Health clubs are in a pickle right now. Not only are they struggling under a load of new regulations and expectations, but they must figure out how to lure clients back into the gym -where the money is made. Just how can gyms rebuild faith in their brand, their facility, their people? Is there a roadmap to follow?
Here are the Facts
In truth, gyms are not petri dishes of disease. Early non-peer reviewed research shows minimal transmission of COVID-19 at gyms when proper distancing and hygiene methods are in place. The Oslo-based study randomized 3,764 people split into two groups – training and non-training. Of the 3,016 people who returned to be tested, only one tested positive for COVID-19,and it was not traced back to the gym.
In addition, the CDC has revised its standards to state that touching contaminated surfaces does not seem to be the way the virus is transmitted. Although studies conducted in Asia have shown increased infection rates indoors, most rational people agree exercising regularly is better than possibly succumbing to depression and inactivity at home.
That Said, What is Reality?
Our customers are afraid. When faced with unpredictable, uncontrollable circumstances humans fall back on instincts and known experience. These are not always the best decisions but they feel right.
Instinct is a primal reflex urging us to first look out for ourselves. It is the “fight or flight” syndrome. In the case of the coronavirus, we shy away from groups as that is the perceived threat.
Experience, in today’s hyper commercial-social world, reminds us companies lie. Companies and individuals freely use a technique known as “illusory truth effect” to convince people that incorrect messages are actually correct. They exaggerate and misrepresent the truth to their advantage. The underlying confusion creates distrust and disbelief among consumers who respond with cynicism and a lack of loyalty. If you’re not honest with them, why should they be honest with you?
Learn From the Crisis Experts
Loss of faith is not new. Any sales rep knows unexpected problems frequently destroy relationships. Public relations professionals call it “crisis communications.” Regardless, the correct response is almost always the same.
Acknowledge what went wrong. COVID-19 is not your gym’s fault but you’re paying the price. Express responsibility for creating a cleaner, more engaging experience. Assume accountability within the facility and its employees. Stay true to your core brand and its values. A Fast Company article about Volkswagen’s 2015 international snafu stated that car owners were not upset by the emissions scandal as much as by the company’s actions, which went against its core values. Essentially, Volkswagen lied and that hurt their credibility.
Listen to clients. They need to feel as if their concerns are of value to you. It’s uncomfortable to hear negative input, but it builds empathy and grows connections. Even if it’s the same chatterbox who always complains, chances are she or he is speaking for others who are too disconnected or embarrassed. The more you listen to clients’ concerns, the better breadth of solutions emerge.
Ask questions. Instead of layering solutions, ask clients what feels right. How can you find a compromise between their concerns and your gym’s desire that they return?
Develop a solution. As simple as it sounds, rebuilding trust is about finding solutions to the problem that caused the initial lack of trust. And then living up to those promises. From a practical perspective, communicating your standards as they relate to the CDC’s guidelines is a great way to start.
From a more nuanced approach, via email, social media, or direct messaging, build an emotional connection with clients, emphasizing how valuable they are to your business’s success. Share current newsworthy coronavirus research, ongoing employee training methods, and new safety protocols to ease clients’ worries. Communicate the numerous social, emotional, physical, and mental benefits that regular exercise provides and how you are fighting to make sure they have a space (your gym!) within which to maximize their health.
Learn to let go. Not all clients will come back. If your brand emphasizes group exercise and that is unacceptable to a particular client, then it’s time to move on. By refocusing on whom you serve best, you’ll find the right solutions for them.
Break the Mold
Reach out to your ambassadors. Each company enjoys a select group of dedicated, enthusiastic customers, people who just love your product or service. Contact these influencers and speak with them directly. Provide them with tools to educate the people they influence at your club and you’ll feed the organic growth that comes from word of mouth.
Promote specific changes, such as restricted hours, limited specials, or new policies.
Encourage nostalgia. Our instinct for self-preservation is strong, but our desire to socialize with others is just as contagious. “Remember when” campaigns trigger memories and desires that remind us of just why we liked visiting our health club. A strong promotional event, held in conjunction with the campaign, can bring people back together who have not seen each other for months, ultimately rebuilding trust in your company and in their own belief that exercising in a club is the right choice.