Encouraging Instructors to Stay and Play

Create the right incentives to keep great employees, even if you have a limited budget.

By Ashlee Davis
May 20, 2014

Many group fitness instructors are independent contractors and teach a variety of classes at various facilities. The majority of them would prefer to offer their teaching talents at a single facility in exchange for regular pay and full benefits, but such opportunities are hard to find. Meanwhile, group fitness managers with limited budgets feel reluctant to ask instructors for exclusivity, because facilities lack the monetary enticements that would encourage these teachers to stay and provide more classes under one roof.

Yet group managers may not be aware of all the perks they can offer instructors in exchange for exclusivity or for teaching more classes. Sometimes, just a small dose of creativity can result in numerous less-traditional ways to reward group teachers.

Provide Continuing Education

Consider providing continuing education for the American Council on Exercise and the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America. You’ll pay a setup fee, and you’ll need to secure course approval from ACE and AFAA, but once those requirements are taken care of, you can offer continuing education credits at future trainings, meetings and workshops.

Manuel Velázquez, a leading instructor at Rancho La Puerta Spa in Tecate, Mexico, makes this observation: “After teaching a long day, having to attend a meeting can be both tiring and boring. However, if you get career-boosting CECs at that meeting, then it’s more like attending a mini convention right in your workplace.”

A similar perk: Offer instructors a raise of a dollar or two per class when they obtain CECs from fitness conferences or certifications.

Wil Amason, group fitness manager for Equinox at Highland Park in Dallas, uses CECs to reward popular instructors who can commit to a substantial percentage of his group exercise schedule. “We offer free in-house education and training with top national presenters, which is their no-cost way to get CECs.”

Offer Free or Discounted Services

Managers who show that they will “go to bat” for their people can entice instructors to make a stronger commitment. If you work in a spa, perks like free massages, facials and body treatments for instructors can be great incentives. If upper management doesn’t allow you to give out complimentary treatments, try to arrange for instructors to pay for such services at cost.

Along the same lines, giving spouses or significant others a membership at low cost can encourage instructors to commit to a certain number of hours.

Amason says Equinox offers its instructors a complimentary membership and significant employee discounts (40%) on all their in-house purchases (shop, spa, personal training and food). He adds that Equinox provides healthcare benefits to group fitness instructors who teach at least five classes per week.

Give Noncash Perks

Sometimes, offering items unrelated to cash flow can gain a commitment from instructors. Janine Mongardini, owner of Janine’s Gym, in Cumbayá, Ecuador, and master instructor for Spinning® and Kranking®, says, “We don’t want to make a profit on our internal customers, and we don’t want to lose money either, so we offer them our services at cost. We also give our top instructors T-shirts, instructor music CDs and even meals at our restaurant, the Cactus Café.”

J.J. Sweeney, senior vice president of fitness development and innovation for Celebrity Fitness, lives in Jakarta, Indonesia, and oversees dozens of instructors. When Celebrity Fitness holds in-house training, Sweeney notes, the company pays in full and upfront for full-time staff. He adds, “While full-timers receive benefits and trainings, we bill the part-time instructors in comfortable installments at a prearranged, discounted rate so they can pay off training over 6 months.”

Here’s another way to stay within a limited budget while creating incentives for popular instructors to commit to more classes (I do this with my instructors): Use a “tally” system that gives “tally points” to instructors for accomplishments such as

  • increasing class size;
  • having perfect attendance;
  • getting comment cards/Facebook tags, shares, comments and posts that mention the class and the company/location where the class is taught;
  • developing a signature class to be taught exclusively at “our” facility; and
  • receiving a specialty certificate or an additional internationally recognized certification.

To obtain no-cost gifts for tallies, visit local grocery stores, hair salons, movie theaters, independent restaurants and coffeehouses. Explain the value of having group exercise professionals advertise local businesses at primetime locations while using a microphone during high-energy movement, endorphin-enhancing experiences. Usually, companies understand and welcome the free publicity and the potential public relations exposure, and they immediately offer free and discount coupons. Give these coupons to the instructors who accumulate the most tally points.

“Getting tallies—and prizes—makes you want to ‘stay and play’ at a place that values you,” says Velázquez, who has seen this effort work. “Plus, I love the fact that [my manager] always tried to find unique ways to reward us [while] promoting and supporting local businesses at the same time.”

Tap Intangibles Like Prestige

Creating a work environment with enough prestige that instructors want to be part of the team can serve as a perk in its own right. As Amason explains, “Equinox is always on the lookout for top-quality instructors, and our existing instructors know that [they] have to be on top of their game at all times, given our exclusive reputation and our brand recognition. So the ‘hook’ for the instructor to ‘stay and play’ on my team is simply the desire to be the best.”

Sometimes, facilities with a limited budget can offer instructors other free perks. Steve Feinberg, creator and CEO of New York City–based Speedball Fitness, says, “What makes me want to stay and play at a facility sometimes transcends the actual dollars offered. When a club agrees to go out of its way to share/comment/tag me on its Facebook page, include me in its public relations outreach, offer to sell my music products and DVDs in its retail space, and let me use its mailing list to promote my own trainings to its instructors—those things all outweigh any dollar amount per single class, because I couldn’t afford all of those public relations perks.”

Let’s Say It Again

Many group fitness instructors teach similar, or even identical, classes at competing facilities. Developing a work environment that both invites them and encourages them to stay and play requires creativity and commitment. The goal is to help them feel valued and recognized.

Ultimately, the best programs attract the best instructors, and it becomes the responsibility of the department leader to generate desirable rewards. Keeping the best instructors on the team follows the same adage as applies to gym members working out: “When it’s important, we find a way.”

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Ashlee Davis

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