Keeping the Right Staff

by April Durrett on May 01, 2002

Encourage top-notch fitness staff to stay by using a variety of creative strategies.

“I quit.”

Hearing these two words from a valued fitness instructor or personal trainer inspires dread—or panic—in most fitness managers.

No boss wants to see a good employee or independent contractor leave. Unfortunately, retaining staff is a necessary evil managers must face. As difficult as it is to recruit high-quality staff (see more on this topic in the January 2002 issue), retaining these same people can prove just as daunting.

Why is retention such a challenge and what retention strategies can help? Seasoned fitness managers share their solutions.

The Retention Problem

“Retaining fitness professionals is a widespread problem mostly because employers aren’t willing to give back to employees,” says Dale Huff, RD, co-owner of NutriFormance, LLC, in St. Louis. “The result is a person who is going to jump ship the second a comparable opportunity arises.”

Todd Brown, director of personal training and nutrition at Workout World (WOW), a seven-club chain in New Jersey, feels that retaining trainers is challenging because many of them are poorly trained. “Some certifying organizations aren’t putting trainers through rigorous work. Because of this situation, good trainers are hard to find. Once you find them, you don’t want to lose them.”

Retaining trainers may be a greater problem than it was in the past because opportunities for trainers are more diversified, notes Debi Pillarella, MEd, exercise program manager at The Community Hospital Fitness Pointe in Munster, Indiana.

Retaining fitness instructors is equally challenging. “Because the pool of instructors is so limited, they move around depending on their specific needs, which can be high pay, praise, big classes or paid continuing education,” explains Sabra Bonelli, MS, fitness department head at the Mission Valley YMCA in San Diego.

In some ways retaining instructors is harder because they often get paid less than trainers. Bonelli says that instructors are usually satisfied with their initial pay rate, but expect to earn much more a year later. “They often are unhappy because they have unrealistic expectations,” she explains. “Because they start out with such a high pay rate, we don’t offer them a cost of living pay raise.”

Solution: Hiring/Training

The way you hire and train new staff can go a long way toward ensuring their loyalty and a proper fit in your organization.


Huff makes sure personal trainers know what to expect so they don’t get disillusioned after they are hired. “We ask a lot of our trainers, beyond what many other managers in our industry ask,” he says. Huff’s two-part interview process examines behaviors and practical skills. He looks at how would-be employees prepare for the interview as an indicator of whether they will be willing to work hard if hired.

Bonelli poses interview questions to try to avoid potential retention problems. “I ask questions such as, ‘Why are you in this business and how did you get started?’ ‘What do you think is fair compensation and why?’ ‘How do you feel about teamwork?’ By actively listening, I can select people who will fit with my team and stick around.” She also strives to present a clear picture of the job benefits and the pay range and progression instructors can expect.


Krista Popowych, program director of The Fitness Group in Vancouver, British Columbia, believes that the time you spend up front with new staff is key to retaining them. “Our CEO conducts the new hires’ orientations by taking them out for breakfast and going over the vision and motto of our company,” she says. “This meeting usually wows them, as not many CEOs are going to spend this time with new staff. New hires also meet with all divisional managers so they know what goes on in different divisions and understand the organization inside and out.”

Brown also thinks that the time spent training staff leads to improved retention. “New trainers go through 12 to 15 hours of training with us before they are allowed to work with clients. We cover our personal training system and what trainers do during a one-hour session from soup to nuts. We also give them information they need to be a successful WOW employee.”

Solution: Money

Offering above-average compensation or other financial incentives also can encourage loyalty among fitness professionals. “We pay top rates for instructors and give our trainers 66 percent of the session fee,” says Maureen Wilson, owner of Sweat Co. Studios Ltd. in Vancouver, British Columbia. “Trainers are also guaranteed pay for sessions. If, for some unforeseen reason, the client does not pay or is delayed in paying, the trainer does not have to wait for the money. The company pays the trainer and then we handle getting the money from the client.”

Lisa Hoffman, MA, president of Solo Fitness, a company that provides in-home training services in New York City, rewards her trainers through incentives. “If a trainer brings in a client, or a client purchases gift certificates, or a client refers another client, the trainer receives a commission. I also compensate trainers if they teach a workshop at our staff meeting or write an article for our Web site. Paying for these extras gets pricey, but it’s an investment in retaining my trainers.”

Most instructor managers find it challenging to pay staff what they wish they could. To boost instructors’ incomes, they focus on creative solutions. “I encourage my instructors to run independent workshops here,” notes Bonelli. “I’ll even create their fliers, photocopy them and post them. The goal is not for the Y to make money, but to allow us to offer more to our members and to help the instructors make additional money.”

Bonelli also tries to save staff money by offering them some of the Y’s services, such as summer camps and swim lessons, at cost. In addition, along with her equipment orders for the Y, she’ll include orders for staff members’ personal use so they can take advantage of the volume discounts.

Solution: Education

Education is another retention tool managers use. “We’ve developed our own in-house continuing education program that we pay for,” says Brown. “Trainers see a video each month and read two articles that we supply via the Internet. We also bring in a speaker each quarter and give trainers an online exam each month. Through this program, we have seen our trainers’ knowledge levels grow by leaps and bounds.”

