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Personal Training Gets Wet

<B><I>Fitness facility owners ring up the revenue with land-based personal training, but a growing number of aquatic directors say that staying on land is just skimming the surface of a club's personal training revenue potential.</b></I>

If your club does personal training on land, it may be time to get your feet wet. The new trend in aquatics is personal training in the water. It's an option that is raising revenue in a growing number of aquatic programs at fitness facilities around the country, says John Spannuth, president and CEO of the U.S. Swim Fitness Association in Boynton Beach, FL.

“Aquatic fitness personal training is the hottest thing going,” Spannuth says. “It is just starting to build, but in five years, it could be the number one revenue-producing program for aquatics facilities.”

Spannuth's association annually reviews aquatic programs around the country, ranking each as a whole, by program and by facility type. One of the program rankings is aquatic personal training.

“There are places that have more than 200 personal training sessions per week at their pools,” he says. “That can just explode…you can have one to two personal trainers in the water, and that could make more money than a big class you could hold.”

Water-based personal training is growing because the population is aging and looking for lower impact activities, more Olympic athletes are cross training in the water, more doctors are recommending water exercise for obese patients, and doctors are recommending water rehabilitation programs for injured patients (who presumably enjoy the water time so much that after completing rehab, they continue with water workouts).

“A lot has to do with people becoming aware of the accessibility of the swimming pool,” says Julie See, president and director of education for the Aquatic Exercise Association, a nonprofit education organization in Nokomis, FL. “Before, they thought of it in association with swimming and play. Now, there is a growing interest in water exercise. They start with group exercise [in the water] and move to personal training in the water.”

Mary Duke Connell, aquatics director at Baptist East Milestone in Louisville, KY, agrees that water-based training is on the rise.

“It's hard for people to understand until they do it,” says Connell, whose program was the top ranked aquatic personal training program in the country, according to the U.S. Swim Fitness Association. “It's a feel-good workout. You can do more in the water than on land. You are working harder, but it doesn't feel like you are.”

Baptist East Milestone offers a weight management program in which many of the participants begin their exercise program with water exercise, including personal training, because they physically can't start with land-based exercise, says Connell.

Just Swimmingly

For clubs with little to no aquatics revenue, water personal training can be the boost needed to turn a little-used space into a revenue generator. For clubs with an active program, it can rival revenue generated from swim lessons. Facilities can generate twice the revenue each hour with one aquatic personal training session as they can from an aquatic group exercise class, says Spannuth. The best part is, personal training sessions don't require much pool space or equipment, so a facility can actually run two or more training sessions within the same hour and still have space for lap swimming or group exercise classes, if the pool is moderately sized. Depending on the facility and its demographics, clubs can charge between $35-$150 per hour for aquatic personal training, Spannuth says.

The Club at Ricochet in South Plainfield, NJ, has offered water-based personal training since Dawn Willemsen joined the staff in 1996 as the sole water-based trainer. Now the aquatics director, Willemsen has expanded her aquatic personal training staff to three people with the possibility of adding two more land-based personal trainers who are interested in working in the water. The trainers handle about 30 clients each week in the four-lane, 25-yard lap pool, charging $30 for a 30-minute session or $55 for a 60-minute session (although members can buy coupons for five training sessions at $50 per one-hour session).

Willemsen estimates that the program brings in about $45,000-$60,000 per year for the club, which has about 2,500 members. Water-based personal training brings in the second highest revenue for the aquatic department after the large swim lesson program at the club.

The 7,100-member, 70,000-square-foot Baptist East Milestone facility has a five-lane lap/exercise pool and a 36,000-gallon therapy pool. It employs 20 aquatic personal trainers, about half of which are actually physical therapists doing rehabilitation in the therapy pool, says Connell. Four of the personal trainers are land-based trainers who now also work in the water. The others are water instructors who also do aquatic personal training.

Every Monday through Thursday trainers hold about 23 personal training sessions per day at the facility (another approximately 67 sessions per day are physical therapy sessions in the therapy pool). The number of sessions on Friday through Sunday vary, says Connell. The charge for an hour session is $55 while half hour sessions run $35.

Because the facility has limited pool space and is oriented to adults, the facility makes little money from swim lessons, which means aquatic personal training is its biggest revenue source in the water. However, all aquatic personal training revenue is tracked through the land-based personal training department. That department grossed $140,000 last month, part of which came from water-based personal training, Connell says.

