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The Major Roles of the Modern Group Fitness Manager

Think your facility is “managing just fine” without a group fitness manager? Time to challenge your perceptions and highlight this role’s impact on membership, retention, staffing, safety and more.

Group fitness manager

Does your facility offer group fitness classes that you’d like to expand? Perhaps you have a fledgling group fitness program or are thinking of adding one. Or maybe you have a longstanding group fitness program that has seen some attrition over the past few years, including the loss of its former leader. It makes sense to contemplate how to run classes as economically as possible. One way some managers consider saving money is by not hiring a dedicated, qualified, experienced group fitness leader. Certainly COVID-19 prompted cost-cutting measures. You may wonder, “Does my facility really need a group fitness manager (GFM)? Can’t front desk staff, sales employees or other managers find subs or add classes if needed?” And what happens when you decide to forgo hiring a qualified GFM?

Many managers may be unaware of the impact a designated GF leader has on a business and the bottom line. Fit pros who don’t lead group fitness often “don’t know what they don’t know” about running classes and managing an instructor staff.

In addressing whether hiring a GFM is worth it, several fitness pros across the United States share their experiences here. My own four decades of teaching and leading GF programs on four continents have also revealed some of the results and unintended consequences of leaderless programs—and the profits and rewards of procuring the best GFM you can find.

First, let’s look at the key ostensible reasons that often motivate facilities to offer classes without any specific head—and why this route ends up costing more than hiring a qualified leader.

3 Reasons Why Facilities Forgo a Group Fitness Manager

Group fitness class

The investment in a well-led group fitness program that creates happy members can more than pay off via retention alone.

Reason 1: It Will Save the Club Money

Logic and experience in the industry imply that saving on payroll is a strong incentive to do without a GF leader. Unlike a personal training program, for instance, a group fitness program is not always a direct revenue-generating source. Adding a payroll expense to a non–revenue-producing department can seem ill-advised.

“L.O.” (who wishes to remain anonymous, as he hails from a relatively small community in California) has been an instructor, GFM and club member at the same facility and shares this experience: “A facility I taught at had a group fitness director but eliminated the position a few years back. The then-former group fitness director slowly transitioned out after she lost her title. All communication was eventually done through the general manager and another facility manager. They should have kept the fitness director. She was the communication line between management, the instructors and the members.”

The investment in a well-led group fitness program that creates happy members can more than pay off via retention alone. However, savings can also come in other forms, such as a reduced possibility of lawsuits due to poorly maintained equipment.

Reason 2: A GFM’s Job Is “Simply” Finding Subs

Some believe that the primary—perhaps sole—responsibility of the GFM is to find subs. Managers and owners may believe this task to be minimal, easy and infrequent. Marilee (Lee) Milne, of Gilbert, Arizona, relies on almost four decades of group management to form her observations. Recently coaxed from retirement to turn around a failing, leaderless program, Milne understands this misapprehension. “In the early days of group fitness, GF coordinators or managers acted more as admins than as leaders. The main role was to ensure classes were covered and to be the backup sub. Through the years, the role of a group fitness program manager has become less focused on the daily administration—printing out schedules, processing payroll—and more about building a program that brings participants into classes. Along with program development, hiring and mentoring staff is a crucial part of the role.”

Fitness instructor “J.C.” (who wishes to remain anonymous) teaches at multiple facilities in Illinois. Given the lack of an on-site, GF-experienced leader, J.C. shares that he is forced to “designate myself as my own group exercise coordinator. I am the one finding subs for classes and helping my co-workers cover their classes when needed in an emergency.” He further relates that his volunteered time is not always successful, despite his best efforts: Classes still get canceled for lack of subs or because a sub list is too small to cover the spread-out region. So even if the responsibility of a GFM were limited to subbing, that task is still one deserving of and needing a skilled point person.

Reason 3: A Small Program Doesn’t Justify Having the Position

Another justification for forgoing a GF leader is that the program is too small to warrant a dedicated employee. But a leaderless program sends a mixed message to staff, instructors and members: Your facility values a fitness program enough to offer one but not enough to support it.

Even if a facility offers as few as five classes per week, someone familiar with classes and instructors needs to be a point person. Subbing, hiring, firing, evaluating, programming, mentoring, communicating with members about the program, monitoring equipment and tracking class participation are still important, ongoing and, ultimately, money-saving tasks.

One way to demonstrate the myriad benefits of having a GFM is to compare what the outcomes can be like with and without one. Let’s start with the most apparent issue requiring a designated point person for classes and instructors: subbing.

See also: What Do Instructors Want in a Group Fitness Manager?

