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Small-Group Secrets: The Start-Up Plan

Adding small-group training to your schedule of services can increase income and expand your reach.

Three years ago, Hayley Hollander was an in-demand personal trainer with a jam-packed schedule, a waiting list and a problem: Like many experienced trainers, she’d maxed out her hours and hit the wall.

“I was reaching burn-out, training 55–70 hours a week, and making just around $100,000 a year. But I was literally killing myself to make that kind of money,” recalls Hollander, who charged, on average, $57 per one-on-one session.

The solution? Hollander shifted her focus from hours worked to clients served, and went from offering primarily one-on-one sessions to mostly small-group training (SGT). She now makes $110,000–$125,000 per year, while putting in fewer client-contact hours each week.

Changing Your Game Plan

More money, less work and success stories like Hollander’s are why client groups of two to five participants are among the top 10 industry programming trends, according to IDEA’s 16th Annual Fitness Programs & Equipment Trends Report.

This article is the kickoff of a new IDEA Trainer Success series focusing on SGT. It is intended to help you take advantage of this profitable new trend—one that is poised to change the way our entire industry does business.

If you or your facility primarily offers one-on-one sessions and/or large-group, boot camp–type classes, it’s time to consider shifting your strategy to include a little SGT (or a lot of it!).

To get going, you’ll need a small group start-up plan.

Plan on Parameters
What exactly is SGT? What does a successful SGT program look like? The answers vary from trainer to trainer.

In general, small training groups range from two to 10 clients who work out together. Each trainee pays a fraction of the cost of a one-on-one session—but enough so that the trainer’s hourly wage is boosted. For example, a trainer who earns $100 per hour for one-on-one workouts could charge four different clients $40 each to exercise together during the same time slot, netting $160 per hour instead.

Yet beyond the bottom line, there is no single, universal, “right” way to set up the parameters of an SGT program. The best method for you will depend on your goals and priorities. Considerations include any of the following:

  • Same-time, same-place sessions versus a drop-in class schedule. Will the identical group of clients meet with the same trainer every Monday and Friday at 6:00 PM? Or will you offer a variety of SGT times—similar to a group exercise schedule—that clients can either drop into or preregister for, depending on their agenda that week?
  • Short-duration specialty programs versus ongoing offerings. Will you offer a short-term themed class, such as an 8-week-long 5K prep group? Or an ongoing, keep-fit class that runs year-round?
  • Finite fees versus a perpetual membership model. Will you use one-time charges, such as a 10-session package price or a by-the-class drop-in fee? Or will you set up monthly, automatic charges to clients’ bank accounts or credit cards in exchange for ongoing training?
  • Small group–only versus combination packages and layers. Will you offer a strict either/or choice between one-on-one sessions and small-group sessions? Or a combo option so that clients can choose both%mdash;for example, one private plus two small-group sessions per week? Alternatively, you could offer “layers” of client choices, as Rick Mayo does at North Point Fitness, his training studio in Roswell, Georgia. These might include one-on-one, partner (2 clients), small-group (3-10 clients) or large-group (11+ clients) offerings, with trainees purchasing the right to one or more layers of service.

Upcoming articles in this small-group series will cover these and other business factors in greater depth. Watch for discussion of the various aspects of pricing, programming, marketing and designing small-group workouts.

Plan on Converting Clients

Where will your SGT participants come from? Mostly from your existing clientele, asserts Hollander, who owns Advanced Training Performance in Las Vegas, Nevada, and is the Training & Education Coordinator for PTA Global.

To ensure that your SGT plan starts off right, add to what you already have, but don’t subtract, remarks Mayo, who is also the owner of consulting company North Point Personal Training Systems, which licenses SGT systems to facility owners. “Keep your current busy schedule going and then begin to implement small group as well. Simply ask your current clients to try it and then wow them with the experience,” he adds.

And don’t worry about one-on-one customers who don’t want to convert to group. By introducing participants to one another within workout groups, you will create an internal social network that leads to genuine client friendships and outside socialization, asserts Hollander. As the momentum and buzz of these social dynamics pick up steam, previous holdouts will typically jump onboard, Mayo explains.

Plan on Percentages
To maximize revenue, you should not spend more than 15% of your available training hours performing private sessions, says Mayo. “It just doesn’t make sense. The clients can pay less and the trainer can make more once you get people to come in small groups.”

For example, Mayo recommends that in a 40-hour workweek independent trainers allocate 6 hours to private training, 24 hours to training small groups and 10 hours to business planning and administration.

Plan to Take Your Time
Going from a one-on-one business to a SGT model takes time and patience, notes Mayo. “We always coach trainers with an existing clientele to not force people into small groups,” he advises.

When he made the decision to convert to a mostly SGT business model, his facility mostly offered private sessions. Back then his team handled 3,000 one-on-one training sessions per month. “It took us nearly a year to convert everyone from one-on-one’s to small groups. Obviously, the fewer members/clients you have to convert the shorter the process,” he adds.

Plan on Exceeding Expectations
The camaraderie inherent in small groups creates positive energy that generates new business, Hollander affirms. Indeed, 90% of her new customers come from client referrals.

“It’s rare that we will get new business from an outside source, so our business model is designed to satisfy and serve the clientele we already have to a level beyond their expectations so the referrals keep coming,” she explains.

Because of this momentum, Hollander believes SGT has huge growth potential. “Group training is not only a service that is affordable for every income class, but it brings people from every income class into the same room, achieving things together that they would have never done before,” she says. “It is because of this phenomenon that this service will only continue to rise in popularity.

Your Plan of Attack

As with one-on-one coaching, it’s the quality of your overall training that will ensure the success of your small group program. An important observation from Mayo: “It’s extremely important to have systems in place that make the small-group experience feel as much like private training in terms of programming and service as possible.”

Converting to a small-group model is always a risk, Hollander cautions. But as she herself experienced, the upside can be very worthwhile. And with SGT poised to unfold as one of the most important future trends of our industry, now is the time to make your small-group plans even bigger.

SIDEBAR: The Pros and Cons of Group

Monetary benefits aside, not every trainer should create a small group-centered program. Perhaps your instructional strengths lie with the dynamics of large boot camps, or with one-on-one training. Plus, some clients with complex biomechanical or medical needs require a level of personal attention that is best met in one-on-one sessions.

Nevertheless, the potential benefits of SGT go beyond time and money. Major unsung bonuses of SGT are client camaraderie and competition; these drive participants to achieve better fitness results and have more fun than they would in a private setting, Mayo observes. The built-in social aspects of small group can also boost client retention and loyalty to your business.

The more SGT you do, the more money you will make and the more referrals you will get, notes Hollander. Of course, making more money with SGT has work-related trade-offs. For example, your administrative workload might grow, since servicing more clients overall may increase paperwork, fee collections, and program-design time requirements—all factors to consider when you’re deciding whether or not to go group.

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