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Strengthening Your Business in a Weak Economy

Among rising interest rates and inflation, there is no doubt that the US economy is in recession. But what does that mean for personal training in your club? Consider that among the millions of people who suffered during the Great Depression of the 1930s, there was a group of innovative people who thrived and made millions! To discover why, it’s important to look at how people perceive today’s economic challenge.

Economic Perceptions

Figure 1 is a “Wealth Curve.” Like all bell curves, the minority are at the extremes, and the majority are somewhere in the middle. You can see that on the far left, we have the “doom and gloomers.” These folks believe that the economy is really far gone, it will take a miracle to turn it around, and the turn-around will not happen for a very long time. The people in the middle are not quite so pessimistic. They feel the economy is bad, but it’s certainly no Great Depression. They’ll tighten the purse strings and keep a vigilant watch, but they will still drive their SUVs.

Figure 1

Courtesy of Dancing Elephants Achievement Group (

On the far right, there is a totally different breed. We’ll call these people the “visionaries.” Visionaries are always on the lookout for opportunities. They look at an economy like this one and say, “What do people need? Can I provide that? How can I turn this bad economy into an opportunity?” These are the very people who became millionaires during the Great Depression.

Our curve ultimately reveals that 80 percent of the population is in a negative mindset. They are concerned about what they have to lose: their homes, their jobs, their security or even just their discretionary funds. The remaining 20 percent is made up of visionary thinkers looking for the next opportunity. This begs the question: where do you fall within this wealth curve?

We Need More Visionaries

For personal training to thrive in this economy, trainers must adopt a visionary attitude. With that attitude, you will need to focus not on the problem but on the solution. For example, before the economy turned south, how did you approach prospective clients? The best personal trainers spoke about what training would give them. You were looking for ways to add value to customers’ lives, their training routines and their time spent at the club. You may have commented on helping customers to look better, feel stronger and run faster. You may also have recently observed that the same conversations no longer have the effect they once did.

So how does a visionary thinker like you tap into this “great opportunity?” First, whatever you do, don’t discount! Re-structure your session options in budget friendly ways. Half hours and buddy sessions are generally about half the price of a full hour, individual session. Small group training sessions are often only a third of the price of individual sessions. These options may allow you to continue to see clients who can’t afford individual one hour sessions without lowering your fees! Lowering your fees will serve only to lower the perceived value of personal training, which is not the message you want to send. You need to help your customers find creative ways to continue to purchase training services in spite of the new demands on their dollars. The concept of value is most important: people will buy only if the perceived value is greater than the price. In this economy, it will be important to give customers options so they can derive the most value for their dollar.

Action Step: Create a menu of personal training services at various price points from lowest to highest. Be ready the next time a client tells you that his budget is too tight. Ask questions about what he could afford and give him some of your newer options.

The Value Equation

Richard Cotton, the Director of Certification for ACSM, recommends that trainers do a “value clarification” when meeting with clients. “It’s vital to understand what’s most important to the client so trainers can relate their programming back to what clients really want.” Cotton adds that a focus on both education and behavior modification, tools that help the client become more independent, will also increase the trainer’s value proposition. Behavior modification training can offer instant value to personal training clients. “Learning fundamental coaching skills helps trainers go beyond the status quo to become behavior change agents.” Increasing the trainer’s knowledge base is a great way to add value to the training experience.

Action Step: Consider what type of education would serve you best. Go to educational websites like ACE and ACSM to see what is available and affordable for you. Commit to adding value to your services through increased education this year.

Get Creative

Another way Cotton suggests trainers weather the recession is to get creative in packaging and servicing. “Trainers could offer 12 sessions spread out over six months instead of six weeks. Perhaps the client comes in twice weekly for the first two weeks and then goes to once a week, twice a month and then once a month.” To do this well, trainers must provide their clients with a “road map,” a detailed set of instructions on what to do between sessions. This may include group exercise classes, small or large group training sessions and circuit training in addition to following the trainer’s program. Says Cotton, “I find trainers don’t give homework very often, but they need to give their clients the tools to help them eventually work out on their own. Through this process, clients become more confident and independent, which is very good news for clubs.” Trainers then become retention specialists, which increases their value to the clubs where they work.

ACE Vice President of Operations Graham Melstrand has reported seeing a creative packaging trend on the West Coast. He says trainers are starting to sell packages like a subscription. “Instead of a package consisting of 12 sessions, it might consist of six weeks of training with the ability of seeing the trainer twice a week. Although the ultimate number of sessions may be the same, clients may be more likely to buy when their commitment has a clear start and end date.”

Action Step: Consider recent trends in how your customers are purchasing training. Can you repackage services creatively to meet their needs? Don’t be afraid to try something new!

Diversify Your Offerings

International Fitness Business Consultant Bob Esquerre says that personal training managers must change the way personal training has been constructed. For the last several years, Esquerre has been touting the benefits of the “fitness professional of the future.” According to Esquerre, “One-on-one training must be only one of several options. Now there must also be 30 minute sessions, small group training options (roughly half the price of one-on-one) and large group training options (roughly a third of the price of one-on-one.)” Esquerre says that trainers have to adapt to satisfy the needs of their clients, but many don’t know how. He recommends bringing in group exercise instructors, both to teach trainers how to manage groups and to do some group training themselves. The result is an increase in both peripheral revenue and member retention for clubs as more professionals provide more fee-based training to an increasing number of club members who can afford the lower-priced options.

Action Step: If you have only ever done one-on-one training, commit to learning how to train two or more people. Look for people in your club or community who do that well, and ask them to teach you how. This will instantly increase your marketability as well as your income potential!

Change Your Message

Next, consider the mindset of your club’s customer and that what they value may have changed. If 80 percent of the population is in a more negative mindset, it’s likely that the large majority of potential or current personal training customers are as well. That means it’s time to change the marketing message. The majority of personal training customers are no longer concerned with what a trainer can help them gain; they are completely preoccupied with what they don’t want to lose.

Action Step: Consider replacing traditional marketing messages with new ones:

Old: “I can help you lose the 20 pounds you mentioned and get you back into your favorite jeans.”

New: “I can help you lose the 20 pounds you mentioned, which will likely help you resolve your knee pain. You may be able to avoid knee surgery altogether.”

Old: “If you’ll work with me twice weekly on cardio, you’ll have more energy.”

New: “If you’ll work with me twice weekly on cardio, your doctor may be able to lower your blood pressure and cholesterol medication. Training with me is a lot less expensive than all of that medication.”

Essentially, your primary role as a trainer becomes less a cheerleader and motivator and more an allied health professional. No doubt few of you had this in mind when you made the decision to become a professional personal trainer. One thing is certain: to survive, you will need to learn new leadership skills. It’s not enough to be the expert instructor anymore. Fitness professionals must learn how to empower clients to be the best they can be.

In Summary

It is important to remember that value is a very personal thing. What we as fitness professionals find valuable is not always in sync with what our members and clients hold most dear. The recession in our economy affords us a unique opportunity to reinvent ourselves and our profession. People need fitness professionals now more than ever. Chronic disease and stress are not backing down as the stock market drops. In fact, they are on the rise.

To many of our customers, it feels that the world is spinning out of control, along with their health and well being. As fitness professionals, we have the power to change part of that, but it will take learning a whole new skill set. We need to ask better questions that help clients understand themselves more. We need to listen intently and ask for clarification when needed. We must respond with great empathy to truly understand. Now is the time to take a good look at what you can offer your club’s customers to help them survive the economic turmoil. In focusing on the needs of your customers, you may find that you do more than just survive – you will thrive!