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Planning Successful Special Events

Want to give your group exercise program some razzle-dazzle? Try planning a unique event.

One way to boost attendance, build excitement and promote a sense of community around your group exercise programming is to host special events. More and more group exercise directors are being tasked with designing, organizing and marketing these types of events at their facilities. This article will give you the tools you need to plan a successful special event from start to finish.

Deciding on the Special Event

The first thing you need to do is determine the type of special event you want to hold. Here are four suggestions.

1. Go for Novelty. Organize a one-time class that you don’t currently offer on your schedule. Something novel, like belly dancing, allows members to sample something new and builds excitement in the club. It also lets you measure the demand for a new format before committing to it on a regular basis.

2. Play Up a Popular Format. Use a popular workout you currently offer as a springboard for a more elaborate event. For example, use your existing indoor cycling class as a launching pad for a special themed event, such as a marathon Tour de France ride or a challenging Mount Everest climb. This type of event can also be part of a fundraising campaign (see below).

3. Give Back to the Community. Fundraiser classes help create a community atmosphere in which members and staff unite and collaborate for a good cause. For example, members can bring in canned goods for a local food bank or donate money to a specified community charity. They can also ask their fellow members to sponsor them in an event, which can promote interest and raise additional funds from those outside
of the group exercise setting. Charity events often work well when taught by
a team of in-house group instructors, who each volunteer to teach a 5- to 15-minute segment.

4. Pump Up a Larger Club Event. Another idea is to use one or more classes as a jumping-off point for a larger event, such as a club-organized hike or ski trip. In the months leading up to the big outing, hold a series of weekly classes specifically designed to help participants train for the scheduled event. These “teaser” workouts can foster a social climate and generate excitement among all club members as the event approaches.

The Initial Planning Stage

The majority of work required for any special event happens well in advance of the big day. Here are some important event-planning questions you will need to consider.

Should There Be a Theme? Connecting a theme to your event can provide a “hook” that grabs members’ attention and creates a buzz. A theme might revolve around a type of clothing, an era, a holiday or even a color! For example, you can ask everyone to wear the color pink—which signifies breast cancer awareness—to a fundraiser class for breast cancer research. Keep in mind, however, that your chosen theme should not overshadow the crux of the special event. (See “Resources” on page 13 for more ideas on picking an event theme.)

Who Will Lead the Event? Depending on the nature of the event, you can enlist an instructor or a team of instructors who already work for you. Or you might hire a guest teacher. In either scenario, make sure you send a contract and a letter of confirmation to avoid any miscommunication along the way. The letter should clarify what the instructor will teach (e.g., an intermediate-level hip-hop class); the date, time and length of the event; your facility’s address and directions to the location (this is especially important if your club is part of a chain); pertinent club contact info; payment and invoicing procedures; and confirmation of any special equipment needed, including specifics about who will provide that equipment. Contact the instructor(s) a few days before the event to reconfirm the engagement. And don’t neglect to send a personal thank-you note after the event!

When Should the Event Be Held?
To ensure maximum attendance, avoid busy holidays or predictable family times, such as spring break or the morning of Mother’s Day. A winter holiday-themed event will probably draw the biggest crowds in November or very early December, before people start heading to the mall instead of the gym! To capture the largest possible audience, it’s also wise to schedule events during your club’s high-traffic times, especially if you plan to charge an additional fee.

Should Members Pay for the Event? Fundraisers aside, you need to determine if you will charge for the event or offer it for free. Your decision depends on your goals. Do you want to create
an additional revenue stream in your
facility or recoup the expense of bringing in a guest instructor? Or is the event intended as a fun membership perk? Obviously, it will be more challenging
to convince members to attend the event if they must pay. This is where a strong marketing plan becomes especially important.

Marketing Your Event

Your marketing plan can have a significant impact on how many people attend the event. Follow these steps to ensure maximum attendance.

Communicate Your Message. Spread the word using every vehicle possible, from your member newsletter to your facility’s regular outgoing phone message. Create visual interest throughout the club by displaying easy-to-read information on a centrally located board or easel. Surround the board with balloons or theme-related props, like
bananas and coconuts for a tropical-beach–themed event.

