Free Advice

Personal training can be a huge profit center for your club, but not if you're giving the service away.

Cut-rate membership deals and haggling sales pitches can cheapen health clubs in the eyes of the general public. This not only hurts clubs that are trying to demonstrate their value, it hurts personal trainers.

When people view clubs as commodities, they see trainers as perks, not as professionals worthy of payment. As a result, they ask trainers to dispense detailed advice freely.

"You would not expect a doctor to treat a patient for free," emphasizes Phil Kaplan, president of Phil Kaplan's Fitness Associates and author of Personal Training Profits and a Secure Fitness Future. "I really do not believe a professional, qualified, certified personal trainer should ever be asked to do anything for free."

Still, members aren't completely to blame when they expect trainers to supply services, gratis. It's up to club staff to teach members the value of personal trainers.

Do your salespeople offer new members free visits with the personal trainer as part of the membership package? If they do, you are devaluing personal training, in Kaplan's opinion.

"If you are a new health club member and you are given the personal trainer as a throw-in, the perceived value of the trainer services is zero," he explains. "The trainers must be presented by the salesperson to the member not as a feature [as in], 'We have treadmills, we have bikes, we have trainers' but as a benefit."

Sometimes personal trainers undervalue their own services by offering too much information to members who aren't paying. "Recognize that you do have a professional expertise and you should not compromise the value of it," Kaplan advises.

Not everyone agrees to such hard and fast rules, however. "One of the best ways to generate personal training [business] is to give someone a free session," says Felicia Gaglio, the assistant general manager for Club Fit in Jefferson Valley, N.Y. Her logic is that if members train once, they're more likely to train again - and pay for the service.

Gaglio may have a point. No one will argue the usefulness of a doctor, but many uninformed members may not realize the importance of a personal trainer. They think all they need to do to get fit is to lift some weights or take an aerobics class. But what happens if they don't see results? Often they'll quit, disappointed in their lack of progress. That's where personal trainers come in.

"Fitness is truly a science and that's why members need a personal trainer...because it is a science," says Todd Brown, director of personal training and nutrition at New Jersey's WOW! Work Out World. "A complimentary personal training session is a great way of establishing credibility and how complex fitness is."

And it's also a great way of informing clients of some hard truths about high member-dropout rates. Customers need to know they will most likely need a trainer to reach their personal fitness goals. That's why WOW!'s personal trainers are very up-front with members.

"We share with them the statistics about how many people drop out of health clubs," Brown says. "We engage that type of conversation right off the bat. An ungodly number of people drop out and it's not because they're not motivated. It's because they don't know what they're doing. And that's what personal trainers are for."

Since there are so many factors that influence a client's workout (e.g., personal injury history, age, job, current level of fitness, medical conditions, etc.), personal trainers need to educate members about the value of their advice.

Take this example. During a meeting with a prospective client, a trainer learns that the member works as a computer programmer. The trainer knows that many computer-related jobs lead to tenseness in the neck, so she inquires whether the client feels any discomfort in this area. This type of leading question demonstrates to the client that the trainer understands his personal history.

Trainers don't need to rely on one-on-one meetings to demonstrate their expertise, however. They can show their credibility by taking part in seminars, workshops and lectures. They can speak about fitness at local businesses, schools, churches, etc.

"Any time a personal trainer has the opportunity to establish credibility for themselves or any time they can show how complex and complicated fitness really is, they should jump at it," Brown says.

That means when members ask trainers a question, the fitness professionals shouldn't simplify their answers. "The biggest mistake a personal trainer can make is to abbreviate [her] answer," Brown explains. If the member is given a short, overly simplified answer to his question, then he many not realize how complicated fitness really is, and undervalue the personal trainer as a result.

Still, trainers shouldn't give up too much free time with members, regardless of how smart it makes them look. "To build their business or grow their business, [personal trainers] have to spend quality time with the member and that's where the gray area comes in," says Scott Lewandowski, director of health and fitness at Fitness Formula's Union Station Multiplex in Chicago. "How much quality time do you spend with that member?"

Kate Larsen, president of Minnesota's Winning LifeStyles Inc., and group fitness instructor at Flagship Athletic Club, offers an answer to that query. Anything that would help members be more comfortable in the gym environment, she says, should be free advice.

"When they start to ask about a specific piece of equipment, show them everything you know about that equipment," she says. "But if they want more than that, that's when [you] tell them [they] might need a personal trainer."

Consider the Question

Most industry experts agree trainers need to evaluate a member's question before suggesting a paid session. (See "Free or Fee?", below, for details.) There's a big difference between "How do I use this elliptical machine?" and "I have a bad knee. Can you help me figure out a fitness routine that can build my leg strength without further damaging my joints?"

"Are they looking for advice or are they looking for structured, one-on-one attention from the trainer?" asks Lewandowski. If the latter, the personal trainer should try to schedule an appointment with that member. Likewise, any question that involves a long, involved answer should probably be part of a scheduled appointment as well.

