There is a lot of debate as to the benefits, profitability and retention factor of having a group exercise program in health clubs. Because accurate tracking is difficult, it is challenging to justify the expenses and energy needed to run a program. Group exercise has often been called the “necessary evil” in the club because it takes a lot of maintenance. The members who attend classes are typically the most vocal and tend to become very attached to a particular class or instructor. The stereo equipment and microphones can be an endless headache and require consistent care and maintenance. Equipment is costly and often “trendy,” meaning the hot new format rarely remains hot for long, and the facility is left with several apparatus that collect dust. In addition, instructors are often very “part time” and detached members of the staff. They can be brilliant at selling themselves but not always so great at selling the club, the staff and its amenities. All this said, your group exercise program is a must have, a mainstay and typically retains 20 percent of your member base. Your program can be the biggest asset of your club. It has the capability to be one thing that sets you apart from your competitors, and it will draw quality members.
Setting up a new program and deciding what classes to offer can be a challenge in itself. Because there are so many new group exercise formats, some clubs choose to build separate studios for each class format (cycling, yoga, Pilates, functional training and group fitness). However, since the program can be so costly, some fitness facilities are choosing to open with just a cycling studio and a yoga room. Other clubs have found that the cost and maintenance of indoor cycling bikes is not worth the benefits, so they maintain one simple studio. The most important factor here is to pay attention to the demographics and activities of your members. Each format will cater to a different type of member. Missing the boat because you did not do your homework will set you up for poor program participation.
The Bottom Line
Much like anything, some balance must be found. What our members really want is a good workout. When formats become too fancy for the 80 percent of the population that we are not reaching, member retention drops. Ultimately, group fitness is a retention tool. It serves roughly 20 percent of the member base and creates energy and hype among the members. In addition, the group exercise room can service more members per square foot than any other area of a club. The atmosphere should be inviting, personal, lively, energetic and fun.
Keeping up with industry trends and offering fresh new formats for members is a good way to maintain the longevity and success of the program. However, consistency is key! There is a fine line between breathing new life into a program and having an inconsistent or unpredictable schedule. The goal is to maintain hype, not produce hostility.
Consider that, as a club, if you were to lower your attrition rate by even one percent, you realistically can increase your dues and profit by thousands of dollars each year. It is just as important to train your staff for member saves as this teaches them good sales skills. An attrition rate of higher than three percent is costing you a lot of marketing dollars for new business and causing you to lose thousands of dollars in revenue. You will substantially increase your profit margin if you successfully lower your attrition rate.
One of the best tools to lower your attrition is a solid group fitness program. As your team of instructors works to connect with your members, those relational experiences create rapport, a sense of community and camaraderie. People love to be a part of a group where they feel welcome and supported. Being a known and familiar part of a class where people notice your absence is a huge retention tool. Once someone has “bought in” to a class format and feels connected to a particular instructor, that instructor has a lot of selling and marketing power and a persuasive voice. Additionally, most members think of classes as an “appointment” and will work to do everything possible not to miss their scheduled class time. When this happens, you have created enough leverage that the member will stay, despite the fact there may be other parts of the club where he or she is dissatisfied. Without this leverage, if the locker rooms are consistently an issue (for example) and the member has no sense of connection, it is easier for him or her to move down the road to your nearest competitor. There is simply less staying power for that member.
Because there is often high turn over in clubs, making and keeping connections with each member can be tough. We all know that turnover can be really high in the fitness business. However, a good instructor who fills a class with participants and is dependable will typically stay on your team for a long time, generally longer than most of your other staff members. Somewhere in the staff turnover, the instructor gets lost. Now you have an instructor who shows up each day, checks in with the front desk, goes to the group exercise room, teaches and leaves. You also have members who show up, check in with the front desk, go to the group exercise room and leave. The problem with this picture is it fosters a sub culture in your club that maintains a sense of separateness from the rest of what is going on. And this is often where an instructor is in a position to leverage his or her following of members in a way that can be unhealthy for the club. This subculture is a breeding ground for a negative environment. It can produce hostility and will encourage complaints, particularly if the instructor is unhappy or unprofessional. And this is where group exercise gets a bad rap! Somehow somewhere along the way, the instructor loses a connection to the owners and management and becomes more of an adversary than an asset. The truth is this potential dynamic is totally preventable. The key is to maintain connection with your instructors and work to set up a culture of positive team players before it can become a problem. Your instructors should always be enthusiastic and proud to teach at your facility. Additionally, the popularity of any class should be less about the instructor and more a reflection of the club as a whole.