Subbing Challenges Without a Group Fitness Manager

The most common results of not having a GF-savvy point person handling subbing are as follows: canceled classes due to lack of a qualified or available sub; instructors stepping in who are not trained or qualified to teach the scheduled mode; and lack of communication about cancellations that ultimately affects members and retention negatively. (Check out the web extra, “Case Study: Subbing Failures Without a GFM,” on ideafit.com.)

As Milne puts it, “Without a GF leader, there’s no accountability for finding coverage . . . and instructor no-shows or late calls to the front desk become common. Canceled classes will kill a program!”

J.C. could not agree more. “Currently [at one of the clubs where I teach], without a group fitness coordinator, requests for sub instructors are increasingly difficult. Classes end up being canceled, which is not fair to members. If an instructor needs a sub for Zumba®, for example, email responses come back from instructors saying they are not certified to teach that format. Subbing and cancellation problems would be avoided in the first place [with a GF leader].”

Subbing Outcomes With a Group Fitness Manager

Strong GFMs know how to anticipate and solve subbing issues. They audition and hire a diversified staff, bringing on board backup instructors beyond what’s needed to fill the current schedule. Many programs hire instructors with the understanding that they are subs only.

These GFMs then create and constantly update a sub list that goes to all instructors, facility managers and staff. This list clarifies which modes each instructor can handle and their general availability. Instructors also receive a clear, consistent subbing policy. Instructors who sub out frequently are replaced with an instructor who can be consistent.

Experienced GF leaders also keep creative solutions in their mental pocket. For instance, who might be able to switch a class to cover the open one? A good GFM also knows which instructors can “wing it” with a tough crowd based on energy, personality or superlative skills, even if the mode is other than what is listed. And truly qualified GFMs are also able to step in and teach when needed, especially when inevitable emergencies arise. No one, especially a member, likes to wake up and hustle to a 6 a.m. cycling class, only to face a no-show or canceled class.

Finally, effective GF leaders can keep canceled classes to a minimum with planning and foresight specific to running a successful program. Often these solutions are “invisible” to upper management since the potential problem—insufficient subs—is solved far in advance with foresightful hiring, mentoring and evaluating.

See also: A Setup for Successful Subbing

Programming Problems Without a Group Fitness Manager

Group fitness manager programming

A member-driven, professionally managed group program is exciting, current and balanced.

Addressing subbing needs may be the most common and obvious task a GFM handles. Creating a well-attended program is arguably the most significant one.

According to Kate Finamore, Owner of Engage Fitness Collective, an online group fitness business based in Alexandria, Virginia, with many years of experience as a GFM at multiple clubs, “Without a GF leader, there is no one to assess the schedule as an overall picture. No one [with training and focused vision] is looking at trends or thinking ahead to where the industry is headed and where to spend money on programming, upskilling or props (and) equipment. No one ensures that a variety of classes are offered at a variety of times, and that classes don’t compete with one another. No one coordinates holiday schedules or puts out last-minute schedule fires.”

Milne agrees that a GFM “stays aware of industry trends and programs that could be a good fit for their facility demographics. The program should align with the goals and deliverables required by club managers [and] owners. Offering the same menu of classes year after year leads to both instructor and member boredom.” Bored and frustrated members don’t come back when they see the value of their membership has eroded.

At the club where L.O. once taught, then joined as a member, he notes that “classes are canceled with no notification or signage, printed schedules are not updated . . . , classes were added to the schedule randomly with no communication to members or marketing . . . . Nothing exciting [is happening anymore].” As a result, he has quit teaching and is set to end his membership too.

(See “Case Study: Programming Failures Without a GFM,” below.)

Programming Outcomes With a Group Fitness Manager

A member-driven, professionally managed group program is exciting, current and balanced. Participants know they can count on consistency, quality and relevancy. Not only will they meet their exercise goals via targeted classes, but they will also form connections with the GFM, instructors and fellow class attendees. Finamore, for instance, takes pride in the personal connections she formed with her staff and the members as a GFM. She visited classes weekly; introduced herself to participants; answered questions and emails; held meetings with members to elicit feedback; and followed up on class, teacher and equipment complaints.

A good GFM also uses these communication strategies to ensure the schedule matches participant preferences (which ensures classes are well attended) and that members know who to contact when problems arise. Numbers go up; loyalty increases; retention rates expand. A strong GF leader with authority, responsibility, a budget and experience can create all these results.

Instructor Issues Without a Group Fitness Manager

Not only is the program destined to underperform when no one is in charge of it, but the teaching staff and instruction quality also suffer. Finamore again draws on her considerable experience to note that, “without a GF leader, hiring becomes a warm-body exercise . . . If applicants have a certification and breathe, they get hired. No one assesses instructors for yearly evaluations, which means [instructors] are stagnant in their skills and in their pay rates. No one is dealing with problems on staff such as [an instructor] who always starts class late or an instructor who breaks rules.”

