To license or not to license? That is the question.

Okay, Shakespeare wasn't talking about group exercise programming in his Hamlet writing days, but he might have been — had he owned a health club.

Group exercise programs have taken a beating lately. Many classes are suffering from low attendance numbers, and some consultants are declaring that clubs should consider shutting their group exercise doors all together. What's a fitness facility to do?

Well, many clubs are finding that licensed programming complete with music, instructor training, choreography and marketing materials is helping to alleviate group exercise concerns. Others are riding high on their own in-house developed classes, and a large number of facilities are enjoying a balance of both in-house and licensed programming.

It all goes to show that the clichéd phrase, “know yourself,” may be as true in the fitness facility world as it is in the self-affirming realm — you have to know your club and your members before you can decide how your Shakespearean drama (also known as your group ex schedule) will play out.

The Missing Spark

The D.A. Turner Branch YMCA in Columbus, GA, knew something was missing from its group exercise program. For years, the downtown YMCA's program had struggled to retain reliable instructors and members.

“A lot of it is because the building we're in is older. We have plans to build a new building, but that takes time,” says Lorie Coffield, fitness director of the D.A. Turner Branch and Central Branch YMCA. “We didn't have a strong night time attendance because people would leave downtown and go to our north facility, Central Branch YMCA.”

In fact, only one or two members were coming to evening classes, and about eight were attending the more popular lunchtime offerings. After hitting the “lowest of low points,” Coffield redirected her efforts at convincing the board to invest in a preprogrammed licensed strength class that members were requesting by name in quarterly surveys that Coffield handed out during classes.

After the go-ahead by the board, both YMCA locations signed up for the licensed class that included instructor training, choreography, marketing materials and music. By paying a monthly license fee, Coffield was able to use the classes' registered brand name and every three months the facilities received fresh choreography or “tracks” set to new music.

“At first I was hesitant because I thought you always had to teach the same thing all the time. I didn't realize you could mix old tracks with new tracks,” Coffield says. “It's consistent, but not to a point that it's monotonous.”

The new class sparked more instructors to get certified and members to get involved at their D.A. Turner location. Average lunchtime class participation jumped to 20 and evening classes went up to 17. Coffield says that at first members were attending the class to see what it was all about, but after enjoying it, members started trying out other non-licensed classes on the schedule.

To better accommodate members' requests, Coffield added more classes to the weekly schedule and invested in more equipment. Because of the success of the licensed muscle class, the D.A. Turner location is adding a licensed cycling class to the mix.

“I know we need more of these programs,” Coffield says. “It is an expense, but we're only adding it downtown, and I think it will go over huge.”

Preprogrammed classes are attractive for a number of reasons, says Kellie Calabrese, president of Calabrese Consulting LLC and 2004 Online Personal Trainer of the Year. Consistency from class to class and the additional instructor training is a big plus, and the provided choreography allows instructors to solely focus on their participants.

“[Instructors] can get creative in how they talk because they're not constantly cueing,” Calabrese says. “There's also a pride in being part of this group or team, almost like a family.”

Mixing it Up

Although deciding to drop thousands of dollars into licensed group ex classes can be scary, many facilities, such as the D.A. Turner YMCA, are finding that a mix of licensed and in-house classes can be worth the money.

WOW! Work Out World has offered a combination of both types of classes for the past three years. Before that, all classes were developed internally.

“From an owner's perspective, spending more money may be hard, but if we're getting more member participation and if demand is there, then it inevitably aids retention,” says Stephen Roma, chief executive WOW!zer of WOW! Work Out World. “People go crazy every quarter or so when they come out with new tracks and music. It's like we're giving gold away.”

WOW! has increased the success of its program through the development of its 28-minute Air Workout, a weight-lifting circuit that is regularly staffed by a personal trainer or group exercise instructor. While members work through the circuit in a group setting, the staff leader can talk up the group exercise classes and encourage members to attend.

The University of Missouri-Columbia's Student Rec Complex (SRC) had been successful with in-house programming within its group ex program, which is called TigerX. The program includes an eight-week internal instructor training class and offers continuing education workshops to its hired instructors, yet Angela Eastham, fitness coordinator for TigerX, said the program needed extra specialization for a dance-based mind/body class. So Eastman invested in a licensed mind/body class that will be on the fall schedule.

“It comes with a name that we can market, which is good,” Eastham says. “[With the class] we can branch off and add variety to the program. It keeps it fun to always change it up.”

