Shake Your Money Maker

Making group exercise fun and financially profitable.

A study released last year by IHRSA revealed that 90 percent of all exercisers prefer to work out in a group.

Call it group mentality. Or peer pressure, perhaps. But if you think about it, it's only common sense. After all, you could work out in your home if you really wanted to. Sure, the cat would give you dirty looks, but you're used to that. Yet, most Americans don't have the motivation to follow solitary, home workouts.

Group exercise classes, on the other hand, inspire people to stick to fitness routines, plus give them a chance to socialize. After all, it's easier to sweat off those pounds if you have encouragement from an instructor and friends.

“Health clubs and personal trainers are benefiting from a failure of self-motivation among many fitness participants,” penned Harvey Lauer, the president of American Sports Data, in its just-released Superstudy of Sports Participation. The Superstudy examined the sports/fitness activities of more than 14,000 people over the age of 6, as well as collected data on health club memberships.

“It's difficult for people, on their own, to defy the Pleasure Principle — to do something painful, inconvenient, time-consuming or all three,” Lauer continued in his report. “People need external motivation, structure and reinforcement. Some also need social interaction.”

Group exercise meets all four of those needs. That's why group programming can draw big crowds even when membership numbers don't budge. “Participation in [our] group exercise has increased 50 percent over the last three years while our membership base has remained static,” says Bill Thomas, the regional general manager for Tennis Corp. of America (TCA), as well as general manager for Willowbrook Athletic Club in Illinois.

Given the variety of group exercise now available, it's no surprise that class participation can grow even when membership doesn't. From strength to aerobics, mind/body to balance, today's programming can suit any taste.

“One of the obvious conclusions that you could draw [from the IHRSA 2001 Conference and Trade Show] is there's a move to group fitness in virtually every entity,” says Colin Milner, president of IDEA.

With so much out there, clubs must make sure that they program wisely. If you know your client base is age 65-plus, perhaps kickboxing isn't the answer. On top of that, what was popular a couple of years ago may be old hat by now, yet you don't want to program only “flash-in-the-pan,” fad classes either (sliding, anybody?).

Picking programming is enough to make a club owner stay up at night. But before you get out that magic 8-ball to figure out your class schedule, consider some timely advice from Andrea Metcalf, Willowbrook's fitness manager.

“You should try to keep your programming like a menu,” she says.

This means offering a little variety. Program classic, core classes like Step or cycling at prime-time slots, with perhaps one studio devoted to a newer, trendy class, like Pilates. Put the hot, or even fad, classes on the off-hours to determine just how popular they really are.

“You need to place those trendy classes at non-prime times because people will want to go then,” explains Metcalf. In other words, if people seek out classes during off-hours — or request that the classes be moved to more convenient times — you may have a winner on your hands.

If you want to get people into a new class, throw a party to launch it. “Offer new programs as a special event — on a Saturday afternoon or something — and see what the members think of it,” advises Annette Lang, a personal trainer at New York City's Equinox, as well as a Reebok University master trainer and national consulting director for the Esquerre Fitness Group.

And don't stop with the party — or with new programs. Market all of your classes. Offer taste-tests of your club's fitness offerings. “Every five to six months we do an activity kickoff week and we put out different class sign-up sheets,” says Patti Jasinski, group exercise director and director of Stott Pilates for the Arizona-based Gainey Village Health Club and Spa. “Then we'll try the class out for six weeks and see how it does.”

Before kicking off the classes, sell the sizzle with in-house promotions, plugs in your newsletter and/or Web site, posters, flyers, sign-up days and more. “Let's put it this way,” says Milner, “if someone could make $1 million off a pet rock, then everything comes down to marketing.”

And selection. As the quote goes, variety is the very spice of life. So add plenty of spice to your group exercise menu.

Metcalf's menu serves up a hearty smorgasbord of Step, strength-training classes, interval or boot camp classes, and cycling. Some of the popular, exotic appetizers she likes to dish out to her members include tai chi, karate, yoga and Pilates.

