Although the carefree days of summer vacation are just around the corner for much of America's youth, and, at the same time, many health club's business' will take a breather during June, July and August; now is not the time for you to be taking a recess. If you haven't already realized it, youth programming can generate endless possibilities in terms of both revenue and retention. From day care and camps to martial arts classes to swim lessons and even birthday parties, youth programming is only as limited as your own creativity. With September a mere season away, clubs can't afford to waste their summer vacation when they could be planning for the fall.

Starting a youth program at your club takes an intense amount of effort, promotion and willpower — especially if your club was not previously known as a family facility. But why do all the legwork when you can get someone else to do it for you, and for free no less? And the willing partner? Schools.

Our nation's youth are facing an obesity epidemic, much like their adult counterparts. And with budget cuts eliminating many physical education programs, some schools are looking for alternative ways to keep their kids fit and active — like enrolling their student body at local health clubs. According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA), 42 percent of high school students participated in physical education classes in 1991, but by 1995, this number has dropped to 25 percent. One in four children, according to SGMA statistics, does not take gym classes at all, while those who did take classes, were decreasing their amount of time actually being active in the class. SGMA reports that in 1991, 81 percent of enrolled students were active for at least 20 minutes. Four years later, 70 percent were. Fewer than one in four children perform 20 minutes of vigorous physical activity a day. All in all, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 13 to 14 percent of America's youth are overweight, outdoing past generations.

As bleak as this sounds, the future is looking a little brighter in terms of federal funding. The 2001 Elementary and Secondary Education Act signed by President Bush makes $50 million in grants available this year for school districts to improve P.E. classes. And while this act increased the amount of money available to the schools, it decreased the amount of guidelines on how the money was to be spent. Meaning, schools could be federally funded to bus children to exercise at clubs.

All this spells potential money in the pocket for health clubs, providing they can deliver the schools excellence in youth programming.

School Crossing

In fact, many private schools lacking gym facilities or swimming pools, as well as looking for a competitive edge, are already turning to clubs to provide the practice space for many of their youth sports programs, or even hire personal trainers to for sports-specific training. Some schools may even be looking for clubs to help provide summer camps or after-school programs for their kids. All offer a potential member pool that could fill up downtime at your club, as well as possibly draw in more new members as interested parents or relatives join in the action at the club. A few niche-oriented clubs have taken advantage of the large youth populations available at nearby schools and have built up virtually through word-of-mouth alone, since the majority of marketing and membership drives for the program are conducted by the schools themselves.

One such niche club is Sports Therapy Services (STS), a private health and fitness facility located in McLean, VA. According to owner/president Gillian Rowan, “We go into the schools and do whatever the athletic director asks us to do.” Specifically, STS sends personal trainers into private schools to either conduct fitness tests (body fat, strength assessments, etc.) amongst the different sports teams, manage the school's gym, work with the athletes on sports-specific training or even conduct rehabilitation classes for injured players (though the latter is usually an in-club service, held in private training studios within the facility).

“We have structured our whole facility… to fill in the holes that have been present in the health and fitness industry,” explains Rowan. “We didn't feel that the high school and college athletes were being taken care of properly.”

Currently STS works with about 10 private schools (and retention has been 100 percent), though not always concurrently. The club's fees vary on the amount of time and complexity involved, but, in general, the schools are charged on an hourly basis. Though STS is not contracted by any public schools (“You have to be hired by the county to work at public schools,” she explains), parents whose children are in public school — and are familiar with STS' reputation — have contacted the club themselves and arranged for private training.

“With any type of personal training, it's making yourself very visible and not making mistakes. You have to be very cautious,” Rowan says. “It's when trainers go out and they're not cautious that they damage reputations.”

