Group exercise classes remain at the heart of most fitness centers' success stories. So how do you make sure your studios stay filled?

It's Saturday morning at The Fitness Group, a full-service health club in Vancouver, British Columbia, and the 9:30 "Power Moves" class is just letting out. The studio doors open, and slowly, dozens of sweaty, smiling members exit the room. All told, there are more than 100 people making their way through the doors. Most clubs would be happy to reach even half that number, though at The Fitness Group, even weekday morning classes can approach the three-digit mark.

The secret to this Canadian club's success? "We give our members what they want," says Julie McNeney, program director of the club (and also the 1999 winner of IDEA's Program Director of the Year). "It's something that changes from day to day and time slot to time slot, but it's constantly staying on top of members' requests and needs."

Keeping your members happy sounds simple enough. But for many health clubs, it's an ongoing challenge to balance the needs of all their patrons, from newcomers to veterans. How do you make an exercise program fresh and exciting enough to keep people filing into the studio week after week, without making it too difficult for novices to get involved? Here's how clubs with some of the most successful group exercise programming consistently keep members coming back for more.

First of all, clubs with great classes find that members tend to follow the leader. What draws a member into a particular class each Thursday night at 6:30? Usually, the instructor. "The first thing someone will tell you about a class is whether or not they like the teacher," says McNeney. "And from what we've found, that ideal person is a combination of an educator and an entertainer."

A Teacher for All
Qualified instructors (those who can correct a hyperextended elbow while keeping the rest of the class fully engaged) can convince experienced members to come back for more while making it comfortable for someone who's never set foot into a studio to try something new. "You have to have a dynamic instructor who can provide a certain level of challenge for all individuals," adds Valerie Powers, programming director at Wenmat Sports and Fitness Center, based in Sacramento, Calif.

And while it's often a matter of luck to finding that special someone, there are steps you can take to cultivate talent in your backyard. The Boston Athletic Club (BAC), for example, is setting up an internship program with students from area colleges and universities to learn protocols and become familiar with program development. The club also works closely with its instructors, outlining what it expects from each class, making sure that biomechanics are safe and that it includes everything from a proper warm-up to a cooldown.

"One of the key things of a successful program is that a class has both structure and leadership," says Ken Baldwin, director of personal training and wellness programs at BAC. "When a member goes into a class, they want to know that the person who will be guiding them along has experience."

Finally, if you're introducing a new class or concept, pull in your top instructors to teach it, and members will likely try it, says Donna Cyrus, national group fitness director at New York-based Crunch Fitness. "People will follow their favorite teachers, at least for awhile," she notes. "It's a great way to build word of mouth for a new program."

Speaking of word of mouth, if you listen to what your members have to say, you'll know exactly how to improve group exercise programs. Stay aware of your members' concerns by keeping them involved in your programming decisions. "We're constantly evaluating our classes, and we keep suggestion boxes around the facility so that our members can always tell us what they think," says McNeney of The Fitness Group.

The club also conducts biannual "benchmark" surveys that explore members' psychographics - everything from their favorite type of exercise to concerns over equipment to musical preferences. To get a bigger response rate, the club offers members the chance to win something for filling out the form, like a gift certificate to a local restaurant or a pair of running shoes at the pro shop.

Other clubs keep both an eye on the number of students who fill the exercise room each class and an ear to the ground regarding what members are saying about a new program. "We like to have strong word of mouth when we begin a new class or concept," says Cyrus. "It has to show growth - starting at eight members, say, then building to 15 and then 20. If it doesn't fly within three months, we drop it."

Keep Newcomers Coming
Make exercise rookies feel welcome by putting introductory classes on the workout schedule. "Don't force beginners to be in a class with more advanced members when it comes to a challenging workout like indoor cycling or boxing," notes Kathie Davis, executive director of IDEA. "Make sure you have classes on the schedule that are designed with the beginner in mind."

One club that does this well is Wenmat Sports & Fitness Center, which offers introductory Step, aerobic and cycling classes the first Saturday of each month. "We try to encourage people who have never done those type of classes to give it a shot," Powers says.

The club also instructs all of its teachers to inquire about newcomers at the start of each class, so they can discuss pacing and better keep an eye on them. "We want members to keep coming back for more," Powers says.

