Health Clubs Look to Kids to Bulk Up Membership
Programs Lure Children
Of Existing Clients
As Well as Outsiders
By ARDEN DALE
Linda Hom takes her kids to the gym when she works out -- and they get a workout of their own.
Ms. Hom, a free-lance fashion designer from South Orange, N.J., signed up Matthew, 7 years old, and Sydnie, 9, for Tae Kwon Do classes at Motion Fitness Club, the health club where she has been a member since 2004.
The kids take a 45-minute class three times a week. And, says Sydnie, "the adults don't really bother us because we're doing our own thing and they're doing theirs."
Having the kids join the health club, says Ms. Hom, 42, "was a way for me to not tell, but show them that I work out, too, to be healthy." She adds that "it's a nice combination for a busy parent to have that option of working out at the same time."
Local gyms like Motion Fitness as well as larger health-club franchises like Town Sports International, which runs the New York Sports Clubs, Philadelphia Sports Clubs, Boston Sports Clubs and Washington Sports Clubs, are expanding their offerings to attract a new clientele: kids.
Parents are increasingly looking for ways to keep kids active as childhood obesity, and the health complications that stem from it, have become a growing problem in the U.S. So, seeing an opportunity to expand their market, these establishments are stepping in and offering specific classes for children of various ages, including gymnastics, martial arts and swimming. They also are carving out times to allow kids to use gym equipment and even work out with a personal trainer. And parents get the added benefit of being able to work out at the same time.
Branching out beyond a core demographic is a way for established businesses to boost customer ranks. It can reinforce a relationship with existing customers by getting other family members to use a service. And it creates a market for new customers. In the case of the health clubs, not only are members signing up their children, but lots of kids from the outside also are joining.
But moving beyond a core audience has its risks. For one, bringing in new clientele like children could alienate existing customers who liked things as they were. Also, a business will need to ensure that it is effectively marketing itself to all of its demographic groups.
"Only 15% of the population in this country belongs to health clubs, and everyone has been looking for a way to attract the other 85%," says John Craig, editor of Fitness Business News, a monthly trade newspaper and Web site based in Yarmouth, Maine. "The kids market is an offshoot of that effort."
Carving Out Slow Times
Myles Berg, the owner of Motion Fitness of Millburn, N.J., says the club has offered memberships at a discounted rate to kids since it opened in 2001. The program, called In Gear, allows kids 12 and over to work out during the gym's slow times -- after school and on weekend afternoons.
"We carved out times when they wouldn't be competing with adults" for space, says Mr. Berg, 38.
There are two Tae Kwon Do classes -- for 3?- to 5-year-olds and 5- to 12-year-olds. In addition, a child as young as 8 can work out with a personal trainer at any time of the day for the same rate as an adult.
"The thought process," Mr. Berg says, "was that there are a huge percentage of kids who don't exercise. This offers an alternative way for kids to exercise."
Interest From Outside
Health-club chains also are carving out programs for kids.
Town Sports has a program called Sports Clubs for Kids, which includes gymnastics, dance and even swim and tennis lessons in some facilities. Each Philadelphia Sports Club, for instance, has an average of 300 kids in swim lessons per week. Some clubs also offer Ignite, a sports-performance program that helps individuals train for a specific sport.
Cheryl Jones, vice president, programs and services at New York-based Town Sports, says the company puts programs into clubs based on available space, and management tries to limit the traffic kids have with adults. Activities for preschoolers are held in the mornings, and programs for kids in elementary and high school are held in the evenings.
Ms. Jones, 53, is the architect of the program. She had been managing kids and adult fitness programs at a health club in Chalfont, Pa., when it was acquired in 2000 by Town Sports and turned into a Philadelphia Sports Club. She says the kids' program generated about half of the club's overall revenue.
So, Town Sports asked her and an associate to package the program and expand it to other clubs.
Ms. Jones says interest in the program usually starts with members who have children, but the clubs eventually attract a larger percentage of nonmember families. She says a total of 2,600 kids are involved in the program across the company's 26 Sports Clubs for Kids locations.
Swimming and Sports
Among those kids are Joe, 5, and twins Tom and Elizabeth, 3. The siblings take All-Stars sports classes, which help build skills in a certain sport, and swimming lessons at the Boston Sports Club in Wellesley, Mass.
Their mother, Rebecca Cahaly, says she either watches the children take the classes or she goes and works out on the treadmill as well as other machines.
"The most important thing is that my kids are really comfortable being there," says Ms. Cahaly, 38, of Wellesley, who is a part-time consultant on developing nonprofits. "They learn so much from doing an activity, and it fosters independence."