Additional aquatic revenue sounds good to Andrew Barranco, regional aquatic director at the Merritt Athletic Clubs, a company with 11 clubs, five of which have pools. For the past year the Baltimore-based company wet its feet with water-based personal training promoted as cross training. However, the company is now pushing to get more deeply involved in aquatic personal training and begin promoting it as such. In April, the company is hosting an aquatic personal training certification class for its staff.

“We're looking at it from several aspects,” Barranco says. It's a new area of aquatics to get involved in after building up other areas of the program, it's a way to cater to the 50-plus and the deconditioned markets, and it's a step-beyond program for people getting out of physical therapy, he says.

“We are looking at it being a new source of revenue but also a way to hit that market of 50 and older,” Barranco says. Swim lessons currently bring in the most revenue for the aquatics department — the company's Eldersburg location brings in the most at $100,000 per year in swim lesson revenue. However, in the future, aquatic personal training could rival the swim-lesson revenue at some locations, he says.

Search and Rescue

To bring in that kind of revenue, however, a club needs qualified water-based personal trainers. Currently, the majority of aquatic personal trainers are water instructors, says Connell. Personal trainers often have little water experience and don't know its benefits.

“I think a lot of land trainers don't think you can lose weight in the water,” Connell says. “They think you are wasting your time.”

However, more personal trainers, including several at Baptist East Milestone, are beginning to see the benefits of water-based personal training and are looking for the proper training, Connell says.

A person certified in the water needs to have a certification in personal training, too, See recommends, but individuals with a land-based personal training certification can't just translate that knowledge to the water without aquatics training.

“They need to understand how the water works,” she says, recommending they also get a water certification, which includes water safety and rescue training. “As soon as you put someone in the water, you need to know how to make a rescue. The water adds one more dimension as far as safety concerns.”

At the Club at Ricochet, only a personal training certificate is required to be an aquatic personal trainer, but Willemsen also instructs all trainers about the properties of water prior to allowing them to work with clients. She encourages them to earn an aquatic personal training or water fitness instructor certification. She originally served as a water fitness instructor and then earned her personal trainer certification.

Connell recommends that trainers at Baptist East Milestone earn a water certification in addition to their land-based certification.

Making Waves

Once trainers get their sea legs, some of them may feel a tug of competition with their land-based trainer peers, an issue that can prevent cooperation and referrals to other programs within the facility. However, these competitive feelings can be overcome if management promotes understanding between the departments and ensures that employees consider what's best for the company rather than looking out solely for themselves, See says.

“A lot of that has to do with club management and how they teach them to work as a team,” See says. “If all the personal trainers and group exercise instructors are aware of the benefits of the water, it will encourage them to share and it will benefit the club.”

Some competition exists at Club Ricochet between the land-based and water-based personal trainers, Willemsen says, but she tries to alleviate that by inviting the land-based trainers to use the pool, see the equipment and accessories used in the pool, and see how closely it relates to what they do on land. In that way, they get energized about the aquatics program and may be more willing to talk to their clients about it or to consider becoming an aquatic personal trainer themselves.

Willemsen predicts that aquatic personal training will continue to grow, expanding even further into the athletic departments of schools and universities as a cross-training method.

“Aquatic exercise is gaining more notoriety in terms of people are more aware of water fitness, are seeing a more senior population and people who have had serious problems in the pool and younger people who want to prevent those kinds of injuries,” Willemsen says. “That will grow.”

Its success just may be a matter of how many fitness facility owners decide to take the plunge and fully explore and promote this potential profit maker.

Six Tips for Starting an Aquatic Personal Training Program

  1. Ensure that the person leading the program is knowledgeable about water and the properties of water and about personal training. They should know hands on what the trainers will be getting into.

  2. Ensure that the person in charge is positive about the program. “The more positive they are about the program, the better it will be,” says Dawn Willemsen, aquatics director at The Club at Ricochet in South Plainfield, NJ.

  3. Ensure everyone in the club is familiar with the water-based personal training program and its benefits so they can share that information at the front desk, in the land-based or water-based group exercise classes and in their land-based personal training sessions. This might mean inviting land-based staff to participate in a personal training session of their own in the pool.

  4. Market the program well so that members and the public know that it exists. Willemsen sends out fliers about the personal training program that include water training information. The club's seasonal program guide also includes the water-based personal training.

    “The pool is still an area that's unfamiliar to a lot of people, so they are less likely to approach the pool on their own,” says Julie See, president and director of education at the Aquatics Exercise Association in Nokomis, FL.

  5. Make the pool available for personal training at the time that the market you are targeting will be at the club.

  6. Ensure staff is properly trained in water safety, water exercise and personal training.

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