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ePublication of Australian Fitness Network

When you work in the ‘people business’, treating your lifeblood as customers is no longer enough.

“Waiting for Winter’ – that’s what we do in our family. As Summer ends, anticipation of the ski season grows. Winters spent up the mountain mean different things to each family member: a part-time job as a host for my university-age daughter; athlete training and coaching for my competitive son; social connections and a sense of place for me; time out as well as time to work out for my office bound, time-poor husband. We all have a different lens that we look through when it comes to this alpine environment.

The snow arrives. The mountain opens. The ski-field has new owners. They are in the tourism game, focused on delivering a magical customer experience. They know that making a profit in a seasonal business that relies on the nature-gods is tough. They also know that in a competitive environment it’s the ‘customer experience’ that must set them apart from their competitors. It must be exceptional. Getting this right or wrong makes the difference between profit or loss.

We approach the ski-lodge in this Winter wonderland. Unbeknownst to us, we have started the ‘customer journey’. It started with the greeting in the car park by the attendant as we exited our car: ‘Have an awesome day’. We thought it was a one-off, but we heard the same greeting time and time again, day after day. A customer host greets us as we enter the ski lodge. It’s 7:45am. She is vibrant, smiling; ‘Welcome to Cardrona. We’re glad you made the time to visit us today.’ Thirty years in the fitness industry, countless gyms visited and I have never been greeted like this. I feel welcomed. I feel special. I feel acknowledged that yes, I have made the time to be here. I notice her name badge. Her title is ‘Cardrona Host’. As I order my wake-up coffee, I reflect. If she and her team are hosts, then we are the guests. It’s a game-changer. Even the barista’s happy, greeting me with a warm ‘Hi, can I take your order?’ Coffee and smiles at 8am.

I wander outside. Ski instructors and coaching staff appear. I listen, watch and learn. They greet their ‘guests’ with high fives, warmth. They seem high on life and I get the sense they love their job. The lifties are the same. The lift queues are building. It’s school holidays in Australia and New Zealand, so it’s busy. Lifties keep the skiers spirits high. They are entertaining to watch. They greet you each and every time as you get the lift, also conscious of their health and safety role. They are motivated and motivating… yes, there is a difference. They know their job, and it’s just as much about ensuring the delivery of a customer, oops, I mean ‘guest’ experience, as it is about how to de-ice a chairlift. They are trained as hosts. They focus on the guests. It seems that instinctively they know that the experience that each skier and snow-boarder has each time they pass through the lift queue are their reason for being. But they are young and new, so I know it’s in their training.

They also seem to know the ‘regulars’, those of us who keep paying for season passes – our ‘membership’ to this mountain environment. And this membership is access to the lift without having to queue at the ticket office each day. Any ‘extra’ is paid for. Athlete coaching, ski-instruction, coffee and food are not covered in our annual ‘membership fee’, but we pay happily. Why? Because we value the experience, the coaching, the facility, the staff, the environment. We are made to feel special. Our son gets the training and therefore the results from the high-performance ski coaches. They are some of the best trainers in the country, and the world. We pay willingly, knowing that they are the best.

It’s a slick well-oiled ski business. But more than that, this ski-field gives us and others a sense of ‘place’. This is enhanced through the ability of all staff to acknowledge us as their ‘guests’. From the welcoming hosts at the front end, to the motivating, knowledgeable, technical coaches that train our son – PTs on snow. It’s all the same. The service costs more, but it’s worth it. Others must think so too. The High Performance Coaching Academy is booked solid. These ‘trainers’ know their roles, understand the goals of the athletes and engage with each and every one of them in ways, technically and socially, that keep the athletes returning.

This is a business that seems to have, at its heart, a recognition that how staff interact with and relate to the guest is critical. The owners know they are in the ‘people business’. Just as we in the fitness industry are. And being in the ‘people business’ means that each and every staff member or contractor should view each fitness facility member or client as a guest – and themselves as hosts.

I have been in and out of fitness facilities for over 30 years. I am now a paying member of a leading health and fitness club. I don’t always feel like their guest. As I walk past staff or trainers, I’m often invisible. Sometimes the staff are young, unsure of their ability to communicate, hesitant in their relational skills. I’m worried that this also means that they aren’t great motivators. And with the increasing health and social burden of ageing baby boomers, as well as the overweight and obese market, society has never needed great health and fitness motivators more. This is supported in the findings of the Australasian Fitness Survey conducted by Ezypay, in which over 70 per cent of those surveyed who had hired a personal trainer acknowledged that they did so for one primary reason: motivation.

It is imperative that as the fitness industry moves into the next decade, we don’t stand still. This means looking and learning from other comparable industries. We are in the people business. Our reason to exist is motivation. It is also to keep our guests returning, year after year, season after season. While technical skills are critical for fitness professionals, so too are customer-service skills. We are in danger of having a generation of younger fitness professionals who are qualified to prescribe exercise programs, but don’t know how to ‘meet and greet’.

Owners and managers must hunt out the people who are effective at both – and love what they do. On-the-job training needs to ensure that staff and contractors learn the importance of engaging ‘guests’ in the fitness experience and giving them a sense of belonging. In Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ this need sits underneath self-esteem and self-actualisation. That’s what people strive for throughout their lives. In the fitness industry we can help all of our guests feel a sense of belonging. Sometimes all it takes is a focus on acknowledging that we are hosting them for a short time in their day, and to treat and respect them as our guests, making their time in our facilities count socially as well as physically.

Wendy Sweet, MSpLS is a fitness industry educator, consultant and resource developer. In 2014 she was named Australian Fitness Network’s Author of the Year in recognition of her contribution to the ongoing education and upskilling of fitness professionals.

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