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How to (And How Not to) Run Your Martial Arts and Fitness Events

Two young men sparring, practicing kung fu martial arts

I’ve tried special events. They don’t work. I never get new enrollments from them.”

I’ve said the same thing, but I still run special events. Let me tell you why.

I’ve been teaching professionally since 1993 and started working for my well-known instructor right out of business school.

Light the world on fire. That was my outlook.

In college, I worked on a project in management class: How to run a martial arts school effectively. I produced TV commercials that I wanted to use to bring in new enrollments by the dozen.

I moved to Seattle, lived in the back of my instructor’s school, and was so excited to start to build my empire. Running events was one of the ways I intended to build that empire.

I Handled the Registration Process on My Own

The first special event I ran was a women’s martial arts self-defense program. I promoted it through flyers that I distributed at the library. I gave the flyers to wives and parents of our martial arts students. I spent hours talking on the phone. I got sign-ups.

When the day of the seminar came, no one showed up. You could hear crickets chirping in the background.

On to the Next Event

Undaunted, my instructor had a great open space. Probably about 6,000 square feet of training space. I knew that lots of people were running Parent Night Out events. I figured why not supersize the concept by having a sleepover? A free event. Free to students and free to their friends.

The new approach? Like night and day. I had parents dropping off kids by the vanload. I remember one parent dropped her kid off and out the window she handed me his pullups.

“Just make sure he changes into this before he goes to bed,” she said. Then she closed the window and sped off.

Over 90 students ended up camping out on the floor of my instructor’s school. It had to be the worst night’s sleep I’ve ever had. And after everything was said and done, I reassured myself thinking I’d at least get 10 new students from my efforts. Wrong! Not one student signed up. Plus I had to feed pizza to 90 kids!

Fast Forward 20 Years: What I’ve Learned

I’m still hosting special events. Some are home runs. Some are stinkers. But I’ve learned the planning that goes into it — the process through which students register and the follow-up that takes place after — determines the overall success of your event.

Here are some steps to hosting special events and making them something that could potentially pay off to gain new members.

1. Make your special event compelling.

Ideas for martial arts schools:

  • Bring a buddy, break a board, and meet Kung Fu Panda (need to have a Kung Fu Panda costume)
  • Regular buddy night pizza party for Juniors. Spend $60 on pizza. The students have to bring a buddy to attend.
  • Jedi training buddy night
  • Nerf Night (buy a bunch of nerf taggers on eBay, buy the goggles too for safety). This could easily be your most successful buddy event.

Ideas for fitness businesses:

  • Kickboxing class
  • Boot Camps (indoor, outdoor, or both)
  • Kettlebell class
  • Nutritional seminar

2. Use online registration.

Remember how a bunch of people registered for my first event, but no one came to the event? You need to get a commitment from people.Having an online registration process is the way to go.

I use Member Solutions Event Manager online registration software to create online registration pages and collect payments (or I can keep the event free and still collect registrations through Event Manager). Having an online registration page gives me a link I forward l to my students. I also share the link on my social media networks.

I always suggest limiting the number of people who can sign up. Use that as your way of getting a commitment.

Pen and paper are things of the past. Think about it. If you have a paper sign-up sheet and people can see that no one signed up, that can really work against you. When you use an online registration process, no one knows how many people have signed up. It creates an invisible urgency because they do not want to miss out.

3. Follow up and continue to follow up without going overboard.

We need to be careful about how we follow up with non-members. I know that people expect there to be some sort of offer to join your school or gym. I’ve done “get 30 days of classes free and a uniform” limited to certain amount of students. I’ve also offered 6 weeks of classes for $69.

I think an email followed by a phone call is one of the best ways to follow up after a special event. I know there are some people who will email every week until they get the person back into their facility.

Keep In Mind

Here’s something that I did not understand until just recently. It’s very unreasonable for you to think that every person that participates in a special event is ready to join your school or gym. They may be interested but just not ready to raise their hand.

Let’s get something else straight. No matter how compelling, no matter how slick of a persuader you are, there are going to be those that will not join–at least not right away. That is why keeping their info in a warm lead pile is key. This way you can go back to them when you have another program or event to offer.

Let’s be real; let’s be smart; let’s work hard.

About the author: Korbett Miller has been teaching at his martial arts school in Kirkland, WA for the last 17 years. Korbett still actively trains in Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and received his black belt from the legendary Saulo and Xande Ribeiro. He’s also won the Brown Belt Senior II World Championships in Jiu Jitsu. He is most proud of his three daughters and 17-year marriage to his wife, Elise. Korbett can be reached at korbett.miller@gmail.com.