Picture this: teaching a step class on the sundeck of an oceanfront pool in beautiful Montego Bay, Jamaica, or stretching into a yoga pose on the beach in Cancun, Mexico, with the warmth of a flaming orange sunset as your backdrop.
Pack your bags. Exotic five-star resorts are calling all fitness professionals to the playful side of paradise. “Vacations” valued at $2,500 to $5,000 per week can be yours in exchange for your services as a fitness professional. That’s right.
Fit Bodies Inc. Travel Incentives, Fitness Finders Inc., NRG2GO, Sandals Resorts International and the Professional Coaches Association (PCA) are among the ever-growing number of worldwide exchange programs paving the vacation path. Packages include transportation to and from the hotel, room and board, resort activities, entertainment and, in some cases, spa services for you, a guest and even the kids. (Airfare is excluded; however, discounted airfares can be booked through the placement agency.)
Suzelle Snowden, president of Fit Bodies Inc. Travel Incentives, describes the birth of her business as a coincidence that evolved from her passion for fitness. While vacationing in Jamaica, she taught a class for a staff instructor who called in sick. The response was so positive that she continued for the remainder of the week. “My attempts to check out were impossible,” explains Snowden. “The resort waived our room and board, and I couldn’t return soon enough.” The rest is history. “[My] repeat performances snowballed into training other instructors and consulting for sister properties,” Snowden recalls. She now serves as the exclusive provider of visiting fitness pros for SuperClubs, boasting a staffing pool that includes personal trainers; dance, tennis, golf and squash instructors; and even the occasional DJ and chef.
“It’s an easy win-win scenario,” says Karen Sprung, corporate spa and fitness director for Sandals Resorts International. “Visiting instructors get a free vacation, local instructors participate in master classes, and resort guests are treated to the talent of both. A simple idea merely blossomed into an institution.”
And according to Lisa Singer, president of Fitness Finders Inc. located in New York City, “The idea for placing instructors began while I was skimming through the travel section of the New York Times. Most of the resorts I called were more than willing to receive professional instructors in exchange for an all-inclusive vacation. We’ve been in business for almost eight years now, placing group exercise, martial arts, yoga and aquatics instructors in Caribbean resorts and spas. Let’s just say I have a huge group exercise director job.”
Most resorts require a minimum seven-day, maximum 14-day stay, with your first day a Sunday or Monday. Generally, you are not obligated to teach on arrival or departure days.
As a personal trainer, you’ll guide guests through their workouts while monitoring the resort’s fitness facility. Guest athletes span the globe and range from the fitness virgin to the elite veteran.
“It’s challenging to teach a diverse group of people sporting a club mentality in an environment that serves alcohol in the sun,” says Sprung of Sandals Resorts. Often you’re the motivator encouraging the Minnesota poolside lounge lizards to join you for more than a 12-ounce curl.
“We tell our visiting pros to just go with the flow,” states Terry Terrion, office administrator for NRG2GO, a Canadian-based fitness pro placement service. “It’s important that our instructors enjoy themselves as much as the resort guests. While we maintain high standards, we understand that life in Mexico and the Caribbean runs at a slower pace. You can’t sweat classes starting or ending late or people showing up sneakerless. You just stay in the holiday spirit with a sense of humor, prepare for plan B and encourage shoes for the next class.”
As a result, classes tend to be low-key and can take place in the resort’s fitness facility, on the sundeck of an oceanfront pool or in any other area of the resort. Programs include the basics: step, high-low, sculpt, stretch, aqua, power walking, kickboxing, boot camp, Pilates and yoga. And as an instructor, you’ll lead one to four multilevel classes per day.
Each agency clearly defines its guidelines. Visiting fitness professionals sign binding contracts that state rules, regulations and expectations.
“The resort and visiting professional exchange a written guarantee. That is, the visiting instructor signs a contract committing, not only to teach, but also to participate in resort activities, such as volleyball and beach Olympics, as well as some of the staff entertainment shows. It’s not just about how many years you’ve been teaching, but about having fun and letting go,” states PCA’s executive director Mark Burns, who stations tennis, squash and golf pros, along with group exercise instructors, in Jamaica, Mexico and Aruba.
“For the most part, this is such a good deal [that] instructors go above and beyond the call of duty,” says Sprung of Sandals Resorts. “But yes, we’ve experienced the occasional nightmare. Showing up to teach class in stiletto heels post one too many pina coladas is a quick ticket home.”
Depending on the location, as a foreign visiting instructor, you may encounter cultural challenges and language barriers. Although most resort staffers speak English, guest languages are often a potpourri of German, Spanish, Italian and French. And on occasion, you may find yourself in a setting where English is not spoken at all. For example, Fit Bodies will place fitness professionals in Brazil and Cuba—with not one English-speaking guest.
“I’ve taught classes filled to the brim with every nationality but American and every language but English,” says Snowden. “But fitness is a universal language. As long as you’re able to cue with your hands and body, you can teach anyone.”
NRG2GO’s teaching tips suggest that instructors prepare Spanish phrases and cuing in advance. “Because most of our resorts advertise an international flavor, we encourage both teaching as a universal language and a respect for cultural differences,” explains Terrion.
Each placement service provides a comprehensive list of teaching and traveling dos and don’ts that include suggestions for remaining on property if the surounding area is dangerous or lacks tourist attractions. Each agency conducts advance research to assure both quality control and safety. “I travel to each resort as the first guinea pig instructor,” says Singer of Fitness Finders. “I wouldn’t send a pro to a resort I’ve never visited or didn’t feel was up to par.” And although first-time travelers may be surprised by areas of a third-world country, such as Jamaica, each resort presents itself as yet another foreign world—one that becomes a village of its own.
Each placement service requires a current nationally recognized certification—for example, from the American Council on Exercise, the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America, the American College of Sports Medicine, the American Institute of Fitness Educators or the Canadian Association of Fitness Professionals—and CPR. Additional requests include résumés, biographies, head shots, letters of recommendation, an audition video and/or an on-site interview/evaluation. Upon approval, there may be an administrative or guest fee and/or a “gift request.” Gifts vary from entertainment costumes (wigs, makeup, vintage clothing) to sporting equipment (exercise bands, jump ropes, tubing, tennis balls, racquets, volleyballs, basketballs, golf clubs) to music, athletic apparel and shoes.
Fees vary, ranging from $200 to $350, depending on the agency as well as the status and location of the resort. In some cases, the more “elite” the resort is, the higher the fee. “Each resort and season will be different,” explains Burns of PCA. “The nicer the hotel in high season, the bigger the fee. But remember, these vacations are worth up to $5,000.”
Not a bad bargain, is it? So why not take advantage of this win-win offer and take your skills as a fitness professional on a working vacation in paradise. And don’t forget: When you pack your bags, be sure to pack a lot of energy and enthusiasm! Bon voyage!