Back To School

Other clubs choose to have the schools come to them, rather than send trainers out to the club. Cascade Athletic Clubs (CAC), out of Oregon, has the schools bus their P.E. classes right to the gym for a nominal fee. Public schools pay just $1 a time period per child, and private schools pay $3 per time period. The kids take lessons in racquetball, basketball, swimming etc., utilizing the gym during its downtime. Besides filling up the empty pockets of the day, the club gains a large amount of community exposure, says CAC program director Connie Martin. In addition to hosting the P.E. classes, CAC also hosts school racquetball tournaments, offers its facilities to local daycares, and hosts summer camps. In the spring, the club has also been known to throw all-night parties for high-school graduates that are promoted by their respective schools. At $10 a head, students can go to the club from sundown to sunup and enjoy a safe graduation party with their peers. All this besides their regular roundup of children's group exercise programs like circuit training, Fit-for-Life, martial arts programs and even a homework club has built its reputation as a family friendly facility.

Philadelphia's Aquatic Fitness and Rehabilitation Center has also been finding success in youth and school programming. In addition to providing a practice pool for school swim teams (the Center rents out its pool to the coaches and their students, a practice that's so popular, according to Frank Tuohy the former aquatics director, that they have had athletic directors steal the flyers from competitors' schools to keep the pool for their own teams), the club also promotes a water safety program, summertime swim lessons and swim clinics, and even a learn-to-swim summer camp offered to the schools. In addition to interest from private schools, the Aquatic Fitness and Rehabilitation Center works with public charter schools on a variety of programs. According to Joe Kurtz, the current aquatics director for the Center, public schools (with the possible exception of charter schools) will generally have their own gym facilities, since they are funded by the state.

Kurtz' club charges either an hourly fee per child or else a per lesson fee, and limits class size to eight or nine children per instructor. “With eight kids per instructor I make a little money,” says Kurtz. “We design the program to their needs.” In addition, once the kids come to the center, more often than not, the parents will too, he says. “The parents come with the kids and they see the facility and they fall in love with it. Once we get ‘em through the doors, it's easy [converting them to memberships],” he explains.

And it's easy to retain members, as long as you prove your club's expertise. Rowan notes that club and their trainers need to make sure they are properly trained and educated in terms of youth needs before offering programs for the schools. A 14-year-old soccer student has different needs and training requirements than a 45-year-old office worker or a 25-year-old bodybuilder. “Some trainers see everything in black and white and they train the teenager just like [he's] an adult. Teenagers have specific needs,” she says.

She also warns that clubs need to be considerate of the coaches' wants and needs. “[Clubs] need to know how to work with the coaches and the athletic trainers. They need to understand and respect [them],” Rowan says. “[The coaches] don't like it when the trainers come in and try to take over and they shouldn't have to like it.

“The coaches again are the main component. Coaches have to develop some confidence in you and the parents will follow,” Rowan continues. And, if you look unfavorable in the eyes of one coach, you may well ruin your chances with other schools in the area. “With private schools, it's mostly word-of-mouth. The coaches know you,” she says.

Skipping Class

But even if you can't get directly involved with the schools, there are still ways to get yourself involved with school children. According to Kids Club Coordinator Tina Davis, Houston's Copperfield Athletic Club offers before- and after-school care for six area schools. The children's bus route drops off/picks up the children at the club per a request by their parents. While the school the children belong to is not officially involved, the kids can join the club with their peers and participate in a variety of fun activities at the club, from field trips to movies, homework counseling to fitness programs, and arts and crafts. All this is in addition to the club's menu of summer camps, swim programs and other youth programming. Fees usually run between $180-$260 per month. Davis does note, however, that in order to provide childcare, the club had to be licensed by the state, but this was a small effort on behalf of the club in comparison to the membership value the program added.

“Most parents are looking for a child care facility in this area anyway,” says Davis. “We are a big, family-oriented facility and they find a lot here.”

Considering the large fees many day care facilities and after-school programs charge for their services, adding during and after-school activities to your club for a reasonable fee may well prove to be an extremely popular, and profitable, venture, while increasing your perceived image.

And, by teaching youth fitness today, you'll be preparing them for a lifetime of healthy living habits, and health club memberships.