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Something for Everybody

Although owners strive for operational efficiency, programming a fitness center ultimately involves a little trial and error.

Photo of weight lifting classPhoto of weight lifting classWhen members of PRO Sports Club in Bellevue, Wash., scan the group fitness master schedule, they see a lot of possibilities. Day after day, classes in mat Pilates, Pilates Reformer and yoga (beginning and intermediate), circuit training (coed and women-only), group cycling and tai chi jostle for time in each of five studios with six varieties of step (regular, "interval," "elite," "maximal," "creative" and "revolution"). Additionally, members can choose from a variety of cardiovascular-exercise classes such as "Sculpt in 4 Weeks," "Extreme Body Makeover," "Body Blast," "Amazing Abs," "Cardio Core," "Cardio Funk," "Cardio Explosion," "Below the Belt," "S-T-R-E-T-C-H" and "Total Kickboxing." For the younger set, there are classes called "BabyRobics" and "Kids Super Fitness," while for members who just don't feel the restorative power of plain old yoga, there's "Restorative Yoga" (Fridays at 6:30 p.m., just after the "Yoga Power Hour").

All those possibilities can heighten interest in and boost the revenue of facilities like PRO Sports Club. They can also drain a club's resources if they're not well attended, or drain the energy of the general managers and fitness program directors whose job it is to come up with, implement and oversee programs.

Fitness center programming is at the heart of two competing club philosophies: Focus and variety. Curves franchises are the epitome of the former, offering only a 30-minute circuit-training routine and a few related weight-loss programs -- and not even a locker room. PRO Sports Club, representing the other end of the spectrum, offers all of those group exercise classes, plus aquatic exercise programs, gymnasium-based programs (including sports clinics, leagues, tournaments and camps), racquet programs, and spa, salon, dry-cleaning and auto-detailing services.

Zenergy, a health club in Ketchum, Idaho, limits its offerings to about eight disciplines, including traditional mat Pilates and what general manager Jonathan Tillman calls "pure, authentic Pilates." Awhile back, a trip to a trade show left management thinking about expanding its Pilates offerings to include some of the more recent hybrids, but Tillman and his wife, April, the club's fitness director, held off.

"As the general manager, you'd like to grab every possible dollar that's out there, but you also have to appreciate its effect on your current program," says Jonathan. "I'm sure some of the clubs that have re-emphasized their circuits because of the success of Curves have cannibalized their personal training programs. What kind of product are you going to have? Are you going to chase every trend that comes down the street, or are you going to try to find something with more longevity? In this industry, you can find something that's going to be with you six months, or something that's going to be with you five years."

Trend Spotters If choosing programs with longevity were that simple, fewer clubs might have sunk their dollars into Tae Bo, and The Slide might never have made it out of the prototype stage. The fact is, would-be entrepreneurs are everywhere these days, thinking up new exercise regimens or coming up with a sometimes-uneasy combination of existing ones -- Zen kickboxing! Babylates! -- in the hopes of creating a program that will fatten their wallets and enliven multipurpose rooms from coast to coast. Rick Caro, president of New York City-based Management Vision Inc. and the founder of IHRSA, agrees that the number of what are considered standard club offerings has jumped considerably in the past five years.

"There are more offerings, and there are more of those fusion classes, some of them pure non-sequiturs where you're performing two exercises that would never be found in the same room at the same time except that someone banged them together and found a way to do it," Caro says. "When yoga was first coming on some years ago, Crunch Fitness had something called Boot Camp Yoga. I don't know what that is, but somehow it caught members' attention so they'd think, 'That might be interesting.'"

Many club owners prefer to remain in catch-up mode, waiting for a trend to show legs before making an investment in it. Bigger clubs, and particularly the bigger chains, are the ones that sometimes put their marketing weight behind something unproven. This spring, for example, Bally Total Fitness (as it does fairly often) announced plans to take a new program nationwide, in this case Boneco Capoeira, the Brazilian martial art as interpreted by what Bally's press room called "the world-renowned capoeira expert, Master Boneco." And as part of its recent multimillion-dollar renovation, The Atlantic Club in Manasquan, N.J., a high-end facility near Asbury Park on the Jersey shore, became among the first North American clubs to launch Technogym USA's Kinesis, a resistance-based training system, for which it built a Kinesis Life Enhancement Studio Center and a Kinesis-Junior Studio. (The club believes it can more than earn its money back by charging members between $240 and $300 per session for its five different Kinesis-based programs.)

