Phillip Mills is founder and creative director of Les Mills International, whose eight exercise-to-music programs are in 12,000 fitness clubs worldwide with five million participants each week. Mills also developed the Group Fitness Management system for maximizing the commercial benefits of the Les Mills programs. He is a past winner of the Ernst & Young New Zealand Entrepreneur of the Year award , and with his wife Dr. Jackie Mills co-wrote the book "Fighting Globesity."

It's time to turn the management of group exercise into a skilled and valued profession.

That, I believe, is the next big step in health clubs' success.

The truth is that many clubs have focused on sales and marketing without backing them with great products and customer experiences. Retention rates haven't changed much in the last 20 years. We've driven people into our clubs with advertising, marketing and sales, but most of us aren't any better at keeping those customers once we've made the sale. Among many people, our industry's reputation is as a "hard sell" sell operation, like car or insurance salesmen.

It's time for our industry to focus on being product-led rather than sales-led. We need to make our clubs more fun and more social places.

Let's make workouts an experience, not a tedious self-imposed tyranny that people do after a health scare or to get in shape for summer.

When fitness is fun and social, it becomes a deep and powerful part of people's lives. People join the gym to get in shape, but they stay because of the experience they have and the people they meet.

As my friend Michael Scott Scudder says, "No one ever left a gym because they made too many friends or were having too much fun."

In terms of simple, everyday activities, group exercise is the most powerful, systematizable way of creating social experiences in a health club. Group exercise classes combine social interaction and fun, offer unmatched fitness benefits compared with other group activities, are low cost for members compared with personal training, and are easy for club managers to implement with low-risk and a big return on investment.

Look at the comparison with other options:

  • When you redecorate the club or add new machines, you might commonly hope for a 20 percent or 30 percent return on your investment. Professionalizing group fitness management commonly achieves returns of 200 percent to 300 percent.
  • While a single great personal trainer can attract and retain a small group of members — maybe 10 or 12 regular clients — a great group fitness instructor can attract hundreds of members to a club, simply because that's how many members a group instructor can directly "touch" and inspire every week.

If you build a team of rock star instructors, they can attract thousands of members to your club.

That's the importance of developing world-class group fitness managers. Top-quality managers are the vital link to achieve the full potential of combining great instructors with world-class group fitness programs.

Many club owners and managers lack a frame of reference to know whether group fitness is performing well.

The most important benchmark is the most obvious — the number of people in your classes:

  • How many people attend each of your classes? If classes are less than half full, then you have huge potential for growth at minimal cost.
  • How many classes are on your timetable? While some clubs hold just 20 classes per week, others hold up to 200.
  • How many attendees for each instructor? By finding out this information, you can see quickly which instructors need more training or motivation.
  • What percentage of total visits to your club is for group fitness? If you're down around 10 percent or 20 percent, you know for sure you can make big gains.

Club owners must realize that they aren't on their own as they strive to improve group fitness. A systematic, tried-and-true path exists to set goals and achieve them. It's entirely realistic to raise group attendances from 300 people per week to 3,000 or more per week over a period of, say, three to five years. Over the same time frame, you can get your group fitness attendance up to 40 percent or 50 percent of all visits each week. You can achieve these improvements by professionally training your instructors; introducing standardized programming; providing incentives; actively managing your timetable; investing in sound, lighting and stages; and marketing group fitness inside and outside the club.

Pretty soon, your classes will be bursting at the seams. At that point, you will have achieved every club owner's dream because you will be out of the price war. Why would your members leave for some cut-rate place down the road when they love your club, love their friends at your club and are loyal to your programs?

At my family's biggest club in New Zealand, we have 12,000 current paying members. Our member retention rate is 80 percent, despite charging the highest fees in the city and serving a young, highly mobile demographic (average age 27). More than half of all attendances at our club are for group fitness classes. In November 2008, we set a record 9,000 group fitness attendances in one week. We average more than 8,500 per week. Half of our entire facility is given over to our group fitness building. At almost any time of the week, the group fitness building is bursting at the seams with up to 400 people across four studios, with classes peaking at more than 200 people. Words like "energy" and "buzz" fall way short of capturing the atmosphere.

In the near future, we will be automating much of the management of group fitness. Based on automatic class-counting technology that interfaces with a new software system we've developed, we'll be enabling managers to see their data online in real time, compare themselves with other clubs around the world, juggle their timetables to maximize attendance, rank classes and instructors and set goals with them, and measure group fitness's contribution to the business.