SAN FRANCISCO — Elite athletes work hard and train hard — and they often do so on their own or with a personal coach. However, some fitness facility owners are looking to attract this market for the additional revenue these athletes promise.

The Olympic Club, San Francisco, is a club that specifically trains elite athletes. Its website states that it's the oldest athletic club in the United States, is comprised of 5,000 active members and “is dedicated to the pursuit of amateur athletic excellence.” Almost all of the facility's programming and equipment targets these athletes, some of whom have been Olympic swimmers.

Paul Carter, aquatics director at The Olympic Club, says it may be inadvisable and expensive for club owners who do not solely target this elite athlete demographic to create programming for this market alongside their existing programming for non-athletes.

Phil Tyne, director of the Baylor Tom Landry Center, Dallas, agrees that pursuing this market has its challenges. When working with these athletes, personal trainers often contend with strong personalities, tight schedules, and the challenge of preventing injuries and not overtraining their clientele.

“Most athletes don't want to pay for the service, they have their own personal trainers, and they're more difficult to work with than the general population,” says Tyne, who spent 11 years as the strength and conditioning coach for the San Diego Chargers, trained the U.S. Olympic men's volleyball team and has spent five years at the Landry Center, which trains triathletes, runners and cyclists.

Despite these issues, some club operators are finding success with this market. Chico Sports Club in Chico, CA, has brought in an average of $10,000 per year in gross revenue for its women's triathlon training program and its women's winter running group, according to Preben Nielsen, senior staff member at the club. The programs have typically pulled in 103 participants each year since they began in 2005.

“Our success with these programs would likely support a higher fee, but it could lower the number of participants,” Nielsen says.

The Chico Sports Club programs are as much about retention as they are about revenue. Athletes who participate in the programs are less likely to drop their club membership even if they are not currently enrolled in the programs, Nielsen says.

Chico's programs are relatively inexpensive to offer, Nielsen says. Much of the training occurs outdoors using the participants' own bikes, so little additional equipment is needed for the triathletes except for the facility's pool. The club uses local marathons and triathlons already put on by other groups to drive the training for its programs, helping participants to prepare for these events. However, the club has turned a small profit by putting on a few triathlons and running events of its own.

The two main expenses for Chico are program promotion, which ranges from 8 percent to 12 percent of the gross program revenue, and coaching compensation, which ranges from 60 percent to 65 percent of gross program revenue, Nielsen says.

“The elite athlete market is a smaller market and has extra needs compared to a typical health club member,” Nielsen says. “Dismissing the elite market due to such considerations, however, misses the point that elite members and programs can help drive and motivate existing members to become more active and provide the health club with valuable PR opportunities if they know how to capitalize on them.”

Mercy HealthPlex, Cincinnati, has increased its personal training clientele by 400 percent during the last nine years, due in part to its focus on elite athletes, says Jamie Wolf, fitness director. This market segment now comprises about 5 percent to 10 percent of the medically based fitness facility's clientele. The Mercy HealthPlex Elite programs generally earn a profit margin of 40 percent.

Joshua Fitchitt, senior director of fitness services for Pro Sports Club, Redmond, WA, says one of the benefits of catering to endurance athletes is getting to be part of their journey. His club has been involved in performance training for the last three years and recently opened a $5 million performance center to attract the elite athlete market. The club's athlete training programs generate approximately $10,000 per month in additional club revenue, he says.

“It is very special to see someone you have coached cross the finish line,” says Fitchitt, who has worked for the club for 11 years. “All of our coaches take great pride in helping the athletes we work with unlock their true physical potential.”

Not all clubs are targeting the elite athlete market. Preston Petersen, corporate personal training director at Genesis Health Club, Wichita, KS, says that his facility has increased its revenue after opening an athletic development center two years ago at one of its locations. This center targets athletes that wouldn't necessarily be considered elite but who still want to improve.

“As sports become more competitive all the time, parents and athletes are looking to gain an advantage,” he said. “Hiring the most qualified coaches to teach strength and conditioning is one way they see themselves narrowing the gap.”

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The program has averaged about $7,000 per month for the past three years, which is about 10 percent of this location's personal training revenue, Petersen says.

The majority of clubs may already have the right equipment to attract elite athletes, but they need to develop the right programming and properly trained staff who can provide proper assessments, corrective training and effective programming, says Everett Aaberg, co-owner and director of education and fitness services at TELOS Fitness Center, Dallas.

The best way to build an average or elite athlete element into your club is by getting results for one or two athletes. Word of mouth will then spread, Wolf says.

“If the best player on your team is doing sports training, then you'll want to do it also to compete for that spot,” Wolf says. “Once our athletes get results, they start spreading the word, and we can sit back and collect phone calls.”

That does not mean traditional marketing efforts are not required. However, marketing to elite athletes requires more specific and targeted promotions than the usual marketing campaign, Nielsen says.

Chico Sports Club raises awareness for its elite athlete programs by sponsoring booths and displays at local community events and by running ads that cross-promote local sporting events and the club's training programs.

“Merely noting that your club has such a program is not enough,” Nielsen says. “You also have to convince the athlete that you actually have something substantive to offer.”

The investment in these programs can be minimal, but many club operators are finding that the payback is worth it in revenue, retention and satisfaction in helping these athletes attain their goals.