Kathy Guiburd, general manager of The Atlantic Club, says deciding which programs to offer springs naturally from a club staff's continuing education and its relationships with members. "We stay up with the trends," she says. "We read a lot, go to conventions, watch New York and California, and send people to see launches and prototypes. Also, our staff is on the floor with members all day, so they get a feel for what clients are looking for."

Grant Gamble, chief operating officer of the Atlantic Coast Athletic Club in Charlottesville, Va., says that while there are no guarantees, most club owners know instinctively what programs will and won't have staying power.

"I'm no soothsayer; I have no crystal ball," Gamble says. "But I think common sense sort of says what's going to work. When the Step came online, I looked at it and thought, that's a whole new dimension of travel, that's going to stick around. When Body Pump came out, I saw it breaking down barriers with men, in the sense that it wasn't highly choreographed. On the other hand, you'll see a new butt blaster come out that's awkward to use and people will struggle to find enough to do in 45 minutes with it, and that's the sort of thing you'll look at and go, 'Ehhh, I'm not sure that's going to stick.' I think we're looking for something that has the diversity we need so we can expand on it."

Enthusiasm Required Some programs may need little help to succeed. But then, why take the chance of a program tanking? Gamble, whose club runs a host of outdoor activities (scuba, mountain biking, rock climbing, kayaking, hiking, snowboarding, skiing, walking, running) under the heading of Discover programs, says that getting people "jazzed" about a program begins with an instructor who's jazzed.

"We typically won't do a program unless we've got a champion," he says. "Sometimes an end user is the champion, but usually we need the instructor to be somebody who is skilled, is passionate about teaching people and is willing to drive the program."

Beyond that, facility operators must determine how much programming their space will allow -- or, as with The Atlantic Club, how much space to add -- as well as how to schedule the various offerings. "One thing we teach clients is to see themselves as a landlord who has to figure out how he or she can get 'rent' each hour of the day throughout the week," Caro says. "Who is the appropriate group to go after -- seniors, kids, regulars, corporate clients -- and at which times? You need to figure out how to use each room in a way that really maximizes its use."

The template for facility scheduling starts with bunched classes in the early mornings and evenings and around noon, with decided gaps in the late morning and mid-afternoon. However, with the surge in basic programs, and the need to service different levels of ability and age groups, even clubs without a lot of extras have very little down time. Just as baseball Hall of Famer Wee Willie Keeler "hit 'em where they ain't," most clubs schedule 'em when they're around, with kids' programs in the after-school slots of 3 to 5 p.m., and seniors' programs occupying the 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. range. Club managers used to depend on floor staff to be available whenever novice members had questions about equipment. They still do, to an extent, but scheduling specific hour-long slots to lead novices through the equipment familiarization process is now the norm.

The goal is efficiency of scheduling, which basically means there should be neither too much nor too little programming, and classes should be distributed in such a way that most members' needs are met. You'll know you're on the right track if all your classes are full and no one's complaining. (As Jonathan Tillman says, "Your members will tell you what's going to work.") That said, there's little chance you won't hear any grumbling. "No matter what you do with your schedule," Caro says, "you're always going to have some people who will grouse about some aspect of it."

Another scheduling issue that must be dealt with is the length of each program. Twenty-five years ago, when in-house corporate fitness programs seemed to be on the verge of becoming a universal employment benefit, fitness directors came face to face with the now-familiar quandary of balancing members' desire for a total workout with the club's need to service as many members as possible in a very small time frame. Then, the mathematics of the extended lunch hour led to the calculation that with three 45-minute classes taking the place of roughly two 60-minute classes, 50 percent more workers could spend their breaks working out. Now, express circuit programs promise members an intense workout in 30, 22 or even 20 minutes, allowing the club (assuming these programs are well spaced and attended) to bring many members in and out the door about as efficiently as is humanly possible.

A last (and perhaps the most complicated) factor is the issue of price: What to charge, or whether to charge at all. The cost of PRO Sports Club's many Step programs, for example, are included in membership fees, as are many body-part-specific and introductory classes.

"We try to balance free programs and paid programs," says Gamble. "You want to give your members great value. You want them to look at their dues and say, 'I'm getting a great deal; I'm getting a bargain here.' At the same time, you want to generate peripheral profits. You want to generate lots of programs, and you can't do all of them on membership dues."