Recruiting and Managing Your Group Exercise Team
Because of the diversity of formats and industry changes, there is usually a shortage of instructors needed to fill and maintain a group fitness schedule. The variety and complexity of group fitness classes today can be overwhelming. Fifteen years ago, group fitness formats were fewer and significantly less complex than classes offered now. In the early 90s, a new instructor could choose from Hi/Lo, Step and body toning. The formats at that time were fairly basic, and the goal was to elevate the heart rate by repetitive, high impact and often contraindicated movements.
Over time, as classes have become more sophisticated and equipment manufacturers have joined the rage, several new class formats and a variety of new equipment have been introduced. Some have stuck and others… well, you remember the slide, don’t you? For those of us who have watched the industry grow, learning something new was a vehicle for variety and diversity. We grew as the industry grew. Soon after Step, Johnny G came out with the Spinning program. Then Body Pump came along with a host of pre-choreographed formats. Step became an increasing web of complex choreography that often ended up looking like a Broadway production on a bench. The rebounder, the BOSU, Resist-A-Ball, Boot Camp, Tai Bo, Kickboxing, Trekking, Hip Hop - the list goes on. And thanks to our celebrity pop culture, Pilates has become main stream, and yoga has become a group exercise program staple.
New instructors are often overwhelmed by the choices of formats they need to learn to become a well rounded, more seasoned and marketable instructor. Most people are not sure how to get started and where to begin. Additionally, aside from the national certifications, specific training in any format can come from such a variety of affiliations it is hard to know which one to choose. Conversely, gone are the days when Group Fitness Program Directors could use any instructor to fill a hole. Most instructors now are program specific, meaning they only teach one or two fitness formats. Additionally, no one instructor can really be great at every format. The diversity of class formats is large, and successful preparation for each format can be both costly and time consuming.
Recruiting, training and developing a good team is an important role of any facility group exercise manager. Recruiting new talent is often overlooked, and the easiest place to find it is in the members who regularly attend classes. There is not a better way to find a loyal, excited and dedicated staff member than to recruit members to teach group fitness. For every 10 people I speak to, typically one will follow through and pursue becoming an instructor, but that one is usually the best player on my team and well worth the time and effort. There is something very flattering about being chosen to become an instructor by someone who already is one. Instructors forget the influence and respect they maintain as the leader of a class. Most participants just want to be led, but there are a few (the front row participants who come to class every week) that get excited about the idea. Most people have never even considered leading classes, or if they have, they do not know where to even begin. A good group exercise manager will identify these people and seek to groom and train them. Some clubs host a "star search" to find new talent. Some create an instructor training program for new instructors. Regardless, offering a list of resources and direction for potential instructors is critical. Most managers rarely seek out new talent and simply hire instructors who are already established. Finding a diamond in the rough is the best way to create a loyal team member who will promote your club, be enthusiastic and connect with your members.
Ensuring quality and consistency in your program and weeding out instructors who may not be a good fit is essential. Every instructor on your team should be required to audition for you. The idea is that being invited to “audition” reminds instructors that it is a privilege to teach at your facility and thereby creates desire for them to teach. It is simple gorilla marketing. You are working to create an elite team of instructors. And once the buzz is out that only the best instructors belong, people will want to teach at your facility. There is something about being part of a winning team that creates an allure. The bonus for you is now you have a waiting list of instructors and do not need to agonize over filling a class or hold on to an instructor who is irresponsible or unprofessional. Recruiting talent is probably the single most important job your group exercise manager must do. Change is a continual process in any group exercise program, and having some back up instructors will make your life easier during crunch times.