Metcalf puts particular emphasis on the latter two mind/body programs. “I think you'll see in the future, these will be staples for clubs,” she says. “Pilates and yoga are going to bring in more people into fitness that weren't here before.”

According to American Sports Data's Superstudy's first-ever evaluation of Pilates, 1.7 million people participated in these classes in 2000 alone. Yoga wasn't doing too shabby either, with an increase of 16 percent over previous studies.

Jasinski points out that Pilates has become a heavy contender in her programming schedules. “Our Pilates program has literally doubled in revenue in the last six months,” she says.

Many clubs are capitalizing on the mind/body trend by offering two-for-ones, or even four-for-ones in their scheduling. For example, Jasinski says that her members are asking for Nia, a program that combines martial arts, Pilates, yoga and stretching. Another example: Metcalf created a “yolates” (yoga plus Pilates) class.

Cool Combinations

This type of creative combination doesn't need to be limited to mind/body activities. Forming a new class with the elements of other programming can re-energize customers.

“Most people are trying to find an experience to give their members,” Metcalf explains. “So if you do see an aerobics class, it's usually paired with something like dance or jazz.”

Likewise, you'll find many clubs pairing strength training with stretching, or yoga with martial arts. “People are getting older and having stress injuries, etc., and they're needing to have a more balanced workout,” explains Lang. That's why many instructors and clubs are trying to combine members' workouts into specialty classes.

Besides giving members a more integrated workout, specialty classes are great retention tools. Because your members' exercise patterns are constantly changing, they're less likely to get bored or fatigued. In short, specialty classes — whether they combine traditional class elements or break new ground — give members choice variety. And if the classes have great instructors, all the better.

“Specialty classes are like jewels,” comments Rich Boggs, the president and CEO for the Step Co., of which the popular Body Training Systems is a division. “If you have the right instructor, anything will work.… If you have the market for [a specialty class] with a great instructor — perfect!”

Boggs offers the following ratio for balancing your core classes with specialty programs: “Core classes should be about 75 to 80 percent of your class schedule. Twenty to 25 percent, if you have the people to teach the specialty classes, should be specialty classes.”

Whatever percentage you chose, make sure that these specialty classes match your club's demographics, as well as the general exercise trend of turning away from high-impact, highly choreographed activities.

Most experts agree that the decline in high-impact aerobic classes is due to the growing age of most clubs' membership base. In addition, as classes have utilized increasingly complicated choreography, only the die-hards (typically female) were able to keep up.

Since the term aerobics can discourage potential participants, Gordon Johnson, general partner and principal owner of Gold's Gym of Douglasville, Ga., discourages his staff from even using the “A” word. “It'll cost you a dollar around here if you say the word ‘aerobics,’” he says. “‘Aerobics’ dissuades men from participating.”

Johnson's gym was in a group exercise slump about two-and-a-half years ago, but was subsequently boosted by the intervention of Body Training Systems classes, which features the BodyPump program. Group participation went from 12 percent to its current 30 percent during that time.

The best group programs interest members regardless of age, gender and activity level. “Everything that we see [that's popular in the market] appeals to both males and females in a broad spectrum,” says Boggs. “And it's got to be simple.”

Simple isn't the same as “not hard,” however. Classes must challenge people, but not by relying on complex moves that lose newcomers minutes into the workout.

Once you've decided what classes you want to offer your members (make sure you ask them for their input too!), you need to experiment with time slots and instructors to find the winning combination. If you are paying an instructor $17 an hour to teach a class, and only three people are showing up, you may just want to cut the class.

“Look at how many people are taking the class and how much it costs to put the class on,” advises Milner. Then you can decide whether it makes sense to continue. (For more on figuring out the cost effectiveness of your group exercise class, see “Dollars and Sense” at

“Paying” It Safe

You can also try testing the waters to see what works. Jasinski's club plays it safe. If the club is unsure about investing in a specialized class, it may contract an outside instructor, with her own equipment, to come in and teach for a few weeks. Jasinski is planning on doing just that with Urban Rebounding (a class involving mini-trampolines) this summer.

