BY HILARY ACHAUER
From: CrossFit Journal
The downward slide can be easy.
It starts when an owner puts off cleaning the gym or replacing equipment. Then he stops answering emails. He cancels events and neglects the gym’s social media and website. Coaches are left to their own devices and lose interest. After a while, members leave. New ones don’t replace them and classes get cut.
Before long, the gym starts losing money or barely breaking even.
Is it the end? Or can a gym return from the brink of failure?
Three CrossFit affiliate owners did just that, transforming failing gyms into thriving, healthy communities. Each took a different approach, but the common denominator is attention—to the members, the classes and even the refrigerator full of drinks and protein bars.
In the summer of 2017, Steve Bierfeldt got a call from a nearby affiliate.
At the time, Bierfeldt and business partner Dave Aisenstat operated CrossFit 845 in Wappingers Falls, New York, as well as a second facility in Poughkeepsie. The call was from an affiliate owner in Carmel, New York, who was closing his gym and wondered if Bierfeldt would like to buy some equipment.
Sensing an opportunity, Bierfeldt was at the affiliate within 20 minutes. Once there, he proposed a new deal: What if he bought the entire business instead?
Aisenstat started the original CrossFit 845 in 2012, and Bierfeldt, fed up with a 10-year career in politics, joined on as Aisenstat’s business partner in 2015. The pair had opened the Poughkeepsie facility just three months earlier.
Though they weren’t looking to open a third location so soon after opening their second, the opportunity was too good to pass up.
“We took it from the perspective that we know what we are doing, we know we are doing something right, people like the brand, and (there’s) no reason we can’t do this again,” Bierfeldt said.
The previous owners of the Carmel affiliate had owned it for three years but over the last year hadn’t given the gym the attention it needed. Little by little, they stopped maintaining the facility. As membership decreased, they cut class times. By the time Bierfeldt and Aisenstat bought the business under the CrossFit 845 umbrella, the gym had eight members and a sporadic class schedule.
Still, after painting over the scuff marks on the walls, Bierfeldt expanded the schedule, adding four to five classes per day.
“Even if those classes weren’t filled, we didn’t want to give anyone a chance to walk in and not have an opportunity to join. We wanted to eliminate their excuses about why they couldn’t join,” he said.
Then he implemented a promotion similar to one that had been successful at the Poughkeepsie location. Called “99 for $99,” the promotion offered a US$99-per-month membership to the first 99 people who signed a yearlong contract. They had 100 members before they opened in Poughkeepsie in June 2017.
For the Carmel facility, they decided to try something new, altering the promotion to $99 for 99 days, ending on Dec. 31, 2017. Thirty-six people joined as a result of the promotion.
Though the promotion worked for CrossFit 845, affiliate owners would be wise to take a careful look at their financials—such as profit margin and average revenue per member—before offering discounted memberships.
Discounts and promotions run the risk of treating the high-quality, knowledgeable coaching found in a CrossFit gym like a commodity as opposed to a service. Businesses that sell commodities at discounted prices have to sell a high volume to turn a profit.
In this case, the discount worked for CrossFit 845—and Bierfeldt and Aisenstat didn’t stop there.
After the 99 for $99 promotion, Bierfeldt and Aisenstat introduced the six-week Hudson Valley Fitness Challenge. Unlike members-only fitness challenges run by many CrossFit gyms, the Hudson Valley Fitness Challenge is open to nonmembers. Anyone can participate with no obligation to join CrossFit 845 at the end.
As he had done with his other locations, Bierfeldt combined his own advertising efforts with help from a marketing company called Gymbuildr.
“Any leads that (Gymbuildr) sends, I have an agreement with them that we split the profits. They give me the leads, then it’s up to me to sell,” Bierfeldt said.
The six-week challenge costs $300 and includes a personalized 30-minute nutrition consultation, three workouts a week, access to a private Facebook group, frequent emails and messages from Bierfeldt, Facebook Live nutrition consultations, and a final group workout and commemorative T-shirt.
