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Tapping the College Market

Personal trainers interested in financial success are often advised to market services to individuals with disposable income. It’s a no-brainer. People with money are more apt to pay for personal training and other potentially costly programs. However, you can also derive personal and professional rewards from lesser-served populations.

For example, college students are often overlooked because they tend to be thought of as cash strapped. While college students may not be at the peak of financial freedom, with a bit of clever marketing and unique programming you can attract this underserved market and add a fresh stream to your current revenue sources (see the sidebar “Tips for Marketing to College Students”). Discover what students need and how to give it to them, and you may find them dedicated clients after they finish college.

Statistics 101

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 11.5 million individuals aged 18–24 were enrolled in a 2- or 4-year college in 2008 (U.S. Census Bureau 2011). According to The Journal for Nurse Practitioners, approximately 30%–35% of U.S. college students are affected by overweight and obesity (Keown, Smith & Harris 2009). A more recent report from North Hennepin Community College (NHCC), North Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, suggests the percentage could be even larger. According to the Student Health & Wellness Study, 2009–2010, 48% of NHCC students were overweight or obese at the time of the study (Nelson Laska 2010). Though only about 25% of respondents were physically active 5 or more days per week, 93% indicated that maintaining a healthy weight was important to them.

These students need your help to lead healthy lives! “Students can be excellent clients,” says Peg Hamlett, fitness director at the University of Idaho, Moscow. “Most recognize the importance of exercise. They realize that students who exercise regularly have better grades—and that going into the job market portraying a healthy image can help land a good job.”

Student Profile

In order to understand how to market your services to today’s college students, you must understand their interests and needs, where they receive information and what their schedule limitations are.

Tech Savvy

Today’s college students were born in the online generation. They prefer to communicate via text message or Internet (Taylor & Keeter 2010). Over half of them spend at least 3–5 hours per day on the Internet, and 75% possess a profile on a social networking site. Eighty-three percent own laptops, while just 41% own desktop computers. Most have cell phones and MP3 players. This group watches more online video per month than any other population segment (NASPA 2008). They are used to fast-paced living and the “have-it-now” mindset. When it comes to gathering fitness and nutrition information, they are likely to mine the Internet.

Attracting this market is more complex than posting on Facebook or blogs. A recent Nielsen Norman Group report suggests that this demographic doesn’t want to work too hard to find information (Loranger, McCloskey & Nielsen 2010). The report also says that today’s college students are not impressed with over-the-top design and multimedia. Simple formats are often more appealing. Finally, word-heavy websites are considered off-putting and will not be successful with these impatient individuals.

Time Crunched

College students lead busy lives. Aside from their scholastic pursuits—which can account for at least 40 hours per week—many students hold part-time jobs and participate in organizations such as sororities, fraternities or various clubs. Efforts to engage in regular exercise and healthy eating often go unfulfilled. “College students have crazy schedules,” says Evelin Weary, a student at the University of Southern California (USC), in Los Angeles. “Between class, work and homework, we don’t have a typical 9:00 am–5:00 pm schedule. The best [fitness] programs realize that we may only have 1–2 hours in between class and work to fit in a good workout.”

Hamlett suggests that fitness facilities and personal trainers offer group training or classes that coincide with the typical college-student schedule. “The more athletic student may come in for a 6:00 am class, but a good percentage of students roll out of bed at 11:00 am. The most popular times [to exercise] are late afternoons and evenings.”

Budget Conscious

It is no surprise that the average college student lacks disposable income. Most work part-time jobs that pay close to minimum wage. “If money grew on trees, my preference would be [to work with] a personal trainer,” muses Mimi Honeycutt, a student at USC. “I like the one-on-one interaction and the motivation a trainer gives.” However, a tight budget makes it nearly impossible for students like Honeycutt to enjoy the benefits of personal training.

Though college students may not become a primary revenue source right away, Carol Kennedy-Armbruster, MS, senior lecturer in the kinesiology department at Indiana University, Bloomington, says that attracting this group now can reap future rewards. “These participants are likely to stick with their memberships throughout their lifetime, so businesses that invest in them while they are in school are forward-thinking.”

Goals for Students

The fitness goals of college students are vastly different from those of older adults. When developing programs for students, keep in mind their most common goals:

Aesthetics. “College students are in the time of their lives where they are searching for future partners and they want to ‘look good,’” says Kennedy-Armbruster.

Energy. Long days jammed with hours of lectures, homework, work and social commitments are exhausting. To keep up with such rigorous schedules, many students look to exercise to improve energy levels.

Athletics. College students are often involved in athletic endeavors of some sort, from formal sports to casual intramural activities. Individuals interested in improved athletic performance will seek out professional help.

Program Design

Attract the college set with programs that are cost-effective and convenient. Here are some examples:

Distance Learning. In-person training may not always be an option for students. However, distance or Internet-based programs can be performed in dorms or apartments at leisure—and a one-time download fee of $5 or $10 for a pre-recorded sample workout on your website is a reasonable cost for students.

Group Dynamic. One-on-one training is not something most students can afford. Accommodate them with lower-priced options. “Small-group training is a great source of extra income for trainers, and it cuts costs for individuals,” Hamlett says. Another idea is to offer a “college night,” when students can attend a yoga or boot camp class at a discounted rate or for a donation.

Special-Event Prep. Occasions like sorority or fraternity formal dances, spring or summer breaks, parties or finals are often exercise triggers for students. Use these events to your advantage and offer short-term training programs geared to getting students in shape for the big day.

Fitness Parties. “These parties are private fitness classes where individual dorms, sororities, clubs, fraternities or friends can choose a class that is held just for them,” Hamlett says. “These classes are great team-building experiences, they generate money for the fitness professional, and they encourage inactive students to participate.”

Variety and Flexibility. “This group needs programs that are offered at many different times, due to their varied schedules,” Kennedy-Armbruster advises. “They also enjoy programs that combine two or more health-related components of fitness.” A hybrid class that includes 30 minutes of indoor cycling and 30 minutes of strength training is a good example, she adds. “Fun classes where they get stress relief—like Zumba® or hip-hop—are also popular.”

Hamlett adds that class titles need strong, edgy names. “Names that include words like power, hardcore or absolute, attract students from [fraternities and sororities].” She also encourages switching class names regularly. “If the class has been called ‘Absolute Abs’ for 2 years, change it to ‘Six-Pack Sensation.’ Unlike our older clientele, students like change.”

The College Connection

College students have tight schedules and are budget conscious, yet they still need to exercise. Fitness professionals are in a great position to help this underserved group. Creating inexpensive, quality programs with the college student in mind can prove rewarding both financially and personally.

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