While many have touted the reduction and elimination of group exercise classes to help improve a facility's bottom line, some are finding that narrowing the focus of classes — even adding more to the schedule — may be another way to address the growing (or in some clubs, shrinking) class conundrum. These classes specifically target runners, cyclists, triathletes, new moms, the obese and any number of specific populations. It is part of the growing compartmentalization of fitness facilities to draw in new members, especially those who may not have turned to a health club in the past.
But these group classes aren't always confined to the 300- or 400-square-foot studio often shared by everything from yoga to cycling to step and low-impact classes; this may be part of their draw and potential success. In fact, many of these concepts have grown out of — or in some cases into — clubs and online communities and are more based on the common goals of participants.
Asphalt Green in New York City has attracted some 200 triathletes and triathlete wannabes to its Triathlon Club during the last three years. The club, located on the Upper East side, not only takes advantage of its facilities, but it also uses all New York has to offer.
“We are really a high-performance sports facility with a great deal of amenities available for athletic training,” says Paul Weiss, Asphalt Green's senior program director and an avid triathlete who started the club in 2002. “We have 11 workouts a week with two at the club. A lot is done off-site at Central Park and around the city.”
But staying on-site hasn't affected the success of other facilities' programs that cater to specialized populations.
“We target several groups of athletes: runners, swimmers and cyclists. I think the draw for these programs is the comprehensiveness of the programs, such as how the running includes cross training, stretching, nutrition and group runs. This also helps build camaraderie,” says Becca Owens, the fitness manager for Mercy HealthPlex.
Owens says these groups are served through both regularly scheduled classes and seasonal programs, which are fee-based. Programs include a Trekking and Training camp, which is primarily endurance/running and attracts the endurance athletes as well as 10- and 18-week running camps.
At Asphalt Green, part of the program's major success — it has doubled in size every year since its inception — doesn't even leave virtual reality. Its agtri.com site gets 800 hits and 50 postings a week, so the club is able to keep its already active community active away from their bikes, the pool and the road, Weiss says.
“We are lucky to be a big enough organization, and one with an educational mission, so we can really implement the technology to help build a community,” he says.
There is a bottom-line benefit for such programs that outruns the additional fees that may be charged. In the case of Asphalt Green's Triathlon Club the $129 yearly fee is just the start of the race.
“Actually, the program is a classic loss-leader. It costs about $30,000 a year to run, but we make our margin on other stuff,” says Weiss. “It really gives us a chance to target adults for programming that other traditional classes don't typically avail themselves, and this opens them to additional pay services such as coaching programs, stroke clinics and our e-mail coaching.”
Of course, boosting memberships is also plays into the financial figures when implementing specialized classes.
“I feel the variety of our programs as a whole is a large contributing factor to our membership sales. However, it is hard to say whether it is directly related to our specialty training,” Owens says. “I feel that these classes/programs positively affect the bottom line — if it sells memberships, that is a bigger help to the bottom line than an individual program's revenue.”
At Asphalt Green, one of the bumps in the road for the Triathlon Club is expanding its reach in a crowded market.
“We really are in a three-zip code area — we can only draw from about three zip codes with all the competition in New York City,” Weiss says. “The club really allows us to expand our reach outside of our typical geographic area.”
Once those memberships have been sold, they open a world of possibilities for additional profit centers, something that has helped boost the bottom line at Michael's Body Scenes in Boca Raton, FL, which offers a triathlon training class as part of its group exercise schedule.
“Once someone has gotten a taste of triathlon training in the class, they often want to supplement that and advance their training through more specialized and personalized service,” says Renee Sanok of Michael's Body Scenes. “This is a real boost to our personal training program as we then can get the members training with us, working on cardio, strength and the core to improve their athletic performance.”
While there is more buzz about cutting classes that no longer pack ‘em in to help reduce costs, specialized classes that average about half of the attendance of a traditional class may not look like a sound investment at first glance. But when other factors such as fees collected, membership bumps — and the general buzz of niche classes — are calculated, targeting special populations from athletes to the deconditioned may not be a bad investment overall.
“We've had such good success with our Triathlete Club that we are looking to expand to other segments such as cycling,” Weiss says. “These programs aren't easy to start or cheap to run, but they help attract new people, boost the bottom line and separate you from the competition.”