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Boosting Personal Training Profits

By establishing personal training as a key profit center, facility management can then look for ways to boost training profits, and tap into a rich vein of referral business.

To be fully exploited as a profit center, personal training must have a solid foundation. Trainers with the right skills and behaviors need to be recruited and developed. And, above all, fitness centers need to ensure that their trainers have the right interpersonal skills to understand, communicate and enthuse with any personality type, says Lisa Coors, owner of Coors Core Fitness, Cincinnati, Ohio. They should also get the basics right: calling clients back within a specific time limit and showing up for appointments on time.

Personal training is "more about building relationships" than selling, says Bob Esquerre, CEO of Esquerre Fitness Group, Boca Raton, Fla. And, he finds that younger trainers often lack the necessary people skills. Raised on a diet of video games and the Internet, they are blind to the nuances of relationships. "They only hear the spoken word, not the unspoken," says Esquerre. "They do not develop the sixth sense of awareness."

So, facility managers need to help nurture the right interpersonal skills in their trainers. Mentoring can play a valuable role in this development, harnessing the experience of senior staff members from all departments. For instance, the front desk team will have the personality and systems to deliver great customer service and follow up. Personal trainers can learn from those strengths.

Certification and facility shortcomings

The technical skills and scientific knowledge of personal training are essential, and are well-addressed by many certifying agencies. However, fewer agencies impart the business savvy that would enable personal trainers to more fully contribute to the fitness center's commercial performance. Coors says trainers crave business knowledge, but certifying agencies are not providing sufficient training in sales, marketing and business management.

Personal trainers have never been trained as business people; they have been trained as scientists and physicians, says Esquerre. "The biggest challenge is that personal training is a business, and that is the biggest weakness," he says. "Club owners are having a fit about this [weakness]. As a result, they are going back to the certifying agencies, to point out that, while they are teaching great science, they are not teaching the needed business skills."

Esquerre's company injects a business development component into workshops on biomechanics and anatomy, so trainers learn to think in terms of how the science can be packaged and value delivered to the client. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) and the National Exercise Trainers Association (NETA) have also made moves in this direction, incorporating business into some of their continuing education curriculum.

Esquerre further identifies the personal training business model of some facilities as a weakness. "They tend to promote the best personal trainer to be the personal training director, without any business training. When you are a manager, you have to manage sub-businesses, and that is a different skill set." He adds that fitness centers also slip up in not showing due respect for good personal training directors. They are given a low base salary and, as a result, some will inevitably skim from their trainers. In addition, facility managers need to emphasize that best practice in personal training is always evolving. They should encourage open-minded trainers who recognize the need to continually enhance their learning and practice.

Certification is a starting point; however, if trainers think they know it all because they have been certified, then they will soon fall off the pace of personal training best practice, and will lose clients and profits. Facility mangers can help to foster a continuous learning mindset by providing opportunities to host or attend workshops and seminars, and to network with other trainers. Mark Baines, director of education for the National Exercise & Sports Trainers Association (NESTA), Margarita, Calif., recommends that trainers attend trade shows to see the latest equipment and expose themselves to the wide breadth of educational opportunities available.

The opportunity

Since only a small fraction of members in most fitness centers make use of personal training, there is a huge opportunity to grow your personal training business. "Proportionally, 10 percent of members utilize training services," says Wendy Williamson, senior trainer at Genesis Health Clubs, Wichita, Kan. (statistic as given by Ann Gilbert at Club Industry East 2007). For Genesis, she estimates the figure is 7 to 8 percent, on average, across the five facilities.

So, what discourages the majority of members from engaging in personal training? Genesis' Personal Training Director Carissa Palacioz gives three principal causes:

Price. Some members do not realize the value of service a personal trainer can offer.

Perception. Some members believe they do not need the assistance of a personal trainer.

Embarrassment. Some members are embarrassed by their physical appearance or condition. They often find it difficult to take that first step and ask a trainer for professional guidance.

How can fitness centers win over this discouraged majority to personal training? Three suggestions:

Price. Get your rates right and offer group options.

