Managing Fitness

by Sandy Todd Webster on Oct 01, 2002

For the 9th straight year, industry experts delivered straight talk and practical advice at Focus on Management Day.

Of eminent interest and concern these days to American business owners and managers—including those in fitness—is the floundering U.S. economy. In recent months, the U.S. Federal Reserve has sidestepped its once positive outlook for strong and sustained economic recovery, conceding that the road we’re on has some serious bumps. What roadblocks and detours for the fitness industry are on this thoroughfare? A group of fitness leaders answered such questions and steeled program managers, owners and directors for the future during the ninth annual Focus on Management Day, held July 1 in San Diego as part of World Fitness IDEA®.

Michael Scott Scudder kicked off the daylong conference with a reality check. “So far, the industry has weathered this recession pretty well, but if it continues, don’t count on business being good,” he told a room full of managers, owners and directors at his “Trends in Our Industry” session.

“American business has a growing need for managers and not enough supply. Nowhere is that more evident than in our industry,” said Scudder, who has owned and managed health clubs since the mid-1970s and specializes in training fitness managers. “We have a faster rate of facility growth than people to run them. We have inadequate training of sales personnel and management personnel in general. There is not one management certification in this industry.” Scudder went on to share his lists of macro and micro fitness trends.

General Trends

  • Our society is aging.

  • People want more variety and “life pertinence” in their exercise activities.

  • Fewer than one in three people exercise regularly.

  • Economic downturn makes people more financially cautious.

  • People are more pressed for time than ever.

Club Trends

  • Member attrition is still greater than 40 percent annually. “We can’t do that indefinitely,” Scudder said.

  • Clubs have not succeeded in getting and keeping nonexercisers. Only 12 percent of the U.S. population belongs to health clubs.

  • There are more big players in the game and continued consolidation. “This makes it harder for you as an independent operator to compete,” Scudder explained. “Think about home video rental 10 years ago. What happened to all the mom-and-pop stores? Blockbuster! The same thing is happening in fitness.”

  • Members are demanding variety, service, etc.

  • Equipment usage and purchase have shifted more to free weights and away from machine stacks.

  • The growth of new facilities is outpacing membership growth.

Industry Trends

  • Personal training in clubs and studios has grown.

  • Small-group training has also grown. “This was a mini-trend a few years ago. Now it’s a major trend,” Scudder said.

  • Core and functional training have accelerated.

  • Multigenerational teaching is in demand. “We’re failing miserably as an industry here,” Scudder observed.

  • Demand for more fundamental business skills has increased.

What’s Changing?

  • Heart-rate training has grown. “It’s the easiest, simplest, most interfaceable training tool we have,” Scudder said. “People of all ages can understand it. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

  • Free-weight training is in favor. Both body- and life-specific varieties are popular. No one size fits all.

  • Older-adult and small-group training have increased. “There’s no better way to continue to grow your income than to initiate partner training,” Scudder said. “It helps with compliance.”

  • Cable stack weights

  • Stair climbers and runners

  • Kickboxing and martial arts-based aerobics

  • Certain “lifestyle” classes, especially facility-dependent classes (such as kayaking, stretching programs and rock climbing). “If your facility’s primary age group is younger than 40, you’ll struggle with this,” Scudder said. “If it’s 50-plus and you have good instructors, you’ll probably have success.”

  • Funk, hip hop and slide. Age and perhaps culture are partly responsible for their decline, but so is the high learning curve. “What’s the learning curve on activities you teach? Is it a hard, high curve with a high payoff or reward, or is it a low reward?” Scudder asked. “If your membership or personal training clients—other than sport-specific and highly active people—can do the activities you offer well, you will continue to grow and make money. People don’t want to feel stupid.”

  • Multiyear memberships

  • Treadmill, rowing and stair-climbing classes

  • Cross-country ski machines

  • Computerized strength training equipment

  • Land formats in water (including tennis moves, injury rehab, balancing on noodles and yoga poses)

  • Core conditioning

  • 30-minute classes. “People are time-crunched!” Scudder emphasized.

  • Flexibility and stretching

  • Yoga/Pilates-based classes

  • Hybrid classes (such as balance, strength and stretch; Pilates leg row with Pilates mat; and cycling yoga)

  • Sport-specific training. “Tennis is coming back with the 60-and-over set,” Scudder said.

