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February 2013

Use Your ACE Certification to Travel the World (for Free!)

By Megan Senger

Ever dreamed of a week at a Caribbean resort? Six months on a cruise ship? A year in another country? 

If so, it’s time to pack a toothbrush and your ACE certification. Here’s how to leverage your fitness skills into international opportunities, from a free one-week vacation to a job on a cruise ship to a well-paid career in a foreign land. 

Short-term Travel

Want to get away, but have a mortgage, kids or an established fitness business? Then a working vacation or client retreat may be your best bet.

Teach at a Tropical Resort 

Imagine a week at an all-exclusive, beachfront resort in the Caribbean with your spouse and kids. Now imagine it’s free!

It’s possible with agencies such as NRG2GO and Fit Bodies, Inc., which match fitness professionals with name-brand resorts in the Caribbean and Central America. In exchange for teaching a few fitness classes each day, instructors and their travel companion(s) stay and eat for free. 

Well, almost free: Instructors pay a fixed agency fee (usually several hundred dollars) and their own airfare and ground travel expenses. Select resort stays may also incur nominal additional costs, such as a local gift fund or departure tax.

Now in its fourteenth year of business, Fit Bodies, Inc., offers placements within 48 resorts, says founder Suzelle Snowden of Fort Mitchell, Ky. She estimates that at least 2,000 instructors will travel with the program in 2012, mostly teaching group exercise, Zumba and yoga classes (a minority will be tennis instructors). 

“Zumba is extremely popular right now at the resorts,” notes NRG2GO’s Darylyn Johnston, the Bolton, Ontario−based director of operations for the 12-year-old Canadian company (which also places American and European instructors).

Two years of teaching experience and a recognized, up-to-date certification are needed to book with either company. More importantly, you must to be able to go with the flow, and accurately read the guests, says Johnston, because you never know who will show up for class.

True Travel Tales:
A Resort in Jamaica

Fitness instructor Holli Clepper of San Diego, Calif., traveled with Fit Bodies to Jamaica for a week last spring, along with her husband and 5-year-old son. 

“The pros were a lot of fun family activities, good food and a laid-back teaching schedule with very little stress,” Clepper says. However, some details were challenging, from her difficult-to-find on-site contact to a too-shallow pool for aquatic classes. 

In short, go with an easy-going attitude and an open mind and you’ll have a wonderful time, says Clepper. “You may have to teach classes of all types with little or no equipment, so be prepared!”

True Travel Tales:
Yoga Retreat

Several times per year, Seattle-based personal trainer Mike Hardin jets off to a beach in Mexico where he leads workouts at fitness-and-yoga weeks organized by retreat specialist Via Yoga. The company oversees logistical details at the resort; all Hardin has to do is show up and train clients. 

“Booking hotels is not my area of expertise,” he says. “[This way] I can focus on the fitness aspects of the retreat.” He’ll be back on the beach in Mexico early this year.

Lead a Client Fitness Retreat

Another option? Take your clients on vacation with you on a fitness-and-travel adventure.

Last year, Vancouver, Wash.−based industry expert Sherri McMillan took a group of clients on a cycling trip through Italy. But she also regularly offers less exotic (and for many clients, more doable) four- and five-day fitness-themed retreats, visiting places such as the San Juan Islands (Washington) and Crater Lake (Oregon).

To follow suit, decide whether you will organize a retreat yourself or if you will hire another company to help, says McMillan, the owner of two Northwest Personal Training fitness facilities. 

Options for external help include a regular travel agent who specializes in group bookings, a tour operator that offers pre-set itineraries, or a company that specializes in booking fitness and/or yoga retreats. 

In contrast, organizing a retreat on your own may involve event-planning headaches, but typically offers more opportunity for profit. If you choose this route, check that your insurance provider covers you, says McMillan. Use detailed client contracts. And talk to a tourism lawyer: Some countries and American states have strict financial-holding laws that impact anyone organizing group travel without a professional agent’s help.

Resort Placements and Retreat Organizing

  • (Fit Bodies Inc.)

Retreat Organizing



Long-term Travel

If you really want to get out of town, fitness can take you across the seas on a cruise ship, or to a foreign country. 

Work on a Cruise Ship

Days in a luxury fitness center and nights in a different port each week. If this sounds appealing, here’s the insider info you need to secure a job on a cruise ship. 

True Travel Tales:
Instructing at Sea

A fitness job at sea is not just abs and reps, says Sonia Wiles, a Colchester, U.K.–based industry professional who worked at sea with The Onboard Spa for three years. 

