Recessions are never easy for martial arts business owners, and sometimes they start at the worst times. Many schools cannot handle the financial burden of a tough market and are forced to close. 

But there’s hope: if you follow some savvy business strategies, you can not only survive a recession, you can even grow your martial arts school in the process.

Lean Hard into Proven Retention Strategies

Design an Onboarding System

An onboarding system is a defined process that all new members go through in order to acclimate themselves to the school. This includes a tour of the facility, etiquette and rules, and any other important information about your program and the martial arts style you teach. Check out our podcast on how to build onboarding systems.

Your trial programs can act as covert onboarding systems, too. Gamification works well here on the same principle; check out our article on how to get more signups from your trial programs to learn more on how to do this in detail.

Foster a Positive Culture

Meatheads and cliques don’t make for a warm environment. One of the biggest reasons that adults end up in recreational sports is to make friends and connect with a community. Communities made up of toxic or cold individuals don’t allow that to happen, so these members will promptly leave.

Foster a positive, learning-oriented, friendly environment in your gym. Educate each new member into your school’s values and culture as early as possible and recognize anyone who embodies it. Eventually, your members themselves will shoulder the work of introducing new members to the culture and enforcing those norms among members who violate them.

Teach for Retention

How you teach can determine both how well students improve and if they stay motivated to train. The styles for facilitating the former and latter can paradoxically differ, so you should study about coaching and instruction to understand when one is required and when the other is required. 

To understand instruction that aids learning and boosted performance, check out our article on external cueing as well as our article on teaching martial arts with the Socratic method. To understand how to teach in a way that fosters strong, lasting motivation to train, read our article on fostering training motivation or our article on building a stellar martial arts curriculum.

Track Progress & Results

Tracking and visualizing progress makes it easy to follow and gives the brain a hit of dopamine when it sees it. This makes showing up and putting the work in addicting. 

If people can see the results they’re getting in an objective way, they are more likely to value your service. More than rank, attendance and weight loss could be potential metrics to track, too.

Another hidden power of tracking progress is that it can show improvement even if a student doesn’t feel improved. This can stave off the frustration, discouragement, and eventual burnout that leads to cancellation. In fact, it can help students recalibrate their own expectations, revitalize their motivation, and improve their satisfaction with both your program and their own effort.

Make Personal Touch Points, Often

It goes without saying that you should have some personal contact with every student every time they come in to train. We’ve also established that you must build a positive culture among the students. But most members 

Gymdesk’s marketing suite allows you to set up sequences of emails that can keep delivering value and create a sense of personal touch far beyond a member’s signup date. It also allows you to set up automatic sequences of emails and SMS text messages that trigger on conditions related to retention, such as missed classes. Writing a warm letter or text that triggers whenever a student has missed more than one class can mean a lot and make the difference between a canceled account and 2 more years of membership.

Embrace Low-Cost Marketing Methods

Referrals

Member referrals are one of the most powerful and cost-effective growth strategies you have for martial arts school. People trust their people, and if your classes are good, the natural enthusiasm of your members will help drive fresh new leads to your school at little to no cost. And unlike other marketing strategies, these leads are more likely to sign up. Check out our article on how to put together a referral program here.

Free Event Booths

Event booths are one of the most cost effective ways to market your business during large events, provided you have good ways of gathering information and following up with people who visit it. But you can make it even more economical by negotiating with event coordinators for a booth that’s totally free.

The trick here is to position your martial arts program, and booth offering, as a community service. For martial arts, this could be self-defense, anti-bullying, predator prevention, and health and wellness. Even if you can’t get a free booth, you might score one at a reduced price.

Flyers, Brochures, & Business Cards

Yep, they still work. Partner with local businesses and community organizations to place flyers, brochures, and business cards in places that are highly trafficked. Over time, you will gradually gain leads from patrons of other businesses. 

One thing to think to watch out for: some local small businesses will accept business cards and promotional literature from anyone. Check to see if they have an area set up for it. If it’s over crowded, it might not be worth your time. However, if it’s crowded with business cards, you can stand out by offering brochures instead. Or you can use cards that are brightly colored, or contrasted, to draw attention.

Guerilla Social Media Marketing

Organic social media marketing is largely dead on Facebook, although you can gain free traction on Instagram and TikTok. You should post graphics and videos to your social media accounts, to be sure, but those are mostly going to engage current members, with little likelihood of ever reaching non-member unless one of your members shares the content.

There’s another organic method that does still work, however. It’s the same rationale as guerilla marketing, but it’s applied specifically to social media. Use the content you create for your martial arts school page and post it inside of local groups, especially business-oriented groups friendly toward self-advertisement. 

Using video that includes helpful tips, as well as a strong call to action, will set you apart from most businesses that advertise in these groups. And the more engagement you get, the more the group algorithm will share that post with other members of the same community.

You can also ask parents and members to post in these groups, too, combining this tactic with your referral program. In fact, this could supercharge your guerilla campaign.

Manage Overhead Costs

During a time of recession in the economy, every dollar counts. If you are incurring costs that you can lower or cut entirely, consider doing so.

It’s common for martial arts schools to use multiple disparate software solutions to manage their businesses. When things get tight, it’s more important than ever to have excellent gym management software that manages the most for your business for one price. 

Our martial arts software includes member management, billing, marketing, sales, attendance, booking features and more for one affordable price. You don’t need to use 3, 4, 5 or more softwares to manage these facets of your business.

Other costs you can potentially eliminate include:

  • Unnecessary office supplies
  • Storage spaces
  • Business-related media subscriptions
  • Inessential or underperforming staff
  • Excessive staff perks (company lunches, dinners, leisure perks, etc.)
  • Ineffective/underperforming marketing campaigns

In extreme situations, relocation for cheaper rents could potentially be an option as well.

Explore Alternative Income Streams

Like most fitness businesses, martial arts schools often have several hours of downtime during the week. You can leverage these “off hours” to supplement the income you make from your regular services by subletting your space during those hours.

  • Community workshops & seminars
  • Yoga program
  • Personal training
  • Pilates classes
  • Cardio classes (e.g., fitness kickboxing)
  • Subletting other martial arts programs
  • Renting out space for events
  • Online training

The sky’s the limit when it comes to using your space for alternative income streams. As long as someone is willing to work with you, and can generate cash, it might be in the best interest of your school’s financial health.

Conclusion

Recessions are scary for martial arts school owners. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of locations close down every time the market tightens up because they aren’t able to adapt to their new constraints. 

But this doesn’t have to be you. If you can follow the clever and well-proven strategies outlined in this article, you can survive and even grow your martial arts business instead.

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Published by Josh Peacock

Josh is a lifelong martial arts fanatic, taekwondo 4th dan, BJJ player, writer, and marketer. In addition to helping martial arts school owners market their gyms more effectively, he also holds an M.Ed. in teaching & learning and has a passion for improving martial arts instruction.

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