Group fitness programmers face the same dilemma every new season: how to balance tried-and-true popular class formats with burgeoning trends to keep things fresh and dynamic. One goal is to retain current members as satisfied, repeat customers; the other goal is to attract new participants and build excitement. Both objectives are relevant to generating and sustaining business, and both demand equal attention. But other factors also come into play, such as available instructor talent; training/certification requirements; and potential investment in new equipment and license fees. All these variables are enough to make any group program director’s head spin! This article explores strategies and provides practical guidelines to increase your chances of programming success.
Shake Things Up
Traditional “aerobics” has evolved into a dizzying array of group fitness options. The days of just three basic classes on the schedule&mdash:such as high-low, Step ReebokSM and strength—are long gone. Now we have licensed dance fitness formats and equipment-based formats, not to mention specialized genres such as yoga, Pilates and high-intensity interval training.
It’s relatively easy and cost-effective to keep things innovative through hybrid or combo classes. Two of our most successful formats at Steve Nash Fitness Clubs have been Punch + Crunch (kickboxing followed by focused core work) and Crushhh (a 50-50 split of HIIT followed by a deep, soothing stretch). However, sometimes a real shakeup is needed. A good example of this is SurfSET®, a thorough workout on a virtual surfboard that sits atop an unstable platform, mimicking surfing without the travel, cost and wetness. The Steve Nash launch of SurfSET involved instructor training, marketing and strategic scheduling. While a program always takes time to catch on, our success was largely due to a few steadfast programming rules, detailed below.
Educate members. We got the word out that cross-training is beneficial for overall fitness, for reduced risk of injury and for mental stimulation. Encouraging members to cross-train will make them more inclined to try a new class format.
Let stars lead the way. Popular instructors will have a following no matter what. Train your star instructors in a new format first, and they will be a positive influence for both staff and members.
Invest cautiously. Rather than attempting to launch classes at all of our 19 locations, we started with a fairly conservative 10 units at three key locations in different areas. We coupled SurfSET with sandbells (neoprene sacks filled with sand at various weight increments) to create a class called Surf + Sand. The classes have a maximum capacity of 20 spots and follow a circuit format: Half the class is on the board, while the other half uses the sandbells; the groups switch back and forth every few minutes.
Create media awareness. Invite media to participate in a class launch event, so that they can experience the format and provide a more complete report of the benefits. The story (often accompanied by terrific images) will give people a compelling reason to try the class.
Schedule smartly. A new program needs an audience, but replacing an existing popular class can be risky. Instead, schedule the new class just after the popular one. Interested members have the option to stay, while new participants may stimulate an off-peak timeslot to build.
Despite innovative equipment and the best of intentions, programmers can fall into the trap of “change for change’s sake.” Heed these words of wisdom from Trevor Thomas, group fitness director at Northwest Personal Training in Vancouver, Washington: “Remember the old adage—‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’” he advises. “Keeping track of group attendance and identifying what classes have low numbers might be the best marker for change. Simply changing for the sake of new may not be the best path.”
However, maintaining popular programming can be just as challenging. Take step, for example, a tool and class trend that hit its peak in the 1990s. While step still has avid fans, resources are dwindling both in terms of instructor skills and client interest. What’s a programmer to do when the masses are hollering to save the last step class on the schedule?
Once you’ve exhausted your resources (including bribing a veteran instructor who has endless 32-count choreography), you need a succession plan. Here are two possibilities:
- targeted next-generation training (See if there’s a college nearby with students interested in free membership in exchange for training to teach.)
- format modification (Continue to use the platforms but with less choreography and a more interval/athletic style so more instructors can teach.)
One of these plans will keep existing members satisfied while integrating new step users for what might end up being one of your most popular classes. Another strategy: Get those front-row participants certified to teach! Some of the best instructors are found this way!
Try Something New
While holding on to fading trends may save memberships, launching a new trend carries the excitement of attracting new fans and adding spice to schedules that have gotten stale. New fitness gadgets and programs are being launched every day, and it can be hard to know what will fly and what will flop. Be a critical consumer, and ask all the right questions before jumping on the bandwagon:
- Who is behind the program? Is it just a celebrity and some polished marketing, or is there sound physiology and science to support the product and program?
- Who is the program designed for? Ensure that the target demographic matches your needs.
- What are the risks and benefits? Is the program or equipment 100% safe? What are the key selling features, and will those features appeal to your demographic?
- How much does it cost? If the program is equipment-based, it may wipe out your annual budget. Can you negotiate a startup rate or modify the format to be circuit-based, allowing for more participants per unit? Can you leverage education/training fees into your investment? Have you determined whether any license fees are to be paid by the employer/facility or the instructor staff, and are these fees ongoing?
Once you’re satisfied that the answers to these questions are right for your facility, it’s time to move forward! The launch is crucial, and it can make or break your program. Here are a few more tips for success:
- Provide plenty of free teasers to introduce members to the new tool or class format.
- Gather feedback through formal surveys as well as through casual member/staff interactions—and adjust accordingly.
- Invite program creators and press to the launch, adding authenticity and media buzz.
- Give attendees a take-away gift, such as a branded T-shirt or class passes for a return visit.
- Maximize social media to create an online community that shares all the latest news about the class or product.
- Keep the excitement alive through ongoing staff training opportunities and extensions or variations of the initial format.
A Worthy Balancing Act
Group fitness is the epicenter of fun and socializing. Keep it vibrant and engaging without breaking the bank or losing your sanity! Savvy programmers will seek effective solutions and maintain the peace with an ideal balance of celebrating the old while embracing the new.
Fred Hoffman, MA, veteran award-winning fitness presenter and owner of Fitness Resources, a fitness education and consultancy company, offers this sound programming advice: “Once the decision to launch has been made (and all of the management and staff are onboard), it is essential to market it to the members. This should include a clear description of the program and its benefits. Participants want to know what they will get from the class, not just that it is ‘the latest craze to hit the fitness industry’.”
Hoffman suggests featuring a video display of the class, both in the facility and on social media channels. Another way to gain interest and create a buzz around the program is to promote the launch by hosting an event similar to a movie preview. Hoffman emphasizes that it is extremely important to have a clear launch strategy, to build interest before launching and to create momentum once the program is launched. However, don’t rest on your laurels after you vacuum up the confetti! Hoffman cautions, “It is essential to continue promoting the class or program after the launch to generate even more interest and participation, even if there is initial success.”
Program directors are at the helm of an evolving and exciting industry, and they have the task of navigating change to benefit their facility and its members. This can be challenging, but it also brings great rewards. Do your homework and be a cautious risk-taker—and you will succeed.