You just finished an intense yoga class, and your body feels beautifully relaxed. It melts into savasana, and you hope the same will be true for your mind, but you can’t stop thinking about that mile-long to- do list on your desk: Review the Pilates equipment budget, check inventory in the retail kiosk, plan the monthly staff meeting. And that’s just the top of the list!
During the past few years, the mind-body segment of the fitness industry has developed and expanded rapidly, inspiring many new yoga, Pilates, Gyrotonic® and integrated fitness studios to open. This trend has also prompted many traditional facilities to add a mix of mind-body classes to existing group programs. With so many choices available to consumers, mind-body studio owners and program managers must differentiate themselves and offer something unique. Although the increasing popularity of mind-body disciplines has created a niche market for specialized studios, effectively managing and differentiating one of these businesses requires something beyond basic knowledge of specific disciplines.
As a studio manager or owner, the daily challenges you face are typical of any small business and yet particular to the fitness industry. While great plans and a passion for mind-body fitness may unlock your studio doors, the challenges don’t end when the grand-opening signs come down. The following tips will help you find balance and keep your business flowing.
Administrative (keeping the doors open)
Topping the to-do list: all things financial. People drawn to mind-body disciplines tend to be “people” people, not number crunchers. Planning for income and expenses; setting revenue goals and tracking sales; budgeting and paying bills; filing taxes and balancing the books—it’s enough to make your head spin. It can also make or break your business.
“Stay on top of your business on a daily basis,” recommends June Kahn, an industry veteran who manages the Pilates program at Lakeshore Athletic Club in Broomfield, Colorado. With more than 15 years of fitness management experience, Kahn stresses the importance of creating sales goals and helping staff take a vested interest in achieving them. Track the numbers daily, share them with your staff as appropriate, encourage them to be responsible for the numbers when possible, and know the details of your financials at all times, she advises.
Next on the list: inventory control. Know your inventory at all times, whether that means toilet paper, cleaning supplies, food and beverages, or retail goods. Inventory wastes money if it sits on a shelf unused for lengthy periods of time, but shortages can also lead to lost revenue. Track inventory daily and keep a written log.
Other logistical tasks can be costly if not handled properly and in a timely manner. These include administrative tasks such as answering mail, voice mail and e-mail; computer and phone system upkeep; website updating; and client tracking systems. Regularly check these off the list in order to keep your business running smoothly. To avoid getting too wrapped up in administrative duties, establish a daily routine for managing your to-do list but don’t lose sight of the future. “Write a business plan that focuses 5–10 years down the line so that you have your goals and aspirations written out,” suggests Danita Chandler, Pilates teacher and owner and manager of Portland Pilates Studio in Lake Oswego, Oregon. Having a long-term vision will remind you why you’re there and save you from getting too caught up in the daily grind.
Staffing (all about people)
Your staff members may quite possibly be your most valuable asset. Make time for them every day and value them appropriately. Put them on your to-do list. “You can never invest too much in your staff,” says Bryan Alexander, PhD, who owns and manages Momentum Studio, a Pilates, Gyrotonic, Gyrokinesis® and Feldenkrais® studio in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “At the end of the day, they deliver your services, and therefore you have more customer satisfaction. You may have to turn away clients to have the time to work with staff, but you’ll be repaid tenfold.”
Take the time to train staff to serve clients the way you want them to be served. As Desiree Bartlett, MS, CPT, product director for fitness at Gaiam, yoga instructor and former fitness studio owner, puts it, “Make sure that everyone who walks into the studio is greeted in a warm way. For some people, mind-body is a stretch; others feel like a fish in water. But the first introduction to the discipline is when they walk into the studio, not into the class.”
Kahn’s motto is “Hire it, train it, maintain it,” and she says that “in an interview, if I feel that someone would be welcome in my home for dinner, I want them on my staff.” She believes that the keys to success are creating a supportive environment for staff and hiring passionate people. As an experienced educator for the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America, the American Council on Exercise, Reebok University, Bowflex, SCW Fitness Education and Human Kinetics, Kahn stresses the importance of ongoing staff development. “Offer continuing education, believe in your people, and allow and help them to keep up with their education,” she says. As the mind-body realm develops, new approaches and improved knowledge become available all the time. If you help your staff continue to learn, everyone benefits.
Develop your team by connecting with the right people. This requires constant networking. Chandler built an ideal staff through her connections. “I handpicked teachers to mentor and train, because I wanted good, quality people with varying backgrounds. It’s important to have harmony among staff, because we’re teaching harmony with the body.” The people on Chandler’s staff are purposely varied in age and background, with a triathlete, a rock climber, a nurse, a nutritionist and a sign language interpreter among them.
