Rob Shapiro can't take all the credit for the idea to open a personal training studio. He can thank his former club members for that.
Shapiro was the general manager at a Boston health club in the 1990s. While he was there, Shapiro noticed that more and more members were setting up personal training appointments, and with the high volume of appointments came a lot of disorganization. Some appointments weren't getting through to the right trainer. There were long waits for equipment usage. Trainers had to sell themselves and essentially compete against other trainers. Moreover, Shapiro says, trainers were often members of the club who scheduled their own appointments with other members without the knowledge of the club. Therefore, the trainers got 100 percent of the revenue while the club received nothing.
“It was real loose back then,” Shapiro says.
The members who paid for personal training sessions at the club yearned for something more.
“The clients would all come to me and say, ‘It would be great if we could just get rid of all these people. I would pay more money to have this place quiet so I could concentrate on my exercise routine,’” Shapiro says. “It was almost like the clients in the gym were telling me, ‘Rob, go open up a studio.’”
And that's just what he did. Shapiro founded One2One BodyScapes in 1997 and now has seven personal training studios, all of which are in Massachusetts. Last year, Shapiro began franchising the company. He plans to have 150 locations in five years.
The growth of Shapiro's company mirrors the growth of personal training — and the growth of personal training studios as well. About 20 years ago, personal training was reserved for the elite, the wealthy, movie stars and the like, much like cell phones were. Today, personal training may not be as ubiquitous as cell phones have become, but it has become more mainstream, attracting a wide range of people, particularly the upper-middle-class who can afford the $50 to $80 fees per session.
Kathie Davis, the executive director of IDEA, says her organization for personal trainers and group ex instructors is, for the first time, compiling data on personal training studios.
“I definitely see growth in personal training small businesses and franchises,” Davis says. “Many IDEA members are opening up their own studios or starting their own businesses out of their homes or traveling to other people's homes. Of course, they're also teaching in clubs as well. There will always be a significant number of personal trainers that will work in health clubs.”
As personal training's popularity has grown during the last 10 years, some club owners have recognized its potential in terms of increased membership and revenue, and some have not. Bob Esquerre, who owns the consulting firm Esquerre Fitness Group Inc., Boca Raton, FL, says the rise of personal training studios is the result of clubs not addressing the needs of their members.
“It's a double failure,” Esquerre says. “One, it's a failure to address the members' needs, and it's a failure to represent the professional needs of the trainers. If the trainers are unhappy and they love what they do, they're going to look for someplace to go that will help them display their love, display their passion and get them to make money.”
Some clubs do address members' needs through personal training. Telos Fitness Center in Dallas generates $225,000 per month on personal training alone, says co-owner Brent Darden. About 20 percent of the club's members participate in personal training, and they pay between $100 and $300 per session.
According to statistics published by the International Health, Racquet and Sports-club Association (IHRSA), personal training is both profitable and popular in clubs.
More than half of the IHRSA clubs that responded to a recent survey reported that personal training services were among their five most profitable programs. Second on the list was massage therapy at 28.2 percent, followed by pro shop sales (26.2 percent), aquatics programs (24.3 percent) and tennis programs (20.5 percent). Personal training also was ranked No. 1 among top programs offered at clubs, according to the IHRSA survey.
Despite this data, Harvey Lauer of American Sports Data Inc., says personal training still is not as popular as many people think. Lauer says 9 percent of health club members and 2 percent of the overall population pay for personal training services.
“It's not what it's cracked up to be,” Lauer says. “You need a high income to afford one of these guys.”
Depending on the number of hour-long sessions purchased, the cost per session at One2One BodyScapes ranges from $65 to $80. The cost per session at Personal Training Professionals (PTP), New Canaan, CT, ranges from $80 to $100. The cost is considerably different at Precision Fitness, Anaheim, CA, which offers small group training sessions for as low as $18, a price that helps attract a broader clientele. Lauer says the average cost of a personal training session is $47.30.
