23 May 2023

The Gym Owner's New Clothes: A cautionary tale

The Gym Owner's New Clothes
I'd like to tell you a short idiom. If you're sitting comfortably, then I shall begin...

Once upon a time, a former PT slid into the in-box of a gym owner who would spend lavishly on lead generation at the expense of his member retention. Posing as a gym guru, they offered to supply him with mentorship, knowledge, and “magic beans” that would appear to be complete cobblers to those who are stupid or incompetent. The gym owner signed up, and the guru set up his PowerPoints and went to work.

The gym owner diligently attended every session, travelling around the country, listening intently to the guru as he espoused his guidance. He kept checking his KPIs & Metrics. Beyond an initial brief uptick, he saw no change but pretended otherwise to avoid being thought a fool.

Finally, the guru reported that the gym owner was ready to upgrade to the “inner circle” and learn the “real industry secrets”. He charged the gym owner’s card, and the gym owner’s transcendence was complete.

The members hadn't enjoyed any benefits from the vast expense and had felt uncomfortable with the changes they had seen at the gym. They went along with the pretence not wanting to appear inept or stupid until one of the OGs blurted out that the gym owner was "wildly out of touch with the wants & needs of the modern gym-goer".

The people then realised that everyone had been fooled.

Hans Christian Andersen

One of the rarely acknowledged by-products of the COVID pandemic is the massive rise in the number of industry gurus. A generation of PTs and gym owners struggling to keep their facilities afloat discovered that by prepending the word "coach" to their names they could launch a whole new business as the "Pied Piper of Successful Gyms".

Now, eighteen plus months on from the relaxation of restrictions, many decent gym owners are suffering despite having spent thousands on their "Poundland Hormozi" mentor.

Throughout my career, I have been fortunate enough to meet some true pioneers. These individuals have/had incredible minds, many in the field of Engineering & Science. Each and everyone, despite being at the very top of their game, was humble and unassuming. They had a quiet confidence that comes from genuinely knowing your craft. They did not need fancy cognomen or titular prefixes.

By way of example, Einstein said about himself that he was not that smart but that he had the ability to “stay with a problem for a long time”. Not once did he call himself "Guru Albert". Similarly, there is no historical record of U.S. founding father George Washington ever calling himself "Founder George" nor of Sir Isaac Newton calling himself "Wise Isz".

Aside: There is a record of Donald Trump referring to himself (in the 3rd person) as a "stable genius".

With many gurus coming from the ranks of PTs, their modus operandi for business mentorship is often identical to how they trained their PT clients. There is a strong focus on "accountability" and telling the gym owner where their problems lie - often before even asking a single question about the gym owner's business.

Following in the footsteps of the most accomplished séance act, and akin to a "poor man's Derren Brown", the guru will often throw out a list of "the ten biggest problems faced by gym owners". A mix of pure chance and human psychology leads the average gym owner to identify with 3-4 of the issues listed, drawing them to the conclusion that 'Guru Derren' can solve all of their business woes.

Whilst there is no doubt that there are some common elements and challenges that apply across all gyms, every business is individual. You cannot group together a gym operating in central London with one based in a more remote part of County Mayo in Ireland, any more than you could deliver the same training regime to a 7-month pregnant woman vs. a professional triathlete.

For the same reasons, the traditional approach to "accountability" can be counterproductive. This often involves multiple mentees in a meeting or on a call, grouped together by little more than 'chance', telling the group their "numbers for the week". A small gym owner might have just had their best week ever and be enormously excited by the three new members they have signed up. Still, alongside another gym that is disappointed to have only added fifteen, they feel deflated and worthless.

As little as 5-10 years ago, the mentors within the industry had a much greater focus on the business elements of fitness. For example, in his book "How to Make More Money in the Fitness Industry", Thom Plummer (now semi-retired) talks about how every gym should have a few months' working capital in their bank accounts at all times. Whilst his premise remains sound, this is wildly removed from the realities facing many independent gym owners in 2023 - many barely have even a week's worth of buffer available.

These days, the majority of gurus focus their craft on "lead generation". They look at your leaking bucket and tell you that, having carefully reviewed your situation, they have expertly concluded that your problem is that you're simply not pouring enough water into the bucket! This is, of course, absurd.

Leads are important. But your lead funnel should primarily be for growing your business and replacing natural attrition (relocation etc.). It is retention that is king. If you keep your members happy and renewing, your lead funnel increases your revenue. Additionally, in all likelihood, a decent percentage of your leads will come from referrals.

