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Affiliate R&D: To On-ramp or Not To On-ramp?

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In October we published our first Affiliate R&D article covering a month-long guest experiment. While writing that article, it got us thinking about On-ramp programs. At my affiliate, until about 2 years ago, we had a free one-on-one class followed by a mandatory 4 week On-Ramp program. This was based primarily on an idea floating around the CrossFit community at the time that a gym wasn’t “good” if it didn’t have at least a 4 week On-Ramp program. We have since switched to a model where we allow new members directly into our regular classes. Still, we continue to wonder about which model is the best for an Affiliate.

As part of our ongoing Affiliate research efforts, we decided to send out a survey to the Affiliates on our site in search of concrete answers. A very special thank you goes out to the 82 gyms that took the time to respond to us. The survey included the following questions:

  • How long has your gym been open?
  • How many members do you have at your gym?
  • Do you have a mandatory on-ramp/beginner/fundamentals program?
  • How many members do you gain, on average, each month?
  • How many members do you lose, on average, each month?
The Data

We received responses from a very broad sampling of gyms. Of the responding gyms, 41% have been open 2 years or less, while 59% have been open 3 or more years. In terms of membership size, 59% of the gyms have 100 or less members, while 41% have over 100 members. The most common gym age was over 4 years (26%) and the most common gym size was 51-100 members. We also found that there was a statistically significant positive correlation between gym age and gym size. In general, older gyms are more likely to have more members than newer gyms.

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Length of On-Ramp Program vs. Gym Age and Size (members)

The first thing we noticed when we looked at the On-ramp numbers was that there wasn’t a clear preference for certain lengths of On-ramp programs. The responses were fairly balanced across all of the options. We were surprised to see, however, that only 55% required an On-ramp longer than a single day. We analyzed the data, controlling for gym size and gym age, and found no statistically significant relationships between gym size or gym age and On-ramp preference. This indicates that larger or older gyms are not systematically choosing programs of certain durations. The takeaway from this is that there are plenty of gyms of all sizes and ages employing each of these options.

We found no significant relationship between length of On-ramp program and gym age or size.

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Length of On-Ramp Program vs. Member Gain and Loss

Before starting this experiment, we hypothesized that having an On-ramp program might be correlated with better member retention. The idea being that a member with a more solid foundation might stick around longer than one without the same experience. On the other hand, we also hypothesized that an On-ramp program might slow down the rate of member acquisition, as it can represent a barrier to entry for prospective members. After analyzing the data, we found that neither of these hypothesized relationships were present in our sample. There was no statistically significant correlation between type of On-ramp program and average monthly member gain or loss.

However, we did find statistically significant relationships between gym size and age and membership changes. Larger gyms and older gyms were positively correlated to member gains as well as member losses. In other words, the bigger and older the gym, the more gains and losses they can expect to see. In addition, the survey responses showed that average member gains were higher than average losses, indicating overall gym growth. 43% of gyms reported gaining more than 5 members a month, whereas only 15% reported losing more than 5 per month.

We found no significant relationship between Length of On-ramp Program and membership changes.

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 On-Ramp Programs: Pros and Cons

After analyzing all the data and checking for all possible relationships, we concluded that there is no statistically significant correlation between any type of On-ramp program and gym size, rate of growth, or member retention. In many ways, this is great news for an Affiliate owner. It means that you can choose the On-ramp program you think works best for your situation while remaining confident your decision won’t be the determining factor in your gym’s success. Gyms of all shapes and sizes have seen success with everything from no mandatory On-ramp at all, to a mandatory 3+ week introductory program.

There are many possible reasons behind the inconsistent relationship between gym success and Length of On-ramp program. It’s possible that other factors, such as trainer passion, experience, business acumen, marketing, pricing, class structure, nutrition focus, location, cleanliness of bathrooms, etc. have a much bigger impact on success, and that your choice for member on-boarding is not significant enough to determine your ultimate success.

