Group Fitness in a Small-Town Gym

Seven sure ways to help you grow your group program.

By Angela Yochum, MEd
Sep 18, 2018

An experience. That’s what exercisers want in order to feel inspired and motivated. In the fitness industry, one of the key places where this experience occurs is within a group fitness community. It doesn’t take a big-box gym or a trendy fitness boutique to give participants an amazing experience. With some creativity, flexibility and determination, even the smallest fitness facility or studio can offer a dynamic group fitness program that will give members the experience they crave.

Don’t let your diminutive business stature take a back seat to professionalism. Here are seven steps to help you develop your group fitness (or small-group personal training) program to excite current clients and attract new members.

Step #1: Hire a Group Fitness Coordinator

If you’re the gym owner or general manager, you’re one busy individual! You are likely managing several departments, and you have little time to dedicate much attention to just one of them. Therefore, if you don’t already have someone to handle your group fitness department, consider delegating the task. Doing so will reduce your overall workload, and it will designate a single coordinator to focus on the program’s success.

A part-time group fitness coordinator for a small gym typically works 5–10 hours per week. The coordinator can manage the tasks you may dread: finding instructors to cover classes, updating the class calendar and sending it to the printers, coordinating instructors for a staff meeting and sending out email reminders to instructors.

Check out these tips for finding a coordinator:

Look internally. One of your current instructors would very likely be interested in gaining management experience. Consider who has been reliable and possesses leadership qualities.

Be sure to do the following:

  • Pay the coordinator a stipend. When employees feel valued, they work harder. Research the approximate going rate in your region.
  • Provide your instructor with a title for this new role. You have choices: Group Fitness Director is formal, while Group Fitness Manager and Group Fitness Coordinator titles are less formal. Choose the one that best suits your establishment.
  • Introduce this person as the new group fitness manager. Let staff know that this is the person who is in charge of the group program.

Step #2: Employ Certified Instructors

Establish high standards for your instructors. When you set a high but achievable bar, instructors will rise to your standards and your program will be known for the quality of its offerings. Here are some key actions to help with this effort:

Require instructors and trainers to be certified. Choose certifications such as ACE, ACSM, AFAA and/or specialty or licensed formats. Your instructors will grow professionally, since they will need to complete other learning opportunities to renew their certification(s). If your instructors are not currently certified, give them six months to acquire their certification.

Pay your staff fairly. Find out what your competitors have established as the going rate for quality instructors and trainers, and match or beat that number.

Work hard to retain talent. Listen to your staff, and thank them frequently! Happy instructors and trainers will eagerly work for you because they’ll love what they’re doing and who they’re working for.

Consider fronting or reimbursing payment for instructor training. If your budget allows, help your staff keep their continuing education current. Also, hold CPR trainings on-site to ease the burden for your staff.

Step #3: Know Your Demographics

To best determine your class offerings, recognize who attends classes and when. Then begin to understand the mindset of each of these groups:

  • Working crowd—The 5:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. exercisers appreciate intense, no-nonsense workouts where they can work hard and be back out the door quickly.
  • Mid-morning—The 8:30–9:00 a.m. time slot tends to pull in stay-at-home moms and retired folks. They like fun classes.
  • Active agers—Mid- and late-morning classes have proven to be highly successful for the senior population. This is a group that likes to socialize after class.

Dead times. In a small community, pulling in a crowd during the 7:00 a.m., noon hour and 4:00 p.m. time slots can be a struggle, because they’re between rush hours. Consider renting out space or offering a discount for personal training during these times.

Step #4: Develop a Balanced Program

Once you know your demographics and available staff, you can build or revise your class schedule. Ideally, class offerings should complement each other, not compete. Analyze what classes you’re offering (or want to offer) at each time slot on both a weekly and a daily basis.

Consider these scheduling suggestions:

  • Weekly class offerings—Look at the big picture. For each time slot throughout the week, alternate strength, cardio and/or flexibility classes. This lineup will encourage participants to show up each day for different workouts. For example, an 8:30 a.m. class might offer a cardio format on MWF and a strength format on TTH. Or, if your instructor availability is limited, try scheduling a strength/cardio combo class 2–3 times per week instead.
  • Daily lineup—Within each day, offer classes that alternate formats, which may entice a member to take back-to-back classes. For example, follow a 5:30 p.m. cardio class with a 6:30 p.m. yoga class (rather than another cardio-based class).

Assess class value. Although determining the value of your classes can be tricky, doing so gives you vital information on the success rate of your program. You could use class counts, cost per head or overall penetration to calculate your program’s success and then adjust the schedule when necessary. For detailed instructions on how to make these calculations, read Shannon Fable’s “A Better Way To Determine Class Value” at IDEAfit.com.

Remember that you will need to purchase a music license if you want to play music in a public location. Get more information on this at www.ascap.com or www.bmi.com.

Step #5: Foster Your Community

Demonstrate that your facility is inclusive, welcoming and mindful of the needs of your members.

Set the tone. Make your participants feel like they belong to your “fitness family.” This starts with your instructors, who set the tone for their classes and the program as a whole. Make sure they are always meeting, greeting and welcoming members—both new and returning—to every class they teach. Radiate a positive vibe.

Provide childcare. Connect with young parents by offering childcare. For many parents, available childcare can make or break their decision to join or regularly attend classes. The most popular timeframes are 8:00 a.m.–12:00 p.m. for stay-at-home parents and 4:00 p.m.–8:00 p.m. for working parents.

Encourage social time. Offering a coffee station tends to be popular with the active aging population, who often attend classes primarily for the social interaction. Price the coffee fairly, and your patrons will pay to socialize before or after their classes.

Promote open communication. Provide a suggestion box or a comment-card process for members to voice their opinions or concerns. Sometimes members need to be “heard” in order to feel valued.

Step #6: Promote the Program Frequently

Consider these strategies to build interest and increased participation in your classes.

Use social media. Promote specific classes, instructors, tutorial/intro videos or member accomplishments. For special events, create a buzz by posting intriguing images and catchy phrases. Get members talking! Tag them, make comments and ask viewers to share. After all, word of mouth is a strong testimony. Maybe even create a private group for making announcements and further connections.

Run “special” events and promotions, with prizes, freebies or other incentives. People enjoy special events. And they love receiving freebies—it makes them feel like they are getting more for their buck! Promote these events with social media, fliers around the club and announcements by your instructors. Holidays and “happy hour” classes make it fairly easy to generate a special event.

Encourage your instructors to take each others’ classes. Participants will gain additional trust and confidence in your teaching staff when they witness instructors choosing to take classes from their colleagues.

Consider offering guest passes. Sometimes just getting potential members to try a class once will hook them.

Step #7: Always Have a Backup Plan

This adage holds true: If you fail to plan, you plan to fail! Be prepared with solutions if any of these mishaps occur:

  • If headset A goes out, bring out headset B.
  • If music technology fails, have a secondary means to play music. For example, if the iPod connection no longer works, have a CD player close at hand. Require all instructors to bring two forms of music for that moment when one fails.
  • If participants are unhappy about the room temperature, provide electric fans.
  • If the studio room is smelly before a yoga/mat class, make aromatherapy oils, sprays or other room fresheners available.
  • If an instructor is a no-show, have a subbing backup plan.
  • Make sure the AED kit is easily accessible, and train your staff on its location and use.

Be patient. You’ll need time to discover what works best for your group fitness program. With your perseverance and flexibility, your gym’s group exercisers will have a fitness experience that leads to their brand loyalty and puts your small-town gym on the map.

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Angela Yochum, MEd

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