There's an old story of a traditional family gathering at holiday time. Mother carefully prepares the roast, and just before popping it in the oven, she cuts off a bit of the end. Daughter notices and says, “Mom, why did you cut the end off the roast before you put it in to cook?” Mother answers, “I don't know. We've always done it that way in our family.” Not satisfied, daughter goes into the living room and asks grandmother, “Grandma, why do we always cut the end off the roast before we cook it?” Grandmother replies, “Well, honey, doing that makes it taste better.” Great-grandmother, sitting at the end of the couch, laughingly retorts, “Darling, I started that habit. And I did it because we had such a small oven when we were starting out that it's the only way the roast would fit!”

Sometimes we do things because we've always done them that way and we're afraid to change what we think is traditional, or we think that if we give them up, we'll jinx ourselves. Sometimes we do them because we just don't know why we do them.

It looks to me like that's the case with group exercise these days. I see a lot of fitness facilities suffering under the following scenario:

  • Low attendance in most classes.

  • High wages paid per class hour to instructors regardless of class attendance.

  • No integration of classes into the mainstream programming of the facility. They're a stand-alone, non-marketed entity apparently supposed to advertise themselves.

  • No integration of instructor staff into the employee culture. Instead, instructors come in to “do their thing” and leave.

  • An extremely low percentage of total users compared to the number of overall club members.

  • A “dead, dark space” in the actual room housing the group ex classes for as much as two-thirds of the operating hours of the facility.

  • A money-losing program that is subsidized by all members regardless of use and that causes the attempted integration of another frequent money-loser — childcare. (Most owners report that nearly 75 percent of their childcare visits are due to group exercise users.)

  • A huge “opportunity cost” because that space might be used more profitably for something else that involves more members and generates greater revenues and profits.

    Please don't think that I am “group ex bashing” — I'm not. I am, however, pleading with many owners to take a serious business look at their group exercise program to see if it makes sense for their facilities. Here are a few guidelines that I use:

  • Do class counts for the next month. Have a sign-in sheet for each class (this also protects you from a liability standpoint). Tally all classes' attendance and then divide by the number of classes in your tally period to come up with class attendance averages. In general, you are losing revenue and negatively marketing with any class that has less than eight people on average. (Unless it is a “paid” class that warrants a special fee — and I hope that you have priced it to make a profit! Most don't.)

  • Look at your classroom space. Is it “dark” more than 60 operating hours a week? Could it be used more profitably and to serve more members? (Examples: personal training studio; women-only training studio; weight management studio; a bigger cardio area for your club; “split” studios in which you have specialty (paid) classes such as Pilates, SCIFIT's Fit-Key, PACE, etc.)

  • Could you eliminate low-attended classes without upsetting your program? My experience says that most people won't end their membership because of a cancelled class if it is explained to them beforehand about provisions for cancellation. Instead, they will simply attend other classes.

  • Can you pay your instructors based on class attendance? Thousands of clubs have gone to an instructor base wage per class plus per-head attendance bonuses over a minimum attendance figure. The result? Class counts have generally risen and instructors have earned more money per class by keeping class attendances high.

  • Finally, can you really afford that loser program anymore? Most group ex programs, particularly in smaller clubs, cost 15 percent or more of a facility's payroll to cater to less than 10 percent of the membership base. Most group ex rooms have a hard cost of as much as 10 percent of total square footage cost of the facility. Add these two together and you recognize that you are running a subsidized program for a select few and discriminating against the far greater percentage of your general membership by so doing.

Take a look at group exercise in your club. Is it the end off the roast? Food for thought. Now it's up to you to nibble.


Michael Scott Scudder is a 30-year veteran of the fitness industry. He is a personal business trainer operating Fitness Focus, a consulting company that offers private workshops on pertinent fitness business matters. Questions and comments are welcomed by Michael at 505-690-5974 or mss@michaelscottscudder.com.