The closure of her long-term employer’s club forced group fitness manager Kirsty Nield to take a bold leap into the great unknown and set up her own group fitness business.
My local gym first opened in the early 1980s. It was the most up-to-date fitness facility for miles, with a pool, spas, saunas, squash courts, creche and even its own bar. The gym attracted people from far and wide and was known for its community atmosphere, great instructors and welcoming staff. Over the years, the gym adapted and changed. The squash courts were re-purposed to accommodate treadmills, 24-hour access was established, and a budget membership option was introduced. Despite the changes over the years, the gym remained a community hub, a place where people met to exercise and socialise. It was a hugely important part of the local landscape.
The closure of our gym
In December 2019, this gym, the gym I had worked at for 20 years, went into liquidation. One day we were going about our normal business; teaching classes, connecting with our members, and doing what we loved – the next, the doors were shut, the locks were changed, and the liquidators were ready to sell anything possible to pay back creditors.
Being a community gym, the effect this had on the local residents, the members, the staff and the instructors was significant. The closure affected the entire community. There was a huge sense of loss. Loss of family, loss of friends, loss of income and – most importantly – loss of general and mental health.
With all the changes going on in the world today, this story is, regrettably, not uncommon. The fitness industry is highly competitive, and overheads are high. If not run properly, it can be ridiculously hard for club operators to make ends meet. Add the new pressure a global pandemic has placed on society and, unfortunately, many gyms have had to dramatically change how they operate. Sadly, some have closed their doors and, in many cases, the damage done is too great. Some may never open again.
Despite gyms closing, people still need to exercise, and instructors still want to teach. If you find yourself among those group fitness instructors now finding themselves without work, hopefully my story will inspire you to at least consider alternate employment options that don’t require you to hang up your headmic.
In my case, having been employed at the fitness centre and having an insight into what was happening behind the scenes, I knew the closure was coming. For years I had been wanting to break away from the internal conflict and questionable management style that was a massive source of stress. For years I had been fantasising about how I would run my own business. I had been preparing for this event for a long time. The gym closing was my trigger to act – and quickly. Yes, the gym doors had closed, but another door was about to open. The difference was, this door was mine and I opened it myself and on my terms.
The right ingredients
Like most passionate group fitness instructors, not being able to teach is not an option. For me, not teaching is like not eating or not breathing. I cannot live without it. While I no longer had the gym, I still had all the other ingredients to make a group fitness business:
- a following – some of my regulars had been attending my classes for years
- ideas – I have skills to teach any kind of class, from HIIT to Pilates
- lack of competition – no other gyms in the area offered group fitness
- experience – I have taught group fitness for 20 years in numerous facilities
- passion – I teach for the love of fitness and my community, not just for the money.
Starting out on my own seemed lonely. I wanted to be able to offer variety and options to the local community, so they did not need to look elsewhere for exercise opportunities. Having been the Group Fitness Manager for many years, I had good connections and friendships with the instructors. So, on the day the gym closed, I announced to the team that I intended to put together a timetable of classes. I didn’t specifically invite individuals to join me, I waited to see who was passionate and dedicated enough to ask to be involved.
I ended up with a team of six. We had a great range of skills, from yoga to HIIT and everything in between. We are all versatile freestyle instructors with the skills to appeal to all ages and abilities.
Of the six I had two amazing, talented, and hugely important friends who helped drive the set-up of a new group fitness studio. Together, we were the ‘founding instructors’ of the business and we worked incredibly hard to get things up and running.
With a few quick meetings, group chats and many frantic phone calls, we had put together a short-term timetable of 36 classes over two weeks. The gym closed on a Friday. The following Monday night, we held our first class for 40 people in a local dance studio.
The first few months are now a bit of a blur. In an effort to find venues that could accommodate our class times, we ended up with seven different locations in which we held our classes. These included:
- a basketball court at the local Rec centre
- two church halls
- a Freemasons hall
- a dance studio
- two community centres
To say our timetable was complicated is an understatement. In addition, we were all operating individually. Some instructors were only accepting casual payments from people, while others were selling multi-class passes. It’s amazing the members ever knew where to go and how to pay! Despite this, classes were well attended and quite profitable. Things seemed to be going well.
Changes for greater success
Then, in March 2020, it all ground to a halt. COVID-19 struck our state and all fitness facilities – and venues that doubled as them – were closed. Despite gyms being forced into lockdown, I was busier than ever. During the shutdown, I continued to teach regular classes using live streaming on Facebook. I made this available to all our members at no charge. While the loss of income was difficult, I felt it was important to keep my connection to the members we had built up over the past three months. I hoped that if I kept them engaged and connected to me, they would return to my business when we re-opened for face-to-face classes.