Even high-performing instructors get demoralized over time without dedicated leadership. Who is mentoring new instructors or ensuring a pipeline of talent? Who is maintaining protocols and making sure instructors are up to date with certifications, CPR and AED compliance or monitoring class attendance numbers?

As Milne points out, “instructors often do not feel valued when there is no GF-specific leadership. A general manager or club owner may not even know [all the] instructors’ names. A culture of ‘teach and leave’ develops and leads to a lack of connection or loyalty to the organization.”

In the absence of recognition, ongoing education or something as simple as team meetings, instructors are deprived of a team experience.

Instructor Outcomes With a Group Fitness Manager

A centralized leader with sole attention to the GF program can have a huge impact on the bottom line, even if that line is not a direct one. Member and instructor retention are positively affected.

Quality rises because a leader with group training requires current certifications, updated class content and consistency in holding down a given class. Instructors are rewarded for good performance—whether by being offered more classes, getting pay raises or being praised at meetings, for example. Instructors are vested in “their” club and “their” participants. They know they are part of a team and contributors to the facility’s success.

See also: 5 Traits of the Best Fitness Instructor

Equipment and Safety Concerns Without a Group Fitness Manager

Man using equipment in group exercise

Investment in a GFM to oversee and anticipate class equipment safety would be far less expensive than losing a lawsuit.

The last big area where the presence of GF leadership makes an important difference is one that can have a direct impact on dollars: maintaining safe and functioning equipment for group programming. One tubing band with a nick in it that snaps into a member’s teeth; one tall stack of steps that falls onto a member because no one monitored their return placement; one TRX® strap anchor that pulls out from the ceiling—these are all classroom accidents that can lead to lawsuits. Finamore observes that “without a GFM, equipment and safety issues persist and often get bigger and more expensive.”

Even issues that are less dangerous or financially risky can undermine class quality. Nonworking mics and stereos put instructors in the unenviable position of having to either cancel class or incur vocal strain by shouting cues.

Also relevant to member satisfaction is having enough equipment for all class participants. If 20 people show for a class that supplies only 15 mats, 10 weights, 12 yoga blocks, 4 sets of kettlebells or 2 battle ropes, then—well, you get the picture. Instructor creativity can only go so far to meet immediate class demand when no one knows or cares to track and order sufficient equipment.

All these examples and more are real, yet so easy to avoid when a designated leader is in charge. (See “Case Study: Equipment and Safety Failures Without a GFM,” below)

Equipment and Safety Outcomes With a Group Fitness Manager

Business-savvy owners and managers see the looming liability case when a member is injured. Investment in a GFM to oversee and anticipate class equipment safety would be far less expensive than losing a lawsuit.

GFMs regularly go into the classroom, inspect equipment and understand what to look for. They get equipment repaired or replaced as needed. They track attendance numbers and can order sufficient props and equipment to meet demand.

Again, when non-GF employees are in charge or the default option, they don’t know what they don’t know. A GFM reduces these potential blind spots and solves problems before they happen.

Consensus on the Importance of a GFM

Ultimately and inexorably, a deprioritized, unsupported, leaderless group fitness program results in instructor and member dropout and cancellations, instructor disengagement, low morale, and even injuries. The role of a good GF leader impacts much more than subbing and can be a profitable, rewarding tool for member sales, renewal and ongoing club use.

Milne sums up the reality: “Bottom line: A group fitness program will sink without a captain. An experienced group fitness manager is essential to the success of the instructors, the programs and overall club membership.”

If you want a thriving, popular, attractive program with a team of instructors eager to work for you and members who flock to your facility, procure the best GFM you can.

The Ups and Downs of a GFM: An Anecdotal History

Kate Finamore, owner of Engage Fitness Collective, an online group fitness business based in Alexandria, Virginia, has many years of experience as a GF manager at multiple clubs. Finamore roots her assertions about the increasing trend of GF programs being underappreciated in a brief historical summary:

“When I started out, a GFM was typically a part-time position in charge of one location. Over time, companies began consolidating the GFM jobs so that one GFM ran multiple locations but, often, [was] still not compensated at a full-time salary.

“Around 2009, it seems like the corporate offices of big gyms were treating the position with a little more respect, hiring national GF directors and making a GFM role full time for one or two locations. Some companies even added a regional GFM, a role I fulfilled for a few years. But then everything began to crumble again.

“From 2012 on, it became more and more common to find companies [that] eliminated GFM positions altogether, with GF instructors reporting to the head of personal training or to the sales manager. Other gyms placed 16 or more gyms under one GFM, across multiple states.”

Even today, says Finamore, many owners and managers still believe that GF programs run themselves. “I would suggest that the GF department is so disrespected [and not understood] that owners [and] high-level managers simply don’t think it’s important to have a GF manager.”