“You have to learn about the products that the spa company uses and sells,” Wiles says. You also must teach quite a few classes a week and present seminars to the public, she notes. “It’s a lot of work and it’s not easy.”

Nevertheless, Wiles fondly remembers being able to explore foreign ports on her days off. “It was fascinating and I have to say I loved every single minute of it!”

First, think spa, not gym: On ships, the fitness center is part of the spa. In most cases, an independent company operates the spa (and therefore fitness) facilities on behalf of the cruise line. So you’ll need to apply for a job with the spa operator, not the cruise line.

Conveniently, the gyms on almost all cruise lines familiar to the American market are managed by one company: The Onboard Spa by Steiner. This industry giant staffs 160 shipboard fitness centers, including those of Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Celebrity, Holland America, Princess, Norwegian and Disney Cruise Lines.

The Onboard Spa offers thorough employee training and 1.5 days off per week. This is a true luxury—virtually all other cruise-line employees work seven days a week.

However, a “day’s work” may last 12 hours or more, contracts typically last more than half a year and crew cabins are tiny and shared. On the upside, because of The Onboard Spa’s massive reach, you may work for different cruise lines and travel a variety of itineraries over the course of your shipboard career. 

Want other at-sea options? Spa operator Canyon Ranch staffs the fitness centers for select ships on ultra-luxurious lines Oceania and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, and for Cunard’s Queen Mary 2. 

Cruise Ship Recruitment

  • (The Onboard Spa by Steiner) 

And if you have sports-specific instructing skills (think rock-climbing, surfing, golf or scuba diving) you can apply directly to a cruise company as an onboard activity/sports instructor. Consult cruise lines’ individual websites for hiring information.


Move Abroad 

For the truly adventurous, there’s always the idea of moving to another country—for now, or for good. 

True Travel Tales:
Fitness Ex-pats

Fitness instructor Sandra Bellinger of Chatham, Ontario, spent almost 10 years living overseas, working in gyms in East and West Africa and at a Saudi Arabian resort. She found work by posting her profile online and with U.K.-based recruiters. 

Now fluent in French and Arabic, she appreciates having friends all over the world. She recalls the initial strangeness of living in countries with ever-present racial and economic divides, but says “I have never regretted living abroad.”

Her advice? Ask potential employers and recruitment agencies for references from current and former employees. Take back-up funds for unseen emergencies, and call your family regularly! 

To find an overseas opportunity, start with an Internet search, says Fred Hoffman, industry expert and author of Going Global: An Expert’s Guide to Working Abroad in the International Fitness Industry. Combine key words about a desired location and your fitness specialty (“full-service health club,” “luxury resort and spa,” ”Pilates studio,” “Spinning,” etc.) 

Hoffman, who lives in Paris, France, also suggests asking friends and colleagues for international recommendations, inquiring at health clubs when on vacation, and searching traditional employment websites such as

Another option is an agency. LeisureForce—a division of UK-based recruiter UltraForce—has placed fitness instructors in politically stable Middle Eastern countries for more than 25 years, says founder Simon Windsor. And it can be lucrative: The positions his company helps fill offer generous remuneration packages to experienced, highly adaptable fitness professionals who want to live abroad for a year or more. 

ACE recently earned accreditation from the European Health & Fitness Association (EHFA) Standards Council for two of its core certifications. This designation means ACE Personal Trainers and Group Fitness Instructors are the first industry professionals certified within the U.S. to be recognized as meeting standards of practice in Europe. ACE-certified Personal Trainers and Group Fitness Instructors can now join the European Register of Exercise Professionals (EREPS), an inventory referenced during the hiring process by more than 10,000 clubs throughout Europe.

Regardless of how you secure an offer, get any work agreements in writing before your departure, says Hoffman, including travel and hotel or apartment conditions, fees and pay, and work schedule and responsibilities.

Bon Voyage

Long-term Work Abroad

  • (LeisureForce)
    usa.htm (Going Global book)

“Working abroad is an educational experience compared to no other,” says Hoffman. It is also a great self-learning experience, both exciting and frustrating, he adds.

“It’s humbling and gratifying to teach beginners and have students in classes who are from all over the world,” agrees Fit Bodies Inc. founder and ACE-certified professional Snowden. “When instructors return home from teaching at a resort, 85 percent book another teaching vacation and never travel the same way again!”


sengerMegan Senger has had a long-term love affair with her passport and backpack. She spent many years traveling the world as a fitness instructor, including extended stints teaching in England, Iceland, Bermuda and Senegal, plus many years on cruise ships. She enjoys trying new yoga poses and overseas air travel (although not at the same time). Contact her at

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