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Americans may tend to be overweight and underactive, but gyms are still big business. Memberships at health clubs have increased by 95 percent during the past 14 years, generating more than $12.2 billion annually. The gyms themselves have proliferated too, with nearly 18,000 across the country today. A total of 58 million patrons — members as well as nonmembers — visited health clubs in this country in 2001. As the industry has grown, the type of people who step into the gym has also changed dramatically: Once stereotyped as a haven for twenty-something gym bunnies and bodybuilders, health clubs are now attracting a wider demographic spectrum.

Americans age 55 and older, for example, account for 17 percent (5.6 million) of the total gym-membership population today, compared with 9 percent (1.5 million) in 1987. The number of women belonging to gyms has risen by 94 percent since 1987, to 17.6 million, while male membership has grown by 95 percent, to 16.1 million, during the same period, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), an industry trade association based in Boston.

“There are a wide variety of demographic groups in gyms these days,� says Greg Sonzogni, director of sales at Lakewood, Colo.-based Promote It International, a company that creates in-gym sampling programs for marketers. “Not everyone is trying to target a 25-year-old bodybuilder.�

But just about everyone is trying to target somebody at the gym. As the demographics of gymgoers have shifted, businesses have been making a concerted effort not only to market “in-venue� but also to tailor their messages to specific demographic groups. For instance, Promote It International designed a campaign for Nature Made supplements in April 2002 that targeted active seniors, 45 and older. The effort involved distributing sample bags of nutritional supplements at senior tennis tournaments in the Los Angeles area and at gyms selected for their high percentage of senior members and programs. “People in the industry are recognizing the competitive advantages of catering to a niche,� says Bill Howland, director of research at the IHRSA. “Now there are clubs trying to be the family club, the mature population club, the medical wellness club or the club for corporate fitness.�

Indeed, health and fitness clubs are creating more targeted programs and even specialized facilities catering to different demographic groups. Such chains as Lucille Roberts, Curves for Women, Contours Express and Slender Lady are geared exclusively to women. Upscale gyms targeted to professionals, prominent citizens and celebrities offer expensive and exclusive services. This enables advertisers to select the medium most appropriate to their message and to target further within an already upscale base demographic. Simmons Market Research reports that 14 percent of health club members earn more than $75,000 a year. According to Bally Total Fitness, the average income of its members is $52,000, and most of them fall within the 18- to 49-year-old age bracket.

“Advertising in the gym is attractive. Not only can one access a difficult-to-reach demographic, but since people come in two or three times a week, they get multiple impressions and they're a captive audience,� says Bob Giardina, CEO of New York-based Town Sports International, which operates 126 gyms in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

What's more, the targeted audience often appreciates the message, especially when it means a free magazine, an entertaining video program or a gift-size shampoo sample. In a study conducted by the New York-based trade group Promotion Marketing Association's Product Sampling and Demonstration Council, 25 percent of gym attendees said they received an in-venue sample during the past year, and the overwhelming majority was pleased with that opportunity. Sixty-eight percent said they were excited about receiving the sample, and 71 percent of samplers went on to buy the product.

Today, advertising in health clubs takes a variety of forms. Bally, for example, offers marketers a chance to host in-club events and promotions, conduct on-site demonstrations and provide sample products. In 2001, Unilever's Dove brand held “Dove Days� at select Bally clubs, during which members received complementary group fitness classes and staff received branded apparel. Dove also aired commercials on the Bally Total Fitness Radio Network, an in-club service that debuted in November 1999. The fitness chain has run similar promotions for Sunkist citrus fruits, Kellogg's Special K and Smart Start cereals, Sprint services and Kodak Advantix Access cameras.

Sampling is also on the rise. Last May, Unilever and Bally distributed samples of a new body care product, Dove Body Refreshers, to female members as they entered the gym. Bally has allowed marketers to target its male membership through sampling programs for deodorants, magazines, sports drinks and supplements. Another program run last spring and summer for Kraft involved a promotion for a free 14-day premier membership or a $75 discount on regular membership fees at Bally's clubs; the offer was made through certificates printed on Kraft 2% Milk Cheese products. The program, targeted to active, health-conscious adults, was also publicized through a print advertising campaign in People, Shape and Reader's Digest.

