Tapping into Group Profitability
By taking a cue from personal trainers’ success with boot camps and small-group training, group fitness instructors can create their own special niche.
As an instructor, you’re trained to teach fitness to groups, and you’re passionate about it. You faithfully show up to teach, and you probably get paid a modest fee to do it. This arrangement used to be the “status quo” of group exercise, but that’s changing. Now instructors must share center stage. With the success of boot camps and small-group training, personal trainers are beginning to claim the group domain (and why not, it works!).
These days, it’s more profitable for trainers to teach group as an offshoot of personal training than for traditional group exercise instructors to teach scheduled classes for an average of $15–$35 an hour. The financial incentive of group fitness is, by far, in favor of trainers—thanks to their own forethought and business savvy.
But looking ahead to the next decade, where does this leave the people who are specifically trained to handle diverse groups? Perhaps it’s time to think outside the box. If personal trainers can enjoy success and profits from boot camps, why can’t group fitness instructors add value and revenue to their careers by organizing something similar?
This is not about giving up the traditional classes you know and love. It’s about leveraging your group skills, tapping into your creativity and making use of your existing resources to build your career and revenue base in your area of specialization: group fitness. This article discusses ideas and steps for creating, marketing and delivering your own income-generating events, programs and classes.
Step 1: Find Your Specialty
The first step in offering classes that turn a profit is to decide which “specialty” to teach. In making your choice, it’s vital that you stay within your scope of practice and insurance parameters (i.e., stick to “group,” and be sure not to “promise” personal training).
It’s possible to cash in on the boot camp business model without ever teaching a boot camp. The idea is first to analyze what workout style(s) and format(s) you’re qualified to teach and want to teach; and then to concoct a class or program that has a different “look” and “feel” to your usual classes. “Don’t be afraid to try something you don’t teach on a regular basis. It’s the message of fitness that’s important,” says Harold Sanco, director of group fitness at Results Gym in Washington, DC, and a fitness instructor who offers corporate classes.
Variables that can make the experience different include the equipment you use (items that participants don’t have access to in other classes), the format (e.g., a circuit or branded dance program) and/or the location (e.g., an outdoor setting). “Determine what is currently being taught in your area, and offer a class that is unique or not frequently taught but has great response when it is taught,” suggests Jan Schroeder, PhD, fitness instructor and associate professor in the department of kinesiology at California State University, Long Beach. In other words, you’ll be hard-pressed to convince people to pay for a standard step workout if they can already attend a similar class as part of their club membership.
“I would advise an instructor wishing to break into this market to focus on the area that they are already known for, but tweak the class to offer more than what a participant would get in the ‘free’ class on the schedule,” says Leigh Crews, Fitness Anywhere® master trainer and owner of Dynalife Inc. in Rome, Georgia. You can showcase what you’re already known for by teaching a particular format or simply by playing up a side of your instructing style or personality that your participants like.
“[All instructors have] their own unique abilities, niches, interests and training, and this is what they tap into to create their offerings,” says Amy Bomar, education director at FIT Launch™ Inc. in Everett, Washington. Bomar teaches a range of specialty workouts, including outdoor boot camps, small-group core camps, mind-body camps, sport-training camps and pole/exotic dance. Mine ideas from your students, she advises; use their questions, feedback and suggestions to help you develop classes and curriculum. “For example,” says Bomar, “you may notice many of your yoga or Pilates students are inflexible in their hips and unsteady during leg-balancing moves. You can use these concepts to build a progressive fitness camp that teaches exercises and stretches for improving hip functionality,” she says. “In essence, look for common threads among your students, clients and the general population, and mesh [what you see] with your knowledge on the subject matter.”
Another avenue is to offer classes in a nongym space or even on your own turf. That’s what Schroeder does. She teaches Zumba® and muscle conditioning in her home. “For the classes out of my home, I keep all the profits . . . and the commute is shorter!” she says. Just be sure that your liability insurance covers classes taught in locations other than a fitness facility.
Bomar chose the outdoors as a venue for some of her specialty classes, partly because taking them outside served as a strong point of difference from a traditional group exercise class. “I wanted the experience to be very non-group-exercise-class and non-gym-like,” she says. “I didn’t want mirrors, music, choreography or fancy pieces of equipment.” As it happens, the location has also made good marketing sense. “Dozens of people walk, jog, rollerblade, stroll or ride bikes past the groups of people I work with and see them having fun, working hard and enjoying their experience.”