Alexander also finds individuals skilled in other fitness disciplines and related professions. “I look for cross-qualified people,” he says. “[This business is] about helping people meet their goals, and the more tools you have in your toolbox, the more effective you will be. I want instructors who can collaborate and work in complementary ways.” Although instructors will likely be the first people you want to hire, consider employing people in other roles as well. Bartlett recommends hiring a fitness enthusiast who can connect with both instructors and clients to work at your service desk and sell your studio experience. An administrative assistant or bookkeeper will also lighten the load, allowing you to focus on more important things. If extra help seems financially out of reach, consider trading instruction for the services you need. Remember the value of your own time!
One of the biggest challenges for mind-body managers is trying to wear too many hats. Fitness professionals aren’t accountants or attorneys or graphic designers and shouldn’t try to be. Nicola Conraths-Lange, MA, who owns and manages Pilates Space in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has professionals from other industries on her staff. “I don’t use all of them all of the time, but they’re there as a safety net because they help with time-consuming tasks,” she says. “It’s important to find people who understand your business and what you’re doing in it.” That goes for accountants and graphic designers as well as instructors.
Maintenance (cleaning house)
When planning for maintenance, consider the safety and comfort of your participants. Include the following in your schedule and budgeting: cleanliness and upkeep, supply and amenity inventory, preventive maintenance, general repairs and potential safety hazards. Don’t forget to think about both interior and exterior maintenance. Even if you lease a space and don’t have direct responsibility for exterior areas, you still have a responsibility to your participants who use them.
Depending on what work is needed, some tasks will be completed by in-house staff, some by contractors and some by the property owner’s maintenance staff. Some can even be shared among instructors. “Regular equipment maintenance is part of the instructors’ responsibilities,” Alexander says. Maintenance issues have financial and legal implications in that they can be costly to complete but even more costly if not completed. Ignoring maintenance issues can lead to expensive repairs or even legal battles that result from negligence to maintain a safe environment.
Complete basic cleaning and equipment checks daily, weekly and monthly, depending on how much the facility is used. “Complete basic cleaning after every class and beware of allergies,” Bartlett suggests. “Use organic or natural cleaners when possible. They’re environmentally friendly, fit with the genre and are easier on members.”
“I at least [use a] Swiffer® [sweeper] and check the bathroom daily,” says Conraths-Lange. “In the bathroom, I check for sanitary things but also hand cream and [add] cosmetic supplies that make people feel pampered.” Perform annual or biannual facility inspections with the property owner, and follow industry standards and guidelines for maintenance. The Pilates Method Alliance, the American College of Sports Medicine and other industry organizations publish maintenance resources.
Also keep a written record of all inspections and work completed, no matter how small. If you touch up paint, record who did it, when and where. If you change a light bulb, record it. If you perform preventive maintenance on equipment, record that too. Tracking maintenance will help keep it under control and protect you in case of legal troubles.
Marketing 101 (the basics)
Every decision made about a business affects it from a marketing perspective, yet many mind-body business managers never even put marketing on their to-do lists. “Marketing” commonly refers to the way the “four p’s” (product, place, price and promotion) mix to create an image and position a business in the marketplace. On a basic level, product simply means the actual services provided: yoga classes, Pilates instruction, retail goods and whatever else the business provides. Place refers to the actual location of the business—the facility and the geographic location, including the colors on the walls, the music, the brightness of the lights, the scents in the studio, the arrangement of goods in the retail area, the appearance of the service desk and all other aspects of the physical location. Pricing strategies establish a perception of value, in that people believe they pay for what they get. Pricing positions a business in relationship to the competition. Promotion encompasses advertising, public relations and other tactics used to garner attention, including common marketing materials such as websites, paid advertisements and brochures, as well as media coverage and event appearances.
Everything about a mind-body business contributes to its marketing efforts. When a business is financially stable and inventory is under control, clients will interpret the business differently than they would if the business were struggling with administrative tasks—although patrons might not see that struggle, they’d feel it. The same goes for maintenance and liability issues. If clients see that the facility is clean, light bulbs have been changed, extra toilet paper is available and liability forms are required of all clients, they feel that the business is well managed and that they can find balance there.
Marketing Applied (taking action)
“Marketing is like boiling a kettle of water. It takes time,” says Chandler. Put marketing on your list, and allow your efforts time to grow.
Develop a Mission Statement. Think about your purpose and your calling, and establish your business goals. Then write down your mission statement for yourself, your employees and your clients to see every day. Make decisions from a marketing perspective and with a clear understanding of your client base. Peggy Prieshoff, owner of Peggy’s YogaSpirit in Goshen, Indiana, stresses the importance of knowing your clients. “Ask yourself where in the community your students are. Are they artists, natural-food enthusiasts? I used to think dancers would be a great client base, but they tend to have enough to do with their own class schedules and rehearsals and are low on funds.”
