By Megan Senger
Small group training has become increasingly popular throughout the fitness industry for two main reasons: More clients and more money in less time.
The benefits of this trend have been well documented. Most trainers agree small group training (SGT) is different than one-on-one training or traditional group classes because it allows a trainer to tailor workouts for two to 12 participants at a time.
But beyond that, it has evolved to mean different things to different fitness professionals, ranging from several-week-long specialized programs, to ongoing membership models, to tiered and complex offerings at varying price points.
This article features ways of effectively structuring the business aspects of SGT, making it even easier to get on board with this profitable new trend.
Generally speaking, most SGT approaches fit into three categories: programs, memberships and selections.
Small Group Programs: Short-term and Specialized
An SGT “program” has fixed start and end dates, and typically meets for less than two months, at specified times (e.g., every Monday at Wednesday at 6 pm) and often with a specialty focus.
Elevations Health Club in Scotrun, Pa., offers four- to six-week-long weight-loss, running, yoga and boot camps, reports April Pansy, M.Ed., the facility’s director of personal training. All of them meet weekly, except boot camp, which is offered up to three times per week.
- Logical Progression: If your client is working toward a particular event—a 5K race or a wedding day, perhaps—the intensity of the class can increase toward a specific fitness peak, says Pete McCall, M.S., an exercise physiologist with ACE in San Diego, Calif., who also teaches ACE’s live Small Group Training Workshop.
- Training for Trainers: The interpersonal skills and technical knowledge required to train four to 10 people are different from those needed to coach only one client, or a very large group. Specialized, short-term programs allow you to hone your SGT coaching skills before introducing more complex, ongoing SGT methods.
- Low Risk for Clients: Short-term programs may seem less intimidating to a client than a long-term commitment. Plus, clients can try out your training at an affordable price, notes Pansy.
Once program participants achieve their goal(s), there is no specific reason to stay involved in the program, McCall says. You will need to market separate offerings to entice new or returning participants.
Small Group Attendance:
Drop-in vs. Pre-scheduled
The nuances of client attendance vary by facility.
Some businesses offer a must-attend SGT program: Trainees meet with the same group of participants and trainer(s) at the same set times each week. This way, “the trainer knows exactly how many clients are scheduled and which individuals will be attending, which allows for an effective workout,” Pansy says.
In contrast, some studios offer regularly scheduled, optional drop-in small group sessions, such as training slots at 9 am, 5 pm and 6 pm, every day. Anyone with a small group membership or short-term package can attend, with or without pre-registration, allowing for more scheduling flexibility for clients.
Small Group Memberships: Ongoing and Automated
In this model, a client pays a regular fee to attend either an unlimited or a set-number-per-month of small group sessions on a perpetual basis. These are typically scheduled at pre-set times, in a manner similar to a group-exercise schedule. Whether a participant must come at the same time each week or can drop in on any SGT session varies by facility (see sidebar, "Small Group Attendance").
Catalyst Fitness in Atlanta, Ga., operates as a membership-only performance center dedicated exclusively to personal training. Founder and CEO Bill Sonnemaker, M.S., an award-winning trainer and the vice president of education for Redcord, notes that all members pay for either one-on-one or small group training via monthly fees. Membership in Catalyst’s SGT program costs $249 per month.
“This fee allows our clients to train with a trainer six days per week if they so choose,” says Sonnemaker. “We require no long-term contracts. Our training programs are on a month-to-month basis with a 30-day notice to cancel.”
In a unique twist, and unlike most boutique performance centers, Sonnemaker eschews set SGT class times and has pioneered a drop-in-anytime “on demand” model (see sidebar, "Personal Training on Demand").
Personal Training on Demand
Which is best: must-attend SGT classes or drop-in class times? Bill Sonnemaker’s facility, Catalyst Fitness, offers a unique answer: personal training “on demand.”
SGT clients can drop in for a trainer-led workout at literally any time during open hours. During peak times, a coach may work with a group of up to a dozen members and, according to Sonnemaker, “about a third would just be starting their workouts, a third would be in the middle, and a third would be at the tail end,” each doing different exercises.
He asserts that his “on demand” model improves retention rates and client successes, because it allows for realities like clients running late or changing schedules. He notes that the potential of any training-on-demand model varies with the trainer(s’) small group competencies, underscoring the importance of ongoing staff and self education.