Brown says this system has helped with retention. “Our trainer attrition rate has decreased since we introduced this system 13 months ago. They earn enough CECs to renew their certification and feel that we are giving back to them.”

Pillarella’s hospital offers free annual CPR and pays half the cost of local continuing education workshops. If someone works 28 hours or more per week, he or she also receives $1,200 in tuition reimbursement per year if studying in a related field. Pillarella allows staff to use a resource center that houses periodicals, videos, access to the Internet, a music library and more. “If they want to improve their skills, they apply for training hours. Once these hours are approved, they get paid a learning/meeting rate (half of their regular hourly rate) to spend time learning in the resource center.”

Some managers use staff meetings as a forum for education. “We make sure that our meetings have an educational component, including guest speakers, handouts, idea exchanges and more,” says Popowych. “We hold monthly divisional meetings that staff are paid to attend. Then, three times a year, we conduct full staff company meetings.”

Hoffman likewise holds educational staff meetings. These meetings have become enormously popular with staff even though they are not paid to attend them. “Every month we get together for a business meeting/workshop. We invite a guest speaker or one of our trainers serves as the speaker. Personal training can be so isolating, so trainers love that these meetings are a chance to build community. The meetings also give them a chance to be part of the decision-making process about business matters.”

Solution: Benefits

Some companies offer traditional corporate benefits as a retention tool, especially to personal trainers who work full-time.

“Our employee benefit package includes items such as health, medical and dental insurance and paid vacation,” says Brown. “These benefits help trainers realize that personal training is a legitimate career and that we are the company they want to work for. Trainers must work a minimum of 30 hours for most benefits. For paid vacation, they can work part-time.”

Huff also offers traditional benefits to his staff. “Our staff has a 401k option, medical/dental benefits and long-term and short-term liability coverage. Offering these benefits costs more than hiring private contractors who aren’t given benefits, but the benefits help staff believe in our company,” he says. In addition, Huff’s trainers get one to three weeks of paid vacation a year depending on how long they’ve been with the company.

Solution: Recognition

Recognition also plays a key role in retention. “We don’t assume we know how staff wants to be recognized, so we ask them,” says Popowych. “We ask them what they’d prefer from a list of possible recognition strategies including a thank-you card, gift certificate, flowers, recognition at staff meetings, picture and name up on the board and more. When we give them a thank you, therefore, it means more to them.”

Brown strives to give trainers recognition throughout the seven WOW clubs. “In every employee’s paycheck we put a memo that acknowledges the personal trainers who have done something phenomenal during the pay period. Each facility’s personal training manager also awards a certificate to the trainer of the month in front of peers. In addition, we send the names of all seven trainers of the month to all managers.”

Pillarella employs several strategies to recognize staff. She hires a professional photographer to take head shots of the staff, which she then posts in the facility. She also uses staff in the hospital’s outreach to schools or seniors’ homes and invites them to be expert panelists for a university fitness course she teaches. “Asking them to participate in these programs gives them a change of environment and acknowledges them as experts.”

Solution: Manager Attitude

How you act as a manager can also go a long way toward retaining staff. Wilson constantly brainstorms ways she can support staff. For example, she’s created a quiet room in her facility that staff can use to rest (there’s a cot), eat and access books or videos. She also encourages staff to diversify. “I make sure my staff knows that I am serious about supporting their interests so they are happy and want to stay.”

Bonelli has a similar attitude. “Being a good communicator is a priority with me,” she says. “I return every call from a staff person within one business day. If I get member comments, I share them right away with the instructors. If it is a negative comment, I don’t repeat it word for word. Instead, I give the general idea and talk about solutions.”

Bonelli thinks the way managers handle staff crises makes a huge difference in retention. “If an instructor has to work late at her job and can’t make it to a 4:00 class, I’ll help. Rather than making her feel bad because she can’t find a sub, I tell her that I’ll take care of it.”

Developing relationships with staff is also key. “When instructors contact me for any reason, I’ll use it as an opportunity. I might ask about their class or family and spend five extra minutes with them. This time helps make them more supportive of me as a manager, of my procedures and programs, and my facility.”

Pillarella tries to take a personalized approach with her staff, recognizing their birthdays and sharing in personal events. “We always incorporate social time into meetings so staff can interact. When staff members develop a sense of family, they are less likely to leave.”

Pillarella also emphasizes the value of being nice. “If you develop retention programs but you’re not personable, the programs won’t work. You can use your management power when needed, but still be a humane person. If an instructor has a sick kid and can’t teach, don’t make her feel bad that she has to call a sub.”

Retention: Keeping Staff Happy

While everyone would like to earn more money, many managers find that financial rewards are not the key to retention. “All those little tools for rewarding employees can have a cumulative effect on your staff,” says Bonelli. “Many people won’t think of leaving even for twice the money because they don’t want to give up the positive working environment and all the good things you provide.”

IDEA Fitness Manager, Volume 14, Issue 3

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About the Author

April Durrett IDEA Author/Presenter

April Durrett is a contributing editor for IDEA Fitness Journal.