Michelle Ryan first stepped into a New York Sports Club 25 years ago while in high school. Since being named CMO in October 2015, Ryan has helped oversee a major redesign of all of Town Sports International’s properties, which included physically revamping its gyms, logo, and digital ecosystem (app and website) to ensure existing and potential gym-goers have a modernized gym experience.
Previously, Ryan worked with brands including Juicy Couture, Armani Exchange, DKNY, Calvin Klein, and Guess, plus all the product lines under those retail brands.
In an interview with CMO.com, Ryan addressed Town Sports’ transformation, digital engagement, and the changing landscape of fitness.
CMO.com: You came to Town Sports after spending most of your career is retail. What are your major responsibilities with the job?
Ryan: I’m leading all of their strategic marketing efforts for all of the different regions and brands that we have here. It’s Town Sports International—that’s the industry-facing name—but the consumer-facing name is New York Sports Club, Boston Sports Club, Washington DC Sports Club, and Philadelphia Sports Club, and we have about 150 locations. For me, it’s managing all of those different entities, making them feel local, while driving a global messaging when it comes to fitness. [I'm also] focusing on all of the ways that we could drive profitability and revenue, having a consistent customer experience and a multichannel, omnichannel experience.
CMO.com: You’re selling something beyond just that one-time purchase. How does that impact your marketing approach?
Ryan: It’s a little bit different than coming from retail, which is really just having someone make a purchase, whether it’s a T-shirt or something like that, and having repeat customers. Here, you’re selling a membership.
I’m overseeing all of the e-commerce marketing initiatives, including CRM, email marketing, paid search, search engine optimization, affiliate marketing, interactive response, marketing analytics, social media, mobile marketing, PR initiatives, co-branding partnerships, and making sure that we’re looking at all of our key metrics. I’m working with sales, our CIO, our head of sales, and our CEO, making sure that we’re all aligned, having the same kind of message, the same kind of strategies, and then bringing that to the marketing and to the customer.
CMO.com: What’s the secret to selling fitness?
Ryan: When we’re selling fitness, you have to ask, “How do we make sure that we’re accommodating the member and making sure that we’re customer-focused?” We’re here to improve lives, through fitness, through wellness, and just making sure that we stay true to that, because I think that that’s really important.
CMO: The company underwent a major revamping, with changes to everything from the logo to the digital experience. What was your role in helping with the transition?
Ryan: I was a member for a very long time, and I know TSI has always been committed to enhancing a member’s experience. Increased competition, the boutique fitness trend, the streaming video, all of this competition was coming out, and I think it kind of lost its way; that was my feeling as a member. We didn’t have any digital presence when I first started, no social. Our site was more of just a glorified scheduler to book classes, and it barely did that.
We wanted to get smart, and the first couple of months I was here were really focused on, how do we get information? We conducted surveys, ethnologies, “ride-alongs”—which were basically “workout-alongs”—focus groups, we did quantitative analysis on current customers, lapsed customers or members, potential members, people who have never been to the gym who have gone boutique fitness. We asked what they were looking for in a gym, in their fitness routine, and seeing how digital worked when they were working out.
CMO.com: What is the challenge of localization and making sure the individual clubs and the overall brand have the same message?
Ryan: It’s definitely a challenge. You quickly realize that they’re neighborhood gyms, and I think that’s something we haven’t really owned. We’ve been around since 1973. We’re one of the oldest gyms out there, and the good part of that is that we’re established. We’re a corporation, and we will stand behind our product [and] the membership. I think those are important because gyms [are] closing every other day. ... Trust is lost. We have been priding ourselves on this neighborhood gym that we train our local dry cleaner owners, the local Starbucks employees, the neighborhood. That’s really important to us and what drives the neighborhood feel.
Still, you have to think globally. You still have to think about how we are going to create a digital experience that can suit all of the needs of the neighborhood members.
CMO: Let’s talk about some of the big-button issues that you’re keeping an eye on. What’s happening in the sports club space that might be new and different?
Ryan: There’s so much competition out there. We have to, as brands and companies, make sure that we’re catering to their needs. There’s so many niche things coming out, too. If somebody really likes to do a certain workout with free weights or kettlebells, or somebody really wants to be throwing tires around, there’s something out there for them. What we have to do is make sure we stay true to who we are.
Streaming video is becoming popular. People might not make it to the gym, so they want to do it at home, so they’ll stream it from their phone or their mobile.
CMO.com: What’s the key for bringing more Millennials into the gyms?
Ryan: They are social. They want something they can sink their teeth into. They want experience. They’ll spend more money but not on brands anymore; that’s why it’s kind of seeing a little decline, because they’re not brand-loyal. They don’t care about logos. They don’t care about the status. So [you have to make] sure that you give them an experience when they’re in the club and creating a connection.
CMO: Can you talk a little bit about the latest marketing campaign?
Ryan: Right now we’re working on “Fitness That Fits You,” which comes from the consumer insights that we had gotten when we had first started, and it’s always evolving, It’s really just about the personalization. It’s not groundbreaking, but it is something that’s really important that people are talking about, that marketers are talking about, that customers are talking about—making sure that their messaging and their fitness workouts are personalized. So we launched a short survey on our kiosks at the front desk where members check in or potential members sign up.
CMO: What changes have you made with regard to e-commerce?
Ryan: Our e-commerce [initiative] was really just a scheduler and a transaction site—put in your credit card, and we’ll give you a membership. Now it’s about camaraderie. It’s about creating experiences. It’s about why someone would want to be part of New York Sports Club or Boston Sports Club. You have to make sure that you’re creating this lifestyle. It’s about creating stories and creating a section on the site that talks about all of our offerings.
We came out with this campaign called “I Built This,” and it was really just talking about “this” customer. They’re lifting weights, they’re there, they’re sweating, they’re really putting a lot of effort into their wellness and their health, and so we wanted to have a campaign that represented them. We did that on social media and got about 40,000 people uploading user-generated content, which was really exciting because we’ve never been part of digital before.
CMO: What specifically have you done with social media since coming aboard as CMO?
Ryan: Social is so important. We didn’t really have this digital ecosystem. So it’s all about coming here and building it, as well as changing the way we were speaking to our customers and shifting that a little bit, making it real-time conversations—a voice to talk to you. That’s really more like Yelp, Google reviews, Facebook reviews, and Twitter. Then we use Instagram and Facebook to give real-time content and create a story—talk a little bit about us, what we have to offer, show them all these different classes—and making that a two-way conversation.