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A novel campaign to get more young people working out at the gym is generating increased membership and global media attention for North American gym chain Planet Fitness.

Known as ‘High School Summer Pass’ and launched on 15 May during USA and Canada’s Mental Health Awareness Month, the campaign promises free use of any Planet Fitness gym for people aged 14-19. It also offers opportunities for teens to win $200,000 worth of equipment and academic scholarships for themselves and their schools by registering and entering TikTok video contests.

Could a campaign like that be replicated by a gym or leisure provider in Australia or New Zealand?
We caught up with our own in-house leisure and fitness industry guru, Nigel Dennis, to get his thoughts.

free gym for teens - working out

Building affinity among the next generation of gym-goers

Prior to joining Jonas Leisure as Business Development Manager Nigel spent 15 years working at and managing YMCA facilities, private gyms and pools and public leisure centres.

He says the Planet Fitness campaign is a clever one and its uniqueness is a major factor behind the widespread media attention it has received, including on major TV networks such as CNN and CBS News.

“It’s just smart, it’s great for media coverage and awareness, great for building a following of young people who may become paying members in future and it helps them build a database of people to keep communicating with, including parents who may become members too.”

He likens the approach to the “McDonalds or Bunnings strategy” of creating a young-person friendly environment that reaches a much wider community than its stated target audience.

The Planet Fitness campaign requires parents or guardians to sign a waiver for those aged under 18 in the USA or under 19 in Canada, after which the teens can work out for free as often as they like any one of the 2,400 Planet Fitness gyms they choose. The only exception is 14-year-olds, who require a guardian to accompany them.

Nigel says the three-and-a-half month duration of the promotion – positioned as a free pass for the entire summer – is a major point of difference.

“Most gyms offer one or two week trial memberships but few people can build a habit that fast. The all-summer-long offer from Planet Fitness is significant because it gives people time to build a habit and see results.

“It’s not costing them much because their doors are open and they have the staff working anyway.”

Would the High School Summer Pass idea work in Australia or New Zealand?

Nigel sees no reason a similar campaign wouldn’t work for gym chains in Australia and New Zealand.

“For a fitness club or gym chain, I think there would absolutely be a positive return on investment. You might launch during a non-peak period of year, perhaps even during school holidays, because it would be great for parents too as it would give teens another thing to do during the holiday period.”

He says the economics for an aquatic or leisure centre considering a similar approach might be a bit different, but there may still be a case for it. The challenge in an aquatic environment is that more staff would be required, due to supervision requirements around water.

“From an aquatic perspective it’s all about supervision in the water and for that reason the success of a campaign like this wouldn’t be so cut and dry. In Australia we need one lifeguard per 100 people so you would have to factor in additional staffing requirements before running a Planet Fitness-style campaign in a leisure centre environment.”

Many learn to swim classes run in the hours after school finishes as well, so a campaign to increase attendance of high school students – who might want to use aquatic facilities at a similar time – might place undue pressure on already limited facilities.

“It might still work in a leisure or aquatic setting but you’d have to give it more thought and perhaps limit the days or times when a free pass would be valid.”

Timing, positioning and effective promotion – key ingredients for success

One of the key elements Planet Fitness campaign gets right is its positioning, Nigel says. Timing it’s launch to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Month makes good sense, as does communicating the benefits of physical activity for mental wellbeing, using credible sources such as the World Health Organisation.

The marketing messaging is packed with youth-friendly language and ‘Big Fitness Energy’ references that tie into pop culture. The chain is also working directly with schools to extend the reach of its marketing and “really maximise that viral marketing factor”, Nigel says.

For chains or leisure providers managing multiple facilities, a campaign like this can be made easier by using a centralised leisure management system that allows registration details to be recorded in one spot and shared to the sites a member is entitled to use.

Nigel says a modern leisure management system like Envibe would be ideal for the job and would also enabling easy communication with those who come on board as part of the promotion via its automated email and SMS ‘trigger messaging’ functionality.

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