Perception. Offer trial sessions to show off personal training benefits. More importantly, let clients speak for your trainers, and they will, if the training is first class.

Embarrassment. Make it easy to book a trainer, and suggest off-peak times so clients can build confidence. You could even conduct introductory sessions in a secluded area of the facility (e.g., a fitness studio) so people gain confidence before entering mainstream exercise areas.

Stephanie Maks, a personal training trainer for NETA, suggests that fitness centers offer incentives for members to try personal training. This could be a free training session or educational seminars. She says training two or more people at a time can be another good option. By decreasing the cost per member, a greater proportion of members will see personal training as affordable.

To ensure all available training hours are booked, facilities can pursue third-party referrals. They can also charge a higher rate for non-members. Palacioz suggests that fitness centers offer patients from physical therapy clinics 30-day passes to continue their post rehabilitation in the facility. She says that fitness facilities can also partner with weight-loss programs, with a special membership rate and personal training packages. In addition, fitness centers can offer personal trainers for corporate wellness programs.

Referrals goldmine

A personal training session may be the first time someone visits your fitness center, especially if it is from a referral. Here are golden opportunities for you to capture new members from personal training clients. Personal trainers should be encouraged to develop good product knowledge on your membership packages. In addition, says Esquerre, if a trainer brings members into your facility, these members are likely to stay as that trainer's clients for an extended period. That long-term relationship is a hallmark of top-earning personal training teams.

Palacioz suggests that trainers can call members with low club usage, and members who have never used personal training services. "By offering a complimentary 30-minute 'jump-start' session, trainers can secure new business," she says.

Another tactic involves offering personal training sessions as part of the membership package. For new members, include an option for a free personal training session, followed by a block of five sessions at a discounted rate. While raising revenues, it also gets more members into the habit of using trainers. Sow the seeds to harvest later.

In addition, look to exploit the power of networking in-house to generate more personal training business. Baines emphasizes the importance of nurturing a strong relationship between trainers and the facility's dietician. Palacioz says that trainers should develop a good relationship with the sales team. Palacioz also says that trainers can ask current clients for referrals. "I guarantee there is someone they know [who] could benefit from personal training services," she says. "Make sure to reward your referring member, and keep it simple."

Baines says that referral opportunities also exist beyond the facility. "The best way to create revenue beyond current clients is to find a group of professionals to refer to," he says. Baines lists physical therapists, medical doctors, chiropractors, dieticians, orthopedic surgeons, sports medicine specialists and other fitness instructors with differing specialties as strong referral sources. Coors adds that trainers can ensure they capture more medical referrals by insisting that all clients have medical releases to train. That helps the personal trainer to contact the client's physician or therapist.

Fitness centers can also look at underserved market segments. "A big market that is not being met in most clubs is the baby boomers," says Coors. "They need trainers who can handle clients with high blood pressure, joint replacement, obesity, musculoskeletal issues and chronic illness." Most trainers are geared up for the "apparently healthy population," so facilities need to have trainers with the right skills in place. Put together a balanced team of personal trainers who have a collective portfolio of training competencies that address multiple market segments. Encourage each trainer to develop a specialist competency; specializing is important for success. Baines also advises personal trainers to focus on a certain market or type of individual they want to train. "The least successful trainers are the ones who try to be everything to everyone," he says.

Rate setting

Fitness centers need to get their rates right to achieve maximum fair return per session, and to attract a sufficiently large pool of clients. "We should ask ourselves this one question: What is the value of our service?" says Palacioz. "[T]he standard for setting rates [can be] established based on the following criteria: educational background, personal training certifications and other specialized fitness certifications, and years of experience in the fitness business."

Coors adds that the market served is also relevant - whether it is upper, middle or working class. "Small group training is the best way for the trainer to make more and the clients to pay less. In the Midwest, a trainer may charge $60 an hour for a one-on-one session, and $90 for a group of two." The market segment chosen can also affect rates. "High-risk training is in high demand as the obesity epidemic increases," she says. "With obesity comes diabetes, joint and structural issues, chronic illness, etc. The trainer [who] can handle these clients is in high demand."

