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Feature Article - February 2014

Survival of the Fittest

Keys to Successful Fitness Facility Management

By Jessica Royer Ocken


Keeping a fitness facility up and running—whether you're part of a park district, a private club or a community center with a fitness component—is a big job. Programming and scheduling, training and teaching, cleaning and organizing, marketing and motivating: These duties combine to make a lot of moving parts. And they need to work in synchronicity to ensure happy customers and success for your operation.

But, although effective fitness facility management is more than just opening your doors at the right times and having clean towels (although both help), it's also incredibly rewarding. There's nothing better than helping clients improve their health and fitness, feel better about themselves, and have a great time along the way. So whether you're a seasoned staffer or new to the business, check out these tips and ideas—collected from industry experts—for keeping your fitness center at the top of its game.

Choosing and Designing Programs

The classes and programs you offer (as well as the quality of those programs and their instructors) are a big part of what defines the culture and atmosphere of your fitness center, as well as one of the main ways you make money. So get this right. Fortunately, you have a whole team of allies ready to help if you just ask them: your customers.

If you're in the planning stages of a new facility, you can get input at the ground level. The Prince George's County Department of Parks and Recreation is home to one of the newest and most innovative fitness centers in the country: the Southern Regional Technology & Recreation Complex in Ft. Washington, Md. (known affectionately as Tech Rec). Situated in a community of 23,000, Tech Rec activated 17,000 new memberships in the first month after its opening on June 29, 2013. Staffers with the park district trace this impressive start to the fact that creating the center was a "community-driven process from the beginning," explained Kelli Beavers, chief of Southern Area operations.

People living near the center contributed ideas about what it should include and the programming they'd like, and today Tech Rec boasts a variety of technology-based classes and programs, as well as fitness programming basics (line dance, basketball) and special requests including abundant senior fitness options, early morning boot camp and indoor soccer. "This is a very vocal community, and our department as whole has a citizen-based approach," Beavers said. "We have a good working relationship with the citizens and groups in our community, and our facilities are a home away from home [for them]."

But even if your fitness center is up and running, it's never too late to ask for user input. "Open the lines of communication between staff and members," said Franci Cohen, owner and CEO of Fuel Fitness, a specialty fitness center in Brooklyn, N.Y. This could be as simple as a suggestion box at the front desk or a "how can we better serve you" survey, she noted. "Let members tell you what they want from their gym experience."

Other bright ideas?

Keeping a fitness facility up and running—whether you're part of a park district, a private club or a community center with a fitness component—is a big job.

  • Rather than committing to a full 8- or 16-week session of a class you aren't sure about, offer it for a "demo period" of just a few sessions to see if the community likes it, suggested Beavers.
  • Timing can be critically important, both in terms of when you're offering classes (make sure it's a time the intended members are available) and how those classes are formatted. If you're serving an audience on its way to work, schedule classes that will give them the most benefit in the least amount of time, Cohen said. "Offer a 45-minute blow-out or a Fit in 40 class that will offer the same intensity and caloric burn as its one-hour counterpart." During the day is downtime for many fitness facilities, so why not entice moms and kids by offering simultaneous programming for both in the midmorning and early afternoon?
  • Make sure your teachers can teach. It's not enough to be a fitness guru; people skills and teaching experience are essential as well. Provide training for all your instructors, and teaching staff should be "certified and experienced in [the] methodologies [for their classes]," said Rick Sobotka, corporate wellness pro and founder of FCS University, an online resource for fitness center employee training. "We interview every instructor to be sure they have same passion we have," added Glen Reynoso, facility manager for Tech Rec. "We want to be sure teachers will take time with students, be on time to teach, and be able to explain what they're teaching."
  • Phillip Mills, CEO of Les Mills International, a New Zealand-based company that produces group fitness and team training programs, suggested offering pre-choreographed group fitness classes (for which teachers are given a routine to learn and teach) as a way to ensure quality and consistency.
  • Innovation is important, but research shows six core genres drive 84 percent of global fitness center attendance each week, Mills said, citing the March 2013 Round 7 Global Survey Scoreboard. These categories are: strength and weights; core strength; cycling; dance; mind/body; and martial arts. Therefore, "while it can be great to offer something a little different, if a facility dedicates the majority of their timetable to these six trends, it will generate solid appeal."
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