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Experiential Exercise: The New Way to Sweat

It’s Friday night in tiny Willits, California (population: 4,888.) There’s no Walmart®; there are no chain stores. As usual, this small town is quiet. Yet, at Studio Joy, owner Maddy Avena’s Zumba® class is about to be packed and jamming.

Why? Avena doesn’t just teach fitness classes; she delivers fitness experiences. By combining technical studio upgrades (such as a stage and theatrical lighting) with special events (themed workout “parties”), she injects a solid workout with new emotional intensity. And for Avena’s nightclubesque Zumba studio—a do-it-yourself labor of love built on a shoestring bud get—the experience-driven group-exercise concept has been a huge success.

Like Avena, many other fitness professionals are taking cues from brand-name programs like Zumba, Crunch® Fitness and Les Mills, which specialize in creating heightened fitness happenings that go beyond the now-commonplace “lights off” in cycling classes. Even Zumba’s slogan, “Ditch the Workout, Join the Party,” invites participants to view group exercise as an experience instead of the monotonous or painful event many perceive it to be.

This article explores how group-exercise programs around the world are driving the “experiential” class platform and discusses how you can replicate this success in your studio or classes. Discover how to leverage the fitness-experience concept to boost revenue, engage and keep members, and Inspire the World to Fitness®.

An “Experience” Versus a “Class”

“Not just a class, but an experience.” That’s the motto at Energy Gym, an award-winning facility in Selbyville, Delaware. Owner Gina Hall has invested heavily in raising the facility’s group classes from mundane to magical.

Consider that a fitness class delivers the basics: group exercise—to music—following prescribed guidelines for safety and effectiveness. An experience advances that concept: Done right, it’s something clients look forward to, talk about, and for which they will happily pay premium fees.

Hall’s group-exercise studio is equipped with sound-activated lighting throughout the room, themed props, track lighting suspended above an elevated teaching stage, and a disco ball. Instructors use essential oils and candlelight during yoga classes and team-teach to kick up excitement and enhance the ambience. (Classes are prechoreographed Les Mills programs, so everyone is on the same page.)

The “experience” in the group-exercise room is arguably as important as the technical aspects of the workout itself, says industry presenter Donna Cyrus. As New York City–based senior vice president of programming for Crunch, she has made a career of conceiving innovative group-exercise experiences for the brand. Such programming includes Cycle Karaoke, Stiletto Strength, Pole Dancing, AntiGravity Yoga and sessions modeled on Broadway show choreography.

Do all these bells and whistles really make a difference? Hall says yes, and business is booming. “Usually, when people walk into our studio, the response is, ‘Oh, wow!’ especially if they’re used to taking classes elsewhere.”

Benefits of the Upgraded Experience

The benefits of delivering an upgraded group-exercise experience are many and diverse.

Clients like it. “The more an instructor creates an experience, the more likely it is that participants will leave with a true feeling and memory, causing them to return,” says Lawrence Biscontini, MA, multiple industry award–winner and author of Cream Rises: Excellence in Private and Group Education (fg2000 2009), who lives in Mykonos, Greece.

Instructors stay. “If your studio is rocking, you’ll never have to recruit again. Instructors will want to work for you,” says Krista Popowych, longtime industry presenter and program director of the Richmond Olympic Oval in Vancouver, British Columbia.

It boosts business. “Upgraded studios within existing clubs can most certainly help increase member retention and, if marketed correctly, generate new-member referrals as well,” explains Maureen Hagan, London, Ontario–based 1998 IDEA Program Director of the Year and current vice president of operations for GoodLife Fitness in Canada.

It helps to Inspire the World to Fitness. Experiential group exercise presents an opportunity to reach potential new clients who might shy away from the idea of a traditional “fitness class.”

For example, Avena started her nightclub-inspired facility with a dream of drawing in the underserved youth and seniors of her small town and easing them into healthier lifestyles. She is thrilled that her monthly Friday night fitness parties have attracted many who would not otherwise have ventured into an exercise environment.

