Few of us in the industry are fans of Planet Fitness. It actively discriminates against bodybuilders, powerlifters, and the kind of exertion that produces the occasional grunt. It offers pizza and candy to its members. Its business model is premised on people not showing up.
But while we’re trash-talking Planet Fitness, it’s growing into one of the largest gym brands in the country with no signs of slowing down. In the last 10 years, the chain has grown from some 200 clubs to more than 1,700 today. It boasts 12.5 million members, generating $2.8 billion in monthly dues and annual fees.
No matter how you feel about the company, it’s doing something right.
If you’re like me, you want to attract more clients, make more money, and help more people. Taking a closer look at this pseudo gym may reveal real marketing strategies that aid in those goals.
Planet Fitness knows its market, and it does a better job than anyone at getting a specific demographic through its doors. I’m talking about beginners, arguably the biggest, most important market for fit pros.
According to IHRSA, the trade association for the health-club industry, only 20 percent of the U.S. population are gym members. Simple math tells us 80 percent of Americans don’t have memberships. That’s more than 200 million potential clients.
Many of them want to lose weight, look better, move better, improve their health. But they’ve never been inside a gym, and don’t really know where to start. For them, Planet Fitness is an approachable, accessible entry point for achieving this.
But while it may be the easy choice, it’s clearly not the best choice. The best choice is you, or someone like you—a qualified coach who can provide effective training and nutrition advice, and whose facility, unlike Planet Fitness, isn’t set up to limit the kind of results its members can get. These are the people who need your knowledge and guidance the most. Your job is to show them that.
I work with a lot of beginners just like the ones Planet Fitness targets. I can tell you the largest deterrent is what Planet Fitness calls gymtimidation. To them, the gym is a place for menacing men and judgmental women. They believe all the worst stereotypes about people who’ve worked hard to build strength and develop their physiques precisely because they’ve never worked out in proximity to them.
You can help explode these harmful stereotypes, and bolster your bottom line, by making beginners feel welcome. I’m not saying you have to keep candy at the front desk. But there are a few strategies you can (and should) steal.
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Make people feel accepted
Planet Fitness is so openly contemptuous of serious lifters that it equips its facilities with lunk alarms—sirens that go off when someone grunts too loudly or slams heavy weights.
Commercials feature muscled-up men who overuse “bro” and scantily clad women who do the same to “hot.” In one ad, a Schwarzenegger-type meathead mindlessly says “I lift things up and put them down” over and over. Others depict sleazy gym owners and mean trainers. “If you were committed to this workout, you’d be pukin’ out your ears right now!” one drill sergeant shouts at his dejected-looking client.
If you’re a fit pro or serious lifter, probably not. But by alienating people who love to work out, Planet Fitness makes everyone else feel like they belong. They call themselves a “judgment-free zone” precisely because they judge the hell out of people who might make their target customers feel uncomfortable.
And while I disagree with the method, the concept behind it works: Emphasize a message of acceptance, and new clients will come to you.
One shining example of this is Mark Fisher Fitness in New York City. The gym’s message of radical inclusion is at the heart of its success. Unicorns and rainbow confetti signal to the public that your quirks are not just accepted, but embraced.
Trainers and gym owners would do well to cultivate a culture of positivity.
Welcome new members, show them around, and introduce them to the staff and other members. Introduce them to that big “lunk” by the squat rack. Once they find out that lunk at the squat rack is a restaurant owner named Steve, and that he’s a really nice guy, they’ll be less likely to feel intimidated by him.
Beginners believe that most gyms divide people into two types: those with six-packs, and those who suck.
It’s not remotely true, as we know better than anyone. Fitness is a moving target; each of us is at a different stage in the process—moving forward, backward, or just trying to maintain what we have. But if we’re being honest, we could do a better job of dispelling the myth.
By attacking old fitness tropes, Planet Fitness redefines what it means to be fit. It’s okay to put in 20 minutes on the treadmill and go home. You’re allowed to like pizza. Whatever you feel like doing is good enough.
Now think of how you present yourself and portray your trainees when you’re trying to recruit new customers. While you think you’re inspiring people with your clients’ extreme transformations, along with your own impressive physique, you may be scaring some of them away. Especially if they think they’re not ready to train with you, or that you’ll make them feel like failures if they can’t match the results in your website’s testimonials.
Resist the urge to show off. The best way to inspire a beginner is not with feats of strength but with self-empowerment. Set them up for success by providing small, attainable goals, and always affirm their hard work.
Set the rules early
For the novice, walking into the gym is like entering a foreign land. People talk funny and have weird rituals, and everyone seems to know the rules but you.
Planet Fitness clearly states the rules and expectations up front. When a member first tours the facility, she knows exactly what to do and not do.
Many gyms offer tours to prospective or new members. That’s good. But take it a step farther by sharing the rules and customs of the gym. When you’re showing the equipment and machines, it’s easy enough to segue into “We ask our members to use one piece of equipment at a time” or “This area is reserved for stretching.”
Clear expectations help new clients feel at ease.
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Keep it simple
When you enter Planet Fitness, the first thing you see are rows of cardio machines: treadmills, stairclimbers, stationary bikes. Why? Because operating these machines requires little skill. You hop on, hit start, and get moving. Any beginner can handle that.
It’s not great for gains, but it offers comfort and accessibility. Just because beginners have goals doesn’t mean they have any idea how to achieve them.
No need to order more treadmills. Just try emphasizing education. Teach new members basic movements and provide a simple, straightforward plan of action. (By “simple” I don’t mean “easy.” Just save the technically complex movements and techniques for later.)
Even better: Connect new members with a trainer right away; you could even make it a membership requirement. But instead of the usual “complimentary training session,” call it a “tutorial” or a “welcome tour.” For a beginner, it sounds more pleasant and less like Hell Week with the Navy SEALs.
You’re not forcing novices to navigate barriers. You’re meeting them where they are and showing them the way in.
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Throw a pizza party … without the pizza
Planet Fitness offers pizza and bagels to its members every month. This yields a few benefits:
- It gets people in the door. Nothing motivates people to show up like the promise of free stuff, especially pizza.
- It builds brand loyalty. It’s just simple reciprocity: You give them something, and they give you their loyalty in return.
- A sense of community is born. The monthly pizza parties create structured ways to bring people together. Employees get to know members, and members get to know each other. It not only underscores a sense of belonging, it lays the foundation for personal growth.
It also underscores the biggest problem with Planet Fitness: It’s not in the business of getting results. But you are, and all three of these benefits can help you achieve that for your clients.
So how about this: Partner with a local restaurant for a monthly cross-promotion. You can serve nutritious foods and even start a dialogue about how to incorporate healthy eating habits into your diet. It’s a great way to educate members on the importance of good nutrition while showing how delicious healthy food can be.
Just don’t forget to have some fun too.