Jimmie Page, general manager of Maryland Athletic Club, says any of his programming discussions start with a minimum parameter -- a 30 percent profit margin. All well and good, but until you see how many members show up, it's all just paper wealth.

"It always comes down to the same questions," Page says. "What value do we think we can get for the program? What will it cost us to deliver that service, and how many people do we need to participate to generate the margin that we need? Is our price right or wrong, can we do that volume, or can we trim expenses out of it? We take an Excel spreadsheet, plug in the variables, and test what we think the program can do."

Cutting Back On reflection, it's no wonder Gamble calls the process "a continual juggling act." Since much of the decision to start a program is based on guesswork, a program that fails to meet expectations may be falling short for one or several reasons -- lack of interest (no matter what your surveys indicated), a lackluster instructor, a high price or the wrong time of day. Therefore, the only way to be sure that a program isn't reaching its full potential is to tweak each of these in turn, and wait.

Club owners disagree on the minimum number of members a program must serve if it is to remain viable. For every owner like Gamble -- "We'll take one person if they sign up for something" -- there are probably 10 who would consider canceling a class if it weren't getting decent attendance.

"For any class, if we're not getting eight people, we're not going to run it for very long," says Page, while Dick Knight, PRO Sports Club's CEO, pegs the number much higher. "We have to have at least 15 people over a period of time if a group-fitness program's going to continue. That's our threshold." Bouncing a program around in the schedule in search of a bigger audience -- television networks do it all the time, with mixed results -- can upset a program's few regulars, and it can make it hard for members to find it. Changing instructors is sometimes advantageous, if only to bring renewed energy or a shift in focus. "Sometimes it's just that, and all of a sudden there's 20 people where yesterday there were four," Page says.

If a program still isn't cutting it, owners should tread carefully before dropping it completely. The program's stalwarts need to be looked after, for one thing. Most clubs follow a script in which members are told of the cancellation plans in advance, different programs at the same time are suggested as alternatives, refunds are offered and so forth.

Page says it's vital to make use of the club's membership and usage data when trying to redirect members to other programs. "We practice data mining," he says. "We look at what our members have told us historically about what they want to accomplish and what they've taken advantage of already, so that we can suggest programs based upon their profile."

Some owners fear cutting programs, seeing the step as an admission of failure or as a sign that the business isn't healthy. But as Caro notes, "The club industry is really a service business, and if members are provided programming where very few people show up, it may actually be dysfunctional." As an example, Caro recalls a group-fitness director who was extremely hesitant to end a class. But after she canceled one that was only being regularly attended by two members, she found that the members weren't enjoying their semi-private lessons.

"They complained that the teacher was staring at them the whole time," Caro recalls. "They weren't that good at the exercises, apparently, and if it had been a larger class they'd have been the ones hiding in the back. It was actually uncomfortable for them, but they kept going because they liked that type of class and that class fit their schedule. And then they both complimented the group-fitness director and said the way she handled the cancellation was the best service they'd gotten out of the club. Here she'd taken something away, and the people saw it as a positive."

Active Learning Running a healthy slate of programs fills multipurpose rooms, keeps the fitness center vibrant and active, and has been shown over the years to be a major factor in member retention. For instance, a member who has been doing the Step for the past 10 years but who then suffers a nagging ankle injury might stop coming to the club if he or she hasn't been introduced to the benefits of Pilates or upper-body exercise. "Because they saw the club as a place where they only did one thing, they might move away from the club at that point while they rehab," Caro says. "Who knows if the club will ever woo them back when they're healthy again?"

Realizing that programming is more than the programs themselves, but rather a service to members, puts club operators in a position to continually make adjustments to the overall program -- "season by season, not year by year," Caro says -- and to actively strive to get members involved and to try new things. The Atlantic Club's Guiburd believes offering more free programs can make the club as a whole more profitable.

"You have to give people a chance to get a little taste of things," Guiburd says. "They need different programs not only to get the fitness results they want, but to stay interested, stay motivated and connect with different people. Programming is also about relationships."

Is there such a thing as too much programming? Gamble, who believes many clubs pad their schedules to look impressive -- until a new member shows up to a mostly empty room -- thinks so. "Obviously, you can run out of space, and you can run out of desire from the members to take up something new," he says. Page laughs as he recounts his club's philosophy. "We will run anything that meets the needs of the members and has a great profit margin," he says. "Is it possible to have too many classes? Yeah, I think so. But not if they're full."

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