Is It Time to Merge Your Personal Training and Group Exercise Departments?

Some club operators have merged their group exercise and personal training departments under one leader Photo from Thinkstock
<p>Some club operators have merged their group exercise and personal training departments under one leader. <em>Photo from Thinkstock.</em></p>

Traditionally, club operators have treated personal trainers and group exercise professionals as two spokes of a wheel. Each was equally important to support a healthy club, but they required separate attention and management. The emergence of a new trend toward small group fee-based classes has begun to blur the lines, leaving many wondering if the potential for team synergy and cost-savings should propel them into a new management model.

Is it more efficient to run all exercise programs as one? Or, are commission-based personal trainers and hourly group exercise instructors so different that they deserve their own nuanced systems? Taking a team approach to training and group exercise has potential benefits, but club operators say they are still unsure about the repercussions.

Bill McBride, president and CEO of Active Sports Clubs, Sausalito, CA, which recently purchased a majority of Club One's 85 clubs, is a 20-year industry veteran who spent many years with San Francisco-based Club One prior to co-founding Active Sports Clubs. McBride says the team approach to fitness management could benefit club operators and members alike.

"You can build one fitness delivery model with an emphasis on getting members into a planned, complete solution without an 'either PT or group' silo approach," says McBride, who also is CEO of health club consulting company BMC3. "The fitness team approach ensures the members have an integrated program for a comprehensive solution that is designed best for the member."

With the fitness team approach, clubs become focused on hiring what McBride calls "cross-functional" fitness professionals. These professionals have the skills to teach group classes, train individuals and sell personal training sessions. They help members become aware of more club offerings and continually push them to try new things.

"This should lead to better member results, increased fitness program revenue and a more talented, versatile staff," McBride says.

When Bill Windscheif, owner of World Gym, Lewisville, TX, and an executive team member with World Gym International, Los Angeles, added small group fee-based classes to his club's offerings, he noticed that the personal training and group fitness departments suddenly required a fresh kind of synergy.

"We've incorporated our personal training folks and managers to help manage the program and certainly help sell the program, but we've also incorporated group fitness instructors because they've expressed interest in this small group format," he said. "Most of the personal trainers are not interested in teaching it. We've had to bring those two together in this small group training space, and we've seen some pretty good results where the two departments are complimenting each other."

The future of this synergy remains unclear, but Windscheif does not think it means the departments would be better managed as one.

"Although they cross pollinate, they really kind of are two separate entities," Windscheif says. "I think it's the sales piece that really differentiates them. It's like team sports versus individual sports. Some people are driven toward individual sports like tennis, boxing or golf, versus others who thrive on that team sports environment."

Size and Sales Approach Matter

The sales piece and the size of his clubs have deterred Mark Miller, vice president of Merritt Athletic Clubs, a Baltimore-based club chain with 10 locations and four corporate wellness centers, from making the switch to team management. Miller says he has considered combining the departments at some of his clubs, but he is concerned about finding a leader who could effectively manage instructors while still motivating trainers to reach their sales goals.

"In our large clubs, we have a staff of 75 group ex instructors with over 66 classes a week, PT staff of 18 trainers and goals of $95,000 a month in revenue," he says. "In these cases, it would be very difficult, unless you had the right leader."

Despite his concerns, he has not ruled out hiring a manager to oversee both personal training and group exercise departments if the right person came along who could fill the role.

"We're constantly innovating and looking at new things, and if we ever came upon a person who was a champion of both, who we thought could do both jobs well, we would be happy to do that," Miller said. "It would allow us to combine positions and pay one person a lot more money."

Cost savings alone could be considered enough motivation for some clubs to consolidate departments, but since compensation packages vary widely among health clubs, it is difficult to quantify how much savings could be realized by most.

"You can go broke trying to save a nickel, and that's not what we want to do," Windscheif said. "We definitely want the most smoothly running machine, but we don't want to do that at the expense of our staff or, more importantly, our members."

As fitness director of the Bellevue Club, a private upscale club in Bellevue, WA, Sue Matyas is one of the rare few with the responsibility of managing group fitness, personal training and Pilates programs. Her fitness coordinator helps with schedules and administrative requirements.

"It works for our club because I am well-versed in personal training, group exercise and Pilates management," Matyas says. "I have managed departments separately at previous facilities, so for me to take over all departments is challenging, but I know how each department is run."

Matyas has 18 trainers and 40 group exercise instructors on staff. Her biggest challenge is having enough time to spend with each of the people she manages to help them meet their goals, she says.

Approaching management from a team perspective could result in a synergy that maximizes staff communication, benefits members and drives profits higher. The challenge lies in finding qualified cross-functional professionals, such as Matyas, who are equally dedicated to the success of all programs.

"It has to start with an organization's strategy to blend the two into one," McBride says. "Once that decision is made and committed to, you have to find the right leader or manager that gets both sides of this equation. Today, there are more of these professionals than ever before, but the decision to go in this direction requires some disruption and a new mindset. It also requires a very clear communication to all staff and members on why this makes good sense for member service and programming."

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