Some gyms have created other outlets for advertisers. Even in a downtrodden magazine market, some of the larger chains have launched custom-published magazines and newsletters. In December 2001, New York-based Crunch Fitness launched Crunch, touted as an “almost-nothing-to-do-with-fitness fitness magazine� covering leisure, entertainment and lifestyle. Produced in conjunction with custom publisher Profile Pursuit, Inc., the 300-page oversize magazine came out twice in 2002 (it will expand to a quarterly in 2003) and was distributed in Crunch gyms, on newsstands and at national chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders. In November 2001, Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Life Time Fitness, which owns 26 gyms across the country, transformed its newsletter into a bimonthly magazine, Experience Life. According to Mediamark Research, Inc., 77 percent of Experience Life's readers are homeowners. More than half of them (52 percent) have an annual income over $75,000, and their median income is $78,000.

Gyms are still developing new marketing plans and ways to navigate the fine line between establishing a strong health and fitness brand and blatant commercialization. Boasting such members of the “power elite� as Michael Jordan and Tom Cruise, The Sports Club Company, which considers itself the “Ritz-Carlton of gyms,� operates nine branches of The Sports Club/L.A. in California, Las Vegas, New York City, Boston and Washington, D.C. Targeted to upscale patrons, the company tries to keep on-site advertising to a minimum, because, according to confounder Nanette Pattee Francini, the club is meant to be “a sanctuary from daily life. We don't do really blatant advertising.� Even so, the club publishes a newsletter that accepts advertising, and it forms “strategic alliances� with companies — such as Giorgio Armani, American Airlines and Audemars Piguet — whose brand images and target demographic are deemed a good fit.

Crunch Fitness has an equally strong brand image, but a very different target audience. The company's 22 gyms nationwide actively seek a specific psychographic profile, what marketing director Candy Tree calls “youthful, exciting, technology-driven, fashion-forward, music- and design-savvy early adopters between the ages of 18 and 34.� With such a strong niche customer base and brand image, Tree says the company must be selective when it comes to advertising partnerships. “We will only consider unique, cutting-edge brands,� she explains. “If we added overly commercial advertising into the brand mix, it would dilute our own brand over time and we would lose the trendiest demographic.� Nonetheless, the fitness chain is expanding in-venue sampling opportunities to its magazine advertisers, which include Altoids, Mentos and Lever 2000.

Says Greg Helm, executive vice president of the Encino, Calif.-based gym promotions agency Health Club Panel Network, “The demographics of health club patrons are astronomical — the income, the buying power, the diversity. More advertisers are understanding how valuable these clubs are — probably because they're going themselves and witnessing what's taking place there.�

GYM RATS

The number of men and women belonging to gyms has increased at similar rates since 1987-94 percent and 95 percent, respectively.

PERCENT
Sex
Male 48%
Female 52%
Age
6-11 4%
12-17 8%
18-34 34%
35-54 37%
55+ 17%
Source: IHRSA/American Sports Data Club Trend Report

EXERCISE YOUR WALLETS

Gymgoers are twice as likely as the general population to consume premium domestic beer.

HEAVY USERS OF WORK OUT 2 TIMES/WEEK OR MORE AT HEALTH CLUB OR OTHER FACILITY GENERAL POPULATION
Energy bars 5% 3%
Car rental for business 5% 2%
Contact lens solution 6% 3%
Premium domestic beer 6% 3%
Energy drinks 9% 6%
Suntan/sunscreen products 18% 12%
Complexion care products 23% 16%
Hair styling gels/lotions 18% 13%
Bottled water/seltzer 17% 12%
Vitamins and dietary supplements 13% 10%
Lip care products 17% 13%
Film 26% 21%
Books 30% 22%
Greeting cards 25% 20%
Source: Mediamark Research, Inc.

MEASURING UP

Gym members are twice as likely as the general population to be college graduates.

CLUB MEMBERS OVERALL POPULATION
White 86% 83%
Black 9% 12%
Asian 4% 4%
Hispanic 9% 11%
High school or less 23% 50%
Some college 33% 27%
College grad 24% 12%
Postgraduate 19% 10%
Single 27% 24%
Engaged 4% 4%
Married 58% 57%
Widowed 3% 7%
Divorced/separated 12% 12%
HHI less than $25k 22% 28%
HHI $25k - $50k 26% 22%
HHI $50k - $75k 17% 9%
HHI $75k+ 14% 6%
Source: Simmons Market Research
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