But just as important as making beginners feel welcome is keeping your long-term members challenged. For some clubs, that means incorporating an incentive program, such as putting together teams of friends who can compete against fellow members, or for points toward merchandise in the pro shop, or tracking things like number of miles rode across the United States in a group cycling class.

Fresh Ideas
Then again, challenge can also come just by adding some fresh programming into the mix. "People are constantly looking to see what's hot and exciting. That's the best motivator out there," says IDEA's Davis. "If there's something new and different, they want to try it."

According to a recent survey from IDEA, the hottest group exercise classes today include group strength training, stretching/flexibility, Step aerobics, abdominal exercises, circuit training, boxing-oriented programs, low-impact aerobics, interval training and yoga. Boxing, yoga, martial arts and group cycling classes have all experienced the greatest growth over the past three years.

The link between these studio must-haves? According to Davis, a class must meet four criteria in order to have success with members: It must be fun, effective, easy to learn and diverse, with enough variety to keep it interesting.

"Step aerobics, which recently celebrated 10 years since inception, meets all of those demands," says Davis. On the other hand, a program like slide, which has largely fizzled over the past few years, didn't provide enough variety, or was too difficult for members to pick up.

Variety is certainly important, but out of the four criteria Davis named, fun is perhaps the most crucial. And part of what makes exercise classes fun is the opportunity to interact with other exercisers. After all, group exercise, by nature, is a social activity.

"I think that's what really keeps people coming through the door," says Powers of Wenmat Sports & Fitness. "They know they have to be somewhere at a certain time. They know they're going to see their friends, and some familiar faces. At the heart, there's a social nature to group exercise, and that's a powerful motivator."


Building a Market

There are exercise studios, which deal exclusively in group classes, and there are full-service gyms, which give members one-stop exercise options, from classes to equipment. Today, though, some clubs are trying to be a little bit of both by "unbundling" group exercise programs as a separate membership package.

One operator doing this successfully is Club Sports International (CSI), which has been testing niche programs through its six Wellbridge clubs over the past few months. There, nonmembers can choose from disease-management packages like weight management, hypertension and arthritis, or more general programs like women's strength training, relaxation and retreat (a combo spa services program), personal best (working with a personal trainer and dietitian), or prime time (for middle-aged participants looking to get back into physical activity).

Those who sign up for the programs attend lectures with other group members, then take part in exercise classes, either in the water, on equipment or in a studio. They're eligible to use the club only on the day of the service, and the programs last for eight to 24 weeks.

Thus far, the concept has been highly successful, says Jennifer Turgiss, national director of programming at CSI. "The attrition rate is practically zero," she notes. "People will either sign up for another program, or join as a full member of the club. It's a great way to get people who wouldn't otherwise join a health club, and it keeps them coming back."

- A.L.S.


Class of 2000

What's on the agenda for group exercise in the new millennium?

* Group wellness: At Boston Athletic Club, medicine gets sweaty with the addition of wellness-oriented workouts like cardiac rehab and sports-injury classes. The club has hired physical therapists to take part in the program, overseeing exercises for safety and promising members a little more hand-holding than they might find in a larger group exercise program. "Wellness and medically based fitness facilities are the way of the future," says Ken Baldwin, director of wellness programming, who envisions classes for members with heart disease, diabetes, even low-back injuries.

* Mind and muscles: The mind/body fitness explosion shows no sign of weakening, as classes like yoga and Pilates continue to grow in popularity. "The population is aging, and people are looking for a kinder, gentler workout," says Kathie Davis, executive director of IDEA. But you don't have to be a senior to appreciate the desire to strengthen your spirit along with the rest of your body. "We need a break from the stress and tension of everyday life," adds Julie McNeney, program director of The Fitness Group. "Mind/body exercises can provide a great release."

* Clowning around: Clubs like Crunch continue to keep their members grinning by incorporating innovative classes. The latest: Circus Sports, which features a trapeze, juggling, cartwheels, handstands and a human pyramid. "People work harder if they don't realize that it's actually work," says Donna Cyrus, national group fitness director. Classes like Graviology and Latino Grooves make it seem more like a nightclub act than a workout - and that can draw serious lines out the studio door.

- A.L.S.