Health Club VP of Operations- Mentor, Travis Wood
This mentor wanted to be the principal of a public school and had set a long-term goal of becoming the Secretary of Education for his state. He earned a Masters in Education Administration that would have allowed him to pursue this career path. But after seeing how the public education system was changing in a way that he felt was not the path he wanted to pursue, he took a different career path and decided to enter the heath club industry. There he found motivated people who wanted to improve their lives, people he felt he could help reach their personal goals. While in these management positions, he built a reputation for being able to turn around poorly performing health clubs by listening to his members and then developing innovative programs to help them reach their individual goals. This focus on his members’ goals allowed him to attract new members and then retain them. His clubs have one of the highest retention rates in the industry, a key metric for a successful health club. This article should be read by anyone interested in the health club industry including personal trainers. His article should also be of interest to people looking to enter other types of personal service businesses because of his focused business strategy.
When I graduated from high school, I thought that I wanted a career in public education. I was an athlete and my first goal was to become a teacher and a coach. I later decided that I wanted to be a school principal and set a long-term goal to ultimately become the Secretary of Education for my state of Arkansas. I valued education and thought this career would allow me to have a positive impact on many children’s lives by improving the public education system in my state. But after I spent some time teaching and working in the system, I felt that public education was evolving in a way that put more emphasis on test scores that rate schools and teachers than concentrating on the needs of individual students and that is not the focus I wanted to follow.
While I was getting my Masters, I was also working part time at a heath club. I liked the atmosphere because the people who were members were all motivated and wanted to make changes that would improve their lives. I also saw that people were becoming more fitness conscious and thought that it was a growing industry. So rather than continue pursing a career in public education after I graduated, I took a full time job at the health club. That club was not doing well financially when I first started. To improve the business, I changed some of the staff I didn’t think interacted well with members and hired a good assistant manager who is still with me today. I also did other things to help attract new members and to retain existing members. Some of these were simple like making sure that broken equipment was fixed quickly and emphasizing cleanliness. Some changes required an investment in newer equipment. We also developed innovative new programs to keep the members interested and stayed up to date on the latest fitness trends so that we could offer new programs to our members before our competition. The club’s profitability improved and I received recognition in the industry as being a good manager able to turn around a failing club. After eight years at this club, I was offered a job to turn around a large health club outside of Cleveland. This was a massive facility with pools, tennis courts, basketball courts and a spa. We did a lot of the same things to improve that club that we had done before but we also worked to get control of the costs associated with maintaining the large facility. I was able to successfully make this large club profitable, which gave me more visibility in the industry as a manager who could improve a club’s profitability. After three years I was asked to manage a new club in Tulsa that was one-fifth the size of the club in in Cleveland. The owners had started the new club with a vision of having a facility that was upscale and catered to people at a higher income level. It was my job to put the programs in place that would make the club profitable while following the owner’s overall vision. We were successful executing our business strategy and have built a second location. Both are doing well in a very competitive market where there are clubs owned by large corporations.
Basic Principals of Health Club Operation
The first order of business is to narrow your market. Many health clubs are first designed to attract women. For married couples, women make the decision about what club to join 90% of the time. Also a lot of single men go to health clubs as a way to possibly meet single women. Consequently, our clubs are designed to attract women. The clubs have high, twenty food ceilings and are airy and open, something women like. We also set the cardio equipment on tiers around the edge of the facility so that women have some privacy when they are on machines like tread mills, elliptical and stair climbers. Likewise the rooms where we teach exercise classes like dance, cycling, Pilates and yoga are on the edge of the club where members won’t feel intimidated trying something new. Another thing we do to attract women is try to keep aggressive men out of the club. There are a lot of single women who come to our clubs who don’t want to be hassled by men looking to meet women. While we want the club to be a social experience and people to talk to each other, we have asked a few men to leave the club after complaints from women that the men were too aggressive trying to talk to them and interfering with their ability to do their workout.