The TigerX program attracted 1,300 members last semester (students, facility and staff pay an additional fee to become a TigerX member at the SRC, so that they can take any group exercise class offered, including the new licensed class), more than any other semester. The SRC has three fitness studios — one for traditional classes, one for mind/body and a special black lit space for group cycling, or “psychling” as TigerX calls it. Eastham attributes the strong class attendance to the instructors.

“We have such quality instructors that are creative enough to come up with weekly choreography,” she says. “We are so lucky.”

Jay Blahnik, group exercise spokesperson for IDEA Health and Fitness Association and a former IDEA Instructor of the Year, agrees that having a few in-house and a few licensed classes can be a good way to go.

“Good instructors are the ones who do a little of the [preprogrammed] and are forced to put some together on their own,” Blahnik says. “If I was a member, I would find the individual uniqueness appealing, but I understand how gyms have a hard time filling that role.”

Go Your Own Way

Josh Smith is fortunate because he doesn't have a hard time filling that role. In fact, as general manager of the Cambridge Racquet and Fitness Club in Cambridge, MA, he has a list of instructors just waiting to teach a regular class. When a class opens up, he selects someone from the list and then after a few classes, asks the members what they think about the instructor. If the person doesn't work, he moves down to the next name. Spots don't open often, though. The average instructor at the club has taught there for three years, and two instructors have been teaching there for more than a decade.

Instructors are in charge of their own education and certification, and Smith tries to hire more experienced candidates. Most floor classes average about 20 participants (the studio is large enough for 30), and the group cycling classes typically fill 15 to 20 bikes of the 22 seats available. The club has considered licensed classes, but it just didn't make sense for them, Smith says.

“We haven't really changed over [to licensed classes] because our instructors are so great,” he says. “We don't need to buy into a program because people love to come in to this program.”

Calabrese says that in-house programming has its benefits: complete control over instructors and schedule; more creativity with classes, equipment and room; training of instructors on your facility's philosophy; the ability to listen to members' and instructors' needs and make immediate adjustments; and no licensing fees because you are your own police. Cons to in-house programming are that it is time intensive (possibly requiring a full-time fitness director), the possibility that instructors might not change their choreography and music enough and inconsistency from class to class.

She adds though that sometimes those pros can actually turn out to be cons and vice versa. For example, being your own police may be appealing to one club but a complete hassle for another club that has to keep on top of instructor certification requirements. Most licensed classes require instructors to periodically send in videotapes of their teaching to ensure class quality.

Licensed classes also have pros and cons. They are easy for the instructors, training is provided, consistency is more likely and the classes may attract a whole new group of people. On the flip side, more advanced, creative instructors may be frustrated with the lack of involvement in designing the class, costs can run high, and some classes may not be a fit for your club because they aren't all “one size fits all,” Calabrese says.

Blahnik says it all depends on the size of the club, the situation a facility is in and, most importantly, the instructors. Members relate to both types of classes, he says.

“Licensed classes definitely make an instructor know how to engage their audience, but in the long run it doesn't solve problems,” Blahnik says. “Licensed classes make personality less important, but that still doesn't pack a class. You still have to have the right instructor and that certain something.”

Four Tips for Group Ex

When deciding whether to develop your own in-house exercise program or invest in a licensed class, follow these four steps:

  1. Meet with your group exercise instructors. Let them know what you're thinking and see what their opinions and experiences are with both types of classes.

  2. Form a focus group. Choose members of your club that are representative of your facility — most fit, least fit, experienced group exercise participant, never been to a group exercise class, young, old, etc. Bring them all in and do a master class, and then get their opinions.

  3. Visit another club. Take a team of instructors to a noncompetitive club that has a strong group exercise program and take a class or two. See what your instructors think, and try to find out how many members they gained, lost and retained when they changed/added a class.

  4. Consider a mix. Kellie Calabrese, president of Calabrese Consulting LLC and 2004 Online Personal Trainer of the Year, says it's possible to offer a freestyle and a licensed class. “Not every member is going to like it, so give them a choice,” she says.

Group Exercise Licensing Companies

  1. Balletone, www.balletone.com
  2. The Bar Method, www.barmethod.com
  3. Body Training Systems, www.bodytrainingsystems.com
  4. Les Mills International, www.lesmills.com
  5. Lotte Berk Method, www.lotteberklicense.com
  6. Stott Pilates, www.stottpilates.com