Would a management or fitness certification for fitness facility managers improve business success?

AT THE CORE of a successful business are the people who hire, train and manage company staff. Taking steps to ensure the highest quality staff requires a strategic approach and an ongoing commitment to developing management-level talent. In the fitness industry, the manager is responsible for the daily operations of the fitness center. "This requires advanced knowledge of business skills [and] financial planning, as well as club liability," says Lenny Moskowitz, owner of Gold's Gym in Arlington, Wash. In the absence of fitness-specific management certifications, how can a manager become savvy in thisindustry?
Experience counts
It can be true that fitness professionals are promoted into the ranks of upper-level management based on their superior teaching and/or training abilities, without knowledge of facility or personnel management, budget control, revenue management or long-term planning -- all important components for an effective manager. According to Annette Lang of Annette Lang Educational Systems in New York, N.Y., it is common practice to recruit and promote a successful instructor/trainer from the fitness staff, making that person a part of the management team, even though they may not have fitness management experience. On the flip side, individuals are often hired with a strong background in marketing and finance, with little knowledge or understanding of the fitness industry. "The best formula for success is to get someone with a strong business background, personal fitness experience and/or certification, and a basic knowledge of the fitness business," says Lang.
Kyle Amadon, general manager of the Concord Athletic Club in San Antonio, Texas, has had several jobs within the fitness industry. He has worked the front desk, been a membership sales team member and has managed a facility. "I've really had two careers," says Amadon. "I went from the front desk to sales to management. Then I moved to another club and became an ACSM-certified personal trainer before moving back into management," he says. Amadon admits that having a fitness background has helped him better relate to staff members. "Since I have worked in almost all areas of the club, staff members come to understand that I have walked in their shoes," he explains. "That makes it easier for me to relate to them, as well as being able to make appropriate fitness recommendations to our members, because I have been in that role, too."
Fitness management training
To date, there is no management certification program available for fitness managers. So, either college courses or on-the-job training has been the standard.
Dr. Richard Engelhorn, associate professor insports management at Iowa State University, says that within large corporate fitness organizations, management and business skills would outweigh fitness information in importance. However, it is possible for middle- and upper-management to gain the necessary management experience through appropriate academic course work, internships or on-the-job experiences. The problem, according to Engelhorn, is that there hasn't been any particular pattern leading to a fitness management position. "Some managers come straight out of a business environment with minimal fitness experience," he says. "Others have worked their way through the company to reach the top, starting out as a personal trainer or a sales representative."
Mary Jayne Johnson, Ph.D., is a fitness business consultant and the former southwest regional manager for the Wellbridge Corp., Denver, Colo. She agrees that there is no quick and easy path to landing the role of fitness center manager. "The problem becomes complex because the manager's required skill set will depend on the facility to be managed," says Johnson. "A 'mom and pop' club will require a different skill set as opposed to a large facility or chain-club." Shealso says that managers are often undervalued. "Managers need to be a 'jack of all trades' and be good at them all," she explains. "Problems arise when a club hires a manager without taking adequate consideration of their background. The learning curve is steep, and it takes time to understand the fitness business." Johnson believes that a manager should possess excellent problem-solving skills and have an understanding of the expectations of management from members in this industry, which she compares to the hospitality or service industry.
How about a fitness certification?
Would a fitness certification enhance a fitness manager's job performance and marketability? According to Bob Esquerre, owner of Esquerre Fitness Group of Deerfield, Fla., "In an ever-increasingly competitive health club industry, fitness club managers and supervisory staff would be wise to acquire a fitness certification. A lack of fitness certification for the sales team and general management is a weakness in this industry."
According to the ACSM Health/Fitness Facility Standards and Guidelines, 2nd Edition, "The general manager or executive director should have competencies in business, as well as design and delivery of exercise programs. Senior level supervisors should have advanced academic training in addition to advanced levels of certification." Esquerre says, "If you could tie back the value of education and knowledge to member satisfaction, the implication exists that the general manager and sales team need to minimally acquire a fitness certification."
Fitness and program knowledge. Managers who are familiar with their facility's fitness programs are more effective sellers of those programs and other related services. Gina Giarrante, general manager of Powerhouse Gym in Joliet, Ill., agrees that it is important to have a big-picture perspective when running a fitness facility. "It is definitely beneficial for management-level staff to hold fitness certification(s)," she says. "Minimally, they should have a strong working knowledge of [certifications] in the fitness environment. Members assume that we know what we are talking about when they ask us fitness-related questions, and we should."
Graham Melstrand, director of educational services for the American Council on Exercise (ACE), San Diego, Calif., says, "Obtaining a fitness certification can be useful for managers because it can support an understanding of programming based in sound science and research. For example, when examining the facility for environmental or space considerations, they may be more familiar with the need for changes in room temperature or about design based on their exposure to those trends."
Programming issues can surface when upper-level management lacks sufficient knowledge about fitness programs. For instance, it may be difficult to understand the need to increase the temperature of a yoga studio, which could result in higher utility costs, if management does not understand the popularity of "hot yoga" and the consumer demand for such classes. "The trainers don't adjust the room temperatures," says Melstrand. "It is the club management that makes those decisions. The studios where Pilates, yoga and flexibility classes are taking place often require warmer spaces."