Another factor to consider for effective management of your group exercise program is instructor turn over. This is often where members have the greatest upheaval. If you must fire an instructor or he or she is leaving from a time slot that is very popular or well attended, it is important to handle the turnover well. Typically, I will let the members audition a couple of instructors. This way, they all have buy in by participating in the change, and it creates a fun atmosphere around an issue that can be disastrous. I will audition several different instructors and pick three that may fit well with the particular demographic. Then I will have each of them teach in that time slot on different days. While they are teaching, I attend the class to get a read on the members. Once the class is finished and the instructor leaves, I take a vote. In the past, to create a fun and competitive atmosphere, I have made a "Survivor" theme out of the process and asked the members to vote for instructors who they believe to be the best fit. This takes the pressure completely off the managers and staff and places the responsibility in the hands of the members. It also completely changes the dynamic of a potential disaster!
While recruiting and managing a good team is critical for a good program, creating the team is just as important. A good group fitness team should have buy in to the company. They should be involved, informed and excited. Typically, once someone has cleared an audition and before they are “invited” to be on my team, I have them meet with the club managers, go through a fitness assessment/orientation with our training staff and learn about the upcoming promotions. Then I follow up with some talk time. I ask why they want to work for our company and what they will contribute to be a part of the team. I want to find out what their weaknesses are and where I can support them. I want to know how they will contribute to the greater good of our company. I am looking for someone who will go above and beyond, be an outstanding part of the team, promote our club and create great rapport with our members.
All that said, it is also the responsibility of management to be attentive to the voice and the needs of each instructor. The traits that make instructors dynamic are sometimes seen as negative to club management. Instructors are "people" people. They are often very charismatic, energetic and outspoken. And too often, as a result of communication breakdowns, staff turnover, poor hiring or unheard issues, group fitness instructors are too easily seen as not a part of the team. So in an effort to be preemptive, meet and great each instructor, listen to them and educate them. They truly are your club's best asset!
Managing the Program
Having a program vision and goals is really important to help grow the program as well as your member base. It also keeps everyone focused in the same direction. Clearly outline the vision of the group fitness department and the mission of the club. Take time to be sure that each staff member is congruent with the club's mission and the program vision and will work toward the common goal. Then take time to connect with and evaluate each instructor.
Consistency and good promotion/communication are probably the easiest and most often over looked component of a good group exercise program. No other single factor can make or break a program quicker. Too many reactive and erratic changes and poor communication will kill your best program. Consistency is key to growing a program, but flexibility and attention to what is happening is equally as important. Tracking class attendance accurately is vital, but when you find that numbers are low, before being hasty and canceling the class, do your homework. Typically, if a class is not well attended or dying on the vine, I will first find out if it is the instructor, the format or the time. Once I give all of them a fair review, I am sure to allow a couple of weeks promotion time before making a change. Members need to know if a class is being cancelled, changed or added well in advance. The management needs to know, sales needs to communicate to new members, personal trainers need to be aware and the front desk must be educated. Members can easily become very detached and insecure about a program if there are too many changes. This does not help your retention rate at all and defeats the whole purpose of the program.
Tracking class counts to ensure good turnout and keeping accurate records will help you to be mindful of how many or how few participants any particular time slot can expect. Every month, I prepare a spreadsheet matrix to get a gauge on how well my program is doing. The matrix is set up so I can review what percent of capacity our program is at, based on what is possible. For example, if our group exercise room can hold 40 participants and only has 20 participants for a class time, I note that we are at 50 percent of capacity. The goal is to have each time slot on the schedule at 100 percent of capacity. Because some instructors will skew the class counts, I have an auditing system set up to ensure accuracy. By tracking class counts, my monthly budget, the cost of each instructor and current classes offered, I can assess the success of individual instructors and classes, note potential problems, track trends, make preemptive changes and evaluate the success of the entire program. Having a successful tracking system has been key to running efficiently and watching dollars.
Finally, responding and listening to member feedback is important to ensure program success. Soliciting opinions, getting back to members in a timely and professional manner and executing necessary changes properly is a surefire way to make members happy. Your group exercise manager should be a good communicator and people person. He or she should be encouraged to consistently improve communication and leadership skills. There are graceful, tactful and appropriate ways to address a hostile or irrational member. Properly handling or diffusing heated situations will say a lot about your facility.
Making your group exercise program work for you is one of the best ways to attract and maintain quality members. Creating hype, offering an energetic and diverse program with effective marketing and proper promotions is key to set yourself apart from your competitors. Recruiting and hiring a dynamic and enthusiastic staff and maintaining connections with them will ensure that you have a team of promoters in your club and ensures the profitability and prosperity of your company.