IHRSA membership growth initiative: To 50 million…and beyond

Nearly halfway toward the finish line of its ambitious initiative to grow club memberships nationally by more than 50 percent by 2010, the club association IHRSA said the goal is well in sight.
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Nearly halfway toward the finish line of its ambitious initiative to grow club memberships nationally by more than 50 percent by 2010, the club association IHRSA said the goal is well in sight.

"We are on track," said Bill Howland, director of government relations and research at IHRSA, to reach 50 million by 2010. "If last year was any indication, I would argue that the macro trends for the industry are very positive. In particular, for the last decade the fastest growing memberships are people over the age of 55 and under 18. With 75 million baby boomers becoming more health conscious, we will see more growth."

In 2000 -- the inaugural year of the initiative -- there were 32.8 million health club members in the United States, according to IHRSA. Since then, membership numbers have increased about 14 percent overall when population growth is taken into account (U.S. population grew 6 percent from 276,059,000 in 2000 to 293,027,571 in 2004). That translates into a growth of 20 percent, or 1.65 million additional members annually each of the last four years, without considering population growth.

Currently, there are 39.4 million club members. (This number includes clubs that are not IHRSA members, as well as park and recreation centers, hospital fitness centers, YMCAs, college and university centers, and commercial clubs.)

In order to reach the 50 million objective that IHRSA has set for the United States, the industry will have to maintain a 22 percent growth rate over the next six years (again taking into account estimated population growth, which is projected to be 308,936,000 in 2010). That translates into growth of 27 percent, or 1.77 million additional members annually for each of the next six years when not considering population forecasts. The association has also set a worldwide membership goal by 2010 of 100 million, which includes the United States totals. Total global club membership is now approximately 79.4 million.

Initiative impetus
"Two major milestones precipitated the plan for 100 Million Members by 2010," John McCarthy, executive director of IHRSA, told SNEWS®. "First, the U.S. Surgeon General's 1996 Report on Physical Activity and Health clearly identified the need for more Americans to add regular physical activity to their daily lives. Then, in 1998, the U.S. health club industry began to approach a total of 30 million members and industry leaders began to consider the future potential of our industry."

IHRSA has always tracked the size and scope of the industry, but according to Howland, the "100 Million" initiative went a step further "to focus and rally the industry."

"We wanted to pull it all together and make the point that if as an industry we can work together to promote physical activity, we all benefit," he said.

McCarthy said the initiative was introduced to promote long-term growth of the health club industry, "whereby clubs would benefit from the growing number of members, manufacturers would benefit as the number of different fitness facilities expanded and, most importantly, consumers around the world would benefit from the access to thousands of new, quality clubs and fitness facilities."

One of the aspects of the "100 Million" initiative that many in the industry have said they found important is that it provides a structured aim for the entire industry.

"I think it's a very important goal for club operators," Julie Main, general manager of the Santa Barbara Athletic Club and president of IHRSA's board of directors, said. "It's a benchmark we can use to see how successful we are in penetrating the inactive population. It provides a tangible goal."

This is important, she and others told us, because an industrywide goal is unprecedented.

"We've never had a goal, and this one, albeit lofty, gives us something to measure ourselves against," Ken Lucas, Matrix Fitness president, told SNEWS®. "As a result, we can tell how good or bad we're doing."

According to McCarthy, "…100 Million Members by 2010 has become a means for uniting the various components of our industry behind the common goals of growth and making clubs accessible to as broad an audience as possible."

Hal Lipsman, senior vice president of marketing and development for Redstone Companies, owner of the Houstonian health club in Texas, was on the board of directors at IHRSA for three years, including the early years of the "100 Million" initiative.

"It's really gotten people from all aspects of the industry to align for a mutual goal," he said. "The board needed an overarching goal that the industry could get behind."

Getting it done  
To help industry growth, IHRSA has focused on several efforts. One, it created a bi-monthly "Best Practices" newsletter, which discusses membership retention, sales systems, and practices that "characterize industry-leading companies," Howland said. Two, it concentrated on consumer research to identify what baby boomers want in a club experience and told the clubs about it. Three, it developed additional sales and staff training videos. Finally, it has continued the dissemination of information about the health benefits of exercise, not only to its membership but to anyone else who will listen, including legislators on Capitol Hill.

"IHRSA as an association is now more active in Washington, D.C., than we were at the beginning of the '100 Million' campaign," Howland said. "We're promoting legislation to encourage activity."

Main of the Santa Barbara club said that in recent years she has seen an influx of people signing up for memberships who would have previously never gone to a club. The main reason for this, she said, is the increase of information about the health benefits of regular exercise.

"It used to be perceived that club memberships were more for how you look," she said. "People have realized that club memberships will change how you feel not just how you look."

In addition, the new "Houstonian Lite" health clubs, which Lipsman is helping Redstone Companies develop, are partly a product of the "100 Million" initiative, according to Lipsman. The new clubs will target an affluent audience that Lipsman said he feels is currently overlooked. There is already one Houstonian Lite in the Houston area with 800 members. Redstone has plans to open two more locations in the next couple of years.

"They will be unlike other clubs because it will be like going to a destination resort instead of a service station," he said.

Suppliers are doing their part to grow the industry as well, according to Matrix's Lucas.

"Every year a group of us goes to Capitol Hill with IHRSA to lobby for legislation promoting exercise and making it easier for small businesses to provide health clubs for their employees," Lucas said.

…And beyond
If IHRSA reaches its goal of 50 million health club members in the United States and the 100 million membership goal internationally, IHRSA's Howland said it won't stop there.

"Will we continue with growth initiatives after 2010? Absolutely. It will not change that we want to grow the industry," Howland said. "We will be active on a policy level, and also on the advocacy front on another continent. Where it takes shape, we can't say. I don't have a really good crystal ball on my desk. But it's a core reason we exist. We will continue in that mission without question."

SNEWS® View: Anything any company or group can do to grow the overall industry -- and the health and fitness of our nation -- is positive for everyone. It's a bold move on IHRSA's part to set such an ambitious goal and then take its interests all the way to Capitol Hill too. Of course, IHRSA will focus on its membership, but it's important not to ignore clubs that are not members since they too can be good for the overall industry. Certainly, expanding the organization's own base is something the group won't and can't ignore, but the goal we are told is not to simply get more clubs to join up. In fact, non-member clubs may still benefit from any promotion, advocating, campaigning or marketing done by IHRSA. That's all good. With the U.S. population for 2010 projected to be about 308,936,000, if the recent club membership growth pace can be maintained, IHRSA will reach its 50 million goal nationally. Might be time to start planning the "beyond" part.  

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