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CrossFit Arlington Heights: When Members Become Your Chief Marketing Officers

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Kim Madeleine

In this episode of Back of the Napkin, Jeff Arce and Web Eby, owners of CrossFit Arlington Heights (CFAH) in suburban Chicago, discuss how they came to own and expand an already successful small business, and how “community” provides the lift to everything they do. Listen to the episode.

When Your Customers Become Your Chief Marketing Officers

From the moment you walk into CrossFit Arlington Heights, you’re enveloped by what owners Jeff Arce and Web Eby painstakingly curate with every decision they make: Experience. Community. Results.

Painted in bold letters on a large garage door, those three words represent more than just a slick piece of marketing; they are the very ethos of CFAH.   

“You come here and you're going to get experienced coaches,” said Eby. “You're going to learn that we have a stellar community, a goofball community. And you're going to see results. So, the key word community is easy to use. It's almost just second nature.”

Whether checking in with a member who missed a few training sessions, or altering membership fees for someone out of town, connecting beyond the normal customer-business relationship, on a very human level, is instrumental to the ongoing success of CFAH. And Arce and Eby believe it inspires members to help spread the word and grow gym membership.

From Strangers to Business Partners

Arce and Eby started CFAH as members; Eby eager and Arce a bit recalcitrant. Friends and family members encouraged the then strangers to check out CFAH to help them achieve their health & wellness goals. Within a few months, the duo moved from training three days a week, to five or six days a week, to challenging and pushing each other closer to their performance goals. Recognizing something special in both, the original owners invited Arce and Eby to coach classes part-time, a gig that grew to full-time, and ultimately, ownership.

The decision to jump from coach to coach-owner was a no-brainer. They two had grown to love CFAH, especially the vibrant and diverse community, and they saw their skills and experience as complementary.

“With my small business background (Arce runs CATS Aquatic, a USA Swimming Club Team), it was an easy transition for me. I understand the mom-and-pop nature of the gym business because it's very similar to the swim club business,” said Arce.

Eby, with his unbridled enthusiasm and uncanny knack for learning interesting details about potential new members within minutes, proved the perfect match. According to Arce, every small business owner “needs a Web.” “You need that person who is going to not only represent the business well but interact with every single person that walks through the door like his old high school friend that he's known forever,” said Arce.

3 – 2 – 1 Go!

Arce and Eby drafted a five-year plan to support their vision, both operationally and financially. They defined metrics and milestones for a variety of recurring and capital expenditures, including staffing, new equipment, facility enhancement, and gym reinvestment. “Little by little, we met those metrics,” said Arce. “Quickly in some areas, and in others, we're still working to achieve those things.”

Purchasing an established business has its advantages, according to Arce and Eby. They simply had to build on existing success and take the business to the next level. “We felt we had some areas that we had identified that could really make (CFAH), not only more profitable, but get more people in here and get more people excited about what our vision and our mission were.”

It doesn’t take much to get the membership at CFAH excited. The fitness industry standard for retention is around 60% and CFAH far exceeds that, even during the pandemic. That retention level comes with a bonus – word of mouth marketing, something all businesses want, and is generally a built-in advantage for CrossFit affiliates.

From Members to Marketers Extraordinaire

“If you don't know anything else about CrossFit, you know CrossFitters cannot shut up about CrossFit,” said Arce. “They will talk about it on social media. They will talk about it with their friends at the bar. They will talk about it with their family.”

With Eby’s penchant for designing logos to adorn custom swag, CFAH members become walking, talking billboards. “Our members are proud to be members of the gym,” said Eby. “They're proud to be members of the community. And they're our best salespeople.”

Eby notes that having members emotionally invested in the success of your business can also lead to surprising interactions, including an old-fashioned barn raising, CrossFit style.

“We had stock-piled equipment we got from other gyms and needed to get it set up in our place,” said Eby. “We put a plan in place and told people from this time to this time, we are doing (a gym raising).” Arce and Eby expected 15 people. Forty people showed up, with many staying the entire day, toiling away on a variety of gym improvements.  

“We used the muscle that we have here in our community, and they helped us with the gym raising,” said Eby. “3, 2, 1, up, just like an old school barn wall. Anchor it up. We were putting holes in walls all day. It was great.”

Having that level of community backing is indicative of what Arce and Eby are continuing to leverage from the culture started by the original owners. Arce notes that connecting with members on a personal level shows that you are invested in their results, a trait that CFAH performance coaches embrace.

“If you put good coaches out on the floor who not only coach movements well, but coach athletes well, that ultimately will lead to your success,” said Arce. “We trust our staff and they represent us.”

A Chipper Business Outlook

As Arce and Eby look for new programs and initiatives to continue to build their gym community, expansion of space is on their radar, but so is expanding memberships on two opposites ends – youth sports, as in high school age, and senior citizens.

“Youth sports is a billion-dollar industry,” said Arce. “It's under-served from the training side of things, being taught properly how to do things.”

In addition, CFAH is looking at another untapped market with a Silver Sneakers program for senior citizens. Their community’s median age has continued to move up and Arce and Eby are looking to partner with Luther Village, a local retirement community. “One of our primary goals is community, experience, results,” said Arce. “It's helping people be the healthiest versions of themselves, whether they need help getting up off the floor, or they need to be able to walk upstairs.”

Regardless of where new membership originates, there is a good chance once they arrive, they’ll stay. Eby, who is among several CFAH members who met their spouse at the gym, thinks that the gym has become a “home away from home” and an “extension of their family” for members. “We have members who have been here from the beginning (2009). I met my wife here. I've got my friends here,” said Eby. “You can't leave. It's just a place to be.”

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