Prepare Eye-Catching Posters That Feature a Strong Headline. Suppose you want to advertise an upcoming mini-lecture hosted by an athletic shoe expert from XYZ Footwear. You could use a headline like “XYZ Footwear Expert Coming This Wednesday Evening.” But would that headline persuade a harried mom—towing two young kids as she rushes to get to step class on time—to attend your event? Probably not, because it doesn’t communicate any real benefit for her. A headline that reads something like, “Do Your Workout Shoes Help or Hinder Your Fitness Goals?” is much more likely to catch her attention.

Ensure You Allocate Enough Lead-Time. Post signs, ads or banners 4–6 weeks before the event. After a couple of weeks, refresh the look of this type of advertising by recopying the items on a different-colored paper or tweaking the headlines. Presenting familiar information in a new way can entice members to take a second look. As you get closer to the event, hang additional signs reminding members to mark the event on their calendars or to register by a certain date: “Only 1 Week Until…” or “Just 2 Spots Left!” Finally, advertise on the group exercise board the week of the actual event.

Communicating With Staff

Your club’s staff will play a significant role in ensuring the success of your event, so stay in close contact. Before posting any signs, inform pertinent employees about the special occasion. This is especially important for front-desk staffers, who usually field the most event-related questions from members.

To keep everyone in the loop, write a memo, then address as many employees face-to-face as possible. Post event details near the group exercise sound system, requesting that instructors make announcements about the event before
or after their class.

As the date approaches, find out which staff will be working at the event and brief them on special procedures for that day. Everyone should be clear on who is tasked with arranging the equipment, putting up decorations, handling registrations, collecting fundraising monies and organizing drawings for door prizes. For more on how to
emphasize internal promotion among staff and communicate with employees about special events, see “Resources”.

The End Result

Whenever possible, plan on attending the special event, so you can experience firsthand how your efforts pan out. Being present also allows you to mentor staff, mingle with members, personally thank participants for coming and introduce the instructor(s). Then, step back and enjoy the fruits of your labor.


Selecting a theme:

Pick A Party: The Big Book of Party Themes and Occasions by Patty Sachs (Minnetonka, Minnesota: Meadowbrook Press 1997)

Collecting door prizes:

“Securing Company Donations” by Carrie Myers Smith, IDEA Health and Fitness Source, May 2001, pp. 53–57.

Communicating with staff about special events:

“Six Steps to Successful Cross Promotion” by Amanda Vogel, MA, IDEA Fitness Manager, October 2001, pp.16–18.

General Event Planning:

How to Motivate and Retain Your Clients, (IDEA Resource Series Book C899023). Contact (800) 999-4332, ext. 7, or (858) 535-8979, ext. 7, if calling outside the United States or e-mail [email protected]

Inspire Kids & Teens to Fitness, (IDEA Resource Series Book C899029). Contact (800) 999-4332, ext. 7, or (858) 535-8979, ext. 7, if calling outside the United States or e-mail [email protected].

Ensuring the Success of Future Events

The special event you spent so long organizing and marketing turned out to be a total success! Now use that experience to set the stage for your next event. Here’s how.

  • Post pictures of the event throughout your club, on the facility website and/or in your member newsletter. This may promote those who attended to talk up the occasion and will show those who didn’t what a fun time they missed.
  • After charity events, officially thank members for their attendance and generous donations. Both during and after the event, use an eye-catching sign or one of those big cardboard checks to reveal and celebrate the money raised, especially if the sum exceeds your targeted goal.
  • Thank your employees for a job well done and recognize their efforts. Do the same for group exercise instructors who volunteered their time for a charity event. An inexpensive gift or thank-you card is a nice gesture.
  • Members love to be asked for their opinion. Poll attendees about what they liked and didn’t like to get a feel for how your next special event might unfold.

Amanda Vogel, MA

Amanda Vogel, MA, is a fitness professional and the owner of Active Voice, a writing, editing and consulting service for fitness professionals. She writes for IDEA, Health, Prevention, and Self, and has co-authored books on postnatal fitness and yoga. With a master's degree in human kinetics, Amanda has worked in the fitness industry for more than 15 years, including time spent as a program director and vice president for a chain of all-women clubs in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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