Kids Theme Areas. Part 1

Thursday, June 21, 2012 11:27
Posted in category Business

By offering interesting interactive play choices to children, clubs can increase their membership value to today’s family market.

Owners and operators of fitness facilities long ago realized the benefits of marketing to families: Family memberships, on average, gross nearly double the profit of an individual membership. And, most health clubs, to a certain extent, already cater to families. But the challenge of marketing to this demographic is meeting the special needs of children and anticipating the changing demands of the modern family.

This challenge will only intensify in the 21st century. Families are more mobile and dynamic. The new generation of young parents grew up in dual-income homes where both parents wanted successful careers and a comfortable, loving family life. Physical fitness, also a priority for this new family generation, will be squeezed in between jobs, social commitments, volunteerism and children. Portable technology and communications lessen the need for families to use their homes as a central meeting point. These information-savvy consumers will choose health clubs that provide their families with the most value — facilities that cater to their children and themselves, and that make it easier to integrate exercise into their lives.

As fitness facilities compete for family memberships, they are improving their children’s fitness and activity areas. It is no longer enough to just offer supervised childcare. Instead, health clubs are following the lead of community recreation centers by initiating programs for children and integrating themed play areas into their facilities. By offering children interactive choices and by dedicating space to non-traditional children’s play options, these clubs are increasing their membership value and positioning themselves to compete for family membership dollars.

A history of club childcare

Health clubs first integrated childcare into their facilities in the mid-1970s, most likely as a response to the numbers of women entering the workplace and the concurrent focus on physical health among Baby Boomers. As working mothers struggled to do it all, health clubs realized that the busy schedules of these “superwomen” prevented them from joining a club. To cater to this developing market, many health clubs devoted precious square footage to a childcare area and provided childcare staff.

Municipal recreation centers, YMCAs and similar organizations had long offered childcare options to the public. Community- and family-oriented mission statements made these organizations much more willing to devote space and staff time to children. This would not be the last time that commercial health clubs would look to their non-profit counterparts for family-friendly strategies.

As the children of the ’70s became the pre-teens of the early ’80s, health clubs found that their childcare facilities were ill-equipped to handle their changing needs. Pre-teens, or “tweens” as demographers call them, have always been a difficult age group to categorize. They shun toys and activities that make them feel too infantile, and yet they are not ready, and often unwilling, to embrace the activities of adulthood. As the ’80s Tweens refused to spend time in nursery-like facilities, parents had two unappealing choices: force their children to accompany them to health clubs or resign their health club memberships. Health clubs addressed the rising tides of defecting family members by again borrowing from recreation and community centers: They began offering activities for Tweens.

The development of programming

The early ’80s were a formative period for the health club industry. At the same time that clubs were developing strategies to address the pre-teen children of the first wave of Baby Boomers, the competitive climate of the industry intensified. A proliferation of club chains developed in response to the growing physical fitness movement.

As fitness centers implemented pre-teen-oriented programming, they discovered that these programs could serve as more than just a customer service initiative; they could distinguish one health club from its cross-town rival. To this day, health club youth programmers see competitive advantage as one of many benefits of their programs.

Andrea Biernbaum, director of youth programs for Newtown Athletic Club (NAC) in Newtown, Pa., “absolutely” agrees that her club’s children’s programs and activity area are a competitive advantage. The NAC Youth Plex occupies 30,000 square feet, and programs include tumbling classes, an arts and craft studio, a computer area, day-camp during school vacations and sports nights. Biernbaum also introduced gymnastics, ballet and karate to NAC’s “curriculum.”

“We believe that every child … should … have a place in the club where they feel at home and can play,” Biernbaum says. “It’s easy to program for children up to about age six, but then we have to get creative. We designed a program called ‘Generation Classes’ that includes both kids and adults, and incorporates activities such as water workouts, aerobics and kickboxing. The parents help to keep the kids focused on exercise, and the kids keep coming because they love to participate with their parents.”

Even in programs where parents do not participate with their children, parents often feel better about bringing their children to an area that has more than just a TV and VCR to keep their attention. “Fitness is a family lifestyle choice,” according to Ben Bond, president of Sun Season Products, a supplier of children’s play equipment with experience in the health club market. “If you can get your children involved in healthy activities at a young age, you reinforce that positive lifestyle choice. If a health club offers these activities, it is assisting an entire family to pursue that healthy lifestyle.”

By becoming more involved in family fitness, private and commercial health clubs have engaged in activities traditionally reserved for community organizations. These programming activities, which, when first introduced, were a revolutionary step away from adult-centered activities, have helped health clubs to become more competitive and to provide additional value for family members. As the health club market becomes more crowded in the 21st century, health clubs may again borrow an idea from the non-profit sector: themed play areas.

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