Upgrading Your Group Experience

Group-exercise upgrades come in several forms: special events, physical enhancements to the workout space, and easy-to-use quick fixes that instructors can bring to class. Here are examples of each:

Get Out of the Box

Bright fluorescent lights, flat white walls, glaring mirrors at the front of the studio—no doubt you’ve taught a class or two in a space like this. But an environment that feels like a hospital is not what you need to create the ultimate client experience, says Cyrus.

Popowych encourages studio owners to rethink the “stan- dard.” “Avoid getting stuck in the box of what you think a classic studio should look like,” she says. “Make yours difffferent. Make it look un-studio-like.”

“Research suggests that around 70% of members rate the ‘ambience of the room’ as either ‘important’ or ‘extremely important’ to their experience,” agrees Steve Renata, CEO of Les Mills West Coast, based in San Francisco.

Les Mills has always been a proponent of the “Broadway” or “nightclub-inspired” fitness space, says Renata. The company’s vision includes a purpose-built stage for instructors, theater-style lighting, a high-quality sound system, and carpet on floors, the last of which Renata says cuts down on skids and makes supine or prone exercises more comfortable.


Participants want to be absorbed in a fun and motivating experience, not to watch their possibly out-of-shape bodies attempt to match a lithe instructor’s every shimmy and shake—that’s the Les Mills view.

“Our experience over the last 20 years suggests that the key to group-fitness success is to create an environment that makes clients feel less ‘self-conscious,’” says Renata. “Then, participants can lose themselves in the experience. Ironically, things like the industry standard of having mirrors behind the instructor run contrary to this.”

For such reasons, the GoodLife clubs in Canada, under Hagan’s direction, replaced front-of-studio mirrors with mirrors on the sides of the room, to be used for alignment and safety cues only. Instructors face the participants (i.e., mirror-teach) to create a theater effect, as if the exercisers were audience members watching performers on stage. This helps participants “lose themselves in the performance,” Hagan reports.

To further enhance the theater vibe, instructors at Simply Class—an independent gym in Belfast, Northern Ireland—teach from a stage built at the front of the room. “This provides [the same kind of] performance feel you would get in a theater or club,” notes owner Matthew McDowell. “Effectively all of our classes are a performance of the highest level, so a stage is a must.”

Lift the Mood With Lighting

There is perhaps no faster way to boost the mood of your fitness room than by upgrading the lighting system, say our experts. “Lighting can flatter, set the mood, heighten an experience, destress, motivate and even empower,” says Biscontini.

Take Crunch’s big-budget example as inspiration. With the touch of a button, fitness pros can control lighting displays that are preprogrammed by theme. Instructors choose from pro- grams designed to enhance high-energy classes, like cardio, or from a different set for “sexy” classes, such as pole-dance–inspired workouts. “Another button is available for wellness classes, such as Pilates or yoga, when the room is bathed in blue lights,” says Cyrus.

Simply Class has also gone big with its lighting design. “Our studio lighting system can be linked to the style and music of a class,” says McDowell. “For example, a more holistic class uses soft lighting, [while] a high-energy class [has] lighting similar to that of a nightclub.”

Avena wanted to create this kind of world-class feel for her small-town clientele but had a very tight budget—so she ordered lights online, and studio volunteers and an electrician friend installed them.

“As I could afford it, I bought nine wall sconces that I ran around the perimeter of the room using regular 60-watt bulbs,” Avena recalls. “I then got strips of lights (similar to outdoor Christmas light ropes) to run behind the stage for more ‘ambient’ lighting.”

A few light cans and a revolving disco ball highlighted by two small spotlights completed the several-hundred-dollar makeover. (Avena used www.lightbulbsurplus.com and www .cheaplights.com.)

Other budget-friendly tips? Buy a few battery-operated (fire-safe) LED candles that change colors; install dimmers; and use colored gels or cellophane over fluorescent lighting for an instant room makeover, says Kathy Ehrlich-Scheffer, group- cycling and marketing consultant and former owner of Cycledelic indoor cycling studio in Rochester, New York.