Step 2: Address The Business Side
One reason why personal trainers have done so well with boot camps and other group offerings is that, generally speaking, trainers focus more on the business side of teaching fitness than instructors do. So once you’ve settled on a specialty class, be prepared to iron out the administrative details. Here are some major considerations:
When and Where to Hold Classes. You could lead classes outdoors, in your home, at a rented public space or in the gym where you already teach. Consider what might work best for the time of year, your geography and, ultimately, your prospective students. For example, hardcore fitness enthusiasts might relish working out in a park or on hiking trails. On the other hand, your home might be a big hit with new moms who will be working out with their babies. Regardless of your chosen location, don’t forget to double-check that your liability insurance covers you.
How Much to Charge per Class or Program. Determining cost involves being clear on the going rate for your area but also the value of the class or program to participants. (See the sidebar “Questions to Ask When Planning and Marketing For-Profit Specialty Classes” for guidance on teasing out the value of your program.) Donna Hutchinson is a fitness business coach and owner of On The Edge Fitness Educators in North Vancouver, British Columbia. “Instructors need to know what the demand is; who their target audience should be; what participants would be willing to pay; why a participant would pay for the class instead of just going to a class that’s included in their membership; and what the instructor will offer in the class that’s different from what others are offering,” she says.
How to Handle the Finances. Your fee should also factor in the expenses you will incur to run the program. For example, you could teach in your home and keep all profits; you could rent a studio for a fee; or you could negotiate a profit split—such as 50/50 or 25/75—with the gym where you’ll hold classes.
You should also determine how participants will pay you. Will they send a check, pay in person on the start date, or use an online service like PayPal? If you offer the classes at a facility, one alternative is to have participants pay the club; you could then submit an invoice for your share of the profit. Bottom line: The easier it is for participants to pay and commit in advance, the higher enrollment will be.
How Often and How Long to Run Classes. What will you teach: a one-time event, ongoing classes at a set time or a “package” of classes with start and end dates? Obviously, the longer the program, the more money you stand to make. Still, shorter programs (as explained below) are sometimes a better choice.
While there are no hard-and-fast rules about program length—it depends on your format and participants—you may increase your success by considering what others have done. “Two times a week for 4 weeks works extremely well,” says Crews, who offers a TRX® Suspension Training® program for golfers. “That way, payment is due at the first of every month, which is easy for participants to remember. The easier it is for people to participate, the better the retention. Every 6 weeks makes it a little more complicated.”
Bomar says deciding on class frequency and length boils down to what your goal is for participants. “If you want [them] to see results, the program should reflect minimum exercise program guidelines,” says Bomar. Since meaningful results can take time, you might choose to focus first on what participants will sign up for, and then build enrollment from there. For example, beginning with a shorter program is a “safe” way for participants to sample your specialty class without a lot of risk. “When first starting a program, it’s good to go with one or two times a week for 3 weeks,” says Hutchinson. “This allows the instructor to test the waters, but more importantly, it allows participants to avoid feeling locked in if they don’t like it. Once the program starts to establish itself, you can gradually increase the number of days and weeks. I always check in with participants and include them in those decisions. They are the market, and they will tell you what they’re comfortable doing,” says Hutchinson.
Bomar offers 4-week fitness camps—her dance classes run once a week, and her muscle conditioning–based classes run two or three times a week. “I find that 4 weeks is just enough of a commitment to begin with, kind of a sampler, and gives participants a taste of what committing to more will be like,” she says. To help boost participant results, Bomar offers incentives for longer commitments. “I give discounts to participants who sign up for 3 months at a time, which ends up being more like a 12-week session for them,” she says.
Finally, remember that you also have to commit to whatever session length you choose. Offering set packages of classes opens the door for you to take time off between programs. “Regroup, create new ideas and relax before the next session begins,” says Bomar.
Step 3: Market Your Specialty Class
Instructors promote themselves within their classes, but traditionally they don’t have to worry about external advertising and marketing to get newcomers in the door—that’s up to program directors and gym owners. When you begin selling your own specialty programs, however, you’re in business for yourself—and that includes paying careful attention to marketing. Without proper promotion, you might not attract enough paying participants to justify running your specialty classes.
