Getting Permits for Outdoor Fitness Programs
Personal Trainer Entrepreneur: Learn to create a win-win situation with local parks and other outdoor venues.
On any given day, you can find an outdoor fitness class operating at your local park. But it wasn’t always this way.
When I first started Stroller Strides®, there were few, if any, outdoor fitness programs. But now outdoor fitness programs are one of the fastest growing trends in our industry. The 2010 IDEA Fitness Programs & Equipment Trends report shows that 28% of respondents offer outdoor boot camps, 31% conduct outdoor group activities and 32% do outdoor personal training. Survey respondents predict outdoor programming will continue to increase.
While this type of activity may be appealing to you and your clients, it can be challenging to get permission to use outdoor spaces. Many people in charge of venues such as parks require permits. What’s tricky is that outdoor fitness programming doesn’t often fit the common mold when it comes to permits. Outdoor codes for many parks and recreation departments were written a long time ago, when codes applied to teams renting baseball or soccer fields.
Some fitness pros choose to fly under the radar and not get permits; they knowingly conduct classes without them. This is not recommended. As an industry, we need to work with parks to come up with reasonable permit fees so our small businesses can survive and offer benefits to the community. However, we also need to treat parks fairly and be honorable representatives of the fitness industry.
Discover how we approached local park systems and how you, too, can establish a win-win relationship with them to continue offering successful outdoor programs.
About 10 years ago I called the local parks office and asked if I could offer my new program on their grounds. “Do you need to reserve any space? Do you require a soccer field or baseball field?” they asked. No, I just wanted to meet and do a stroller-based walking workout on their property. “You don’t need a permit for that” was the response—and so started a class location that has been in existence since 2001.
Well, times have changed. Over the years, as we expanded to new venues, we received requests to add different parks to our liability insurance. No problem. We did it. Some parks asked us for a yearly fee. When it was a reasonable fee, we had no objection to paying. But the negotiations between parks and my business hasn’t always been easy. Many parks did not know what to do with us, what to charge or whether to allow us at all.
Stroller Strides is now a franchise with over 1,200 locations, including some in Canada. Every location has different rules, fees and procedures. In 2009 we decided to confront the challenge of park permits in our hometown of San Diego. We had been paying different fees at almost every location. Some fees were high, and some locations were free. Some communities where we had not established venues were calling us to request classes. We were in limbo at many locations because we knew that permits were mandatory for commercial groups using city property, but there were no permits that adequately fit our group.
We decided to go to the San Diego City Council and the Parks and Recreation Department to plead our case. We didn’t want to operate illegally, but were frustrated that we couldn’t offer classes under the current municipal code. We needed the people in charge to truly understand the nature of our business so that the fees set were affordable. After a year of suspending some class locations, going to many meetings and creating proposals, we were able to negotiate with the City of San Diego to create fair, reasonable park permits for all fitness professionals. It’s a win for us and for the city.
How can you create reasonable permit agreements with parks in your city? The first step is to do your research! Find out everything you possibly can about a location you wish to approach. Does it offer other types of classes? What is its mission? How might you pitch your classes and work together with that venue? What are you willing to give it in trade and/or money? Do you know anyone who works at the location? What might the location need—more PR, co-marketing or assistance with a program?
For public outdoor venues, it is important to research your city code regarding the use of such venues. You should be able to get answers to your questions by directing them to the city planner’s office and/or parks and recreation department.
Once you’ve gathered your research, take a step back and consider what the parks in your area need. They need to monitor park offerings and protect themselves from liability. They need to prevent overcrowding and misuse of park property.
Paying Fees. Many parks ask small fitness businesses for fees that are too high for them. This is often because they have not studied the nature of our business. When fees are too high, our businesses can’t operate. This hurts our industry and potential exercisers.
Today, most parks are being tasked with finding more revenue and cutting expenses. Many parks ask fitness pros for a 60/40 split. Depending on your business model, this is difficult, if not impossible, especially if you have to pay instructors. While parks may initially ask for fees that are unaffordable, we have found that those fees are negotiable and that sometimes you can use a venue for no fee. See if there is a way you can create a win-win situation. Work toward something more like a 70/30 split. Better yet, see if the park will take a flat monthly rate that is affordable for you and that the park’s administrators can depend on. A flat rate is easier to manage and saves parks the time (and therefore money) they would otherwise have to spend figuring out percentages.
Providing Other Benefits. Another option is to see if you can help the park system in another way instead of paying a fee. Here are some possibilities:
- Adopt a park or organize park cleanups.
- Organize or assist with a citywide health and fitness fair.
- Offer free quarterly seminars on fitness-related topics at park locations.
- Provide free fitness articles for park publications.
- Make a yearly donation to the park system.
- Encourage follow-on programming with existing parks and recreation classes.
- Work with the park to devise other agreed-upon terms.
With a positive outlook and information to share, you can often develop a win-win situation with your city or town that isn’t necessarily money-related. Our franchisees work with parks and recreation departments in several different ways. Some use parks with no-fee arrangements, some pay a percentage and others trade services. Each relationship is unique.
When you meet with park representatives, it is in your best interest to be as informed as possible about the park and to have a number of ideas to negotiate with. Follow these steps for success:
- Create a Presentation. Demonstrate that you are a credible and professional business.
- Offer a Solution. Make it easy for the park’s representatives to say yes.
- Get Letters of Recommendation. Show that your community supports you.
- Be Prepared. Think about the obstacles that parks may see, and brainstorm in advance ways you can overcome them.
- Be Flexible and Friendly. Parks may offer different solutions. Be considerate and see if their solution would work for you.
Know, also, that parks may bring up the question of insurance. Be sure to clarify the location’s needs, and explain that your insurance is portable and covers you anywhere you teach groups. Many locations want to be added as an “additional insured” on your policy. There is no charge to do that, and it can easily be done with your insurance agent. On the other hand, other locations will require a waiver recognizing that your company is not affiliated with them; in this case, they would not want to be listed as an “additional insured.”
Once you get a venue, respect it. Make sure your classes are safe. Parks do not want anyone getting hurt in your classes or from your equipment. They do not want the added expense of cleaning up trash left behind. Do not disturb other park goers or participants at that location. Check in periodically to see that the parks are content with your relationship. Send them an occasional thank-you note from your clients. Promote them on your website or in e-mail marketing when possible.
Outdoor fitness is here to stay. As popular as it is, it is still relatively new. Be a trailblazer and help to create great opportunities for fitness professionals to come.
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If you are new to outdoor fitness or want to add additional locations, what should you look for when scouting venues? Consider these questions:
- How much space do you need? Do you need to reserve a field, or will you be traveling through one or more areas?
- What kind of bathroom facilities are available?
- How much parking is nearby, and is it easy to access?
- Is there a table or bench you can use for sign in?
- Are there lights for night or early-morning classes?
- How wide are the walking or running paths? Look for wider paths if you will need to “share the road” with others.
- parks (association, local, city, state or county)
- hiking trails
- outside areas of shopping malls, community centers, religious centers (churches, Jewish community centers, etc.), hospitals, gyms or amusement parks
Think out of the box and be creative about possible venues. If you are a new business, know that the first location is sometimes the hardest to secure. Once you establish your business and your customer base, you will have more to bargain with.
© 2011 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.
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