Group exercise has become a mainstay at fitness facilities of every type, but many facility operators struggle to decide between offering pre-choreographed classes and freestyle classes.

The number of clubs offering pre-choreographed classes has increased from 22 percent in 2007 to 47 percent in 2011, according to the 2011 IDEA Fitness Programs and Equipment Trends report.

This increase mirrors an increase in offerings from established companies adding new classes to their repertoire and from the emergence of new companies, says Kathie Davis, executive director of IDEA Health and Fitness Association, San Diego.

“Dance is getting very big,” Davis says, naming Zumba as an example.

Zumba, a pre-choreographed Latin dance-based group program, has become so popular in recent years that it has started popping up in unconventional places, such as Pilates studios.

“If you can’t beat them, join them,” says Risa Sheppard, owner of the Sheppard Method Pilates Studio in Los Angeles. She decided to offer the class after getting requests for it from her studio members.

Despite misgivings about pre-choreographed classes, Sheppard says the class has been successful since she introduced it last October, attracting new clients who are interested primarily in Zumba and then introducing them to Pilates.

“I’m not one for set choreography, but the people who take the Zumba seem to really, really like it,” she says. “You’ve always got to market to the masses. This is pure business. I think that the smart business person will keep with the integrity of the work and still be open to other forms of expression.”

The mass appeal of pre-choreographed group exercise classes was a major factor in group fitness director Ricky Russel’s decision to introduce Zumba and Body Training Systems (BTS) classes at Spa 23 Health and Racquet Club, Pompton Plains, NJ. The club also offers freestyle classes.

“People trust brands more than they trust freestyle,” Russel says. Even though freestyle instructors enjoy the creativity and freedom of making up their own routines, freestyle classes are more difficult to market and manage, he says. If an instructor gets sick or leaves the club, another instructor cannot always step in and lead the class in a way that meets club members’ expectations.

Kike Santander, CEO of Batuka, Key Biscayne, FL, says that his company’s pre-choreographed Latin dance-based classes allow for some freestyle. Batuka, which was launched in the United States last year but has been offered in Spain since 2005, allows instructors to modify the choreography or music to suit the abilities and preferences of the class.

“Bridging the gap between pre-choreographed and freestyle, that’s where we’re positioning ourselves,” Santander says.

The Cost of Choreography

In order to encourage freestyle, Batuka uses intuitive instruction and a layering technique for choreography. Batuka provides all the layers, levels, progressions and regressions that the instructor needs. Over time, the instructors learn how to analyze movement so they can change the choreography.

Santander, a Grammy Award-winning musician, writes all the music for the classes so it fits with the choreography. Batuka sends instructors new classes quarterly, but instructors can receive mini updates every four weeks.

Of course, pre-choreographed programs come at a cost. Instructors often must pay a fee to get and stay certified. The club operators must buy a licensing fee and pay for new materials.

It is difficult to calculate the return on investment when classes are included in membership, but Russel says that the $10,000 per year that Spa 23 pays in licensing fees to BTS is well spent because it draws people into the gym, making them more likely to spend money on personal training, spa services and snacks.

The influx of group exercise companies has not radically changed prices, but Russel says that BTS aims to set itself apart by helping clubs successfully offer their classes with management coaches and an extensive library of downloadable marketing material. When new programs are released every quarter, Spa 23 uses these materials to launch marketing campaigns, something Russell says is impossible to do with freestyle classes.

Les Mills, one of the most established brands in the pre-choreographed market, also offers complimentary marketing and coaching services, says Steven Renata, CEO of Les Mills West Coast.

Les Mills is not overly concerned about the growing number of competitors in the pre-choreographed space.

“With new companies arising, new forms of exercise coming through, and a renewed focus on the consumer’s experience, it’s a great time to be involved [in group exercise],” Renata says. “The industry is responding to what consumers are after, and that’s vital if we’re going to get more people moving and motivated.”

Responding quickly to fitness trends introduced by other brands also is key to staying competitive in the expanding market. After witnessing the success of dance-based classes, Les Mills developed its own version. The company also is expanding into other markets, offering apparel, equipment and DVD workout programs for the home market in an effort to appeal to people who do not feel comfortable working out in gyms or other fitness facilities.

Pre-choreographed classes do not seem to be fading away anytime soon.

“I think it will continue to grow,” Davis says. “But I still feel that group classes where people are designing them themselves are also a mainstay in clubs. It’s just a matter of what the balance is in your club.”