Is it still big business? What opportunities exist for fitness professionals?
In the mid-1990s, corporate fitness was on a roll. With a strong economy, companies were competing to hire and keep the best employees. Corporate fitness programs were considered a valuable perk to retain these employees.>
Fastforward to 2004. Has the once sunny forecast for corporate fitness held steady? Or have economic storms brought it crashing down? Is it currently a viable career option for fitness professionals? Here’s a look at the status of this niche, including top trends in group fitness, personal training and wellness programs.
Most corporate experts agree that the industry has grown overall in the past 10 years. For example, over the past 7 years Continental Health Promotion has seen a steady 10–15 percent (%) growth rate in terms of corporate fitness, says Steve Nelson, the company’s executive vice president in Richmond, Virginia.
However, whereas the 1990s were booming, the last 3 or so years have been stagnant. “The bulk of new corporate fitness centers were created in the mid- 1990s,” says Yvan Micklin, president of Aquila Fitness Consulting Systems Ltd. in Miami Beach, Florida. “After 9/11, some [corporate fitness] centers closed because the economy was so up and down. Centers are often the first thing to get cut if the economy isn’t doing well. Right now I think the corporate market is status quo.”
Deno Bell, executive director and founder of Fitness Express in San Diego, agrees that corporate fitness has been stagnant. She has not acquired any new corporate clients in the last 2 years. “Lately, though, I’ve been seeing some growth and possibilities. I have three new corporate accounts on the burner,” she adds.
MediFit Corporate Services is also seeing growth in the market, according to Bill Bourque, MBA, director of business development in Hamilton, Massachusetts. “We expect to see double-digit growth for a number of years to come. Additionally, we continue to see numerous new corporate fitness centers being developed. This growth comes in a number of forms, such as new worksite fitness facilities, fitness center networks and Web-based programs. Many of our new clients are opening corporate fitness centers for the first time.”
Moreover, corporate fitness programs are now serving different kinds of companies and employees. “[Our] corporate clients have evolved into a number of different industries, particularly financial services, law firms, media, pharmaceutical and manufacturing,” says Tom Maraday, senior vice president of Plus One in New York City.
Corporate fitness is also being offered companywide rather than just as an executive perk, says Grace DeSimone, national director of group fitness and special projects for Plus One.
Donna Harnish, corporate fitness manager for Continental Health Promotion, notes that programs are currently being offered at manufacturing facilities rather than just corporate offices.
Today most companies with corporate programs are concentrated on increasing the health and well-being of employees—and lowering company costs.
Interestingly, corporate fitness looks much as it did 15 years ago, according to Bourque. “In the late ’80s, healthcare costs were rising and companies were turning toward prevention programs, such as corporate fitness, to help reduce healthcare costs,” he says. “During the mid-’90s, when healthcare costs were rising at a much lower rate, many companies viewed corporate fitness programs as a service needed for employee recruitment and retention. Once again companies are pressured by double-digit [increases in] healthcare costs and are looking for a solution. Prevention has now become a priority.”
Why? “Obesity, lack of physical activity, stress, poor nutrition and smoking are the nation’s top health risks. These risks drive most of the controllable healthcare costs,” Bourke adds. “Thus, for prevention programs to have a significant impact on a company’s healthcare expense, they need to modify employees’ behaviors in these areas. As companies invest in prevention, they are also focusing on productive ways to assist employees in managing health issues such as diabetes, hyperlipidemia, low-back pain, hypertension, depression, asthma and others.”
Companies want to see a return on their investment, Bourke notes. “The only way to show results is through quality measurements. Technology facilitates this in numerous ways: record keeping and tracking, database management, integration of data, and the ability to quantify actual and self-reported lifestyle changes.”
Corporate fitness classes are one vehicle used to improve employees’ health, and, like the rest of the industry, these classes have changed over time. Today’s popular choices are often ones that don’t require employees to sweat too much or exercise too intensely.