Of course, don’t forget safety. Hall found that moving lights, which were great for high-energy classes, were distracting in classes that require more concentration and balance (e.g., BodyFlowTM). And bright blinking lights that shine directly in participants’ faces can trigger dizziness or other health problems related to photosensitivity, Cyrus notes.

The bottom line? “Lights should enhance the workout,” says Hall. “They shouldn’t take over the class.”

Create a Scent-Sory experience

If you want to boost your class vibe, just follow your senses, say our experts.

Independent instructors can upgrade their classes by incorporating as many of the five senses as possible and as appropriate, says Biscontini. Yet “becoming familiar and comfortable with different ways to incorporate the five senses into fitness training is often unexplored,” he notes.

Of course, you already play music, stimulating participants’ sense of hearing. But consider these other options:

Sense of smell. When apt, Biscontini uses aromatherapy spray, either misting the room prior to class or spritzing participants as they relax at the end of class. (He announces what he will do first and asks those wishing not to participate to signal him.)

Another approach? Ehrlich-Scheffer recommends a diffuser—a small device that spreads the scent of concentrated aromatherapy oils throughout a room. However, take note that some clients may be sensitive to different odors. “Experiment with the smell outside of class to ensure it is not overpowering,” Ehrlich-Scheffer cautions.

Sense of taste. “When appropriate, I try to incorporate the sense of taste into my workout experiences,” says Biscontini. “During a seated posture in yoga, for example, I may offer candies flavored with natural mint, which complements the aroma-therapy spray of the same flavor, which, in turn, complements a class theme of ‘cooling breath.’”

Get Visual With Videos

To stimulate participants’ sense of sight, try a video upgrade in your group exercise room.

“In one of our spaces at the Richmond Olympic Oval, we have a wall of televisions that can project images either as a single screen or as a full wall image,” says Popowych. Instructors match the theme of the class to the images (such as music videos for a cardio class), which creates a great workout vibe, she says.

A simpler, less complex way to use video imagery is to purchase a digital projector, which can range in price from several hundred dollars to several thousand. The projector displays the presentation, photos or videos that are on your computer screen. For a “movie screen,” install a premade pull-down screen, use a blank wall, or even hang a white sheet against the front mirrors of your workout space. Instant theater!

This setup is particularly useful for indoor cycling classes, says Ehrlich-Scheffer. She notes that there is a growing selection of professionally produced cycling DVDs designed specifically for use in indoor cycling studios. These DVDs take participants on bucket-list types of journeys, from an easy cruise through Napa Valley to a difficult mountain stage of the Tour de France. (Ehrlich-Scheffer recommends www.globalride.net, www.bike-o-vision.com and www.epicplanet.tv. For hardcore sweat sessions, she likes www.thesufferfest.com.)

Virtual cycling classes (ride profiles planned to match the onscreen DVD) take more time to plan, she concedes, but she believes they are worth it. “I was concerned as an owner and instructor that people would tune out the instructor if we used DVDs, but that didn’t happen.” Instead, video imagery “was like icing on the cake,” provided the instructor had prepared a solid class plan and ride profile.

Throw A Party

Why work out when you can party instead?

Zumba has answered this question by taking the exercise-to-music concept to a world-class, stadium-size level. Concert-style Zumba music and fitness events attract thousands of attendees worldwide, from Los Angeles to London to Lille, France. Revelers groove before a stage featuring master Zumba instructors paired with live performances by the same artists whose hits grace the most popular Zumba tracks.

It was in the spirit of this concert-event approach that Avena conceived her monthly Friday-night Zumba glow parties. To create an amazing experience, she inserts black light tubes into her studio’s existing light fixtures to make participants’ bright outfits “glow” in the dark. She covers the skylights and windows with heavy black plastic to maximize the effect.

“We put out a few tables and two dozen chairs, and we [provide] water,” she says. Ambient music plays as participants check in, and then the party starts. “People dance when they want to and take breaks when they want to,” says Avena, who keeps the focus on community involvement, a welcoming atmosphere and fun.

Other glow-party ideas include offering prizes for best costumes and giving inexpensive glow-in-the-dark necklaces to all participants.