In addition, with support and advice from my two co-founding instructors, I used the time in lockdown to re-assess how the business was operating. There were two main changes I knew needed to be made: reducing the number of venues, and having one class rate and payment system for all classes. I wanted the business to have a professional appearance and membership options that were affordable and easy to understand for all participants. However, due to the high-risk nature of the fitness industry, as experienced with the old centre, I wanted to keep overheads low and margins small. For our return after the COVID lockdown, I made a number of important improvements.
Our seven venues were reduced to two. This meant some of the classes needed to be dropped and in some cases I had to push instructors out on their own. All weekday classes are now at one venue and all weekend classes are at another. This makes it much simpler for members.
Rent is paid to the venues on a per class basis. This means we only pay for what we use. We have no hidden bills such as utilities, building insurance or cleaning. This is all covered in our room hire.
Participants can now purchase 10-visit class passes, with the passes able to be used for any type of class. A class is crossed off each time they attend a session, meaning participants pay for what they use. This change prompted us to professionalise our accounting and have one bank account into which all membership payments were deposited.
Low membership costs
While I did not want to de-value the amazing service we were providing for our members, I knew we still had to compete with the large fitness centres. These offer many more services, including treadmills, weight machines, showers and cafes. We had to ensure that if people attended two to three classes per week, the cost for them would be less than, or similar to, the cost of a standard gym membership.
Money in the bank
I restructured the cost per class to allow a percentage to remain in the bank. This allows the business to have a kitty which can pay for promotions, equipment, and other overheads.
While I have been responsible for the establishment of the business, and the way it operates, each instructor has input and works as part of the team. However, they are required to have their own insurance, maintain all their records such as member clearance forms, promotion of their classes and communication with members.
Each fortnight, each instructor invoices the business for the classes taught. Payment is per-head. This means each instructor is responsible for building the numbers in their classes. The decision about what they teach and when is entirely theirs. If only a few people attend, they only get paid for those people. If they want to do well and profit from their hard work, they need to promote and encourage people to attend.
I set up social media pages for the business and created a new web site, which was much easier than I imagined it would be. I registered the business and purchased a domain.
I established a booking system for classes. This helped us manage class limit requirements imposed by COVID regulations and created a sense of demand for the classes.
I set up a Square account, which enables us to easily take credit card payments.
When classes resumed in May, we were ready. We re-opened with a new sense of confidence. Don’t get me wrong, things are not always perfect. We have classes where only 5 people turn up and we barely covered our rent, members complain about the facilities, or get confused about how bookings are made, but generally I feel we have now established a business which is here to stay. I’m still looking for our ‘forever home’, a place where we can really put down our roots, but we are secure where we are, and with low overheads we can really focus on building numbers.
Is going it alone for you?
Would starting your own group fitness business be a possibility for you? Ask yourself these questions:
- Do I have the skills to deliver classes that are not offered at other facilities in my area?
- Do I have a loyal following of participants that will attend my classes rather than go elsewhere?
- Do I have the skills to teach programs that don’t require license fees?
- Are there venues locally that could accommodate the number of people I hope to have in each class?
- Do I have loyal and trustworthy peers who could join me?
- Do I have an overriding passion for fitness and do it for love, not just money?
If you answered yes to these questions, and you are in the difficult position of being out of work or unhappy at your gym, then setting up your own group fitness business could be an option for you.
Hot tips for budding entrepreneurs
While it’s still early days for my venture and I continue to learn every day, I do have a few big tips to give anybody looking to start their own business:
- Don’t be greedy. People are more likely to put their trust in someone who is not overcharging or comes across as greedy.
- Keep your overheads low. Starting a business is risky. Lower the risk by keeping spending to a minimum.
- Be flexible. Give the people what they want, when they want it. This might mean making regular changes to accommodate the needs of the majority.
- Think and then think more. Make well considered decisions based on research, experience and input from your members.
- Get financial advice. Run your ideas past an accountant or financial advisor. Make sure you are above board with your tax, super and other legal requirements.
- Don’t go it completely alone. You may be striking out on your own, but in terms of decision making, two or three heads are better than one. If possible, use the support, advice and skills of people you trust to help you along the way.
If you think this is an option for you, do it for the love. Have fun and be creative and you could reap the rewards of your hard work and passion. There’s little more rewarding than experiencing the pride that comes with knowing you have used your skills and initiative to create something amazing on your own terms.
Starting her career as a fitness professional in 1999, Kirsty has established herself as one of Australia’s leading group fitness instructors and educators. Her passion for group fitness has driven her to start her own fitness studio, produce online courses, write journal articles and present at national and international fitness conventions. Kirsty’s experience in group fitness management and instructor mentoring has allowed her to ensure instructors are continually up skilling, and the art of freestyle fitness stays on club timetables.