- Flexibility: “A membership model allows individuals to participate in as many sessions as they like based on their availability,” explains McCall. “This is particularly helpful for busy professionals.”
- Automated Revenue: Clients pay via an automatic, ongoing collection process. This typically is via an electronic funds transfer (EFT, i.e., automatically withdrawing funds from a client’s bank account.) “This approach allows us to accurately forecast our monthly revenue,” says Sonnemaker.
The challenge here is how to structure the intensity of workouts so that participants are engaged and avoid fitness plateaus, says McCall. Clients participating in a membership-based SGT model require periodized programs of varying intensity to continue to experience results, he adds.
Small Group Selections: Long-term and Price-tiered
This approach offers multi-tiered small group selections at varying price points. Thomas Plummer, a Cape Cod, Mass.−based fitness business consultant, author and founder of the National Fitness Business Alliance, strongly advocates for this type of multi-layered membership system on his influential blog.
Plummer argues that, to maximize revenues, one-on-one training should comprise less than 15 percent of a business’ entire billings. In fact, some successful small group−centered facilities have eliminated one-on-one options entirely, he notes.
Following is a sample menu for a facility’s multi-tiered SGT system, courtesy of Plummer, which can be adjusted according to the market in which you work. Note that every training and payment level includes the one below it. This means that one-on-one training clients can use the gym as much as he or she wants, plus drop into small group sessions or take part in large group training at will.
- Unlimited One-on-One: $899−$2,100 per month; a full-support approach for an elite demographic. The customer trains with a coach two to three times per week and is guided into the training options listed below if he or she wants to work out more frequently, Plummer says.
- Limited One-on-One: $399 per month (based upon $80 per session.) The client may attend five one-on-one sessions per month; plus any of the options listed below. Unused appointments do not rollover to the next month.
- Unlimited Small Group: Two to four people per group, at $249−$349 per month with no limits on attendance. A dedicated facility can offer 26 to 40 time slots per week, depending on the clientele, age of the club and number of members, Plummer explains.
- Limited Small Group: Two to four people per group, limited to five SGT sessions at $149−$249 per month. “These clients also have access to the large group offerings on the other days,” Plummer notes.
- Large Group Training: Twelve to 15 clients per group, $99−149 per month for unlimited attendance. Large group sessions should be offered eight to 12 times a week. This is the boot-camp crowd, Plummer says: Offer an identical, structured workout every two weeks and include music.
Trainers using this system should obtain 12-month commitments from customers and bill clients weekly (not monthly), Plummer says.
- Profitability: Plummer notes that this approach has a large upside for potential revenue. Some facilities using this method make more than $1 million a year in as little as 6,000 square feet (assuming around 300 members at an average intake of $300 per month, per client).
- Broad Appeal: A wide range of prices appeals to many potential members, Plummer says. Clients can upgrade to a more exclusive training model when desired or, if necessary, cut back on expenses without leaving the business.
ACE’s Small Group Training Workshop
Interested in learning more about how you can incorporate small group training into your business model? This one-day workshop reveals specific strategies and techniques for designing and marketing small group training programs based on the innovative ACE Integrated Fitness Training® (ACE IFT®) model. You’ll also discover how having multiple clients in one session can enhance long-term commitment by fostering accountability among clients, as well as specific marketing strategies aimed at attracting new clients.
For more information on for this informative workshop, worth 0.8 CECs, and to register, click here.
In its fullest incarnation, this model has above-average administrative demands, requiring the coordination of EFT accounts and all that goes into offering a diverse range of training options with multiple trainers at a dedicated location. Plummer cautions: “Keep in mind that instruction and leadership are far different than mere access to fitness equipment.”
Small Group Success
“There is no single ‘right’ way to develop a small group−training format; different formats will work for different groups,” says McCall. And you don’t have to offer only one choice: Pansy’s facility will soon offer clients two payment options: its current pay-as-you-go short-term program model, and a billed-by-the-month ongoing membership option.
Regardless of the SGT direction you choose, remember that ultimately your success still lies where it always has: with your own skills as a trainer and an entrepreneur.
Megan Senger is a writer, speaker and fitness sales consultant. Active in the exercise industry since 1995, she holds a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and English. When not writing on health and lifestyle trends, techniques and business opportunities for leading trade magazines, she can be found in ardha uttanasana becoming reacquainted with her toes. She can be reached at www.megansenger.com.