Building a Gym to Last 100+ Years? Don't Forget This Key Ingredient

Dont just sell fitness

Is there one thing you can focus on that will give your business the greatest chance of lasting 100+ years? 

Imagine you are at a banquet with dozens of gyms represented and 100s of clients from these gyms. 

Most of these gyms had been open for 20+ years.

At one point, the MC asks everyone training at a gym to stand up. They say "If you have been at your gym for less than 5 years sit down."

And about 1/2 of the people sat down.

Then they say "If you have been at your gym for less than 10 years sit down."

And about another 1/2 of the standing people sat down.

They went on to do 15 years, 20 years, and even 25 years.

At the end, there were dozens of people still standing up.

People who had been paying for coaching for over 25 years!

Sound too good to be true? 

This is exactly what happened at an event 50+ years ago. 

Except it wasn't gyms. 

It was dance studios. 

Arthur Murray

Arthur Murray Dance Studios have been teaching dancing for over 100 years and they have well over 200 studios world wide. 

Before starting CrossFit in 2004, I had been practicing/teaching Martial Arts for about 10 years.

I learned a story from my teacher's teacher (Al Tracy of Tracy's Karate - He and his brothers ended up owning 200+ martial arts studios in the 60s and 70s). 

He went to a huge banquet dinner for Arthur Murray instructors and students (close to a thousand people), and they did exactly what I stated above. 

There was dozens people who had been paying for dance instruction for over 25 years!

To learn the Waltz... The Foxtrot... The Samba...

This is NOT functional fitness to say the least!

That is when Al Tracy realized that he wasn't in the Martial Arts business, he was in the relationship business. Just like Arthur Murray's studios were.

Arthur Murray and Al Tracy built their empires on 30 minute private sessions 1 time per week with unlimited group classes. Arthur Murray started in the early 1900s and the Tracy brothers started in the late 50s / early 60s. Both businesses are still around today, and both charge pretty much the same as most CrossFit gyms. 

This worked for them because they focused on building the relationship with the client.

If all they were selling was "dancing" or "self-defense", people never would have stayed past the 5 year mark. 

They would know the dances. They would have the skills. 

Many gyms in the CrossFit world (as well as other Group Exercise Studios/Gyms) struggle with the long term retention side of things. 

As members get fitter, their hard work goes into just maintaining the status quo instead of setting PRs every day, or every week, in the gym. They know how to stay fit. They may even get bored. 

Relationships Will Keep You in Business For 100+ Years

Repeat after me...

We are not in the fitness business, we are in the relationship business. We are not in the fitness business, we are in the relationship business. We are not in the fitness business, we are in the relationship business...

Here is another one:

People don't buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it. -Simon Sinek

If all of your branding and messaging is centered on "fitness", "health", "wellness", whatever, you will always be working yourself out of a job.

People will learn what they need from you in that 1-2 years and then think they will be able to implement it at home or at the globo gym down the street.

The message that you need to have, the one that every one of your clients needs to be able to say in an instant (because it is so clear), is:

Your coaches and your gym are helping them have an awesome life. You do that by teaching them movement, coaching them, holding them accountable, and taking care of the community.

They need to understand that they can 'workout' by themselves, but they will not have the community, coaching, or the accountability, that you provide.

And that they will have a more awesome life with these ingredients.

At my gyms, we had roughly 50-60 current members that had been with us for 6+ years (some approaching the 10 year mark). The vast majority of them stayed with us the entire time (no breaks). Those members are the ones that made us realize what we were really offering.

They had gotten fit.

They had bought home gyms.

They had other 'fitness hobbies' like Spin or Yoga.

They knew how to eat, train, etc... But they needed to have the community. They needed coaches pointing them in the right direction and holding them accountable.

This is the relationship side

People will come to you because of their "pain". Because they have some issue that needs to change.

Depending on the person and your gym, that generally means that they'll stick around for 1-3 years.

If you aren't helping them with their pain, they'll quit. If you DID fix their pain... they'll quit.

It is your job to use that 1-3 years to build the relationship, and to demonstrate that in order for them to have a great life, they should have a coach and great community of people who will motivate and challenge them, as well as fun stuff to do with these people outside of the gym.

OGs - Original... "Gymmers"(?)

Have you noticed that it is hard to get over that 70-100 member hump? Or maybe you are in the 100s/200s, and you have a good group of folks 'from the early days', but the people who signed up a few years after opening don't seem to stick around as long as the OGs?

This is because in the beginning, you had small classes. There were many, many, times where there was only 1-2 people in class. You didn't realize it, but you were building relationships with them. They were building relationships with each other. They got ample attention in class (coaching), and they got accountability (you made sure they were coming). 

The second and third generation folks are coming to larger classes. They aren't building bonds with their coaches and their classmates. They aren't getting coached as much, and they aren't getting a text when they don't show up to their regular class.

Focus on creating relationships early on with the new folks, and maintaining relationships with everyone. Make sure you have systems for keeping up with everyone and don't let people fall through the cracks.

Free Tool

One of the ways to build relationships with folks is to do a "Circle Question" or "Ice Breaker" each class. A brief moment where people get put on the spot and talk about themselves. I created a tool with over 300 questions in multiple categories. You can download it here. You can also follow @thrivestry_official on Instagram and get them directly in your feed, or search them using the hashtag #thrivestry (look for the standardized layouts) or the search the other unique hashtags for each of the 4 categories (posted on each question).

I know I covered some pretty deep stuff here, so this is where I'll bring in some more practical information:

  • Start people with PT sessions to really get to know them, and then do PTs at regular intervals (once per month, per quarter, etc.). Building and maintaining the relationship is most powerful when you have one on one time. 
  • Celebrating 'Tribal Elders' (people that have been with you longer than 3 or 5 years) is a great way to promote the long term vision. Regularly pointing out all clients that have been with you for a long time helps too.
  • Having an annual calendar of events that people can train for. The Open. A Spartan or 5k race in the spring/summer. Weightlifting/Powerlifting/Strongman in the fall. Recruit large groups to do them and train together. The goal isn't for people to do them all, it is to get them to do 1 or 2 and then to support their friends doing the others. It also helps them to know there is an option that they may do one of these "someday"
  • As cheesy as they might seem to you, having members do a 'burpee challenge' or 'push up challenge' a few times per year can help keep it interesting as well. Not to mention the regular Whole Life Challenges.
  • Having a couple 'trip' events is also good. These should not be competitive, but they should be things where people will want to be fit. Snow trips. Beach/Lake trips. Etc.
  • Old member grandfathered pricing (with small price increases over time) will help with retention. If you have people that started with you 5 years ago and they are paying $150 when the new members are paying $200, they won't want to leave (because if they do, they'll be subject to the new pricing).


Another thing I wanted to point out is that looking at overall churn isn't always the best way to find out when people are quitting. If you have two members that have been with you for 6 years and you have 2 members who leave after a couple months, the average churn will say about 3 years. It is better to look at churn at set intervals. 3 months, 6 months, 1 year, 3 year, 5 year (how many people who signed up made it to 3 months, how many people who signed up made it to 6 months... etc.). 

Do Your Research

You should sit down with the 6+ year members and find out what makes them 'stick'. Try to instill those traits into the younglings and see if you can market to the people that already have those traits/pains.


I hope this helps you and your gym business thrive!  

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Thrive on.


Please share this if you found it useful or if you think it might help someone else. 

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