Maks says rates need to be set according to the demographics in that market. In some cities, such as Los Angeles, personal training rates easily reach $100 per hour or more. But go to Black Mountain, N.C., and they may only be able to charge $20 to $30 per session, she says.

Secondary revenue streams

Trainers can only do so much personal training in a day. But, there are secondary revenue streams the facility can develop for the mutual benefit of the fitness center and trainer alike. The opportunity for trainers to make or share in pro-shop sales can be an added incentive for them. Coors says secondary revenue streams are a great idea because trainers can get burned out. She encourages trainers to get involved in writing and presenting at conferences, and also secure outside consulting work.

Baines says that trainers need to "first focus on building their clientele to a point where they are ready to focus on building sources of passive income so that they can make money while they sleep."

Built-in promotion

Personal trainers are some of the most active ambassadors of the facility's brand. They have more personal interaction with members than most other staff. Whether they are on staff or work as a contractor, personal trainers should set the highest standards. "The biggest promotional tool is to understand that when personal trainers are on the floor, they are being watched," says Esquerre. "So, how they dress - for instance, not wearing a hat and tucking in the polo shirt - and being clean ... and neat is important. Personal trainers should also be focused on their clients. If they are not, other potential clients will disappear, thinking, 'He's paying for that?!'" Other people in your facility are aware of your personal trainers, and note their level of competence, how they communicate with their clients and what results they are delivering. "Your client is your best business card," says Esquerre.

Maks echoes these thoughts. "The best way for personal trainers to make revenue is to let people know about [their services]," she says. "In a club environment, ... even though [trainers] are training someone one on one, there are about 20 members watching [them] and deciding if they should also train with [that trainer]. When members see [the] clients' results, they will gravitate toward [that trainer]."

Palacioz says that trainers should be promoting themselves on the fitness floor during peak hours, offering assistance and words of encouragement. "This initial interaction should be brief, but the goal is to leave a lasting impression," she says. She also suggests presenting educational workshops for members, which can showcase the trainer's skills and fitness credentials.

Facility management should encourage and facilitate trainers to enhance their profiles. A well-known trainer will attract new clients, can command premium rates and can draw in membership prospects. Palacioz stresses the importance of self-promotion: "Without self-promotion, personal trainers will have a hard time being successful." She provides some ideas to get trainers started:

  • Become presentation speakers. Trainers can use outreach opportunities such as local media outlets, community organizations and corporate wellness seminars to position themselves as the "fitness expert" in the community.
  • Present educational workshops for members.
  • Create a monthly email newsletter and send it to clients and prospects. Trainers can also participate in the fitness center's newsletter by writing fitness articles.
  • Create a portfolio of testimonials from clients. People get excited and motivated when they know that trainers can help people "just like them" be successful.
Palacioz also suggests that senior management offer "service hours," which are designed to facilitate the retention efforts of members who are non-compliant to an exercise program. Most of these members do enjoy the training experience, and a high percentage of them become training clients. "This is a win/win solution because the club was able to retain the member, and the trainer earned another client," she says.

Given that many people begin their search for personal trainer services on the Internet, a strong personal training presence on your facility's website is worthwhile. Profile pages of qualified and experienced trainers, also detailing their specialty training areas, speak to the expertise and quality of the fitness center as a whole. By raising the profile of your trainers - which should be reinforced through profiles posted in the facility - members will know who they are. It helps to ease the process of booking a trainer, or starting the relationship off by asking for a quick piece of advice.

Relationships lead to profit

One word of caution in all this talk of referring and promotion: Trainers should ensure that their primary focus is on delivering the highest standards of personal training. Coors emphasizes the importance of getting away from the hard sell. "It is all about CRM (customer relationship management)," she says. "By simply building relationships with people, you can build a successful profit center. The truth is that people love to buy but hate to be sold. Let them buy 'solutions to problems' and 'good feelings' and you have a client for life." Once on a solid foundation, your personal training program will be in a great position to deliver revenue growth and a fast flowing stream of referral business.
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