We also offer other services to eliminate obstacles for both men and women to attend. These include a low cost nursery for their young children, clean locker rooms and showers with free towels so that someone who is busy doesn’t have to go home after a workout to shower. We even have a snack bar with healthy food for our members if they need to eat on the run
Constant innovation is an important business principal you need to understand in order to run a successful health club. To be able to retain members, you must offer them new, up to date equipment, classes and training programs. The public has become much more health conscious and is now well educated about exercise and nutrition. So education is no longer as important as listening to each individual member and helping them design a program that best fits their goals. One example, personal training can be expensive for many people. So we have less expensive group classes of eight to ten people two days a week that run for a total of six weeks and focus on weight loss, a primary goal for many people but especially for women. We offer these programs once every three months. Each program is completely different than the one before so that people get variety in their training and learn the latest exercise techniques. Revenue from these group programs has grown by a factor of fifteen in three years. For the people who do choose to use our personal trainers, we only hire trainers who have more than one training skill and who keep themselves up to date on new fitness trends. We also want trainers who listen to their clients so they understand their individual goals and are able to design an effective program specifically for them. The general classes we offer are also constantly being updated to reflect new exercise trends. For example, we offer ___ different kinds of studio and dance classes and varying levels of yoga, Pilates and spin classes.
You have to keep your equipment up to date. Many people who start health clubs spend so much of their budget on the building that they have little money left to update their equipment after a few years. This puts them at a disadvantage with the competition because the technology used in exercise equipment is constantly evolving. We expect most of our equipment to be obsolete in five years and plan on replacing it with newer, more technologically advanced equipment. We stagger these equipment expenditures so that we are generally replacing about twenty percent of our equipment each year, which gives members some new equipment to use every year. We also make sure that we maintain our equipment. We have a full time equipment maintenance man who either repairs it himself or gets the equipment supplier’s maintenance people in quickly. We try to have a piece of broken exercise equipment repaired in no more than two days. If we cannot do this, we often remove the equipment from the floor until it is repaired. We also relocate the equipment on the floor as new workout areas are developed and new equipment is added to give the members easy access to all the equipment on the main floor.
Cleanliness is also a way we differentiate ourselves from other clubs. We have men and women on staff full time who take care of the locker rooms and also clean the equipment on the floor several times during the day. We offer hand towels for members to use while working out that help keep perspiration from getting on the equipment. In addition, we have antibacterial towel dispensers located throughout the workout areas where members can wipe their hands and the equipment they are using. We also have our own laundry to keep our towels clean and the locker room and workout area well supplied at all times of the day.
We take what some people would consider a low-pressure approach to marketing the clubs to new members. We have one hundred and sixty employees with only five in generating new members. We are able to do this because our clubs are not only constantly innovating in ways that attract new members but also ways that make our existing members want to stay. This approach has given us a high retention rate compared to other clubs in the industry, which means we don’t have to invest as much in marketing programs to attract new members. We also try to target our marketing to people who appreciate what we have to offer compared to other clubs. When people say no after they have visited our clubs, we don’t follow up. If they say they don’t know and are still considering their options, we do follow up with them and go over what we think makes our club a good fit for them. We don’t negotiate on our membership fees. But we do offer a twenty percent discount for people who show up more than ten times each month as a way to encourage them to exercise so they can see were are also invested in them being able to reach their personal goals.
The price of admission to become a personal trainer is your certification. To be able to make a good living as a personal trainer your goal is to have what we call a “full book” of thirty or more hours of personal training with your clients each week. The best trainers in our clubs who have full books are able to do this by first listening to their clients and understanding their personal goals. Only after they know what their clients want to achieve do they design a program for that client. The trainer also has to be an innovator and keep themselves current on the evolving trends in training techniques. A good trainer knows a variety of training techniques rather than just specializing in one or two so they can design an effective program for a particular client. You can be sure that with all the media coverage on heath and fitness that a personal trainer’s clients will be knowledgeable about most of the innovations that are taking place. As a trainer, you need to be able to introduce these new training methods to your clients before they go somewhere else. It is important that you are able to retain a high percentage of your clients and also get referrals from them to keep a full book.