Of course, to build business, personal trainers can't just wait for people to come up to them with workout questions and then try to sell the value of a training session. Trainers need to take the initiative and learn how to sell themselves.

"What I try to instill in the trainers when they are talking with new prospects is make sure they try to have the person visualize themselves in training," says Lewandowski. "Try and make sure that we're breaking down any barriers people have about trainers."

That's easier said than done, however. While a trainer may have all the physiological knowledge required to help his client reach his training goals, he may not have the "people skills" to either sell the client or keep the client in the long run.

"Most trainers do not have interpersonal skills," claims Bob Esquerre, the national consulting director and owner of Esquerre Fitness Group in Deerfield Beach, Fla.

Esquerre argues that when a personal trainer lacks confidence and conviction in his speech mannerisms, the member may, likewise, lack confidence in the trainer's abilities. But if the trainer speaks with conviction, the member can't help but defer to his better judgment.

"If you're a professional and if you know you're good," Esquerre says, "it doesn't become a selling issue."

Instead, it becomes a personality issue. A trainer with all the exercise knowledge in the world still won't succeed if he can't interact with clients.

"The difficulty is you either have personality or you don't," Esquerre adds.

Larsen, a certified personal trainer with a degree in psychology, plus a specialist in leadership development and coaching skills, says that trainers must match their personality with that of the client. "Some trainers have one style and one temperament and they don't adjust," she explains.

“The ability to build rapport is an incredible part of the sales process," Brown adds.

Remaining Neutral

Brown suggests that trainers approach prospective clients from a "neutral" style, then through interaction, strive to complement the client's personality style. "Try to mirror and match their communication style," he says.

For example, if the person seems very eager and bubbly, the trainer should be more outgoing and energetic. If the client is more low-key, the trainer should downplay his style as well.

But the trainer shouldn't go too far. If the person acts tired and morose, that doesn't mean the trainer should lower his energy.

In addition to learning how to interact with different personalities, trainers need to bone up on their sales skills. "Most, if not all, trainers need to recognize they need to work their career or job as if it's their business within a business," says Brown. That means trainers must be comfortable with the legwork associated with sales - everything from making phone calls to seeking out prospects.

So just how should trainers go about making initial contact with perspective clients? "When you are either talking with someone on the floor or even just casually talking to someone, ask what their goals are," Lewandowski suggests. “I think the more contacts that a trainer will have with someone, the more likely the trainer will have that person as a client, either right then or down the road."

Clubs themselves can also help their personal trainers out with the sales process. Lewandowski's Union Station Multiplex offers members a personal training referral program. If a new client refers five potential clients to the trainer, the member receives a free personal training session.

"It's a way to get the trainers involved, especially ones that may not have strong sales skills," Lewandowski explains.

Some clubs have found that small group training sessions can help personal trainers make new contacts. These sessions can also introduce the concept of personal training to clients who would otherwise be unable to afford one-on-one contact. For example, a typical hour's fee for many trainers would be around $50. In a group of four, however, each person only pays $20.

"Group training kind of makes it more palatable for people who normally wouldn't be able to afford it," says Kaplan.

Not everyone agrees that small group training is ethical. "For some people, working out with their husband or wife, that's the only way they'll stick with it," Larsen says. "So you might as well work with them and try to help them as best you can. But four or five people, that's a small class. It's not personal training."

"My concern with [group personal training] is quality," adds Esquerre. "There's a club ... that has 10 people in a class and they call it personal training. That's absurd."

Gaglio, who offers partner training (two members at a time) at her club, says group training is a lot more work for the personal trainer, and therefore requires a higher overall fee. In other words, although group participants pay less than a typical training fee, their combined fees add up to more than a normal, one-on-one training session.

"It's more work," Gaglio explains. "You really have to stay on top of it. You have to make sure [all the] people are exercising the whole time."

Even in a group setting, a talented trainer will single out participants and give them individual attention, Esquerre believes. "They're difficult to handle in a group environment," he says. "Everybody's body is that different. They all have issues."

Lend a Helping Hand to Trainers

While it's a personal trainer's job to help her clients with their issues, it's a club owner's job to help the trainers. Of all the staff at a club, trainers may very well suffer from the most stress. Unless a club pushes personal training, trainers may find themselves with free time on their hands and no money in their bank accounts.

"Scheduling is a big issue,? Gaglio points out. “It's hard to book yourself up completely."

Most trainers may find themselves busy during peak times (early morning and after 5 p.m.), but things die down during the middle of the day, according to Gaglio. Aggressive promotion by both the club and the trainer can help eliminate this downtime. Marketing builds demand for personal training, and as a popular trainer takes on more clients, his availability becomes tighter, so people are willing to move to off-hours in order to use his services.

"Once people get to know you|, it gets easier and easier to fill those slots because you're in demand," Gaglio explains.

That's where the flip side of scheduling issues occurs. Because trainers are dependent on clients for their income, there is a tendency to give their all, every day, to their clients, leaving no time for themselves. "One of the challenges is to be sure you have time to enjoy things beyond the club,? Larsen says. “You almost have to assign hobbies to yourself."

