Group fitness classes empty in your health club? Here's how to fill them up.

March 26, 2019 Steve Calechman

When you look at your fitness schedule, all the components seem to be in place. You have good instructors, well-known classes, and a sizable membership. But attendance isn’t what it should be, and, even for those who are showing up, there’s a lack of excitement. Sound familiar?

It could be that the schedule times aren’t right, there’s too much dependence on “star” teachers, or there’s no variation, but even if it’s something else, there are reasons that things aren’t working, according to Candice Baumgardner, EXOS group exercise manager, and Melissa Towey, EXOS national group exercise manager. The problems can be addressed, and in ways that don’t necessarily involve spending money. Successful fitness centers, and, more specifically, successful fitness center managers do these five things.

1. Create a lineup that helps itself.

One easily avoidable hurdle is not to have unnecessary competition. Two classes that would draw the same clientele shouldn’t be slotted at the same time, Towey says. A good class schedule also needs variety. Members like what they know, but they can also get bored without being aware that it’s happening. It’s up to fitness managers to make sure that they’re being challenged. This keeps people excited and can help cut down on injuries by preventing repetitive stress, allowing members to stay active and achieve better results, Baumgardner says.

No need to reinvent the wheel. Familiar classes like spinning come with a built-in draw.

2. Go with brand names.

It’s a fine intention to create a wholly original schedule, but it’s not the most productive use of time. Successful clubs use pre-designed programs, something along the lines of Zumba or spinning. They’re recognizable and popular, so they come with a built-in draw. They’ve already been test marketed for safety and effectiveness. They provide a consistency — members will know what to expect on any given day, Baumgardner says. It also takes a weight off the instructors by already laying out choreography and music. The teacher’s personality and ability will still make it stand out, but, as a club, you’re not dependent on a specific person to make any class work, which leads to…

A good class will not overcome a bad time of day.

3. Put classes first, not instructors.

One common mistake managers make is scheduling based on a popular group exercise instructor’s availability, not when classes make the most sense. “Good instructors are gems,” Baumgardner says, but a good class will not overcome a bad time of day. The bigger issue is handling instructors, and it’s something of an art. You need to respect them without becoming overly reliant on anyone. Give instructors at least two classes but not more than 4 percent of the overall schedule, Baumgardner says. The balance allows all instructors to develop and prevents anyone from becoming burned out.

Including your instructors in staff meetings and events will help them feel like part of the team.

There are also steps that clubs can take to help bring in and keep talent, beyond the always good free membership. Have an uncomplicated system to finding substitutes — you might want to take on the responsibility so instructors don’t have to scramble. Maintain the equipment, especially the audio, and most especially the microphones. Make them feel part of the team – it’s easy for instructors to feel like hired hands – by introducing them to the trainers and support staff and including them in staff meetings and events, Baumgardner says.

Also give them feedback. When you see a packed class with excited members, take a video and post it to the club’s and/or instructor’s page with the note, “So glad to have this teacher.” When members make positive comments, pass them along. Instructors can often wonder if they’re having any impact and hearing good reviews gives them a boost, usually when they need it the most, Baumgardner says. And invest in them. Pay for certifications or further training. Teachers will feel valued and a sense of loyalty, and the club and the members will keep a popular person, says Towey, adding that while money is never unappreciated, word of the other perks gets around in the tight fitness community.

4.Successfully launch new classes.

You always want to look for opportunities to mix in new classes, but, again, don’t have a new option competing with an established class that would appeal to the same people. The better move is to do a demo. You can bring in a master trainer — another benefit of a pre-designed program — for one time or do a six-week run. Either way, have it in the slot of a popular class, but pay the instructor who’s temporarily on hiatus (another way to support your people), then move the new class to its own day and time. The disruption might make people grumble, but the short-term static is worth the long-term gain, Towey says.

Giving out guest passes for the specific class can help draw attendance, but social media is the least expensive, most effective way to promote. Post a video on the club’s site and tag the instructor. Seeing the class removes the mystery of what it will be like, excitement will build, and friends will start asking who wants to take it together, an easier way for members to try something new, Baumgardner says.

A variety of class options help members feel challenged and avoid boredom.

Good managers realize that while classes might not generate extra revenue, they retain a segment of your membership.

Launch new classes with a demo run and social media advertising to bring in the best crowds.

5. Do firsthand research.

The best way to gauge group exercise instructors is to take their classes, but don’t give them a heads-up and go in five minutes after it begins. You’ll get a truer picture, and you want to see a person who’s educating, instructing, and entertaining. “An instructor needs to be doing all three,” Towey says. You also want to see a person who’s running a class for the members, not as a personal workout, and who’s talking up the entire schedule. If a good instructor seems burned out, the job is to reignite them. Ask them for a wish list. It makes them part of the process and produces ideas. All of this creates extra work, but good managers realize that while classes might not generate extra revenue, they retain a segment of your membership.

You might have to let go of an ineffective teacher. That’s unpleasant, but “managers need to view the job as a job,” Baumgardner says. Even if you never had to fire someone, there’s always the search for new talent. One source is existing members. They’re already at the club and motivated, and you’re able to guide their development. Bottom line: You need to foster a positive attitude that permeates. “You want instructors teaching what they love,” Towey says. “It rubs off on the members.”

Learn how EXOS can help your organization with on-trend, customizable group fitness classes.

About the Author

Steve Calechman

Steve Calechman is a Boston-based writer and longtime contributing editor for Men's Health.

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