"To charge or not to charge for group fitness classes" is a question that has inspired many a lively conversation and has kept numerous facility owners and operators up to the wee hours of the morning in contemplation. There is no one model that is right, especially due to the fact that there are several fac-ility models, which can influence this decision. However, there are two common facility models: Training clients/members must be members of the facility and pay a membership fee. The facility is usage-fee based, and there are no monthly or annual membership fees.


Introducing Group Fitness

            Group fitness, at least within the realm of this article, can be defined as an organized group exe-rcise class with music that is led by an instructor in a room designed to accommodate 20 people or more. This is, in fact, very different from small group personal training, which encompasses trainer-designed programs utilizing bands and balls, or small group training using gravity-type exercise equipment. Group fitness training is appropriate for small groups, from four to six participants, and is, most likely, fee-based per class or sessions of classes.

            Group fitness has not traditionally been viewed as a profit center since these classes are normally included in the membership fee. However, facilities that create memorable group fitness experiences have shown measurable impact on facility revenue and profitability. But the challenge for these facilities lies in creating memorable experiences in group fitness consistently. Most often, there are five areas that are most positively impacted by memorable group fitness experiences: member referrals, new member sales, member retention, non-dues revenue and cost to service a member. 


Member Referrals

            Member referrals are always the best source of new business in any business, mostly due to the power and trust of a known third-party testimony. The best way to acquire these referrals is to create a raving fan, and the best way to create a raving fan is through participation in a powerful, memorable experience. James H. Gilmore and B. Joseph Pine in their book, The Experience Economy, detail some essential ingredients required to create an experience. Experiences are, by nature, emotive and should provide elements of entertainment, education and escape. Therefore, memorable group fitness experiences accomplish entertainment through the music of the program coupled with the personality of the instructor, as well as with the interaction of the participants; education through the knowledge and coaching ability of the instructor; and escape by the very nature that the group fitness experience is a scheduled, instructor-led experience, which allows participants to "switch-off" from worrying about what to do next, "switch-on" to the experience and enjoy the benefits of the activity.


New Member Sales

            Once we understand the power of the experience, which creates raving fans and can result in increased referrals, the outcome is an increase in new members. The increase of new member sales can also be enhanced by having tools such as guest passes specific to program participation and a sales system, which allows a prospective member to try the group fitness experience free before being asked to make a buying decision.


Member Retention

            International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) research is clear on the subject of the retention of members who have a personal connection to your facility. To quote IHRSA's Guide to Member Retention: "Retention rates are higher for 'group fitness' members than for 'machine members.' Every club has hundreds, and sometimes thousands of machine members, i.e., members whose only interactions with their club are with the particular exercise machines on which they exercise. Such members tend to be deficient in both member-to-member and member-to-staff connections. Machine members are, by definition, high-risk members. They belong, as it were, in every club's 'intensive care unit.' The loyalty of such members is paper-thin."


Non-Dues Revenue

            As a facility tracks the percentage increase in group fitness visits versus total facility visits and non-dues revenue, a correlation will be observed. Increases in group fitness visits drive non-dues profit centers for two reasons: one, group fitness members tend to be more social, meaning they spend more time in your facility and spend more in your juice bar, pro-shop, daycare and on tanning and even personal training. And two, great group classes feed personal training sales, especially when personal trainers are also teaching an occasional group fitness class, which allows them a platform to build rapport with the participants and leverage their role as a fitness leader.


Cost to Service Members

            Group fitness, in fact, is the cheapest way to service your members. The only variable cost is found within the cost per class, which is the instructor wage divided by the number of participants in the class to yield the "cost per participant." In facilities creating memorable group fitness experiences, the "cost per participant" should be less than one dollar. That is much less than the cost of acquiring and maintaining enough pieces of cardio equipment to service members at the prime times.


Guidelines for the Group Fitness Program

            The old adage from AT&T, "the system is the solution," has never been more important than in the context of effective group exercise. Like all the key areas of your business, systems that provide consistency and predictable outcomes are essential for success. Your group fitness system must deliver consistency with each program, as opposed to lots of instructors creating their own products, an instructor training package that provides training for the non-traditional type of group fitness instructor, such as personal trainers, more male instructors and diversity in age groups, under 30, 30 to 50 and 50-plus. The system should also include marketing resources to help promote and drive the program internally and externally, as well as management systems to evaluate the competency and effectiveness of instructors, programs and schedules.

            In the facility model where training clients/members must be members of the facility and pay a membership fee, fitness classes should be included in the membership fee for all members. A good rule of business is to justify a price increase by increasing the value of the product/service you provide. It may be prudent to announce a small increase in membership fee structure to help offset the increase in expenses for the group fitness program. Many factors will affect this to include your demographics, location and competition.

            Where the facility is usage-fee based and there are no monthly or annual membership fees, it will be necessary to implement a group fitness membership fee schedule if one does not currently exist and there is not an expectation that access to equipment will be granted to clients on an unsupervised basis. For example, a model in effect by Tara Campbell, co-owner of In-Balance Fitness, located in Memphis, Tennessee, dedicates a personal training area of +/- 3,000 square feet and a dedicated group fitness room of +/- 1,100 square feet. Tara offers unlimited group fitness classes for $60 per month and also a punch card option of 10 classes for $65.

            Whether your facility fits into one of these models or not, one thing should be clear: there is financial power and the potential to reach many more people through the proper execution of a group fitness system.

            Mike Campetelle is the director of sales and a national trainer for Body Training Systems, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. Mike has been in the health and fitness industry for over 17 years and is a frequent speaker, trainer and business consultant to health and fitness professionals worldwide. For more information, call Mike at 800.729.7837 x230 or email at Mikecampetelle@thestep.com.


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