Otherwise, a trainer's clients will start to perceive her as being tired and stressed out all the time - and that's bad for business. Fortunately, personal trainers can avoid burnout by following their clients' lead: scheduling their own personal training session.

"Personal trainers need personal trainers," Larsen emphasizes. "It challenges them to the next level."


A personal training pop quiz.

Uncertain when a trainer should be receiving payment for his time? This test can help. Here's a list of common member questions — with advice on whether your trainer should charge for an answer.

  1. I'm confused about how this machine works? What do you do with it?

  2. I want to lose 20 pounds in three months. What do I need to do?

  3. My chiropractor mentioned that I should get an exercise or two from my gym to strengthen my lower back. Can you recommend any?

  4. I've been doing this program for the past month and I still haven't been able to reach my fitness goals. What should I do to change my routine?

  5. Can you set up a program for me for each of these cardio machines?

  6. I want to be able to run a 5K in four months. What do I need to do to get in shape?


  1. Free

  2. Fee

  3. Free

  4. Fee

  5. Fee

  6. Fee

How to Pick a Pack of Personal Trainers

Just as every informed club member has to learn how to pick a personal trainer, every club owner has to choose what type of personal trainers works best for him. In other words, the operator must decide whether to contract out trainers or hire them as staff.

Both options have certain benefits and disadvantages that need to be evaluated.

"If you're creating a team atmosphere, it's best to have everyone on staff," believes Scott Lewandowski, the director of health and fitness at Union Station Multiplex in Chicago. "With hired trainers, you have more loyalty because you're providing the benefits."

"The advantages are reversed if you are contracting. You do save money on taxes and benefits."

And the disadvantages of contracting? "Whooo! Liability!" exclaims Bob Esquerre, the national consulting director and owner of Esquerre Fitness Group in Deerfield Beach, Fla. "According to IRS codes, if someone is contracted out, you can't tell them what to do, what not to do. If you see them do something inappropriate, you cannot tell them not to do that."

"As soon as you start having to do something according to the company mandate, then you are a staff member," adds Kate Larsen, president of Minnesota's Winning LifeStyles Inc.

For this reason, club operators have no control over contracted workers' schedules, and are at the whim of their time constraints. "You have total quality control of your own staff, whereas with contracted employees, there is no control," Esquerre says, clearly an advocate for hiring personal trainers. "Most viable organizations do not [contract] personal trainers."

"We've always hired personal trainers," explains Felicia Gaglio, the assistant general manager of Club Fit Jefferson Valley. "Because our personal trainers are employees, we have a sense of loyalty from them that I don't think we'd get if we contracted them out."

That's not to say, however, there aren't any advantages to contracting trainers. "The good news is they tend to be more aggressive and entrepreneurial in their style," Larsen says. "The downside is when they [stop working at a club], they tend to take their clients with them. They also tend to feel that their clients are their business and there is less sharing [within the club]."

Staff Personal Trainers
Advantages Disadvantages
The club can set standards for work Taxes
They have a sense of loyalty to the club Club pays for their benefits, uniforms, etc.
They are covered by the club's insurance They may not be as sales-oriented as contracted employees
The club has control over their scheduling
Contracted Personal Trainers
Advantages Disadvantages
Club doesn't have to pay taxes A club legally can't tell contracted workers what to do (no quality control)
Club doesn't have to pay for their benefits
They tend to be more aggressive and entrepreneurial in their style Questionable loyalty — and when they leave, they often take their clients with them Liability issues


IDEA's Personal Training Trendwatch 2001, conducted in November 2000 with 13 of the top personal training businesses in the United States, identifies leading trends in the personal training industry. Some of the study's findings include:

  • General fitness and weight management are still the primary reasons most people turn to trainers. Respondents to Trendwatch 2001 say that between 75 to 90 percent of clients initially seek generalized fitness programs, which typically include weight management.

  • Cross-referrals and partnering of services with medical professionals are also on the rise. Some trainers are even making these arrangements the main focus of their practice.

  • Sports conditioning is particularly popular among young athletes who want to improve their abilities in high school sports.

  • Pilates requests are also increasing. Some trainers are becoming Pilates-certified in order to meet the needs of this growing market.

  • Post-rehab and special medical conditions are areas of growth for many trainers. While most clients may begin personal training with general fitness goals, training often uncovers special medical conditions or past injury.

  • Profit centers and work locations are many and diverse. As personal training businesses mature, they may need to diversify to maintain growth, according to IDEA. Additional services and profit centers reported by Trendwatch 2001 participants include: designing home gyms; providing fitness assessments and advanced fitness testing; giving private yoga classes; coaching sports; managing gyms in apartment buildings, businesses and residential facilities; and selling heart rate monitors and vitamins.

Getting Personal

How has the economy been treating your personal training? Let us know. Mail us at: Letters to the Editor, Club Industry, One Plymouth Meeting, Suite 501, Plymouth Meeting, PA 19462 E-mail: [email protected] Fax: (610) 238-0992

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