By Norm Danniels
At Riverdale Fitness, over 70 years of success proves that simple friendliness matters
For many years, my only business was manufacturing and supplying nutritional supplements.
As I did business with clubs of all shapes and sizes across the country, I quickly realized that they all sell a similar product. Their members have similar fitness goals, the equipment is similar and follows the same trends, and members are offered comparable membership and personal training packages.
While I appreciate that many clubs strive to offer a unique fitness experience, I really believe that they are all much the same. Hear me out.
Decent equipment will do
I became a member of Toronto’s Riverdale Fitness in 1981, and it was life changing for me. Not because of the club’s remarkable equipment or because it held the keys to fitness supremacy. It was the people.
The gym was filled with members who were serious about their training, but it was also filled with laughter and a sense of camaraderie and welcome that I had never experienced. Today, many of my closest friends are people I have met at Riverdale.
Culture starts at the top
It took me some time to determine the roots of the club’s warm and welcoming environment. I soon learned that, like the culture in any organization, it came from the top. The club owner was a man in his mid-60s named Alfie, and he was quite a character. He was kind, had a gregarious personality, a great sense of humour and was always eager to welcome new members to the Riverdale Fitness family.
So yes, I had stumbled across a great group of people, but it was Alfie who had created a place that allowed those laughs to be had and friendships to be forged.
In 1991, the building where the gym had been located since 1949 was sold and the new owners announced that they would be occupying the space themselves. Alfie was past the age of managing a relocation and renovation. Members received the news that the gym would be closing.
My training partner Dave and I checked out a number of other gyms, and while they were adequately equipped, they just didn’t feel right or have the same vibe. The magic that made our little gym special just wasn’t there. We were heartbroken.
Keeping the legacy alive
Ultimately, Dave and I approached Alfie about taking over the gym and beginning the process of finding a new home. We quickly worked out a deal, and a few months later over 100 members showed up to help us move the contents of the gym down the street into our new digs with a couple of slices of pizza being the only reward.
More importantly, those members helped us move more than just the contents. They also transferred the personality of the old gym into the new space. By this time Dave and I were very aware of what made the club special, and we did everything we could to preserve the comfortable neighourhood feel that we all loved.
The secret sauce is no secret
Today, as Riverdale Fitness celebrates its 70th anniversary, I can’t help but look back on all the things that have changed over this time. Dave moved away from Toronto and is no longer involved with the gym (other than in spirit), and, sadly, Alfie passed away a number of years ago.
But, fortunately, what hasn’t changed is the secret ingredient that Alfie added to the gym recipe that makes it so special.
If you look at the Google reviews that some of our members have posted, you’ll see words like cozy, relaxed, friendly, safe, no pressure, great atmosphere, and neighbourhood feel. And these feelings and the emotional connections they generate all matter. They help us create a sense of community, set us apart from other gyms and play a huge role in our member retention.
This past May, Bengt Sormon, one of our longest standing members celebrated his 60th anniversary as a member of the gym. There was cake and champagne and CityTV filmed Bengt for one of their upcoming “Athlete of the Week” segments, which was really fun. Bengt is one of several dozen members who have been with us for more than thirty years.
A few weeks ago, I ran into a member who had moved from Ontario and who had left our gym over 10 years ago. She was in town for a visit and came in for a workout. It was nice to see her, and her first words to me were, “Wow, everyone is still here”.
I know I’m focusing on the feel-good aspects of our gym, but the purpose of telling our story is to share what makes our club unique. And I don’t mean to suggest that we’ve cornered the market on happy thoughts within a club because, of course, lots clubs have a great atmosphere. My point is to emphasize its critical role in maintaining members. It’s also a key factor when it comes to staff retention; we currently have four staff members who have been with us for fifteen or more years.
We host an annual party that features adult beverages and an awesome live band that encourages musically-inclined members to sit in for a song or two. At the party, we present an engraved watch to members who have reached the 30-year mark with us. There’s a cost to these kinds of events, but to me they are marketing dollars well spent because the party contributes to the camaraderie that is the foundation of the business.
Friendliness always wins
The kind of vibe you create and how you create it is specific to your individual club. Having a unique atmosphere, whether you’re a fitness club or a restaurant, is an effective way of differentiating yourself. If you’re not already doing so, I recommend using our club’s approach and simply treating your members the way you would like to be treated.
Clubs need to give potential members a reason to join, and we need to give our current members a reason to stay. My experience shows that this goes beyond offering the right promotional price or the latest equipment. It needs to be much more personal. After all, you don’t become friends with a treadmill.
835 Danforth Avenue, Toronto
Owner: Norm Danniels
Size: 7,000 square feet
Number of members: 700
Member demographics: age 14 to 90
Number of staff: 8 part-time, 7 full-time
Equipment: wide range of free weights, cardiovascular, selectorized resistance equipment, multiple lifting platforms, heavy bag and weighted training sled
Membership fees: $39 per month, on a no-commitment perpetual membership