Combat flat profits with classes in traditional martial arts.

If you traced the history of martial arts back to their Eastern roots, you'd find that the earliest Asian masters were few in number, teaching their techniques in secret. Since schools were so rare, hopeful pupils couldn't always receive the martial-arts training that they wanted.

A few decades ago, this industry faced a similar problem. Prospective members who sought classes in karate, tae kwon do and other styles learned that martial-arts classes were practically nonexistent in health clubs.

Nowadays, things have changed. Just as Eastern-style combat grew out of obscurity in Asia, martial arts have become ubiquitous in health clubs. In fact, they have almost become a necessity.

"Once just an occasional, one-time class in the '70s, traditional martial arts have become a regular staple for many clubs," says Rick Caro, president of Management Vision, a New York-based club-consulting firm. "Martial arts are now something that many members expect as part of the standard offerings of a club."

According to Caro, those clubs that don't have traditional martial arts on their group-exercise schedule are missing out on an excellent opportunity to attract and retain more members and make additional profits.

"Go home and make a net if you desire to get fishes."
- Chinese Proverb

Ken Kachtik, general manager of Elmwood Fitness Center, believes in the profit power of martial arts. From increased revenue to attracting new members, he has experienced the benefits of traditional martial arts firsthand. His club in New Orleans added martial arts to the class schedule nearly 10 years ago. Today, more than 175 people participate in the club's tae kwon do and qi gong classes.

"Any time you can attract another group of people into a club, you're looking at adding to your membership," he says. "Martial-arts classes are great because they offer something for all ages and all types of people."

In addition to attracting and retaining members, martial-arts programs can also provide additional revenue. At Elmwood, for example, tae kwon do classes generate more than $3,000 per month in enrollment fees alone.

According to Katalin Rodriguez Zamiar, a martial-arts instructor and consultant, clubs that choose to charge for martial-arts classes should do so based on the number of classes offered per week. For comparison, she says the average martial arts-only school charges $70 per month for unlimited classes, which equates to about three to five classes per week.

"If you're offering just two classes per week, then I'd recommend charging $30 to $50 per month," Zamiar says. "To get a program started, you might even consider charging less."

Elmwood, which offers martial-arts classes six days a week, charges members $67 for class registration. This includes a uniform and an introductory month of classes. After that, members pay $32 per month for unlimited classes with no long-term commitment.

Not that classes are limited to Elmwood members. Nonmembers can also take part, but they pay higher enrollment fees. And, in the end, many nonmembers who come for the classes often end up signing up for a gym membership too, according to Kachtik.

Although many clubs charge additional enrollment fees for members, some clubs provide the classes solely as an amenity. For example, Chicago's East Bank Club, which schedules three tae kwon do classes and four tai chi classes each week, does not charge.

"All group-exercise classes are free at East Bank, and, from our perspective, martial arts just fits under the umbrella of group exercise," explains Nancy Fudacz, director of exercise programs. "It just makes sense."

Indeed, Fudacz believes that this philosophy of not charging makes sense for most clubs. "It depends on which other classes the club is charging for," she says. "To be honest, I think members will be turned off if martial arts are the only classes they are charging for."

Even if a club doesn't charge for martial arts, it can still turn these programs into a profit center by selling martial-arts uniforms (e.g., gis), protective gear and other equipment for the classes. One caveat: While some clubs see the uniforms as a source of motivation and commitment, other clubs see them as a possible intimidating factor for beginners. They point out that people new to martial arts may feel uncomfortable in a gi, and the prospect of parading around the gym wearing "pajamas" could make them self-conscious.

Another drawback is that uniforms cost money, and new students may not want to make this investment before they decide to stick with the program. That's why Zamiar recommends that clubs make uniforms optional at first, but required later. For example, new students can wear sweats in class initially, but right before their first test for rank promotion (e.g., moving from white belt to yellow belt), they need to purchase a uniform.

Testing, itself, can be another source of revenue. It's not unusual for martial-arts schools to charge a small fee for testing, such as $10. This more than covers the cost of giving a new colored belt to the students who pass the test and go up a rank.

"The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step."
- Chinese Proverb

If you're like most club owners, the prospect of generating additional revenue and increasing member retention is enough to make you consider adding traditional martial arts to your club. But how do you get started?

"I think you first need to figure out what martial arts could mean for your club if it's really successful," explains Caro of Management Vision. "In other words, will this be a program that could be 10 classes per week or is it going to be much smaller?"

One of the most important decisions to make is whether to operate your classes independently or contract with an outside martial-arts studio. For some health clubs, using outside contractors is a way to get a program started quickly.

According to Rob Colasanti, vice president of the National Association of Professional Martial Artists (NAPMA), many independent martial-arts teachers are interested in setting up arrangements with clubs that want to establish a new program. He recommends approaching a local university's martial-arts club or an established martial-arts studio in your area that wouldn't consider your fitness club a possible competitor.

If you're more comfortable putting together a program from scratch, start-up costs for a martial-arts program are very minimal, according to Colasanti. "All you really need is an exercise room with mirrors, good flooring and a water fountain," he explains. "Next, you may want to invest in a freestanding heavy bag, kicking targets and body shields, but that's it."