Even if you are one of the most popular instructors on the regular group fitness schedule, asking participants to pay extra for your classes is a whole different ball game. “Word of mouth is a great thing, but it doesn’t always bring in the numbers,” says Bomar. “You actually have to recruit people, or you don’t get paid!” Plus, as Hutchinson points out, “Instructors have to be careful about using the place where they work to advertise a program they are running outside of the club.”
Luckily, marketing a specialty class can be done quite inexpensively. “I rented a dance studio to hold my Zumba class and marketed it through e-mail, Facebook, fliers around town and calendar listings in the local newspaper,” says Jackie Camborde, a Zumba instructor and owner of Santé Fitness Studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico. If you’ve arranged to hold specialty classes within a club where you already teach, your marketing job is even easier because you can recruit paying customers from that membership base. It also works well to post signs around the club. For her golf-focused specialty program, Crews created 8.5- by 11-inch posters to place at the local country club, at golf courses and at the facility where she teaches her specialty class.
To make your marketing efforts shine, think back to the value of your class. What benefits will participants get out of it? Emphasize those benefits instead of just naming the features of the class. For example, instead of listing what equipment or general exercises are involved, highlight the favorable process (e.g., a fun, social or confidence-boosting experience) and/or results (e.g. improved sport performance, weight loss or greater muscle definition). Remember that marketing is a journey, not a one-time effort. “It takes time to get the message out there and be heard and have people respond to it,” says Hutchinson. “You can’t quit just because you put up a flier once and didn’t get a response.”
Finally, continue to market events even after they’ve started or finished, as this will help you attract future customers. Upload video online, or post photos around the club, showing your participants having fun. And if a class or program sells out, don’t just take your signs or Web page down. Add an eye-catching “sold-out” graphic, and leave the notices up awhile. This lets prospects see the high interest in your program and encourages them to sign up next time before it sells out again!
Step 4: Adjust Your Teaching Process
The final phase of promoting your classes is to retain the client base you’ve recruited through external marketing, while encouraging positive word of mouth from participants who have experienced the classes. In some cases, this might require you to step back and adjust your usual teaching style. For example, instructors are used to demonstrating exercises and choreography while participants mirror their movements. In a boot camp–style circuit class, however, the instructor must observe and motivate participants without using a follow-the-leader approach.
“The difference lies in the teaching process,” says Bomar. “Teaching camps is more about coaching, supporting, motivating, walking around and staying abreast of what all your students are doing. Instructors should be able to tell students what they will do, showing them by demo if necessary, then letting them perform as the instructor monitors.”
If you’re running a class with a traditional group fitness format, you might teach the way you always do, with an emphasis on what has made you a sought-after instructor in the first place. “I always keep the fun factor at the top of the list (this is how I keep my regular gym classes packed as well),” says Sanco. “To me, it’s not any different from how I teach a regular class.” Crews agrees that the essence of what you deliver as an instructor is the same. “A good teacher is a good teacher, whether you are marketing the class as a specialty class, small-group training or a class on the regular schedule,” she says. “I try to give my all to make each experience fun and rewarding for the participant. I don’t hold back information or individual correction in my group classes on the schedule, just because the participant is not paying extra.” Your regular classes, after all, are good advertisement for your specialty classes.
However, Crews adds that you might be able to use strategies in specialty classes, where participants are preregistered, that wouldn’t work as well in regular classes, where participants come and go from week to week. “The thing that is different about my specialty classes is that they are progressive, rather than ongoing at the same level,” says Crews. “With the specialty classes, I will usually periodize the month of classes in order to help participants reach a new level of fitness.”
Reaping the Rewards
Whether you want to collect a little extra cash or you have your sights set on carving out a significant revenue stream, planning and teaching specialty classes and programs could be your ticket to greater incentives—financial and otherwise—in the fitness industry. “In a down economy, it’s important to be open to new ideas and to come up with new ways to bring in revenue,” says Camborde. “Add a new specialty to your repertoire—one you are passionate about and can really promote—and you will reap the rewards.”
To help you first develop then market your specialty classes, consider the following advice from Donna Hutchinson of On The Edge Fitness Educators in North Vancouver, British Columbia. “Before running any type of program,” she says, “ask yourself these five important questions.”
- What problem do the participants have that I can solve?
- With so many other programs available, why is my program going to solve their problem?
- When people sign up for my program, what is possible for them to achieve?
- How will things be different for participants after experiencing my program?
- What should I do now to bring this program to market?
Once the first four questions have been addressed, move on to testing your idea by soliciting feedback from potential participants and trying out different program titles and descriptions to see wh