As the old proverb states, "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush". I personally believe that much of the gym owner "burnout" that I see is down to the continual pursuance of new leads, whilst failing to first "reline the bucket".

On Planet Guru, it is presently de rigueur to be confrontational and to attempt to come across as a "disruptor". Unfortunately, often this simply translates to "unprofessional". It is possible to be contentious without offending, and, with few exceptions, expletive-laden content is not a great look. It is important to remember that "the 'sticky stuff' flows downhill".

For a business ethos led by bravado, brand is everything. Some gurus are absolutely brand obsessed, whereas the truth is that some of the most 'successful' gyms are ones that you have never heard of. They are operated professionally and efficiently in the back streets of some town, where they enjoy high customer retention and great referral rates.

In the last few months, I have seen several different 'celebrities' within our industry tell gym owners that they, too, "need to be influencers" to be successful. Whilst being somewhat misleading, it is also highly disingenuous.

My timeline is full of gym owners churning out daily video blogs despite having nothing to say. Worse still is the sweaty muscle shot, accompanied by some chuff about "winning". The demographic to whom this appeals is very narrow, and largely it's 'appreciated' only by industry peers.

I struggle to think of any gym owners that have achieved fabled global, national, or even local 'influencer' status without having already had an established following or notable former career. I honestly do not know if the proponents genuinely believe it is possible or whether they are mocking their followers.

The fitness industry is famous for its "fads". Currently getting its moment back in the spotlight is "strength", with many gyms going all-in on "beast mode". This is great if you're targeting the standard 'go-to' demographic of the 25-35yr old, but, as is often the case, it is of little interest to the broader population. If you go to a gym called "Pump" you pretty much know what you're going to see.

As "strength" comes back into focus, it re-enforces the multi-decades-old perception of a gym being more akin to a blacksmith forge than an inclusive hub for fitness and well-being.

In the UK, the NHS already outsources recuperation for some operations to 3rd party physios. As it collapses under the weight of unfit patients, there is little doubt that gyms will play an important role going forward. This is even more likely, as health insurance companies will start looking for evidence of "a healthy lifestyle" to reduce insurance premiums (akin to 'proving you're a safe driver' for car insurance).

The facilities that encourage, welcome, and support a broader swathe of the general public will benefit. Increased attention is being placed on the needs of the individual, with many of the chain gyms now having small-group product offerings.

Successful small-group fitness facilities tailor their delivery to their customers. Whilst this takes more work, the correct and efficient implementation of systems greatly eases the load. As a result, the rewards are also much greater - with the ability to charge for premium memberships. As well as higher membership fees, these facilities typically also enjoy better retention rates and client referrals.

Interestingly, facilities with stronger member retention often tend to have good staff retention. A mutually appreciative environment without a continuous need to stem a haemorrhaging client base is a far more pleasant environment. Happier staff leads to even better sessions and even happier members, and a cycle of positive enforcement takes hold.

The reality is that most gym owners do not need continuous mentorship. That we do, is something we are told by *checks notes*, er, those who want to sell us their mentorship services.

A fair number of independent gym owners have told me that they feel isolated and alone - a feeling that many find difficult to share. The majority crave a mutually supportive environment where they can share their challenges and bounce ideas, not necessarily be told how to operate. 

One common need is for better systems, but Gurus Incorporated seldom address this. In fact, despite being well into the summer conferences, business systems have been mentioned in only a handful of presentations.

Hard-working gym owners increasingly realise that "not all that glitters is gold", and a sea change is underway.

With us rapidly approaching the summer "mentor transfer window", where gym owners stuck on the merry-go-round of gurus seek to end their current coaching relationships, the cries of "you need me" will soon hang heavy in the air.

Business success comes from consistently good service, leading to solid retention, supplemented by a healthy but realistic stream of new members, and all supported by a well-founded bedrock of systems and processes.

Whilst the Venn diagram of "not all men" and "not all fitness gurus" is essentially a circle, there are some genuine, skilled industry advisors amongst the crowd. These people have worked hard to learn their trade, excelled in their execution, and have a genuine desire to help others meet their goals. I very much respect these individuals, and I suspect many share my frustrations regarding the "pretenders to the throne".

No genuine business advisors of integrity were harmed by the publication of this article.

Written by Chris Windram.


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