  • Month-to-month membership agreements

  • Wages, benefits and career growth opportunities in fitness are still subpar. “To me, this is a danger spot,” Scudder said.

  • Clubs still treat all members as if they were fitness-oriented. “People are more wellness-focused than fitness-focused. People want to be capable and well,” Scudder noted.

  • Getting the masses to exercise is still difficult. Scudder pointed out, “The IRS’s new obesity position may be crucial.”

  • Training of sales personnel and management personnel is inadequate in general.

First-time attendee Jean Nold, fitness director of the Aberdeen Family YMCA in Aberdeen, South Dakota, thought that Scudder’s session reinforced some simple business tenets that managers and directors may dismiss when things get busy. “His workshop brought the focus back to members and what we should be doing to retain them,” she said. “We need to put ourselves in new members’ position when they first walk in the door. So often, we think that getting them to join is the hard part, but keeping them as members is actually where we fail. We offer classes that they don’t want or can’t be successful in. There needs to be programming that is functional for them. Unfortunately, I think we forget that.”

What Else Is New?

After fielding many questions, Scudder turned the group of managers loose for the rest of the mini-conference. Other experts served up more creative programming and practical management ideas in 13 additional sessions.

For example, in “Programming That Profits,” Maureen Hagen shared her club’s recently adopted “housecleaning” strategy. She and her staff kept the programs that they executed the best, and they outsourced others. By keeping her facility’s brand on the outsourced programs, they were still able to generate revenue.

In “The Customer Service Continuum,” Don Walker advised managers to set the customer service bar very high for their staffs. “They don’t care the way you do,” he said. “If they fall short of the bar, they will end up delivering service at the level you’re looking for.”

Presenters also shared these gems:

  • “If you can diversify your trainers’ careers as much as possible, you will keep them,” said Sherri McMillan, MS, in “Hiring and Training Master Trainers.”

  • “Find out why people leave. This is much more valuable information than why people stay,” said Robin Gurien, PhD, in “Retaining and Recruiting Top-Notch Staff.”

  • “Whenever you travel, go to other clubs, look at their operations and see what’s working. Why reinvent the wheel? Look at best practices and use what you can,” Julie McNeney offered in “Systemize Your Club.”

  • “If you want to hit the biggest female market—baby boomers—now is the time to get going. Go after perimenopausal and menopausal groups,” suggested Dawn Braud, MS, in “For Women Only.”

  • “Only 48 percent of group exercise staff surveyed felt they had participated in decision making. This is a problem,” said Jim Gavin, PhD, in “Improving Employee Satisfaction.”

A Glimpse of the Big Picture

Nold said that what she learned in the management sessions helped her step outside herself to look at the broader spectrum of her job. “Sometimes, I get so bogged down in the details that I lose track of what is really important,” she shared. “After I attended Focus on Management Day, my priorities became clearer and on track. I felt rejuvenated and energized, and I left feeling a new sense of purpose.”

Want more from Sandy Todd Webster?

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About the Author

Sandy Todd Webster

Sandy Todd Webster IDEA Author/Presenter

Sandy Todd Webster is Editor in Chief of IDEA's publications, including the award-winning IDEA FITNESS JOURNAL and IDEA FOOD & NUTRITION TIPS, the industry's leading resources for fitness, wellness and nutrition professionals worldwide. Sandy joined IDEA in 2001 as executive editor of IDEA PERSONAL TRAINER and IDEA FITNESS MANAGER magazines and was promoted to lead the editorial team in 2003. More than 20 years in magazine publishing, marketing communications and creative services have shaped her straightforward approach to multi-channel communication. Early experience in Los Angeles as a sports writer/reporter, and then enriching years as a managing editor in allied health care publishing have pulled her across a spectrum of stimulating subject matter. Fitness, health and nutrition reside at the perfect center of this content continuum, she feels. A Chicago native, Sandy grew up fully engaged in various competitive sports. Her drive and dedication as an athlete translate to a disciplined work ethic and unwavering approach to challenge in her career. Shortly after graduating journalism school from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, she was recruited to L.A. for her first post in magazine publishing. After two decades of working on magazines--and now in the throes of applying the unbelieveable multi-media content delivery options available in the magazine 2.0 world--she is still "completely in love" with the creative process it takes to deliver meaningful, inspirational content to end users. She is an accomplished home cook and gardner who would love to combine those skills and passions with her health and fitness background to continue educating readers about a well-balanced, healthy lifestyle.