“There are different ways to make personal training more affordable,” IDEA's Davis says. “Our industry is getting better at that as time goes on.”
For the most part, personal training studios are still geared for the upper-middle-class, which was one reason Gina Berta chose Mountainside, NJ, an affluent town 40 minutes from New York City, to open her Breathe Fitness Studio.
In only its second year, Breathe Fitness Studio turned a profit, increasing its client base by 176 from the first year to the second year. Total sales of personal training sessions increased from $387,000 in 2006 to $560,000 in 2007. The number of sessions also increased, from 3,533 in 2006 to 6,496 in 2007.
“It's working for us here,” Berta says. “We've learned so much in the past two years.”
Despite the cost to members, personal training studio franchises have the potential of becoming the next wave of fitness franchises, much like women-only, express models and 24-hour key-card models. Although personal training studio franchises have increased dramatically over the last couple of years, they are not an overnight sensation.
Shapiro says it took 10 years before he was comfortable franchising his company.
“This is a great owner-occupied model,” Shapiro says. “The owner of the facility typically develops the relationship with these clients. This model works very well with 60 or 70 clients, so you don't need a lot of clients. It's not a transient business, like some of these other health clubs. They require a lot of turnover. They require a good percentage of the people to sign up and not come. We want you to get results. We want you to come in. If you stop coming in, we're losing that revenue.”
Jason Baer, president of PTP, recently celebrated his company's 10th anniversary. Baer began selling franchises last June.
“In my opinion, it took 10 years to franchise this model,” Baer says. “Ten years sounds like a long time, but it was really the perfect amount of time.”
Precision Fitness was launched in January, and already, the personal training studio franchise company has sold eight locations — six in California and one each in Arizona and Florida. Mike Salerno, founder of Precision Fitness, plans on opening at least 15 more stores next year.
“In the next 10 years, my style of gym is what people are going to go towards,” Salerno says.
The start-up costs for a One2One BodyScapes franchise ranges from $135,000 to $195,000, Shapiro says. For a PTP franchise, the start-up costs range between $133,000 and $201,000, Baer says. Precision Fitness franchise start-up costs range from $80,000 to $85,000. Start-up costs for all franchises depend on the size of the location, the cost per square foot and the amount of equipment in the studio.
Both Shapiro and Baer leaned on consultants from franchise associations to help them launch their models. And both pledge support to their franchisees.
“There's a lot of hand holding, which is why people buy a franchise in the first place,” Shapiro says.
Clubs vs. Studios
Despite the rise of personal training studios, they shouldn't pose a big threat to most clubs. Tony Tamules, the fitness manager at RDV Sportsplex, Orlando, says many members are not willing to commit to the additional cost of personal training, whether that's in a club or in a studio.
“There are still more than enough members to go around between both clubs and studios,” Tamules says. “Personal training studios will always be limited by the space to produce the volume needed to pay the bills and produce a profit beyond a certain volume. The rise of personal training studios will make it tougher for clubs to recruit and keep the better trainers, but there is enough business to go around.”
RDV Sportsplex has been open for 10 years, and in each of those years, the number of training sessions and trainers has grown, Tamules says. The club has 35 trainers ranging in rates from $50 to $120 an hour per one-on-one session, depending on the trainer's credentials.
As the demand for trainers and quantity of trainers increase, the quality of trainers entering the field has decreased, and more are unprepared for the job ahead, Tamules says.
“A four-year college degree in exercise is nice, but it does not prepare them for the scope of the job of a personal trainer,” Tamules says. “Sales skills become critical for survival for the trainers.”
Tamules, like others, advocates personal training for everyone, from the kid who wants to get better in sports to the senior who wants a better quality of life. To accommodate clients' needs, Tamules says, the right trainer needs to be hired for the right job.
Shapiro couldn't agree more.
“We always tell our clients, ‘You're leaving your brains at the front door,’” Shapiro says. “We're just telling you what to do. You hire people to manage your money. You hire people to manage your health. We're managing your exercise levels.”