Another possibility is that On-ramp programs are a mixed bag. They have many pros and cons, and it’s feasible that these pros and cons end up balancing each other out. Below is a list of pros and cons that are worth thinking about when deciding on an on-boarding option.

Pros

  • More gradual introduction to CrossFit: Holding a separate On-ramp program for new members gives you a lot more freedom in custom-tailoring the experience for brand new athletes. You can go at a much slower pace than a normal class and choose workouts best suited to new athletes. You can include simplified teaching progressions and cover the movements in the order you think is best. It makes it much easier to ensure that beginners are scaled appropriately.
  • More thorough introduction to CrossFit Principles: Having an On-ramp program gives you an opportunity to better cover the philosophy behind CrossFit training, address nutrition, and have a format that is more geared toward instruction. This can be invaluable in setting the proper trajectory for a new athlete’s fitness journey.
  • Doesn’t slow down regular Classes: Oftentimes On-ramp programs have much smaller class sizes, which allows the newer athletes more one-on-one attention from their trainers. This is important because new athletes generally need a lot more attention than experienced members. When new members enter regular classes directly, there is a risk that they will take up too much of the trainers’ time, leaving the other members feeling neglected and resentful.

Cons

  • Barrier to Entry for Group Classes: Any requirements you place on prospective members will potentially hurt your conversion rate. If your goal is to get as many new people signed up for group classes as possible, an expensive/long On-ramp might not be the best decision. Also, some On-rampers might lose enthusiasm by the end of the program, and end up not signing up for group classes.
  • Alienates/Intimidates New Members: By having a separate program for new members, unintended side effects may arise. For one, new members might not feel like they are part of the community because they are not allowed to work out with the “regular” or “real” members. The integration into the full community is delayed. Also, new members are not able to work out with their friends who invited them, which, many times, is the reason they signed up in the first place. We’ve even had On-rampers tell us they were intimidated by the “real” classes, and that they didn’t feel comfortable working out with all of the “real” CrossFitters once it came time to graduate to regular classes.
  • Scheduling Issues: There is also the issue of the On-ramp schedule vs. the regular class schedule. Generally, On-ramp schedule options are pretty limited and this can cause problems. Also, if new members get used to coming MWF at 7:00pm but then have to switch up their schedule when they finish On-ramp, this can make the transition more difficult.
  • Costly for Gym: On-ramp programs require staffing and space. These things are not free. The impact of an On-ramp program varies depending on the age/size/space of a gym. Newer gyms often have limited class schedules, and more slots to schedule on-ramps. Gyms with more members and more class times might have an issue with finding time/space to conduct an On-ramp program.

After analyzing all the data and checking for all possible relationships, we concluded that there is no statistically significant correlation between any type of On-ramp program and gym size, rate of growth, or member retention.

My Personal Experience

There are a lot of factors that go into the decision of what type of on-boarding program to have, if any at all. At the end of the day, each gym faces unique circumstances, and it’s up to the owner(s) to decide what’s right for their situation. At our gym, we don’t have space to run an On-ramp class alongside a regular class, so we can’t quite support multiple classes concurrently. Ultimately we realized that, since we go through full teaching progressions before every workout, our regular class structure wasn’t all that different from the On-ramp. We also have a short instructional piece at the whiteboard before we brief the workout. This includes nutrition, recovery, CrossFit philosophy, and other related topics. Also, we are at a point where we are double-staffing nearly every one of our classes, which allows one trainer to give more attention to the newer clients. As long as the trainers are diligent in scaling (for the newer clients especially), and the workouts are appropriately balanced, this can work pretty well. In our own experience, there hasn’t been any noticeable detriment to growth and retention numbers, although it does seem to take longer for new members to get fully integrated into the methodology. Whichever program you end up choosing for your gym, try to implement it in the best way you can. Periodically evaluate your decision to ensure that it is helping you to accomplish your goals.

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