If your club does decide to invest in equipment for classes, you can offset the costs by charging for participation. But you probably won't be able to get away with putting a price on traditional classes.

“Each club has to assess its own program for attendance, timeliness, trend following, etc.,” says Michael Scott Scudder, the owner/founder of Fitness Focus, a consulting company operating out of New Mexico. “In many clubs today, the ‘timeless’ or ‘standard’ offerings are the only classes included in the regular membership pricing structure. All other specialty classes are charged an additional fee.”

Even if you can't charge for a class, group exercise may actually save your club money. “Because the group exercise programs moved people away from the equipment [i.e., solo machine use], we estimated that we saved over $100,000 in new equipment [over a two-year period],” Johnson says.

More than likely, though, owners are going to have to shell out some additional money in hiring a part-time instructor for each of their different classes. It may not be feasible for your own employees, or for any one person, to teach all the classes, especially if you've added specialty classes to the schedule. For example, tai chi requires training that your aerobics instructor may not possess.

“It depends on the program and the level of sophistication involved,” says Milner. “Say you are doing a program dealing with older adults. Typically, you want to hire from outside because you need an individual who is used to dealing with the elderly or knows about chronic conditions.”

Additionally, because there are so many combination and categories of classes available to clubs nowadays, instructors can't be expected to teach everything.

“There are so many different formats right now — we're getting in the marketplace right now where people coming in to teach only know one of those formats,” says Metcalf.

Independents Day

For this reason, 80 percent of clubs have independent relationships with their instructors. Since most instructors aren't club employees, how do you ensure their loyalty and motivation?

“Instructors should be responsible for a sign-in sheet for every class, and be held accountable for minimally breakeven numbers in each class,” Scudder says, “and, likewise, be on an incentive system for high attendance or growth in numbers in a class.”

Metcalf organizes meetings with her group exercise instructors every quarter and discusses ways in which they can promote class participation. “We talk about making eye contact, people contact,” she notes. “It's something that's expected of them now.”

Lang offers a more succinct viewpoint: “Basically, their job is on the line, so that's their incentive.”

Dollars and Sense

Tips for measuring the approximate cost of group exerciseand whether its worth the expense

1. Calculate the cost per class. First, take into account the total program cost. This should include the cost of equipment, instructor salaries, operation costs for the group exercise area, etc. For the sake of the calculation, lets use a 15,000-square-foot facility as our model and assume that the program cost is $65,000 annually.

Now figure out the number of classes offered annually. If a club offers 28 classes per week, this works out to be 1,456 classes a year (28 classes a week multiplied by 52 weeks a year).

Next, divide the total program cost by the number of classes annually. In this example, you would divide $65,000 by 1,456. So each class costs $45 (rounded).

2. Calculate the number of members needed per class for a breakeven class:

A) Establish the average number of participations annually. Say, for instance, that 127 members take group exercise 2.5 times a week (on average). This comes to 16,510 participations per year (27 members multiplied by 2.5 times per week multiplied by 52 weeks).

B) Calculate the average income per participant per class. Heres how.

First figure out the approximate income per club member. If, for instance, our 15,000-square-foot club grosses $675,000 annually with 1,500 members, then the approximate income per member is $450 ($675,000 divided by 1,500). Since we already established that 127 members take part in group exercise, multiple this number by member income. In other words, 127 times $450, which gives $57,150.

Next, add other fees that may be associated with group exercise (e.g., class charges). Lets assume this number is $2,000. This means that the total aerobic income is $59,150 ($57,150 plus $2,000).

Take the total aerobic income and divide it by the number of participations. In this case, divide $59,150 by 16,510. This comes to $4 (rounded). Thats the average income per participant per class. C) Finally, divide the cost per class by income per participant, rounded up. So our 15,000-square-foot club would divide $45 by $4. This means that the club would need 12 members per class to break even.