Define Your Product Based on Your Mission Statement. Consider the services you will offer. You may want to do more than just provide instruction in a mind-body discipline. Prieshoff recommends an eclectic mix. “Offer more than one genre,” she says. “Think about massage, health food cooking classes or kickboxing. Pilates is a great addition, but also consider a fusion [option] such as Piloga or PiYo™.” Consider shortening some of your offerings to 30 minutes. “Some folks just don’t want to commit an hour of their life before they’re sure this will benefit them.”
Do Retail Right. A merchandise area can be a significant profit center and a good way to provide a service. Carefully investigate the type of items your customers truly want. “Don’t tie up a lot of money in expensive, top-of-the-line retail such as clothing, incense, creams or CDs unless you’ve purchased them cheap,” says Prieshoff. Bartlett says she has seen retail net many thousands monthly for businesses who know what to offer and how to market it.
Assess Your Schedule. It represents a significant part of your product. “We have a base of seven to 10 classes per week that don’t change,” says Kahn. “They’re drop-in classes geared toward an intermediate level. Then we offer special workshops that run 4 weeks, either once or twice a week, and focus on golf, skiing, pre- and postnatal, teens, couples or whatever.”
Stimulate the Senses. Your studio should emit the exact tone you want in every aspect of its physical existence—colors, lighting, sounds and scents. A clean, well-maintained facility also sends a message to clients about your respect for them, your staff and the surroundings. Spend time researching color psychology and aromatherapy, and consider hiring a feng shui expert to consult on design choices. Remember that the equipment you choose, your furniture and all other objects in your space reflect your image. “We have a serenity and an environment that differ from a gym or home studio,” says Alexander.
Price It Right. When establishing pricing strategies, use industry standards and rates in your area. Decide if you want to be most or least expensive or somewhere in between. Your decision will impact the position of your business. Conduct market research every 6 months to assess how businesses in your area have adapted their pricing; also stay on top of your own strategies. In her small, close-knit community, Conraths-Lange works with other Pilates studios to keep pricing at the same level.
Consider “Perceived Value.” If you want to use punch cards or some sort of tracking method that alters pricing or rewards participants, consider how it may affect the perceived value of your product from a marketing perspective. Look beyond the numbers to the impression it makes. The reward tactic works for some, but not for others. Prieshoff has found it effective. “I offer ‘Bring a friend, get a free class’ punch cards with ‘Buy 5 and get the sixth one free.’ While you may be tempted to use a larger number, people don’t like to commit until they get to know you. Also, a punch card system enables clients to come to classes that are convenient for them, rather than coming on a set schedule.”
Have a Promotional Presence. All promotional efforts should be designed specifically for your clientele. Word-of-mouth advertising may be your best tool, but it shouldn’t be your only one. You absolutely should have a presence on the Web. In a technology-driven society, it’s the first place people look for everything. “Use Craigslist or MySpace if you have a low budget,” Bartlett suggests; both of these are free to post to and to read. Develop in-house marketing materials, such as brochures for potential clients and fliers about upcoming events for current participants. Advertise in local publications, make appearances at local health fairs or other events, and work with a public relations professional to get quality media coverage.
Differentiation (the last piece to the marketing puzzle)
The keys to both the success of your business and an effective marketing plan may lie in how you differentiate yourself from others. You compete with similar businesses, so you must offer something unique to set yourself apart and claim your share of the market. With a mind-body studio, it may be difficult to differentiate yourself through pricing or promotional strategies. But you can establish yourself through product and place. “I focus on services for lower-back injuries and dancers,” says Conraths-Lange. “Others in our area focus on fitness, cycling or prenatal. We all kind of work together in our area to offer different things and specialize.”
“We have classes for teens marketed at the local high schools, classes for kids marketed through a local parents’ organization, classes for Parkinson’s patients from a local teaching hospital and classes at the community college—we get out in the community,” says Chandler.
Bartlett recommends uniqueness. “Have a hook, one thing that stands out, [something] you can back up with creative programming. Offer classes like hip-hop yoga, yoga-dance fusion or yoga by candlelight—not for all your classes, but for some.”
Balance (the final word in mind-body)
Your mind-body studio needs your full attention most of the time, but if you follow these tips and build a stronger, smarter business, you will find time to practice what you teach. Put yourself on your to-do list and make time to stay balanced. “Have clear boundaries with your time off,” says Bartlett. “Too many managers burn out because they cover in a pinch or work on the weekend ‘just this once.’ Because it’s a service industry, people tend to be natural caregivers and want to give more of themselves.”
Without taking care of yourself, how can you take care of your clients, your employees and your business? Don’t lose sight of the passion for mind-body fitness that got you where you are. Maintain balance in your own life.
Work with an attorney. If you think you can’t afford one, look into services offered by local government agencies, universities, law schools and other local organizations. You likely won’t need an attorney on a regular basis, but you will need someone who can review your policies and procedures and advise you on potential risks.