You also have to understand that as a trainer you will need to work hours that fit your clients’ schedules. Many people like to do their training early in the morning before they go to work or later in the evening after work. There are also some who need to train on the weekends. Only a few people are able to be at a health club from nine to five during the regular workweek.
Key Points to Remember
- It is important to understand that a successful health club is one that constantly adapts to new trends in training and nutrition. This means that your programs must constantly evolve for your club to stay competitive. If it worked in the past, it most likely will not work in the future. You have to be looking for the next trend. You cannot sit still.
- You have to offer your members programs that they want not what you want to teach. This means that you and your trainers have to spend a lot of time listening to your members and understanding their personal fitness goals.
- You must provide your members with a welcoming atmosphere and a clean facility. The people you hire at the front desk when members first come into the club as well as the people who members encounter cleaning the locker rooms and equipment are important hires.
- It is easier to retain members than it is to get new ones. You must work towards a high retention rate to be successful. Plus satisfied members give your club referrals, which is the best way to get new members.
- You have to genuinely like people to manage a health club because you must get out of the office and interact with your staff and with your members. It is important that you have good feedback on the effectiveness of your operation from your members. It is also important to make sure that your employees have a clear understanding of the goals you are trying to reach and that you hear their suggestions on ways to improve your operations. This is not the kind of job where you can sit behind a desk and just look at spreadsheets on a computer screen.
How to Prepare
My college degrees were not specific to the career I ended up pursuing in the health club industry. But from my experience, it would be helpful if you had some classes in marketing and basic business management including writing a good business plan. You should also know that the industry is consolidating with larger corporations owning more and more health clubs. These corporations are most likely going to want someone with a college degree to manage these larger clubs or multiple locations. But more important than a degree, you have to genuinely like people and be able to speak and communicate well one on one and with a group. Take some classes in speech or debate to help you learn to be comfortable speaking in front of groups of people. You will need to be able to do this well to be successful managing a health club.
I have worked at my new clubs called Sky Fitness & Wellbeing for five and half years. I enjoy coming to work each day because I know I will be working with employees and members who are always trying to get better. I look forward to finding ways I can help them achieve their personal goals. I was particularly fortunate to be able to find an employer who had a vision for a unique kind of club and who gave me the opportunity to execute his business strategy. I would recommend health club operations to anyone with an interest in helping people, both members and employees, become better and reach their personal goals.
US Bureau of Labor Statistics General and Operations Managers for Fitness and Recreational Centers and Personal Trainers
There were 9,440 people employed as operation managers in what the Bureau called Fitness and Recreational Centers in 2008, the date of their last survey. These positions had a mean average salary of $79,060. But there was a wide range of salaries based on size of the club or chain of clubs. Some managers of smaller, individual clubs earned in the range of $30,000 to $60,000.
According to the Bureau, the demand for health clubs will continue to rise due to the increase in leisure time, the aging baby boomer generation and the increased health awareness of the population. The art, entertainment and recreational industry in which health clubs are included was expected to grow by 15% from 2008 to 2018.
The Bureau recommends at least a Bachelor’s degree to be able to earn at the median average. They point out there are undergraduate degrees in hospitality management at some colleges that have courses on health club management as part of the curriculum.
The median annual wage for fitness trainers and instructors in 2012 was $31,720. The lowest 10% earned $17,630 and the top 10% in the survey earned $66,530. These salary statistics are skewed because some instructors work other jobs and only do training part time.
There were 267,000 people employed as fitness trainers in 2012, the date of the Bureau’s last survey. The number of jobs for fitness trainers is expected to grow by 15% from 2012 to 2022.