Train More, Worry Less

By Phil Kaplan
February 10, 2006

Phil Kaplan is a club owner, personal fitness trainer and industry consultant. Find additional articles and information about him at www.philkaplan.com.

If every health club owner had to construct his or her own individual “worry lists,” retention, cash flow and competition would no doubt make everybody’s top 10. Following the path of convention, club owners would also have their lists of solutions.

Retention would be addressed by instructing sales people or new hires to contact expiring members and get them to re-commit. Cash flow would be handled by weekly and daily sales meetings to drive new membership. An aggressive and continuous advertising campaign would help to address the threat of competition.

As conventional approaches to these three issues plow forward with a tired but necessary momentum, the unsung hero sits in wait. Yes, within the four walls of every health club operation lives a being with the potential to move retention, cash flow and fear of competition a few notches down the worry list until these items drop off the list completely.

Who is this unsung hero? The fitness director. Before I share how the fitness director can be moved into a role where profitability is enhanced, let’s consider how conventional approaches to fitness services have become mainstays, and then we’ll explore different possibilities.

Re-examining the “profit center.” The evolution of personal training within the health club environment has led us to accept the offerings of free orientations, complimentary assessments and an introductory number of sessions included within the price of membership. As a result, all eyes have remained on membership dollars as the measure of financial success. We’ve learned to call personal training a “profit center,” but factor in the cost of servicing members who have a sense of entitlement after receiving free personal training sessions and that profit center is crippled from the onset. Suppose, for example, a club were to pay trainers $9 per hour. Three free sessions might be perceived as free to the member, but it immediately costs the club $27 plus payroll-related costs.

The intention is obvious. By giving away these free sessions, we hope to satisfy and retain members. But instead of making member satisfaction the goal, suppose we were to actually charge members for the time they spend with trainers, and in so doing we commit to delivering more value than members expect. With a strong personal training program, with a system that allows for qualified and competent trainers to prosper and grow, and with an ongoing commitment to deliver results, members will be more than satisfied.

Thrilled members remain active members. The perceived need to stick a phone in someone’s hand in order to reach out to those about to drop off the membership list is reduced. In fact, the number of members willing to abandon membership is significantly reduced, thus retention begins a greased slide down the list of items contributing to worry.

Building the bridge. Let’s go a step further. Suppose we worked to create a concrete bridge between the point of sale and the personal training department, a bridge with a toll booth at the entry. Instead of being ushered into a free orientation, members are encouraged to pay $20 for an instructional group session where they learn to achieve their desired results.

I know at this point the oh-no-members-don‘t-want-to-pay-for-anything-until-they-have-a-chance-to-try-it voice pops up in most club owners’ minds. Before dismissing the possibility of charging for an introductory session, try to keep that little voice quiet for the moment. In order to maintain the risk-free element of the session, suppose it were offered with a money back guarantee. Assuming the trainers are taught to exceed expectations, cash flow is enhanced as the financial payroll drain is suddenly plugged up with $20 bills, which the club is happy to share with the trainer(s).

Retention under a new light. Suppose members committed to personal training not with a 10-pack or a discounted 20-session special but rather with ongoing recurring sessions where dollars were collected every time a session took place. Then, the personal training dollars would flow in, and the clubs would only have to motivate each member/client to show up for the next session. Revenues would increase, and members would bond with trainers, take ownership of the idea that the personal training connection is an absolute must and widespread results would manifest. Your personal training profit center is generating lots of money, and your members not only would show up, but they also would continue to contribute to your bottom line. At that point the big, evil monster competitor could open right across the street and your members would keep showing up and spending.

Now let’s put suppositions aside. This approach is real, and in fact, it’s the way to become bullet proof in the 21st century. There are two keys. The first is to create and implement a system that allows for this new paradigm to become business as usual. The second is to recruit, train and optimize the talents of the unsung hero. The fitness director need no longer be perceived as a customer service position but rather as a revenue machine, one with greater profit power than anyone else in the organization as the revenues generated through training lead not only to momentary dollars but also to retention, cash flow maximization and exponential growth.

Fitness directors should be recognized for their potential, but more importantly, they should be cultivated as true managers. Their in-house education must include mastery not only of exercise but of influence, leadership and revenue generation. Is this a stretch? Of course, but a desire for growth requires that we stretch, challenge convention and, in this case, tap into an unrecognized resource so we, as owners, kiss those conventional worries goodbye.