Along the way, participants get a taste of CrossFit: the workouts, nutrition advice, camaraderie and coaching. At the end of the challenge, Bierfeldt and Aisenstat encourage participants to become members of CrossFit 845.
Forty-two people signed up for the Carmel location’s first fitness challenge, 24 of whom became members afterward.
“We’ve done eight or nine of these six-week challenges since February of (2017),” Bierfeldt said, “and our worst retention (rate) is 50 percent.”
Bierfeldt said these challenges are a great way to bring in people who might otherwise be too scared to walk into a CrossFit gym.
“A lot of owners forget what it was like for them on their first day of CrossFit,” Bierfeldt said.
“Most people are on their couch eating Cheez Doodles. They are not working out at all. They are certainly not doing CrossFit. They walk in and say, ‘Where are the treadmills? Where are the ellipticals? That rig looks like it’s a Transformer and it’s going to come alive and kill me.’ You really have to bring them along at their pace,” he said.
When marketing his affiliates, Bierfeldt draws from lessons he’s learned from his years in politics. He believes there’s no point in spending $10 on advertising. It has to be at least $1,000.
“You need to hit people over and over again. In the political world they say, ‘Repetition is the key to learning,’” he said.
When a prospective member comes into the gym, Bierfeldt approaches the interaction like a political debate. In a debate, Bierfeldt said, you always want to go first, provided you’ve researched your opponent and know what the other side will say.
After years of experience, Bierfeldt has heard all the standard complaints:
“CrossFit is too intense for me. I need to get into shape first. I’m too old, and it’s too expensive.”
He addresses all these issues up front, telling the prospective member he knows this doesn’t look like a typical gym, but at CrossFit 845 they focus on functional movement that’s going to reduce their shoulder or back pain.
“Wow, how does (he) know I have back pain?” Bierfeldt said he can see the person thinking.
“Well, because 85 percent of people have back pain,” he said.
Then Bierfeldt addresses the cost head-on, telling the prospective client, “If you come to class even three or four times a week, at $150 a month it comes to (approximately) $9 a class. Where are you going to get a spin class or a yoga class or anything for $9 per class? And this includes a personalized consultation with a certified nutritionist and diet coach,” he tells them.
Getting ahead of the questions makes the initial conversation easier, and Bierfeldt says it creates a personal connection with the prospective member.
“The member feels that you’ve been through this before—which you have. I don’t think of a member as an opponent, but I think of him as someone who needs his questions answered. And I want to answer them as succinctly as possible,” he said.
The strategy worked. In less than a year, the Carmel location grew to 75 members, and Bierfeldt feels confident he can keep growing all three CrossFit 845 locations.
“You create new pieces of the pie,” he said. “The idea is to create new CrossFitters. You aren’t limited by firebreathers.”
Resource: “Box Building: Replicating Seed Clients”
Resource: “Do You Need to Raise Your Rates?”
Retail and Retention
Michael Michaelides started managing CrossFit Downtown Atlanta in Georgia in May 2014, after he lost his job as a software consultant.
At the time, the affiliate had fewer than 90 members. The owner was a single mother of three kids under 6. She took ownership of the gym after her divorce. Overwhelmed, she had let things slide.
Michaelides began with the small things, such as fixing broken equipment and cleaning the facility, but he quickly became the face of the gym.
“All the members started to come to me with their problems. When something was broken and when something needed to be fixed or we were out of paper towels, I was just on it,” Michaelides said.
If an email came in, Michaelides responded within 20 minutes. He went through old emails and followed up with prospects, scheduling one-on-one sessions and bringing in new people.
“I just started dotting I’s. Then I started crossing all the T’s,” he said.
“Someone would send me a note, or say something, and I would respond immediately and try to find solutions to the problems. That wasn’t happening before,” Michaelides said.
He became so involved he completely took over, purchasing the gym in October 2015. He continued to look for ways to cut costs, increase revenue and improve service.
One of the easiest but most effective changes Michaelides made was to the affiliate’s retail program—drinks, bars and apparel.
