A Better Way to Determine Class Value

by Shannon Fable on Mar 21, 2013


Learn how penetration is one of the best ways to quantify program success.

Class value is in the eye of the beholder. Depending on where you’ve worked and what you’ve learned over the years, the metrics you use to review, modify or cancel a class can vary significantly. It’s important to learn the typical calculations that group fitness managers use to “judge” class and instructor performance. Once you uncover the pros and cons of these numbers, you may find that your department would benefit from a change in calculations.

Class Count, and Cost per Head

The two metrics most often used to determine class value are class count and cost per head. Class count is the more fundamental number, and easier to track. Usually, the instructor records attendance on a sign-in sheet after class. From that data, the manager calculates the average number attending the class week after week and then he or she uses the number to decide whether the class “lives” or “dies.” Generally, facilities have deemed a specific attendance number to be the minimum. For example, the general manager may require that any class regularly drawing fewer than six people be reviewed, changed or canceled. Other managers may choose a number that “feels right” (in other words, it’s arbitrary); or they may choose a minimum number based on other metrics, such as cost per head (explained below).

Class counts are a great initial way to review and earmark a class that may need a second look; the next step would be to check additional metrics to help judge how the class is performing. However, many managers jump to preemptive measures with the instructor or class, which may be premature. Consider today’s diverse offerings and special populations—some classes may be smaller than others but still have merit. For example, attendance at a prenatal yoga class may fluctuate as the number of members who are pregnant changes.

The benefit of class counts is the ease and quickness of gathering them. The major downfall, besides the narrow view that a simple count provides, is the accuracy with which the count is recorded. Attendance should be counted about 10 minutes into class, to include latecomers, or while the class still has at least 15 minutes left, since some folks leave early. If data is public and instructors know there’s a “magic number,” they’ll have reason to record numbers creatively. Consider having an objective person, such as the front-desk greeter or the manager on duty, record numbers; then keep the results private.

Cost per head determines value based on the dollar amount each participant is “paying” to be in class. CPH is calculated by dividing the instructor’s cost (based on that person’s hourly pay rate and the class’s length) by the number of people in the class. For example, if the instructor makes $25 per hour and 30 people attend class, the CPH is $0.83. Many programs strive for primetime classes to be at $1.00 CPH, which means the number of people in class is equal to the dollar amount the instructor earns. Typically, a class with a CPH of $2.00 or more would be in need of review.

CPH turns management’s attention to how much instructors are paid compared with how many people they are serving. In the past, this was a good way to determine class value. Most instructors taught the same types of classes, and pay rate was commensurate with experience; attendance patterns and the type of class didn’t affect CPH. The idea was that as an instructor gained experience, classes would get better—they would draw more people as the instructor's pay rate increased.

Nowadays, however, while pay rate may increase based on longevity, it may also increase based on specialty, creating the number-one downfall of using CPH alone to determine class value. Consider this example: An instructor may command a higher pay rate as a result of teaching a specialty group, such as prenatal yoga, yet class numbers may be smaller given the clientele and class type. If the instructor makes $40 per hour and only six pregnant women are available at 2:00 pm on Tuesdays (most specialty classes end up in “downtime” slots), CPH would be $6.66. Should this automatically send up red flags?

The upside is the black-and-white nature of the calculation. CPH is less arbitrary than requiring a minimum participant number. Instead, it takes into account how much a given class costs the facility. Note: CPH may be time consuming and cumbersome to calculate (especially if you hate math). It helps to create a spreadsheet, or use one of the few software programs on the market that do the calculations for you.

CPH provides a much better view than class counts alone, but the magic metric is penetration.

How Penetration Works

Penetration looks at facility usage simultaneously with class counts to determine what slice of the pie you are servicing—a better way to determine value. You can calculate and use the penetration metric in a variety of ways.

Total penetration takes the number of participants in group exercise in a day and compares it to the total number of facility visitors on the same day. When you view the number of patrons who took classes and relate it to the total number who walked through the doors, you begin to see the percentage of your membership base that is using that particular product.

For example, if 1,000 people visit the facility on a given day and 200 people take classes that day, your program is at 20% total penetration. That means 20% of the people who walked through the door came for a class, which is a good number.

This statistic is invaluable for justifying the “expense” of group exercise. Many owners and general managers see the group fitness payroll as a large number that doesn’t necessarily generate income. However, if you can show that 20% of the people who walk through the doors are attending class, the amount of money you spend that day starts to make more sense. A good goal would be 15% penetration; of course, the higher the number, the better your team is performing. Use the total penetration number to judge your team’s performance and to set goals for improvement by days of the week, weeks of the month, months of the year and so forth.

Time slot penetration shows how many participants use group exercise during a certain time period, compared to the total number of facility visitors in the same time slot. Determining a certain time slot’s penetration is an effective way to ascertain if a class needs review.

Consider a class for seniors at 2:00 pm on a Tuesday. The class may have only six participants. But if you look at the number of people in the facility between 1:30 and 2:30 (assuming that people check into the facility before class) and see that there are only 40 people total, the number doesn’t look quite as low. Those six people make up 15% of the total number in the facility.

Conversely, for a Zumba® class at 9:00 am to have only six people might be a very different story. If 100 people checked in during that time, six people are just 6% penetration. It might be time to examine this class and its instructor to see what you can do to get to 15% penetration in that time slot.

Of course, many facilities offer multiple classes within the same time slot. For example, the Zumba class may be happening in studio one while a cycling class is taking place in the cycling studio and a yoga class is underway in another studio. If Zumba has six participants, cycling has 30 and yoga has 20 (a total of 56 in that time frame), then penetration is 56%, which is amazing! You still might take a look at the Zumba class—but you don’t need to be as concerned, because you’re servicing quite a few people with your menu choices. It’s probably not necessary to determine penetration for every time slot, but this measurement is a great way to research underperforming classes and make sure, from time to time, that popular time slots are being serviced appropriately.

Beyond total penetration and time slot penetration, you can examine penetration for a certain class type, a particular instructor or even a single studio. Review data for a single day, multiple days, a week, a month or even longer. Remember that you need accurate class counts and total member counts to get the best view of how your program and classes are performing. It’s also important to determine a baseline to compare future numbers with, rather than making assumptions about performance based on industry averages. The more you measure, the more objective your decisions will be. Then, any changes you make to personnel and classes will be easier to explain to management, members and instructors.

Penetration helps prove sustainability and growth. While class counts and CPH gauge an individual’s performance, penetration is about the team. Educate your entire staff on this metric, and make it a goal to be improved on across the board. When you try to “move the needle” collectively, you may find that your job becomes easier. You’re shifting from an instructor-dependent group to a program-dependent team—with all eyes focused on overall reach versus individual popularity.

IDEA Fitness Manager, Volume 25, Issue 3

© 2013 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Author

Shannon Fable

Shannon Fable IDEA Author/Presenter

Shannon Fable, 2009 & 2012 IDEA Instructor of the Year Finalist and 2006 ACE Instructor of the Year, is the founder of SFR, a consulting firm for aspiring fitness educators, manufacturers and managers...


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