Recently I was faced with the biggest challenge of my professional management career. I had just posted an exciting, eclectic group exercise schedule boasting 75 classes a week. Many were specialty offerings, such as yoga, aqua arthritis, cycling and senior fitness. Then calls began to pour in from instructors telling me they’d be unavailable. Six of them were going to be away in the same week, leaving 38 classes in need of coverage. Three instructors were going on vacation, one would be out of town for a wedding, another was attending a family reunion, and the yoga teacher was going on a retreat. The pristine schedule now resembled Swiss cheese!

The instructors simply told me to cancel their classes, but how would this affect members? The pressure to get so many classes covered with less than a week’s notice was overwhelming. Should I just go ahead and cancel them? The panic button was near, but something kept me from pushing it.

As program managers, we offer and promise a variety of classes on our schedules. It is our duty to continue delivering this service regardless of what comes up. Canceling group fitness classes was not the best solution; it was just the easiest. Easy does not necessarily mean good. This experience taught me a valuable lesson in preparation and communication: You don’t have to cancel classes if you have a plan in place that

  • empowers instructors to find and groom their own subs;
  • makes subs comfortable when teaching for another instructor;
  • ensures a positive experience and a smooth transition for members.

Empowering Instructors

Communicate to your team that it is their responsibility as professionals to obtain their own subs when needed. Most of the time, vacations, weddings and even personal appointments can be scheduled well in advance. No matter how many weeks or months away an event is, stress the importance of advance planning and how it affects the entire organization. Provide a poster-size calendar to encourage early scheduling. This will allow instructors plenty of time to find and prepare subs and to prime participants for upcoming changes, thereby making transitions more fluid.

Putting the responsibility of finding subs directly in the instructors’ arena of authority makes sense. The instructors can often choose the best fit for their own classes. They know their regular clients’ skill levels and personalities because they serve these members day in and day out. Not long ago, John, the leader of our “H.I.T. IT” (“High Intensity/Interval Training”) class had to go on family leave. He made prior arrangements with Josh to fill in for him during his absence. He knew that Josh had a thorough understanding of the class format and even a similar teaching style to his own. John knew the participants would be comfortable with Josh’s approach, and he had confidence in Josh’s ability to lead the class.

An open line of communication further empowers instructors. Each month, we provide a newly revised list of instructors and trainers. We send this list out via e-mail, attach it to pay stubs and post it in the studio. It includes work, home and cell phone numbers, e-mail addresses and the formats each staff member is able to teach. When an instructor needs a sub, he can refer to this list first.

Communication, of course, works both ways. Instructors need to let you know which classes they will not be able to teach and who will be covering them. As the group exercise manager, you are ultimately responsible and need to be kept in the loop. This helps not only with payroll but also when you’re fielding questions and concerns from the front desk, the sales staff and, of course, the members. If an instructor cannot find an appropriate sub, she should ask for help. You can then seek coverage through phone calls, e-mail updates and bulletin board notices in the employee lounge or gathering area. Anticipate this as much as possible, and constantly encourage staff to find substitutes early. Also try to schedule regular (once a month) meetings at which instructors can share days off with each other and trade class times.

Sub-stantial Preparation

As we know, many members are fickle and tend to be extremely loyal to their favorite instructor. One reason they latch on to a particular person is that they are comfortable with her. Other instructors can win these people over before subbing even occurs. Again, communication is key. Once the regular instructor has obtained a replacement, she should brief the sub on the participants’ overall level, the kind of music they like, and so on. It is in the sub’s best interest to attend the class in order to experience its flow and structure and to observe the regular clientele. Team-teaching is an even better idea. This is a great way to break the ice and allows the instructor to give the sub her stamp of approval by showing that she is confident in his ability to lead the class in her absence. It also makes for a fun class experience!

For example, Cliff was always the most popular indoor cycling instructor on our schedule. His class was always packed with dedicated followers known as “Cliff-ettes.” When he needed to take time off, it sent the Cliff-ettes into a tailspin! No one could hold a candle to Cliff, regardless of skill or ability. This frustrated many people, including Cliff, who began to feel as though he couldn’t take time off for fear of upsetting members. I teamed Cliff up with Dave—another successful instructor—and together, the three of us devised a plan that included a specialty indoor cycling class they taught together. We split the class into two groups; one led by Cliff, the other by Dave. We faced the bikes toward each other and the instructors took turns leading the class on a phenomenal journey. The two men’s styles, although different, began to mesh. The duo played off each other with witty banter, displaying their camaraderie and mutual respect as they egged each other on. The hard-to-please Cliff-ettes were introduced in a positive way to Dave’s unique approach (and vice versa) and became more comfortable with him. The pairing was so amazing that members asked that it be a monthly event. Cliff never feared taking time off again because he now had Dave to cover for him.