Previously, the owner wrote sales on Post-it notes, which were often lost or forgotten.
“We were never in stock, but there was also no easy way for people to buy,” Michaelides said.
To fix this, he moved the drink refrigerator and apparel near the front door. Then he hung a clipboard, telling members to grab what they wanted and add their purchase and name to the clipboard. When the clipboard filled up, he added the purchases to the members’ accounts to be billed as part of their monthly memberships.
“Now, retail is 20 percent of our monthly revenue,” Michaelides said, noting that theft is not an issue and shrinkage has decreased.
When it comes to generating new members, Michaelides doesn’t rely on promotions or advertising.
“It’s easier than people think,” he said about bringing in new members. First, he said, it’s essential to make sure your website shows up in relevant searches.
“Make sure that when people search for CrossFit in your area, you are one of the names that come up,” Michaelides said. He handled the search engine optimization (SEO) himself.
“Most of the websites like Wix or WordPress, they have tutorials that walk you through it, and it just takes like a day or so of figuring it out.”
He said owners can find SEO tutorials just by Googling “how do I make my gym more searchable on the internet?” After that, Michaelides suggests owners test their efforts to see how the SEO worked.
Additionally, Michaelides thinks it’s important to list membership prices online. When he was a client looking for a gym to join, affiliates who wrote “call us for pricing” on their website turned him off immediately.
“I would say, ‘I’m not interested,’” he said. “For me it seemed a little shady.”
Michaelides also suggests getting current members to review the gym.
“We have hundreds of reviews,” he said. The gym’s average rating on Google reviews is 4.9 out of 5 stars.
Along with bringing in new members, Michaelides focused on retention, reasoning that if members are happy, they will tell their friends.
Using these methods, he increased membership from 90 clients when he first started managing the gym in 2014 to 220 today.
“I spent zero money on marketing,” Michaelides said. “After the SEO, I just started following up with everybody.”
He also runs a daily report of everyone who has completed a form on the gym’s website.
“Then I have a formatted email that I send out to them that I’m copied on so I know that they’ve gotten it,” he said. He said his email conversion rate is about 50 to 60 percent, meaning more than half of those replies result in new members.
Finally, Michaelides makes sure he coaches at different times of day throughout the week so that he can develop personal relationships with the morning, midday and evening athletes.
“I coach about eight classes at different times of day during the week. Everybody knows me; I know everyone,” Michaelides said.
He doesn’t plan to change his strategy for the foreseeable future.
“We’ve been growing at a steady clip ever since I took over, and I’m not sure I could handle more than 250 members. I don’t want to spend money on people I don’t know when I could spend money on the facility and the people I do know and have those people market me for free. We have a clean gym, nice equipment. I fix things when they are broken, and so far that’s been all we need,” he said.
Resource: “Retention: The Unbroken Circle”
Resource: “Social-Media Game Strong”
Rebuilding the Community
When Joanna Spalatro took over CrossFit CenterMass in Worcester, Massachusetts, in November 2017, the affiliate was in trouble. Members were canceling at a rate of about five to 10 per month.
The affiliate was founded in 2009 by four Worcester police officers. Busy with their full-time jobs, the owners lost interest in the gym over the years. The sense of community faded, cliques formed and people canceled their memberships.
Spalatro is married to one of the original owners, and she’s been a member since 2010. When the owners said they wanted out, Spalatro took over ownership and management of the gym with her business partner, Elyce Roy.
Once ownership changed hands, the pair’s first priority became retention of the remaining members.
“The community was broken and disjointed with an ‘us versus them’ mentality,” Roy said.
“It was kind of like a hostile environment. The owners tried to fix it, but (their solution) was (to) send a blast email saying, ‘Hey, we saw this. It needs to stop,’ but never following up on it,” Spalatro said.
To begin repairing the community, Spalatro and Roy started organizing events. The first was called Wine and WOD for the female members. Roy said she had no idea what to expect. Would people show up? And if they did, would they speak to each other?
“We actually ended up having 48 women show up. A lot of people were looking at me saying, ‘Does this person even go here?’” Roy said.
