This article appeared in the January/February issue of Athletic Business. Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.
It doesn't feel like much of an exaggeration to say that every personal trainer we've ever hired has expressed his or her desire to one day own a gym or studio. Whether they are in their 20s, reminding us of ourselves 20 or 30 years ago, or came into fitness later in life, they all seem to share some version of The Dream.
We guess it's sort of an occupational hazard. If working "for" a fitness business is fun, then owning it must be ever better.
Our advice to all of these trainers is the same, and it amounts to telling them to soak up every bit of knowledge they can from us — both the good and the bad. We make it clear to them that owning and operating a business of any sort is not easy. So, if they really want to learn what owning a fitness business is all about, then they should take advantage — in the best sense — of their opportunity with us.
Encouraging and supporting that entrepreneurial spirit is a bit of a double-edged sword, as we'll describe below, but hiring that kind of personality is the best fit for us. There have been times when we hired trainers who didn't understand, despite what we surely told them during the interview process, that we expect them to work for a living. When some new employees have said, "But I thought I could sit on the workout floor and just sort of keep an eye on things," we have had to explain that we don't offer that job. That sort of employee doesn't last long with us.
Of course, there are lots of other personality types who make fine trainers but just might not fit in with us. There are trainers who thrive at clubs where there are highly regimented training programs, and their job is to execute those programs. That doesn't make them lesser trainers, and indeed they still must bring strong personalities, outstanding technical knowledge and polished professionalism. They just might not care about crafting programs, preferring instead to implement someone else's protocols.
There are also trainers who thrive in the corporate fitness world, where their schedules might be a bit more regular and where they often have a regular supply of steady visitors without having to sell their services.
THE TRIPLE-EDGED SWORD
While there are many profiles of outstanding trainers, the ones who want to own their own facility one day are typically real go-getters. In fact, hiring them might create a triple-edged sword. Such employees are usually very motivated (a good thing), but they push the envelope regarding what they can do to promote themselves (which has to be controlled), and they carry the risk of leaving when they think they are ready to own (a bad thing).
Working backward, we don't worry about them leaving. We tell all of our employees from their first day that we don't expect them to work for us for the rest of their lives. They are going to leave one day, which is a simple fact. Our hope is that whenever they go to their next job — whether it's their own business or working for someone else — that they say, "Wow, I really did learn a lot before I left!" In fact, some of the nicest compliments we have ever received came from managers who had hired away our staff members, telling us how well prepared, independent and knowledgeable they were.
One of the risks with personal trainers leaving is that they might take — or attempt to take — their clients with them. To guard against this, many clubs execute non-compete agreements with their trainers, and we certainly understand why they do that. We've simply never bothered, and we have found that the reality with personal training clients is that it's rare for them to follow their trainer. Like most gym members, personal training clients choose their training location based on proximity. So, if "their" trainer leaves us and is suddenly not as geographically convenient, then most simply aren't going to move. Some will, but not enough for us as of yet to consider non-compete agreements.
To be sure, this issue is a two-way street. We often have candidates for personal training who tell us how many clients they will bring to us. They truly believe that will happen, but it never does. The bottom line is that many trainers overestimate the sense of loyalty in their own customer base.
Our would-be entrepreneurs are actually most difficult to manage because of their zealousness. We've had to explain that, no, you can't paper the walls of our facilities with posters for your upcoming bootcamp, and, yes, we get to review everything you publish. No, you can't have your clients flipping tires in the weight room, and, yes, you will have to remain in proper trainer attire even as you push through your 10th session of the day. Reining in their enthusiasm, while at the same time trying to get them to trust what we're telling them is really the biggest challenge.
PROMOTING THE BRAND — BUT WHOSE?
A recent phenomenon, spurred on by social media, is our trainers branding themselves as if they already were independent businesses. Several of them have created their own brand names and promote themselves among their clients and our members in the spirit of a movement, a wave, a bandwagon. They have their own Facebook business pages, tell their success stories and refer to their clients as "family."
If these trainers were, for example, renting space from us and operating as a business within our business, then this wouldn't be noteworthy at all. But, these are W-2 employees of ours. Does it make us a little uncomfortable? Sure. But we've also found it to be a winning formula for us thus far, as our trainers feel like they really are living the dream of running their own business, but without the overhead. We also don't believe the risk to us is much worse than the inherent risk of trainers building relationships with clients and then one day maybe trying to take them away. Indeed, when a new competitor opened up in our community we had a trainer tell us, "I can't go work there. They'd never let me do what you guys let me do."
So, even though it has bitten us a few times over the years, we're committed to maintaining and growing with this kind of personal training staff. We want trainers who think of our business as their business, who want our members to be their clients, and who want to build strong sub-communities from within our membership. We know it carries some risk, but it's a lot more valuable than a team of trainers who want to sit on the workout floor and sort of keep an eye on things.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of Athletic Business with the title "What kind of personal trainer do you want in your club?"