// Time to demand more from group fitness

by Phillip Mills

The next big step in operating more successful health clubs is to become more product-driven and customer-focused.
That may seem an odd statement. After all, haven’t most of us spent the last 20 years concentrating on marketing and sales? What could be more customer-orientated than that?

The truth is that many clubs have focused on sales and marketing while failing to provide the great products and customer experiences to back them up:

• Retention rates haven’t changed much in the last two decades. We’ve driven people into our clubs with advertising, marketing and sales – but most of us aren’t any better at keeping those customers once we’ve made the sale.

• Among many people, our industry’s reputation is as a ‘hard sell’ operation, in a league with car or insurance salesmen.

While sales is a very important function for a club, it can’t be the only thing we do extremely well. It’s time for our industry to focus on being product-led rather than sales-led; we need to make our clubs more fun and more social places. Let’s make workouts an experience, not a tedious self-imposed tyranny that people do after a health scare or ‘to get in shape for summer’.

When fitness is fun and social, it becomes a deep and powerful part of people’s lives. People join the gym to get in shape, but they stay because of the experience they have and the people they meet. It’s about relationships with our customers and between our customers. As my friend Michael Scott Scudder in the US says, ‘Nobody ever left a gym because they made too many friends or were having too much fun’.

Group exercise is the most systematised way we have of creating camaraderie and enjoyment.  It’s time to turn the management of it into a skilled and valued profession.


There are a number of ways we can create fun, social ‘stickiness’ in the gym. For instance:

• We can improve the design and the décor to make it a more interesting and experiential place.  This is a big worldwide trend now.
• We can enhance our personal training services, including the current move to small-group training.
• We can communicate more with our members – e-mail is a great relationship-building tool.  
• We can create ‘clubs within the club’ – running groups, sports leagues, wine appreciation clubs, weekend bushwalking trips, and so on.

But in terms of simple, everyday activities, group exercise to music trumps all of these as a powerful, systematisable way of creating social experiences in a health club. Group exercise classes combine social interaction and fun; off er unmatched fi tness benefits compared with other group activities; provide a low-cost scheduled training option for members (compared with personal training); and for club managers are easy to implement, low-risk, and have a huge return on investment.

In countries where group exercise has taken off, the fitness industry is doing better than average. That’s no coincidence. Top-quality group fi tness is associated with high retention, high profits and exponential growth.

Look at the comparison with other options:

• When we redecorate the club or add new machines, we might commonly hope for a 20 per cent or 30 per cent return on our investment – barely enough to cover the risk on our cost of capital. By professionalising our group fitness management, it’s very common to have returns of 200 or 300 per cent – simply by better managing our existing resources.

• A great personal training team is an important part of running a successful club. But while a single great personal trainer can attract and retain a small group of members – maybe 10 or 12 regular clients – a great group fi tness instructor can attract hundreds of members to a club, simply because that’s how many members a group instructor can directly ‘touch’ and inspire every week.

If you build a team of rock-star instructors, they can attract thousands of members to your club.

That’s the importance of developing world-class group fitness managers.

Top-quality managers are the vital link to achieve the full potential of combining great instructors with world-class group fitness programs.


There are two commonly observed ‘ah•ha!’ moments for club managers when it comes to group fitness.
The first is the realisation that their group fitness isn’t reaching its potential. Very often, this isn’t obvious. Many club owners and managers lack a frame of reference to know whether group fitness is performing well or not. It’s a big growth moment when club managers realise there is a way to tell whether their program is up to scratch, and then they make that assessment.

We can’t manage what we don’t measure. In sales, we set benchmarks around the number of sales calls we make, how many appointments show up, the ratio of sales to appointments, and so on.

It’s the same in managing our group fitness. The most important benchmark is the most obvious – the number of members attending our classes:

• How many people attend each of our classes? If classes are less than half full, then there’s huge potential for growth at minimal cost.
• How many classes are on our timetable? While some clubs hold just 20 classes per week, others hold up to 200.
• How many attendees for each instructor? We can see quickly which instructors need more training or motivation.
• What percentage of total visits to your club is for group fitness? If this figure is around 10 or 20 per cent, you know for sure that you can make big gains.

The second ‘ah-ha!’ moment is when the club manager realises ‘we aren’t on our own’ as they strive to improve group fitness. There is a very systematic, tried-and-true path to set goals and achieve them.

• Set goals to improve every single number you’ve counted. It’s entirely realistic to raise group attendances from 300 a week to 3,000 a week or more over a period of, say, three to five years. Over the same time frame, get your group fi tness attendance up to 40 or 50 per cent of all visits each week.

• Some of the ways we can achieve these improvements include professionally training our instructors; introducing standardised programming; providing incentives; active management of our timetable; investment in sound, lighting and stages; and marketing group fitness inside and outside the club.

Pretty soon your classes are bursting at the seams. At that point, you’ve achieved every club owner’s dream because you are out of the price war. Why would your members leave for a cut-rate place down the road when they love your club, love their friends at the club, and are loyal to your programs?


A good group-fitness case study is our flagship Les Mills club in Auckland, New Zealand, which has been around for 40 years. When we got serious about group fitness in 1980 we had one or two superb instructors who could fill a group class. We had others who weren’t as good and some who were, frankly, not providing our members with a great fitness experience.

We started by having our best teachers develop our programming and teach the other instructors how to deliver it. That was a dramatic improvement in itself. We found that our teachers had been spending most of their time creating classes. The new system liberated them by delivering guaranteed-quality music and choreography and letting them concentrate on other important elements of teaching like:
• coaching their students
• communicating and building relationships
• performance and stage skills.

We developed training systems to provide the instructors with all of these skills. At one stage we hired theatre people to show us how to coach instructors in performance and stage skills.

Over time we also systematised the management of group fitness, with everything built around measuring and improving key numbers.
At our big club in Auckland:

• We’ve grown from 1,200 members to 12,000 current paying members
• Our member retention rate is 80 per cent, despite charging the highest fees in the city and serving a young, highly mobile demographic (average age 27)
• Over half of all attendances are for group fitness classes. In November 2008, we set a record 9,000 group fitness attendances in one week. We average over 8,500 per week.
• Half of our entire facility is given over to our group fi tness building, containing four studios. At almost any day and time of the week the group fitness building is bursting at the seams with up to 400 people across four studios and peak individual classes with over 200 people.  Words like ‘energy’ and ‘buzz’ fall way short of capturing the atmosphere.

By focusing on the cohesive power of group exercise and turning group exercise management into a skilled and valued profession, you can build a genuine community within your club and significantly increase your member retention.


Phillip Mills
A fi tness industry pioneer, Phillip is the founder and president of Les Mills International (LMI), whose eight exercise-to-music programs are in 12,500 fitness facilities worldwide. A driving force behind the modern group fitness experience, he also developed the Group Fitness Management system. He is a past winner of the Ernst & Young New Zealand Entrepreneur of the Year award, and with his wife Dr Jackie Mills co-wrote the book 'Fighting Globesity'.

NETWORK • AUTUMN 2009 • PP15-17