Information courtesy of Michael Scott Scudder, owner/founder of Fitness Focus, a 10-year-old New Mexico-based consulting company. For more information, visit

You Say Pil-ah-tes, I Say Pil-a-tees

Whats in a name? A lawsuit apparently. Find out how the court ruling that overturned the Pilates trademark has impacted the fitness industry.

Its official: You can now say the P-word. Last year, a federal court declared Pilates a generic term, much like karate or yogamuch to the chagrin of Pilates Inc. and its president Sean Gallagher, who trademarked the name in 1992. Consumers lost out...when the court ruled that the word Pilates is generic for exercise instruction and equipment, he commented after the ruling.

Pilates was developed in the 1920s by physical trainer Joseph H. Pilates, who later founded New Yorks Pilates Studio (which continues his work to this very day). His Pilates method is an exercise system that focuses on building core strength and flexibility. Many of the systems original converts were dancers or athletes looking to condition their body in a gentler, more functional manner.

Not surprisingly, the method became much sought after by the public after it became known that many Hollywood celebrities used Pilates in their own workout regiments. Last year, according to American Sports Datas first-ever study on the category, 1.7 million men and women in the United States reported participating in the exercise program. And now that the term Pilates is no longer trademarked, you can be sure to expect many more instructors, studios, equipment manufacturers, instructional books and videos to be popping up. But can there be too much of a good thing?

Theres no quality control left, laments Gallagher. Youve got people that really dont know what theyre doing. Everybodys jumping on the bandwagon.

Pilates has become a term that people can use to describe any kind of exercise. You could be doing terrible things and calling it Pilates or you could be doing wonderful things and calling it Pilates.

In much the same way martial artists critiqued Tae Bo for not being a true martial art, and for leaving its participants with a false sense of security (as well as, in some cases, injuries), many certified Pilates instructors worry the public may not know the difference between a good instructor and a bad one, until its too late. To be a proficient and safe Pilates instructor requires much studying in the system.

That being said, though, was it really fair for one company to trademark the name for itself alone? No, argues Lindsey Merrithew, president and CEO of the Stott Pilates group of companies, and co-owner of the Pilates Studios and International Certification Center. Its easier to communicate the message [now that the trademark is overturned], he says. Pilates is now a category rather than a registered trademark.

The people out there who held the registered trademark had the most archaic approach to the method of exercise out there, he continues. Merrithew, however, does see the possibility of the term being misused. Its going to be the responsibility of the work together to try and set some benchmarks, he says. The industry itself will have to take on the challenge of setting standards. So whats this mean for club owners? They have to understand there are different people out there offering certification and training, Merrithew says. He likens it to someone getting a degree from Harvard University or a small community college. Certain certification institutions will probably carry more weight in the industry than others.

Andrea Metcalf, the fitness manager for Illinois Willowbrook Athletic Club, thinks the trademark ruling will not hurt the industry, or Joseph Pilates vision for that matter. I dont think it will dilute his work, she says, although she concedes, I dont think people will stick to his exact movements.

Metcalf herself has created yolates for her club members, combining movements from both Pilates and yoga. In the same way, she feels many instructors will work with the traditional Pilates exercise patterns and make them better. Its kind of like what yoga was in the 70s, Pilates will be in the year 2000, she says.

Patti Jasinski, the group exercise director and director of Stott Pilates for Arizonas Gainey Village Health Club, compares the Pilates movement to the inception of indoor cycling. Its kind of like Spinning and when Spinning first started, where [certain] instructors were not CPR certified and not group exercise certified and theyre operating studios, she explains. Thats a big problem. For the public I dont think its good thing, she says. For people who want to do Pilates and getting instructors who arent certified, its a terrible thing.

Rated Ex

We want to know how your group ex ranks. What works? What doesn't? Mail us at: Letters to the Editor, Club Industry, One Plymouth Meeting, Suite 501, Plymouth Meeting, PA 19462. E-mail: Fax: (610) 238-0992

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