Products like "kicking targets" and "body shields" likely conjure up images of lawsuits and the need for additional insurance. But according to Zamiar, most clubs' existing insurance policies already cover martial arts. She says the majority of insurance companies will allow for sparring in martial arts but not traditional boxing.

"If your gym has basketball, racquetball and aerobics, then chances are you're covered," Zamiar claims. Still, it's important to make sure that sparring is written into your insurance policy before offering martial arts in your club.

"An army of a thousand is easy to find, but - ah - how difficult to find a general."
- Chinese Proverb

"If you really want to start a martial-arts program in your fitness center, you need to take the time to find the right person," Zamiar says. "Treat it exactly like you're hiring a new Spinning or rowing instructor."

Colasanti recommends looking for an instructor with a black belt in his chosen style - but don't let that be your only criteria. "Shop around and don't go with the first instructor that comes down the pipeline," he warns. "There's no regulation in the martial-arts industry, so anyone can call himself a black belt."

Colasanti says you want a martial-arts instructor who will be compassionate and respectful to your members. "It doesn't matter if he's the world champ in karate," he maintains. "What matters is how that instructor makes you feel. You have to ask yourself: Would I entrust my child to this instructor or would I want my spouse taking his class?"

It's also important to find a martial-arts instructor who's a good presenter. An entertaining, charismatic instructor can acquire a strong following among members.

"Find a good instructor and let her bring her style of martial arts to your club," Zamiar recommends. "It's more important to get your members comfortable with martial arts first."

"Anything worth doing, is worth doing right."
- Chinese Proverb

Even with the right instructor, however, a martial-arts program won't succeed unless it appeals to a broad base of members. Fudacz of the East Bank Club says the key to marketing martial arts successfully is making the class fit into the group-exercise environment. The class must be accessible to all.

Although the experts recommend that you concentrate on finding the right instructor rather than a particular style, some types of martial arts are more popular with certain parts of your club's population. For example, styles like jujitsu and aikido are often popular in women's self-defense classes because they don't require the student to overpower an opponent with punching and kicking.

Fudacz recommends styles like tae kwon do, kung fu and karate for clubs because they are the most well known of the martial arts. If your club caters to an older population, tai chi and qi gong are good styles to consider because they don't require high kicks and explosive movements.

Colasanti claims that the most popular martial-arts style for children is tae kwon do. "Think about it - it's simple," he offers. "Tae kwon do is what the Power Rangers and Ninja Turtles do on TV."

For adult members with fitness as the goal, Colasanti recommends styles like tae kwon do or karate that involve plenty of kicking and punching. These styles require endurance. However, he notes that any martial-arts program taught properly and with enough repetition is an exercise that "conditions from head to toe."

When you first establish a martial-arts program, it may be difficult to offer a variety of styles and separate the classes by age groups. So don't, Zamiar advises.

"There's nothing wrong with mixing kids and adults if you're just starting out," she says. "Obviously it's better for the class to be full even if it's mixed. It just gives members the impression that it's a good class."

Colasanti, however, is more cautious about the prospect of mixing adults with children. "It can work and many instructors start out this way, but it's just not optimal," he warns. "In general, it's difficult for an instructor to manage both children and adults, and it can be a safety concern."

Despite this disagreement, it's hard to ignore the fact that martial-arts programs are very popular with members of all ages, especially when the programs allow parents and children to be active together. At Elmwood Fitness Center, marketing to families helped make martial-arts classes successful, according to Rick Foley, director of martial arts.

"Tae kwon do is one of the few activities that allows families to come to the gym together and train together," he says. "The families love it and bring other families into our classes."

Elmwood's family classes permit kids ages 7 and up to participate. The club also provides a class for small children, ages 3 to 6.

Few exercise classes can accommodate youngsters, seniors and all ages in between. Martial-arts programs can. "Offering martial-arts classes allows a club to speak to different parts of the marketplace," stresses Caro of Management Vision. "In addition to attracting new members, these classes often create more loyal members and can help develop more family interaction at the club."

As with any decision, there are pros and cons to adding traditional martial arts to your club's schedule. But, either way, you owe it to your club to take the time to consider martial-arts programming. A Chinese proverb puts it another way: "Take a second look. It costs you nothing."


Safety in Martial Arts

When instructed well and performed correctly, traditional martial arts are a relatively safe form of fitness and exercise. However, according to martial-arts instructor Katalin Rodriguez Zamiar, the ballistic, repetitive kicking and punching associated with most martial arts can cause injuries.

"Of course injuries can occur during sparring, but, as an instructor, I'm more concerned about chronic injuries," she says. "You can always steer people away from acute injuries, but if somebody has poor form all the time and if you have an instructor that doesn't care, it can cause a lifelong injury for one of your members."

Zamiar recommends these tips to help maximize safety:

- Make sure the instructor always provides a proper warm-up and cooldown for the class's students.

- Instructors should keep a special eye on beginning students and take the time to emphasize proper technique for punches and kicks.

- Require students to use protective gear, including gloves and hand-held punching and kicking targets, when sparring.

- Try to pair up students of similar size and experience during sparring exercises. For instance, have children spar with other children and adults with adults whenever possible.

- Don't allow instructors to teach "old school" martial-arts exercises like neck pushups because these exercises provide little real benefit and may cause chronic injuries.