The Benefits of Hiring a Program Director

As the health and fitness industry grows, so do the professional needs of each club or facility and the career opportunities for those who enter the business.

Program management 25 years ago generally consisted of a racquetball instructor. He or she was hired to teach the lessons and fill the leagues. The job description was clear, and the interest and focus of the programmer was simple and direct.

When aerobics hit the industry, the person in charge needed to be energetic and coordinated, and go through a crash course in physiology and biomechanics. At this point, the programmer was on his/her own to keep the menu of classes available and attractive. Programming was a very separate part of the business and the membership.

Next came the fitness center with state-of-the-art equipment. We started to get sophisticated. The person in charge of fitness programming and training needed a degree in exercise physiology. Technically, this was a good thing. Advancement in technology and education meant advancement in the business and industry. Or did it?

As the clubs and activity departments expanded, our “department heads” became so single-minded and engrossed in their own field of interest and knowledge that they often went through months of employment without even entering the domain of their fellow department heads. Many never even took the time or opportunity to meet each other, let alone understand the various roles in the business and growth of the club.

The result? A drop in retention and a rise in attrition.

The member is the one who becomes alienated when a breakdown in communication and respect occurs between department heads. We tell our members that they should cross-train, but we don't help them. In reality most of our own program managers don't cross-train, and they certainly don't cross-market the many and varied fitness opportunities within the club.

For this reason, it may be time to consider the advantages of adding a professional “program director” to your club — a manager of program managers, a manager of the members' activity and participation, a manager held accountable for the performance of each activity director.

The qualities of a program director must include leadership capabilities and the ability to communicate with management and staff (the internal customer), as well as the ability to relate to your members (the external customer). Telephone, teaching and selling skills should be a huge part of the résumé; these skills are more important than an advanced title in a specific sport or an obvious interest to an individual fitness activity.

The director's job description isn't about teaching a class, running a league, giving a lesson or working one-on-one with a client. Instead, the description calls for a person who is success-oriented and business-minded.

Here's what the job entails. The program director measures the percent of occupancy of each group, class or client list. Working with the sales team and the department heads, the program director is held accountable for integrating a goal number of new members into each activity area every month. The director helps the instructors and trainers in every department to organize and implement programs that will specifically reactivate inactive members and diversify existing members. Once the programs are in place and the instructors are available, the program director promotes, markets and tracks participation to ensure activity opportunities for all the niches.

Meeting and measuring program goals in a health club could easily keep 50 to 100 members from dropping out every year. In fact, these people would use your club regularly. That would account for $25,000 to $75,000 of additional revenue realized in one year in retained membership fees alone.

As our industry has grown, most clubs have moved to hiring and training a sales manager to handle the sales team and bring cohesiveness to the sales department. In a sense, the position of sales manager is comparable to the position of a program director, who sets goals and bringing cohesiveness to the programming departments.

It definitely takes a lot of effort to hire the right person, write a new job description, define the expectations and provide quality training, but in my opinion, the pros of having a program director on board far outweigh the cons. In fact, I can't think of any cons.

Sandy Coffman, president of Programming For Profit, is available for presentations, consultations or training. She can be contacted at 9216 Kingston Road, Bradenton, FL 34210; (941) 795-0509; or slcoffman@aol.com.


Whom Do You Hire?

If all fitness areas will be involved in the program director's job description, does the director need to have all the degrees and certifications of each department head? No. Although that would be the ideal scenario, here's what a good director should possess:

  • general knowledge of, and personal experience in, each area
  • genuine enthusiasm and appreciation for each department
  • a diversified interest in the varied fitness opportunities within a club
  • an understanding and commitment to the business as a whole