“We have everyone who comes in complete waivers and intake forms,” says Danita Chandler, Pilates teacher and owner and manager of Portland Pilates Studio in Lake Oswego, Oregon. “I keep files on each client, and we require doctor’s forms for injuries and medical issues.” Every participant in your programs, both instructors and students, should sign a liability waiver and an agreement to participate. By signing waivers, participants relinquish their rights to bring a lawsuit against your business; agreements to participate acknowledge an intention to participate and an understanding of the risks involved. Other recommended intake forms obtain necessary background information, such as medical history and emergency contact information. Keeping a file on every participant both protects your business and prepares you in case of emergency (see “Business Resources” on page 69 for more information.)
In addition to obtaining preliminary documentation, offer orientations for both staff and clients that explain safety procedures and facility etiquette; describe what to expect from participation; and introduce equipment. Document when you complete introductory programs, and keep a record of everyone who participates each day. Documentation can be as simple as a sign-in sheet or as elaborate as instructor notes for each participant—a record will help protect you if you face a lawsuit.
Even when you have all the necessary documentation, clients can still bring lawsuits against your business, so insuring the business and every instructor is absolutely necessary. Work with an insurance representative and an attorney to learn about your options and what you need to effectively protect your business. Also manage risk by monitoring parking lots and other external areas, understanding zoning restrictions and limiting studio and equipment usage. “We don’t have much open gym time—98% of our studio use is supervised,” says Bryan Alexander, PhD, who owns and manages Momentum Studio, a Pilates, Gyrotonic, Gyrokinesis and Feldenkrais studio in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “It decreases liability and vulnerability.”
If you plan to develop a brand name and want to copyright or trademark your marketing materials, work with an attorney to protect your brand. Also review employment laws, which differ by state, and know the rights of your employees. Develop clear policies for staff and clients, including a harassment policy, warns Desiree Bartlett, MS, CPT, product director for fitness at Gaiam, yoga instructor and former fitness studio owner. “Because the industry is very hands-on, harassment can be an issue.” When teaching yoga classes, she solves the problem in the first downward-facing dog by saying, “If you prefer not to be adjusted, lift your right leg.” Find a nonintrusive way to address the hands-on nature of mind-body fitness, and make your policies clear.
Evaluate your business using a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis, a tool designed to help you understand your business and the competition. Draw a table similar to the one below and follow the directions given for each cell.
Name of Business: Balance Yoga Studio
List the things you think your business does very well. Think only of your business, not the competition.
- variety of classes
- excellent service-desk employees
- professional-looking marketing materials
List the things you think your business could improve—things with which you struggle. Think of your business alone, not as it relates to others.
- poorly lit parking lot
- confusing risk management materials
- disorganized administrative plan
Consider your market. List the areas in which it is lacking and the changes you expect in the future—things your business could potentially provide to the local industry.
- lack of classes for children and teens
- failure to keep up with technology
- few well-marketed businesses
Evaluate the local industry and your competitors. List the potential risks for your business, based on what others are doing and the changes you anticipate in the market.
- many qualified instructors
- lawsuits against similar businesses
- rising maintenance costs
Information abounds! Use it. Here are a few resources to get you started:
American College of Sports Medicine, www.acsm.org (standards and guidelines for fitness facilities)
BPlans.com, www.bplans.com (tips for writing mission statements and other business documents)
Craigslist, www.craigslist.org (free online marketing tool)
MySpace, www.myspace.com, (free online marketing tool)
Pilates Method Alliance, www.pilatesmethodalliance.org (resources for Pilates businesses)
Small Business Administration, www.sba.gov
U.S. Census Bureau, www.census.gov (demographic data, such as age, sex and income)
IDEA Educational Products (www.ideafit.com) Articles:
Riley, S. 2005. The legalities of emergency care. IDEA Trainer Success, 2 (5), 1–5.
Riley, S. 2005. Liability insurance. IDEA Trainer Success, 2 (2), 10–11.
Riley, S. 2005. Respecting your boundaries. IDEA Trainer Success, 2 (4), 12–13.
Riley, S. 2005. Training clients at home. IDEA Trainer Success, 2 (3), 14–16.
Riley, S. 2005. Why you need legal education. IDEA Trainer Success, 2 (1), 1–4.
Riley, S. 2006. Risk management: Is your club compliant or complacent? IDEA Fitness Journal 3 (1), 44–51.
Resource Series Books:
IDEA Fitness Industry Salary Survey 2004. Item #C899050.
IDEA Marketing Toolkit. Item #C899033.
IDEA Programs & Equipment Survey, Fitness Facilities 2005. Item #C899051.
Management Library. Item #C899017.
Successful Pilates & Yoga Programs. Item #C899030.