Quality hiring and quantity selling. Hiring educated, well-informed and professional fitness staff is a good business practice. One of the defining qualities of good fitness candidates are the certification(s) they hold. Hiring quality fitness staff requires knowledge of certifications. It is ultimately up to management to become educated about the various fitness certifications available. Theresa Ohme, general manager of Northwest Athletic Club in Maple Grove, Minn., and an ACE group fitness instructor, says, "Up-selling fitness products and services is a lot easier when you have [a] certification under your belt, because there is a tendency to have an increased exposure to what is happening in the fitness marketplace." If managers could communicate their knowledge about the type of certifications and training their fitness staff possess, their chances of winning over prospective new members or up-selling profit-center programming (personal training sessions or fee-based classes) could very well translate into increased sales, profits and customer satisfaction.
Updating your knowledge
Facility managers who continue to operate as they did in the past may best be served by taking a brief inventory of what education may enhance their approach to sales, better hiring and membership retention. One practical approach for a fitness center owner or manager to improve their fitness education would be to expand their knowledge base about fitness program delivery and instruction. "Because my ACE certification requires attendance in continuing education workshops and seminars, it helps me spot trends, and keep my knowledge base current and perspective fresh," says Ohme. "When walking a prospect through the club, I can answer questions with confidence and personal experience. That goes a long way in gaining trust and developing a relationship."
Esquerre points out that, "Club managers need to become sensitized to the education needs of their staff members through certification." He addresses the levels of certification necessary for management and staff, and distinguishes these needs based on the populations served. "If a program offered in the facility requires more indepth knowledge by the staff and management [for example, a cardiac-rehabilitation center or a sports-specific training facility], then the certifications they have should be appropriate for those programs." Melstrand believes that managers who have a fitness certification tend to select more appropriate continuing education products and services based on their certification(s) and the populations they serve.
Will obtaining a fitness certification make the difference?
A certification demonstrates minimal competency in basic principles of exercise science, general nutrition, safe and effective fitness program design, and potential liability issues. Melstrand says, "Certification only demonstrates that a person is minimally competent to perform a given task or skill set based on the information they are tested on. Certification does not guarantee success." Melstrand explains that a high percentage of the information within the nationally recognized fitness certifications is factually based and does not indicate an advanced level of knowledge beyond minimal competency. For example, "a femur at ACE is a femur at ACSM." It is important to understand the differences between minimal and entry-level competencies. "These are two different concepts that are often used interchangeably when discussing certification," explains Melstrand. "Minimal competency is considered a high standard relative to a particular profession. For example, minimal competency for a general surgeon demonstrates a very high minimal competency, but a brain surgeon must demonstrate an even higher minimal competency."
Will a certification improve my business?
The question arises, will consumers perceive managers with group fitness or personal training credentials as better-qualified than other managers who do not have such certifications? Lang's answer to that is, "not necessarily." A forum of chain club owners and managers gathered at Club Industry Eastin New York, N.Y., in June 2005, to discuss the issue of fitness-specific training for front-line staff. Lang, a forum member, says, "A manager is required to have many different skills. I am not sure that the average health club member would recognize whether a manager was or was not fitness certified. However, most club members need to experience good customer service in order to have favorable impressions of that particular healthclub. Unfortunately, we don't tend to train our front-line staff in crucial areas of customer service. If a manager did become aware of the fact that attaining a certification would help the business, I think certification would absolutely be a good idea."
Giarrante feels that staff members who exercise have more confidence when selling memberships or speaking about the members' own fitness programs and goals: "I don't know that it is absolutely necessary for a health club manager to get a fitness instructor or personal training certification. As a manager, I do perform personal training and, when I hire, I look for individuals who, at the very minimum, exercise regularly."
Engelhorn says, "Some knowledge in various areas of fitness is important, but this information can be learned without going through certificate programs." Engelhorn also believes that managing a fitness center is not unlike managing a service-oriented business: "A person who understands best-business practices, the basics of quality fitness programs and demonstrates a willingness to keep up-to-date on trends in the fitness world has the best potential to be an excellent fitness center manager."
Whether certified or possessing personal fitness experience, the crossover knowledge of management and fitness certification helps build relationships that can ultimately work toward increasing membership sales and raising the educational standards for fitness center managers. The outcome may result in higher-quality hiring, improved membership services and new membership growth.
REFERENCE
American College of Sports Medicine.ACSM's Health/Fitness Facility Standards and Guidelines (2nd ed). Human Kinetics: Champaign, Ill., 1997.

Directory of Certifying Agencies

Aerobics and Fitness Association of America, 800 446-2322, www.afaa.com
American Council on Exercise, 800 825-3636, www.acefitness.org
American College of Sports Medicine, 317 637-9200, www.acsm.org
American Fitness Professionals, 609 978-7583, www.afpafitness.com
American Senior Fitness Association, 800 243-1478, www.seniorfitness.net
C.H.E.K., 800 552-8789, www.chekinstitute.com
Cooper Institute for Aerobics, 972 341-3274, www.copperinst.org
National Academy of Sports Medicine, 800 366-0154, www.nasm.org
National Federation of Professional Trainers, 800 729-6378, www.nfpt.com
NSCA Certification Commission, 888 243-2378, www.nsca-cc.org
World Instructor Training Schools, 888 330-9487, www.witseducation.com