If Weight Watchers really wants keep its millennial members, here's the one thing it should fix

In college, I lost about 30 pounds on Weight Watchers. The program worked for me, but to this day, there’s something that I desperately want Weight Watchers to fix — something that even Oprah Winfrey, in her infinite wisdom and charm, cannot smooth over as spokeswoman.

As a millennial, I never felt like I belonged in meetings, a centrepiece of the diet program.

The mostly female membership has an average age of 48, according to Weight Watchers. As I listened to other members describe the challenges of losing weight while raising a family, or talk excitedly about their middle-of-the-day spin class, I found it difficult to connect because of the age gap. As the company looks to adapt for the digital age, I think it could benefit from adding meetings that are meant for young professionals and students.

In a statement provided to Business Insider, Weight Watchers said it is currently piloting a “cohort-based” meeting type in select international markets and some US cities. The company would not be more specific as to what “cohort-based” meant, though the name suggests meetings may split into categories based on member demographics. Weight Watchers said it is examining the impact these trial meetings have on member experience and engagement.

The weight-loss giant is finding its footing after a tumultuous few years that saw memberships and sales plummet. Since recruiting Oprah, who bought a 10% stake in the company in early 2015, Weight Watchers increased its members over 2016 for the first time in four years. The stock is surging, though it’s still down about 80% from the highs it saw in 2012.

Meetings broken down by member demographic could drum up new interest.

When you enroll in Weight Watchers, you pay a monthly fee of about $US45 that gives you access to digital tools and meetings, which are led by people who lost weight on the program and attended by other members. (Some members subscribe to the digital tools only, which cost less). Each meeting lasts about 40 minutes and covers a topic related to weight loss, such as the importance of planning or how to hit the brakes on a cheat day.

The meetings can function as support groups, where members (about 90% are female, according to Weight Watchers) share their struggles and triumphs with people who get it.

Weight Watchers has some one million subscribers who attend meetings on a regular basis. I have gone to meetings on and off for five years, in places like New York, San Francisco, a large college town, and a New England suburb. But everywhere I go for meetings, I bump into the same frustration: Most members are old enough to be my mum.

Living in San Francisco, a city crawling with young people, I walk into a Weight Watchers location and instantly recognise that I’m the youngest person there. It makes me feel like I have to censor myself for an older and possibly more straight-edged audience. I don’t want to fess up to tearing into a wheel of brie while intoxicated, or complain about work when there are members juggling careers and families. I compare my problems to the gravity of theirs.

Weight loss is such an incredibly personal thing. These meetings ask that you put your insecurities on display before a group of strangers (of course, you don’t have to speak). A Weight Watchers meeting that brings together people my own age would help me open up. The meeting leaders might also tweak the topic of discussion to address young people. I can imagine conversations unfold on dating while dieting or finding fitness classes on a budget.

Weight watchers meeting times scheduleWeight WatchersWeight Watchers has one store location in San Francisco proper. Its latest meeting starts at 5:30 on Thursdays.

I also find it difficult to find meeting times that fit my routine as a young professional. A majority of meetings take place during the day (44% of weekday meetings happen after 5 p.m., according to Weight Watchers), when I can’t get away from my desk for an hour at a time.

When I do venture out to a lunchtime meeting, I sit watching the clock, ticking off the minutes since I’ve been gone from the office. Ideally, a meeting geared toward millennials would happen in the evening, so attendees can put the workday behind them and be mentally present.

There’s a stereotype of millennials that they think the world revolves around them. In that sense, my opinion on Weight Watchers only bolsters the stigma. Still, I hope to see a day when the company’s meetings grow their impact by tailoring to the diverse needs of its members.

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

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