At the event, women who attended different class times connected over their mutual love of fitness.
“I think that sparked people getting a little bit more comfortable going to classes outside of their regular schedule,” Roy said.
The event was designed to help with retention, but because Roy and Spalatro opened it up to people outside the gym and made the workout beginner friendly, it also brought in new members.
“(Members) brought 10 or 12 people from outside of the gym to the event, and half of them signed up,” Roy said.
Next, Roy and Spalatro hosted a Bourbon and Barbells event for the men. It was not as successful as the Wine and WOD night, but it did spark conversation between people who attended different class times.
In January they hosted a chili cook-off for the Super Bowl. Trading recipes got people talking about food and even led members to start a Facebook page to share their favorite dishes. Members got to know people outside their normal class times and began socializing outside the gym.
“Nothing is cooler than seeing Snapchats and Instagram stories of members you never thought you’d see together out in groups doing things around the city,” Roy said.
While they worked on rebuilding relationships within the gym, Spalatro and Roy began a promotion in January of 2017, offering the on-ramp program—normally $150—for free and the first three months of membership for $99 a month. The promotion brought in 21 members, all of whom stayed after the three months ended.
Spalatro and Roy also started a referral program: Any member who referred a new member got a free month after the new client honored an initial three-month commitment. Within the program’s first three months, 10 new clients joined the affiliate.
Resource: “You’ve Gotta Try CrossFit!”
Resource: “Attention to Retention”
Resource: “Open Gym, Part 1: Yay or Nay?”
To increase current member satisfaction, Spalatro and Roy added more open-gym time slots. Roy said they saw a large increase in members using open gym, resulting in improved performance and increased motivation in those members.
For new clients, Spalatro and Roy changed the on-ramp program from a group training experience with a set class schedule to one-on-one sessions. Spalatro said this helped build relationships between members and coaches and made for an easier transition into regular classes.
“It also allows the member to ask more questions and the coach to spend more time on weakness areas, as well as allows them to complete the program on their own schedule, making it more easily accessible,” Spalatro said.
The owners took a look at their expenses and cut out things they didn’t need or that they could do themselves. They switched software systems, choosing a product that was less expensive and more user friendly.
Spalatro and Roy took the money they saved and put it back into the gym, purchasing SkiErgs and an Assault Air Runner.
“Additions like this have sparked excitement with our members and keep us up to date and competitive with other CrossFit gyms,” Spalatro said.
From November 2017 to March 2018, the gym grew by 30 members and the attrition rate is now about two to three members a month, which can be attributed mostly to schedule and location changes. On average, they’ve added about 10 to 13 members a month, Roy said.
“We attribute this 100 percent to focusing on rebuilding the community as our number-one priority when we took over,” Spalatro said.
Attention Leads to Retention
Saving a failing affiliate is similar to getting fit: There are many ways to reach your goal, but whatever path you choose, the key is commitment and consistency.
The strategy an affiliate owner chooses to revive a CrossFit gym depends on the personality of the owner, the demographics of the area and the problems that led to the gym’s decline. At CrossFit CenterMass, the biggest issue was a dysfunctional community, so Spalatro and Roy focused their efforts on bringing together the existing members of this longstanding affiliate.
For CrossFit Downtown Atlanta it was a question of details. Michaelides focused on all the little things, fixing problems and forging connections with the members. Bierfeldt and Aisenstat used promotions and challenges to get people in the door and then followed up with a high-quality product.
“Our goal is to be the best in everything we do,” Bierfeldt said, “from the website to the programming to the way that we treat … our staff.”
A failing CrossFit gym doesn’t have to be a fatality. Attention, care and hard work can turn a gym around, transforming an empty, worn-down space into a vibrant hub of community and fitness.
About the Author: Hilary Achauer is a freelance writer and editor specializing in health and wellness content. In addition to writing articles, online content, blogs and newsletters, Hilary writes for the CrossFit Journal. To contact her, visit hilaryachauer.com.
Cover image: Tai Randall/CrossFit Journal