her arms are the size of small twigs. They can’t be real; they must be graphically modified. At least, I hope so.

We’ve done a lot of work as an industry to get away from using too-thin models and, instead, using models that are fit AND healthy (for examples, see Shape Magazine or Oxygen Magazine). Advertisements like this that show someone who is simply too thin to be healthy are a step in the wrong direction and outright harmful to the impressionable.

Please take it down immediately, replace it with a model that is a true portrayal of health and fitness, and figure out a way to do so in all future ads.

Nicole Finkbeiner

P.S. If you are wondering why I chose this venue to bring this matter to your attention, it wasn’t my first choice. I was planning to send you an email and/or talk to you via your Facebook page. But, after reading comments on your Facebook page about unhappy consumers not being treated well by your customer service staff and seeing how Facebook complaints are handled on your page (most responses from your company are of the “We are sorry, but you, Mr, Customer, are wrong” nature), I decided to utilize my blog instead.

Hotel Derek: How a water bottle can leave a lasting impression

A water bottle with a label with the Hotel Derek logo, a card around the top with the word enjoy on the envelope
Hotel Derek water bottle with the enjoy tag
The card that was inside the envelope. The card reads, "Hotel Derek invites you to return for a second "mixer" of your choosing with this $25.00 dining or hotel accommodation credit. Valid through June 31, 2013
The card that was inside the envelope.

This past week, I attended a CultureMap mixer on behalf of the Houston Holocaust Museum’s Next Generation group. The mixer was at Hotel Derek, a very stylish classy hotel in the Galleria area of Houston. The hotel pulled out the usual marketing tricks to appeal to young professionals; they brought-out samples of their best food, hosted us in a small event room, discounted our valet parking etc. But they did do one thing that I didn’t expect.

I got home and starting gathering my things to go into the house when I saw a water bottle. That’s pretty common in my car, but I didn’t remember putting one there, so I looked closer and realized Hotel Derek did, and it had a card on it that said, “Enjoy.” Inside the card, was an invitation of $25.00 credit, to come back and visit them again soon.

Using the vehicles that came out of the garage before mine at the valet stand as a barometer (not fool-proof logic, but good enough for this), the young professionals who attended the event were mostly affluent, they have discretionary income, and they like upscale and trendy atmospheres. This makes them a perfect target audience for Hotel Derek. The hotel knew it and took the initiative to go the extra mile and leave a lasting impression.

Congratulations to the marketing department at Hotel Derek. You did a great job!