Staying Fit in an Out-of-Shape Economy

Some fitness facilities remain healthy despite the recession

First Bally's Fitness, then Princeton Athletic Club, then Oxford Athletic Club – it's been a trail of tears for some owners of private gyms.

But at the same time older, more-established health clubs began to fail, smaller fitness businesses have opened, with many continuing to thrive despite the economic downturn. The secret to success, say these business owners, lies in their business model.

Keep overhead down         

According to John Pax, co-owner of two Anytime Fitness facilities in Vancouver, payroll accounts for 40 percent of a typical "big box" gym's overhead. To avoid that expense and still make the gym accessible to members, he and his wife, Tracy, and brother Paul decided to install a key-card access system at both locations. The system enables members to use the gym 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Laura Bullock, owner of Fit Sisters LLC, made a similar decision when she opened her women-only gym in September 2006.

"The gym can run itself for part of each day," Bullock said. "Members can come anytime they want."

A health club's choice of equipment also can affect a private gym's bottom line. For example, Vincent Allen, personal trainer and business partner with Endeavourz Training, opened his 1,500-square-foot studio in January 2010 without much of the traditional exercise machines seen in many gyms.

"We do a lot of functional training," Allen said. "You can do quite a bit with very little."

Shyla Strain, fitness manager at Grace Physical Training Institute, credits their continued success to the fact that all the equipment at their facility is paid for.

"2008 and 2009 went pretty well because we have no loan," Strain said. "Our client base went down a tad, but we stayed in the black."

Keep service up  

Minimizing expenses is only part of the picture, according to Bullock. She attributes a yearly membership growth of about 10 percent a year to a complete focus on members' needs.

"Big boxes are cold and impersonal," Bullock said. "People don't want that in hard times. A more personal approach is better."

Besides personalized fitness training, Bullock offers extras to her members, such as a book club, a dinner club and even a trip to Thailand – in an effort to make her clients feel like part of a community.

"A sense of community will lessen attrition," said Paul Pax, "[That's] instead of cow-herding them in and then just hoping and praying they'll stay."

Allen said that educating clients is a major component of personal training – something she said larger gyms don't emphasize as much. Dempsie Powers, owner of Dempsie Powers Personal Training, agreed, saying she often takes her clients grocery shopping to teach them about the nutrition aspect of fitness. Powers said that even though several of her clients have memberships at corporate chain gyms, they come to her to "learn stuff."

Being sensitive to how the economy affects club members is also important, said Sherri McMillan, owner of Northwest Personal Training for 10 years. When the economy turned sour in 2008, McMillan said she initiated cost effective programs so people could still participate within their budget. For example, she began offering half-hour sessions and group classes at her Portland and Vancouver locations.

"Clients tell us they have cut back in other areas, such as cable TV and eating out," McMillan said, "but exercise keeps them sane."

Powers said the poor economy has actually boosted her business.

When times are bad, said Powers, "people want to feel good about themselves," which she said led to an increased focus on staying fit.

McMillan also pointed out that, if you are unemployed, now is the perfect time to get in shape – that way, you'll look your best when the right job comes along, she said.

"You can develop fun relationships that open doors," McMillan said.

Get the word out 

"Word of mouth is the best way to grow a business in this industry," Strain said.

Of the 10 new clients he picked up since Jan. 1, Allen said four have been referrals.

Community involvement is another way fitness professionals make potential clients aware of what they have to offer. Pax said they regularly donate memberships for nonprofit fundraisers and recently hosted the powerlifting team for the Special Olympics. 

Bullock said her initial membership fee is now a donation of groceries to a local women's shelter. As for Allen at Endeavourz Training, his company recently presented a workshop on health and exercise at the Jack, Will and Rob Center in Camas.

Fitness industry is beefing up

Allen and McMillan said they were both considering moving to a larger space, and McMillan said that she foresaw continued growth in the private gym/personal training industry.

"People are getting older and more health conscious," McMillan said.

She also predicted that larger gyms, such as 24-Hour Fitness and L.A. Fitness, would open a few more facilities in the greater Vancouver area.

The advent of a few more corporate fitness clubs doesn't worry McMillan, however. "I'd love to have an L.A. Fitness right next to us – it wouldn't hurt us at all," she said.

Allen said that the community could use more quality personal trainers, and has plans to rent his studio out to other trainers, to help them get established.

"Even though we're creating competition," Allen said. "We think it's more important to create a healthier Vancouver."


Sidebar:  What to look for in a personal trainer

"It's not that hard to become a personal trainer," said Vincent Allen of Endeavourz Training. "But to stand out, you need passion."

Allen suggests that when looking for a personal trainer, you should make sure he or she is focused on your goals and is able to integrate fitness into your entire lifestyle. The program should include nutrition, cardiovascular training, resistance training and body core strengthening, according to Allen.

According to Shyla Strain, fitness manager and certified fitness professional for Grace Physical Training Institute, it was also important to find a trainer who has taken the time and effort to educate themselves.

"Looking buff isn't enough anymore," Strain said. "You have to be certified and educated."

She said that the four main accrediting organizations were the American College of Sports Medicine, National Academy of Sports Medicine, American Council on Exercise and the Cooper Institute.

Laura Bullock, owner of Fit Sisters LLC, added the IDEA Health and Fitness Association to the list. "With accreditation," said Bullock, "The level of quality is better."