However, through outreach in media such as this, she and other experts in group fitness management are taking meaningful steps to educate non–group fitness professionals and elevate the position to garner the respect, funding and appreciation it deserves.

Case Study: Subbing Failures Without a GFM

A few examples reveal common outcomes when no one (or “everyone,” also known as “anyone”) is in charge of subbing.

I have personally observed this and similar examples multiple times. The regular instructor knew she had to miss a Body Pump class, so she started looking for a sub 2 weeks in advance. There was no sub list, as no manager knew to hire beyond scheduled class needs nor to provide the teaching staff with a sub list. No one in the club had the experience or awareness to reach out to other teachers who taught other strength-training modes. (A knowledgeable GF leader would know to plug in a similar or complementary mode—say, Strength Training with Equipment in lieu of Body Pump.) Of the few people the regular teacher had in her contact list, only two were qualified in the needed mode and neither was available.

The instructor let the general manager (GM) know of the unfilled class and that her efforts had reached their limit unsuccessfully. The GM said he’d take care of it; but didn’t. Result? Members showed, no teacher showed, members were unhappy. The on-site assistant manager and front desk staff had no idea why the instructor did not show. The instructor got blamed for a problem she’d tried to solve and that was ultimately not under her control to manage.

The “No-Win” Example

Here, someone (anyone!)—a manager, front desk person, personal training director, remote GF leader or the desperate, regular instructor—procures a sub for a given class.

Problem? A class needs a warm body. Solution? Find a willing and warm body. Bigger problem? The instructor who steps in is not a match for the class either by mode, teaching style, skill level or a combination of these factors.

Result? This situation is a no-win for everyone. Member needs are not met so they either grumble or walk out early. The instructor who is filling in cannot meet expectations, especially if that person was not prepped for what to expect. Front desk staff are bombarded with member complaints for a problem they cannot solve.

The “No-Class” Example

@sbarbody:The bane of class participants’ experience is a canceled class session. When a non-GF person is faced with a class lacking a sub or an absent instructor, the seemingly easiest decision is to cancel that class “just this once.”

Problem? Since no central person is running the program, management has no awareness of the frequency of canceled classes. No true data or tracking occurs.

Result? The club has “trained” members not to come to classes because they might not take place. Class numbers dwindle and members begin quitting.

Case Study: Programming Failure Without a GFM

A club I taught at assigned a fledgling front desk employee to create a program from scratch by calling instructors and asking what and when they could teach. Instructors were happy to stipulate their own schedules, myself included. Understandably, we weren’t aware of overall club demographics, budget and workout habits. A 100% instructor-driven program was pieced together—no “big-picture” awareness at all. The result was a program disaster doomed to failure through no fault of the instructors: Two Pilates classes in a row in the evening, neither of which was well attended; three cycling classes on one day and nothing else; no weekend classes at all. The weakest instructor was most in need of income, so she asked for—and got—the majority of classes. Total hit and miss—mostly “miss.”

Members from the nearby university wanted mid-morning, challenging, non–music driven classes such as boot camp and “ropes HIIT.” No one came to the noon classes because few offices were nearby. Older adults protested against their classes starting earlier than 9:30 a.m., saying they retired and “earned” sleeping in. The haphazard program did not match any of these members’ preferences and ultimately failed, as classes got canceled due to low attendance (and subbing issues). One instructor set a record of zero attendees in two classes per week for months! She still signed in, got paid, stuck around for 10 minutes and signed out. Payroll money was wasted for months—simply because no one was tracking classes or getting member input. Even the most amazing teaching staff cannot overcome a poorly planned or monitored program.

Case Study: Equipment and Safety Failures Without a GFM

Jackie Meiklejohn, an instructor from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, quit teaching for a club that lacked a GFM when no one took responsibility for a key safety concern that led to equipment failure and injury in her aerial yoga class.

“One of my students fell while inverted because the rigging failed. I suspended my classes (and asked to) view a copy of the inspection report. Club managers refused to let me see anything nor did they address the issues. They (also) failed to help me find insurance that covered their ceiling height.

“Management wanted the aerial classes to return, but instead of addressing my concerns, they asked other (untrained) instructors to teach. They told one to watch YouTube videos and learn from them. I did not want to be associated with a club that even thought to propose that. When hiring they posted: ‘If you are not certified, we will certify you the (our gym name) way.’

“I gave my resignation and got an email the next day to not report for any further classes. They told me the classes were covered. Nope. They were canceled instead.”

Kymberly Williams-Evans, MA

Kymberly Williams-Evans, PhD (ABD) has been a fitness professional on four continents, in four languages, for four decades on land, at sea and across the airwaves. After years of co-hosting an online radio program (Active Aging for BoomChickaBoomers), she reports having interviewed scads of great guests and two really bad ones.

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