Class Styles. Bourke says that the changes in group exercise have been significant in the past 5 to 10 years. “We are now seeing a high demand for a variety of classes such as yoga, circuit training, boot camp, Spinning®, dance, functional training and core training. These classes have a broader appeal in the corporate market than the traditional step and high-low classes of 10 years ago. With the broader appeal comes a wider variety of participants that is more representative of our clients’ employee base.”
Bell says corporate clients want combination classes, like kickboxing plus step with yoga or group strength at the end. She adds that class popularity varies. “White-collar workers are generally more on top of the trends and want yoga and Pilates. Blue-collar workers want boot camp and drill-type classes. Group strength seems to cross both borders.”
Class Length. Class lengths vary between 30 and 60 minutes. Jenna Moulton, owner of All Together Fit Inc., located in an office park in Andover, Massachusetts, says she had to experiment with class length. “We now offer 40-minute classes,” she says. “Initially we were doing two half-hour classes, but people thought they were too short. We’ve gotten into a nice groove offering 40-minute classes from 12:10 to 12:50 pm.”
Class Times. Lunch time continues to be the most popular time for group classes. “We’ve seen a big decline in after-work classes,” says Sharry Goode, regional fitness manager for Continental Health Promotion. “People get off work and want to go home. They see working out at lunch as being done on the company’s time, even though it’s their lunch time. We are also seeing a smaller number of participants than in the heyday of aerobics. Now it’s not uncommon to see eight people in class.”
In some corporate fitness programs, employees do not frequently request special personal training sessions. They are satisfied working from exercise programs created by fitness center trainers. For example, Iris Sokol, president and founder of Fitness Works @ Work in Sherborn, Massachusetts, says that the on-site, full-time staff trainers give so much personal attention to the corporate members that there is almost no need for personal training.
In other companies, however, employees want and take advantage of separate personal training services. “Five to 10 years ago, very few corporate fitness centers provided their members with personal training,” says Bourke. “Executives were the likely clients in the centers that did provide it. Now, with many of our clients, personal training is becoming a popular added service for all of their employees. It is no longer an ‘executive perk’ but an effective way to support employees in reaching their health and fitness goals.”
Types of Training. Linda Freeman, a corporate instructor and trainer at Schneider National in Green Bay, Wisconsin, says all her training clients at Schneider have come initially to learn strength training. “I educate them as we go regarding posture and imbalances that I notice during training—especially from sitting at desks all day. The clients always ask for additional sessions or exercises to help correct posture. Since I started Pilates and yoga classes, more people are asking about core, posture and flexibility.”
Plus One offers several kinds of personal training, notes Neal Pyre, the company’s director of training. “Our offerings include one-on-one personal training, ‘tandem training’ (with two participants to one trainer) and team training (with up to four or six participants),” he notes. “For example, ‘Weekend Warrior,’ an athletic/agility training program for groups of up to six participants, is conducted twice a week for 6 weeks. Our functional training program—‘funXion’—is designed to enhance participants’ abilities to perform the activities of daily living, such as stooping, lifting and climbing. We also offer small-group Pilates reformer training. All programs are fee based.”
Bell sees many 30-minute personal training sessions, small-group sessions and short-term programs. “Two or three people will work on a program for 4–6 weeks,” she says. “Out of this group maybe one person will continue training with the trainer, either on a regular basis or intermittently.”
Cost Considerations. “Training fees are market driven but are likely to be set a bit below a typical personal training fee at a commercial facility,” says Pyre. “We consider training part of our customer service paradigm, and if members want the hands-on direction and motivation, they can purchase it for the additional fee.”
Micklin says that training may be offered at cost. “Trainers might get paid $20 a session, but that is how much the centers are charging members,” he says. “Most corporate centers don’t aim to make money off employees.”
Many professionals in corporate fitness see it as a great career path, with well-paid work and part-time and full-time jobs available.
“The increased amount of need for, and interest in, corporate fitness has helped create more jobs,” says Moulton. “Corporate fitness really opens doors for professionals who are serious about [their careers]. It gives them a chance to use their skills and knowledge.”