Instructors must continue to remind their classes of upcoming substitutions and urge participants to be considerate and welcoming. The instructors should

  • point out that even though the class will be led by a different person with a unique approach, she is qualified to teach and is giving herself and her time for their benefit;
  • emphasize that a change in routine is good, as stepping out of one’s comfort zone creates a cross-training effect;
  • assure members that the workout will be both safe and effective, and better than the alternative—no workout at all!

Once the sub takes the class reins, preparation and confidence will ensure success. Even the most seasoned instructor can get rattled when filling in for a colleague. Subs triumph over skeptics by employing simple communication skills and remaining professional and in control at all times. Instructors who adapt well always put participants first. Successful subs have strong communication skills, are thick-skinned and believe strongly in their own abilities. They freely give out smiles, praise and understanding. Instructors who can listen to participants and read facial expressions and body language are extremely effective in subbing situations. Chameleon-like subs who are more flexible in their presentation approaches might involve participants by asking them to share their favorite moves or exercises. By combining what the class likes, wants and needs, these subs create a pleasurable experience and a friendly environment for everyone.

Creative Coverage

What happens when your roster suddenly thins or you have specialty classes that need to be covered? In times of need, you may have to offer a format that is somewhat different from what members are accustomed to. Keep the class format as close to the original as possible. For example, replace a yoga class with another form of mind-body exercise, such as Pilates or tai chi. High-low is a good replacement for a step class. Post any format changes well in advance if possible, and remember that you are still offering a form of exercise taught by a qualified professional. It is like going to your favorite restaurant every Saturday at 5:00 pm and ordering filet mignon. One day, the chef comes out and apologetically informs you that they are out of filet mignon but their prime rib is just as good. You order it and maybe it isn’t your favorite, but you have been given the chance to try another dish and you’ve still had an enjoyable meal.

This strategy is beneficial on many levels. It can help you launch a new, exciting format or move members into forms of exercise they may have hesitated trying before. Members can benefit by working their bodies in a slightly different way and may also be less concerned when faced with this type of situation in the future.

The subbing challenge forces your creative hand. Think expansively. The pool of certified group exercise instructors with flexible schedules is getting shallow. Specialty instructors are also in high demand as clubs struggle to keep up with rapidly growing fitness trends. One forward-thinking idea is to network with other club directors in your area and begin an instructor-sharing program, thus deepening your subbing pool. Each club benefits by having access to more instructors and a wider variety of teaching styles and formats. I have personally worked with other directors to hold periodical clinics in which our instructors network with one another.

“A” for Effort

No matter how great your plan is, some participants will always be unhappy. I was once approached by a member who was dissatisfied when her yoga class was covered by a yoga-Pilates fusion class. She asked if I would be upset if I had season tickets to a football game and showed up only to find that a soccer match was being played instead. I thought about it for a minute and confidently answered, “No.” I explained that I would be more upset if I went to the stadium, no one showed up to play and no effort was made to replace the team. I was still getting some type of entertainment and might even find that I enjoyed the change. After a moment of silence she smiled and said she had never looked at it that way.

By providing an alternative as opposed to canceling a class, you are still offering members a promised service: a group exercise class taught by qualified personnel. Deciding whether to attend then becomes the members’ responsibility and choice. Class participants will appreciate your efforts to continue delivering a high level of service.

the 2-minute warning

Obviously, your subbing plan works best when an instructor gives you notice, but there is always the last-minute call-off. The plan can still work to some degree, as you have already set the foundation with communication and experience. Consider these options when you face an instant-availability challenge:

  • Start the class a few minutes later if you have an instructor who can teach, but who may not make it to the club in time. Ask staff to alert waiting members.
  • Encourage members to take another class that is going on at the same time.
  • Ask a trainer to showcase his skills by leading the class in group strength training or stretching.
    member memos

    Take simple steps to alert members of impending class changes and substitutions. This will ease confusion and frustration.

    • Arm your first line of defense—the front desk—with a list of classes that will be covered, the instructors who will be subbing and any format or time changes.
    • Post eye-catching memos at the front desk and on studio doors.
    • Inform other instructors of any substitutions so that your staff can better answer questions and address concerns.
    • Ask staff to hype subs and/or class format changes, to help create excitement and reduce participant anxiety.