Three decades of working in the fitness industry hasn’t dampened Paul Brown’s enthusiasm for making a difference to people’s lives one bit – if anything, this evangelist for better living’s passion is greater than ever. And now, as Network discovered, he has the next generation in his sights
can you tell us a little about your background?
Not everyone is lucky enough to discover their true calling early in life, but the fitness industry has been my passion since I was a teenager and I have never wanted to do anything else. I joined my first fitness centre, a PCYC, at 16 years of age. Within a few months I became a volunteer gym supervisor and was then elected to the management committee. That opened the door for leadership courses and access to mentoring that would shape the rest of my career and my life.
when did your association with group exercise start?
I’ll never forget the day I was asked to start teaching something new from America called ‘aerobics’. In an age of innovation and discovery my peers and I were inventing new moves and exercise options for our classes that to this day still form the foundation of many workouts.
My thirst for knowledge about fitness had become insatiable, so I went to college at night and in every workout learned all I could about the human body, exercise and workout structure. Over a 25-year teaching career, and approximately 12,000 workout classes, I witnessed an amazing amount of change and evolution in exercise class formats, but the passion has never waned. The people make it all worthwhile.
You were also an aerobics champion back in the day?
In 1985 the first ever State and Australian Aerobics Championships were held and I was fortunate enough to win the first Queensland Men’s title and then go on to take out the Australian Men’s title. That got me hooked. I trained year round just to perform a three-minute routine and won several other Australian titles before retiring from competition in 1988 to focus on opening my own gym.
how was life as a gym owner?
We opened Busy Bodies Fitness Centre in Coffs Harbour in 1989 when I was just 24, and despite some previous club management experience I soon discovered I still had a lot to learn – and I did… the hard way. The club was an instant success and in the first couple of years we grew fast to become a household name in the region, but with our success came stiff competition trying to wipe us out. They nearly succeeded and we got to the stage where we had few members and loads of debt. However, through smarter work, better systems and the support of our remaining loyal team, we prevailed while the competition closed their doors and left town. After six incredible years – and an education only hindsight and gritty experience can provide – we victoriously sold the gym and I moved into a consulting role helping other fitness businesses overcome their own struggles and achieve their true potential.
Our success at Busy Bodies prompted invitations to speak at conferences on marketing, sales and fitness business strategies. This subsequently exploded into a whole separate stream of Keynote addresses and feature presentations, allowing me to visit and speak in over 30 countries, grow our business globally and make many great friends all around the world.
what made you become passionate about retention?
You can see a lot with fresh eyes when you don’t have the entire responsibility of running a club. Every fitness business I visited as a consultant was asking for the same thing, ‘Please help us with sales and marketing to grow our membership.’ With fresh eyes I could see they were actually pretty good at attracting members but were losing them way too fast, like trying to fill a bath tub without a plug.
It became obvious the greatest need was not sales, but retention, an issue that it seemed no-one was effectively addressing back in 1995. To better understand the causes, and find out why members really quit, I oversaw a research study of ex-members from a number of fitness centres. Those findings blew away all the old excuses and, along with my own experiences, guided me to create the Face to Face Fitness Program (later renamed the Face2Face Retention System).
We piloted the system at several clubs including Sydney’s iconic Physical Factory and the program was an instant hit – members loved it. Completing Face2Face made a real difference to their usage and therefore their retention, while ironically it also helped sales and marketing as gyms could finally deliver on their promises of advice, support and results. From then on I made Face2Face my mission, and every waking hour since has been dedicated to constantly improving and perfecting the system so our partner clubs can grow and prosper because their members are successful, happy and loyal.
what is the most important thing a club owner/manager can do to increase retention?
There are two types of members in any typical health and fitness business. Firstly, those that consider exercise an indispensable part of their lives, train often enough to get value from their membership and prefer your club to any other option; and secondly, those who don’t (yet).
The key to retention is to help the second group become part of the first. Like learning to drive a car or getting used to a different computer operating system, it takes time and – most importantly – the guidance and support of experts. Members must learn this via a step-by-step approach, and they must see quantifiable results to validate their efforts. You have about 45 days in which to make this happen, or for around 40 per cent of members it’s game over. I’m proud of Face2Face’s proven and cost effective system that makes all this happen and more, not just by chance or occasionally, but by design. It really works.
what is your current focus?
I’m proud to say that after 17 fantastic years with Face2Face I am more excited and committed to it than ever before. The results our partner clubs and their members achieve are simply amazing and that fuels my passion every day. I love what I do, the inspiring people I get to work with and the exciting places it takes me. That said, after all these years of helping mostly adults get fit and healthy I remain concerned that the world is on a downward spiral of excess and apathy.
For all the incredible advancements in gym equipment, club design, technology and the greater awareness about the need for exercise, our industry should have a much higher participation rate than it does. It’s concerning how few adults take proper care of their health and their one-and-only body. As role models for their own children, this behaviour is negatively impacting the next generation – and that’s the demographic that I’m also devoting more attention to now.
what made you more focused on getting the next generation active?
In the last decade I’ve been on a quest to fully understand the behavioural science of why people do what they do. As fitness professionals we are often trying to change the habits of adults, many of whom are deeply set in their ways.
Our best hope is to get to them before they have these bad habits, but the kids of today are growing up in a world of fast foods, video games and social media. If we don’t wake them up to the importance of a healthy and active lifestyle, things are going to get a lot worse and we will lose the battle of the bulge forever.
how do you plan to get the kids’ attention?
Obviously it takes more than a few to make a revolution, but we are going to give it a good try. Firstly, we’ve created a kids and teenagers’ version of the Face2Face Fitness Program, so gyms and leisure and fitness centres can better cater for this massive market and make a real difference to their communities. Then , in 2014, my wife Jacqui and I will take our 9-year-old son Benjamin on a quest to experience ‘50 Sports in 50 Weeks’ in 50 iconic locations around the world, with 50 of the greatest champions, mentors and enthusiasts of each sport. Our mission is to inspire kids, and their grown-ups, all over the world to get off the couch and live more active, healthy and productive lives. Along the way we’ll visit schools, sports clubs and communities to deliver motivational seminars and fun family sporting events to really drive the message home.
what is it about ’50 sports…’ that you think will hit a nerve and make a difference?
We’ve already got some world class athletes and amazing venues lined up, and will continue to plan our agenda to ensure we reach the largest audiences and get the greatest media attention possible so our message gets through. The way we deliver our message to the kids seems to strike a cord and we’ve tested it on several groups already and received an overwhelming response. Kids learn best when you make it a game, when they are playing and having fun – then you have to tell them a story they will never forget, to light a fire inside them that will never go out. I believe decades from now adults the world over will make better choices based on what they learned one day at school from a family travelling around the world trying different sports.
can other people get involved in this project?
There will be many ways people can get on board, so anyone who wants to be involved should keep an eye on the website (www.50sports.org). While we are well into the planning stage, we still have many sports to lock in and openings for locations to visit. Any gym, leisure centre or sports club can apply to host or sponsor one of our seminars and family fitness events. Individuals can vote for their favourite sport and donate money to help buy sports equipment for kids in disadvantaged communities. We are also inviting top athletes and great mentors to teach us their sports and have them showcased to the world, so we’d love to hear from anyone who has such contacts.
Reprinted with permission by Paul Brown.
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