DeSimone says that corporate fitness is a marvelous career with many full-time opportunities. “Most exercise specialists are full-time,” she says. “Typically, when we open a corporate fitness site we need a general manager and at least one or two exercise staff full-time. Group fitness directors are typically full-time, but they also do some floor coverage and an assortment of tasks such as orientations and evaluations, depending on the size of the group fitness programs. There are also opportunities for some full-time personal trainers.”
Cynthia Miranda, program manager at the wellness center at Nokia Mobile Phones in San Diego, however, says that even though corporate fitness is a good job opportunity, full-time jobs are limited, at least on the West Coast.
In addition to providing career opportunities, corporate fitness often pays better than commercial environments. One reason may be that companies are not looking to profit from fitness services. “In the Boston area you always get paid more in corporate to teach or train,” says Moulton. “The going rate for instructors in the commercial sector is $15–$25 per class, while it’s $25–$40 for corporate, often for shorter classes.”
For personal training services, employees pay between $40 and $60 per session, according to Bell. “Trainers get 65%–75% of that fee. In health clubs trainers might be getting 40% of the fee. In corporate fitness I don’t have to pay rent for facilities, so I can pass the savings on to the trainers.”
The pay rates for trainers at Plus One are “market driven, so they are similar [to] and competitive with our local competitors’,” Pyre says. “What sets us apart are all of the other things that come along with our trainers’ ‘package.’ We typically hire trainers on a full-time basis and typically compensate them with a competitive base salary and benefits, which may include health and dental insurance, a 401k plan, educational stipends, paid vacation, etc.”
“Entry level salary for full-time fitness staff working in the Bay Area is from $28,000 to the low $30,000s, plus benefits,” says Bryan Padilla, who works for Baysport corporate fitness company. He is currently assistant manager at Sun Microsystems’ fitness center in Santa Clara, California.
Corporate fitness managers rave about employee retention rates and the outstanding potential for growth in the field. “We have a very low turnover rate,” Nelson says. “That may be due to our competitive salaries, professional atmosphere, benefits package, continuing education and hours—no work on weekends or holidays. This combination seems to be doing well in terms of attracting people to the field.”
Pyre notes that corporate fitness can be appealing because of the growth potential. “The number-one thing we offer a personal trainer is a career path,” he says. “From my personal experience, this is quite rare. From the time we hire a trainer, we play a very active part in [his or her] growth and professional development.”
The doors for growth are wide open in both part-time and full-time positions, according to DeSimone. “One gal taught a one-time martial arts workshop, then worked as a regular group fitness instructor, then came in as group fitness director. Now she wants to move up into management.”
DeSimone adds that certain aspects of the corporate environment, like physical therapy programs, also provide fitness professionals with additional growth potential. “Fitness professionals can apply to be part-time physical therapy aides,” she says. “We have an in-house program that trains them for that.”
Padilla says the corporate environment is also good for learning new career skills. “I learned how to teach group classes on the job,” he says. “I’ve been thrown into teaching when instructors had an emergency. There was not a lot of pressure, because I was dealing with two or three participants rather than 30.”
Other people like working in corporate fitness because there is no intense pressure to sell services. “In the corporate environment, the management company provides a service for the client’s employees,” Pyre says. “The typical [company] is not so focused on sales of ancillary services. Clients typically want us to provide the best services to keep their employees healthy and happy.”
“The bottom line in corporate fitness is retention,” says DeSimone. “Companies want to know that their employees are using the facility. A higher number of users means the company sees its healthcare costs plummet, and that’s what makes a continued contract an easy sell.”
Fitness professionals have the expertise to retain employee members and help them achieve their health goals. That’s why corporate fitness experts are hopeful about the industry’s outlook. “I anticipate that corporate fitness will be a continually growing industry,” Sokol says. “Maybe I’m being optimistic, but I think the next 5 years will be huge.”