Special events like this can be scheduled intermittently or be one-off events. Hagan throws movie-premier-inspired choreography launches for all quarterly Les Mills class updates, complete with clubwide decorations. Says Popowych, “Having separate one-off events provides members with a new environment [and a] new experience, and it draws in new participants,” she says.

Hire A Live Performer

At CorePower® Yoga in Huntington Beach, California, a live musician—either a professional cellist or an acoustic guitarist/singer—accompanies Monday-night hot-yoga flow classes. Director of operations Heather Peterson describes the interaction of live music and the energy of class as “incomparable.”

“Live music is one of the best additions I’ve ever been able to give my students,” she says. The musicians work in exchange for free yoga classes, making Peterson’s arrangement a win-win.

Live music, particularly percussion, is also a great addition for cardio-based modalities. For example, Crunch fitness uses live drummers in select workouts inspired by African dance. Popowych sometimes hires a drummer to add background percussion to the music she plays in her cycling classes.

Popowych also recommends hiring a live DJ for a once-a-month cardio experience at your facility. “It’s so cool, and people love it,” she notes.

Alternatively, live performers can add a visual element. At Ehrlich-Scheffer’s cycling studio, the most recent Valentine’s day workout offered an edgy twist: a live pole-dance–style aerial artist, who performed routines during the ride’s recovery songs.

Dollars and Sense

Upping the ante on the group-exercise experience sounds great, but will the time and money you spend on creating these one-of-a-kind workouts pay off?

McDowell says yes. “In an incredibly competitive envi- ronment, you need to have something that sets you apart,” he argues. Spending money on experiential upgrades “provides a USP [unique selling proposition] that others are unlikely to match.”

Hall planned her studio’s extensive group-exercise improvements for that very reason: to help her facility stand out among local competitors. But she believes that if all other gyms in her area adopted the same model, hers wouldn’t be so successful. “It has worked for us, but it took a lot of work, time, energy and money to design and implement this type of upgrade.”

Nevertheless, our experts say, converting to a more experiential group exercise platform can be a boon to your bottom line when done right. “If members perceive ‘real value’ in studio upgrades, there is an opportunity to charge for classes,” says Renata.

“Upgraded studios can and will generate nondues revenue,” agrees Hagan, who favors adding an extra charge for the upgraded classes instead of raising membership fees, so that bare-bones membership costs stay competitive.

If your classes have, until now, been “free” for members, start with a modest booking fee, says Renata. He also recommends offering existing clients short-term, goodwill concession cards—for free classes—that expire in 30–90 days, giving people time to adjust to the new fee-based concept.

If you’re concerned about client reactions, then train staff on how to explain why you’re charging extra. Launching a new program and a studio upgrade concurrently will provide more tangible evidence that your services have changed and are worth a higher monetary investment, Renata adds.

Above all, don’t forget the big picture, says Hagan, since the benefits of an experiential platform are noit always directly measurable relative to capital investment. “Studio upgrades cost money. However, we know that when more members do group exercise, it lowers our overall costs of servicing a member, and member retention increases.”

&lquo;Monetary success is sometimes not calculated in the moment but in the long term,&rquo; says Popowych. “Retention and referrals are no-cost goals, so that should always be at the top of your mind.”

Making the Change

Cutting-edge instructors and studio brands like Crunch and Les Mills are making it their business to evolve from being ordinary to being extraordinary. And “small businesses should always look to other businesses for ideas and replicate them on a smaller scale,” says Popowych.

“Customers are used to the standard group-exercise environment (white walls, strip lighting, mirrors on the walls, and wooden floors),” says McDowell. “At our facility, we created a more motivational environment: inspiring graphics, lighting, colored sports flooring, etc. And our customers recognize they belong to a cutting-edge brand, which in turn breeds loyalty and retention.”

Even if you’re not ready to overhaul your entire program or if it isn’t in the cards, try a tweak or two. “You may not be able to afford smoke machines and a live DJ in every class, but you can offer them occasionally,” says Popowych. “It takes the mundane and vamps it up.” And when you transform your classes into experiences, business takes care of itself.”

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