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CEO Roundtable: Fitness Centers

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Fitness trends, hiring needs, retention and the health care crisis – Springfield Business Journal Editorial Director Eric Olson sat down with Cox Fitness Centers Director Chris Flouer, Genesis Health Clubs LLC Springfield South Operations Manager Angela Fulbright and Ozarks Regional YMCA CEO Steve Gimenez to discuss the details of running a fitness center in today’s fast-paced world.

Eric Olson: Define the fitness industry in a word.
Chris Flouer: Shifting. I’ve been in the industry 34 years and have seen what used to be very static routines in exercise classes now be much like everyone’s attention span: very short lived.
Angela Fulbright: Diversified. There are lots of different options and opportunities.
Steve Gimenez: Individualized. More opportunity for people to be able to individualize what they are looking for and find ways to be able to get that.

Olson: Are there certain technologies you’ve brought into centers that enable people to think and act in that way more?
Flouer: The technology is really counterproductive to our industry. We are a fitness-based, physical-based industry.
Gimenez: I think you find a dichotomy there. We look to bring people together. It’s about community. Yet some of our amenities – whether on a treadmill or whatever – it’s so cocooning. How do we reach across and have people talk to each other and get to know each other in small communities? Group exercise is one of the best places to make that happen and keep motivation.
Fulbright: Motivation and accountability are the two things, and the group fitness takes care of a lot of that. Group fitness is the No. 1 retention tool of gyms. About 75 percent drop out, if you’re not connected.

Olson: Group training is the No. 2 top trend for 2018, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. High intensity interval training is No. 1. It was No. 1 in 2008 and 2012, got knocked off the pedestal and now it’s back. Is that surprising?
Fulbright: It’s individualized and works around what people have a lack of and that is time. It doesn’t surprise me that it’s back. It kind of surprises me that it fell off.
Flouer: The CrossFit types of facilities are facilities targeted toward that HIIT type of workout and are popular.

Olson: What’s high on your list of trends for 2018?
Gimenez: Group exercise continues to be one of the highest that we focus on. At the end of the day, we’re not just trying to get you in there for three to four weeks. How do we make this a habit with you? And some of that is the accountability you were talking about, that motivation and that somebody’s going to miss me if I don’t show up. We are seeing a real interest increase in some of our older population and demographics in our facilities with that and how we are going to serve that population, as well.
Fulbright: I’ve been reading a lot about SilverSneakers. I think there is real potential there and I believe in where you don’t use it, you lose it. We have aqua and Zumba. We want to make it a lifestyle change. We also have a Kid Fit program and more personalized fitness. We’ve tried shortened versions of classes to go with that HIIT. That’s another trend, and the smaller groups.

Olson: I’ve seen mixes of yoga with beer and goats. Have you seen these?
Fulbright: I’m going to throw that one under a fad.
Gimenez: Yoga is one of our biggest trends, though. It seems like there is so much opportunity around that activity for a variety of reasons. It’s something people can stay with as they get old.
Fulbright: We put a little yoga in Kid Fit. And that’s where the chair yoga comes in for people who have difficultly on their own. Yoga is a big one. It’s one I think will never go away.
Olson: How do you spot the difference between a fad and a trend?
Fulbright: It’s hard. There are times you see something on TV and you go, “that doesn’t have legs, that’s not going anywhere.” But it’s hard to identify what’s going to take off.
Gimenez: Who would have thought of treadmills?

Olson: What about time in general? Where do you see busy businesspeople fitting in their fitness time?
Flouer: That is a huge issue and everything goes so fast not only in business, but you have family commitments, as well. Fitness professionals these days wouldn’t probably expect someone to walk through the doors every day of the week. They’d supplement with something additional they can do like walk, jog or an outdoors activity.
Fulbright: They come in early and we offer early morning classes. We also offer noon classes so they can come on the lunch hour and, of course, evening classes.
Gimenez: I think business people get the idea of the productivity benefits of being healthy. It’s probably harder for some of the families that have to be on the job, driving a long commute, having to work two jobs, some single-parent families.
Fulbright: It’s the people who are burning the candle at both ends with jobs, kids and activities. They don’t have the time and then, if they do, they don’t have the energy. Those are the ones who are difficult to reach.

Olson: What about pricing and getting people in the door? What are the more popular pricing structures for you? Have you tried different types?
Gimenez: We are just on the monthly pricing structure. There is no contract. It’s easy in and easy out. Our hope is that, if we make it easy for you to get out, we’ll make it easy for you to get back in. It’s more of a bundled service. I know some that work more optional, paying for what you want. And that goes into it being individualized. We have to pay attention to what that market is asking for.
Flouer: Our minimum would be a three-month membership. One of the fastest areas we see growing is … the SilverSneakers type. We are paid and reimbursed by the insurance companies for each visit. We have a large day-use business, as well.

Olson: What are the profit centers? Where do you find you’re making the most money?
Gimenez: Our services are just kind of bundled up in the membership fee. I don’t know if I can separate that. There are some parts of the business that we know are more used than others, and aquatics is one.
Flouer: Personal trainers will be our fastest-growing revenue stream. We have a medical fitness product that we are trying and that’s also part of an insurance product, as well. This past year, it has really taken off, especially with our own CoxHealth employees. It’s built into their wellness programs.
Fulbright: Our personal trainer does quite well, also.

Olson: What about hiring? With what you say about personal trainers, do you have to ramp up to meet that demand, and where do licensed professionals stand with you? Is that something that’s critical in what you look for?
Flouer: Our hiring is the certification model. It’s getting harder and harder to find the quality of people because a lot of them, especially in our model, are moving on to occupational therapy or physical therapy – something in the medical field. They start on the fitness side of it going through school. I have probably two or three career professionals, full-time fitness professionals, with the rest that I can see moving on eventually into the medical profession. Group exercise professionals seem to be hard to find, as well. That’s a growing business, but you have a hard time finding those folks.
Fulbright: Our personal-training staff all have certifications – some have several. Some transition into another role of physical therapists. That is a good transition for them; a good place to start while they are going through school. It’s another component of adding knowledge to how the body works. Our instructors are all qualified and certified.
Gimenez: There are a lot of people that have certifications, but not soft skills. That personal interaction is important in this, as well. It’s those soft skills, just saying, “Hi, how are you” and introducing yourself. Especially as the population ages, that connection there to people is a big piece of this.

Olson: What’s the biggest threat to the industry?
Flouer: Inactivity. What we’re looking at are statistics showing only 25 percent of the population is getting enough exercise to make an overall impact on their health. We could bring every facility in town to the table and there’d be enough business for everyone if you activate everyone who needs to be activated. If we are going to try to tackle this health care crisis, we are starting with getting people moving.
Fulbright: And it’s easily accessible at home now on demand – YouTube. Those are pretty easy to get into, but then that takes out the social component.

Olson: With the health care crisis, that puts a point on it that it’s not only about running a business of a fitness center, but changing the trajectory of the nation.
Gimenez: That’s what it is. That’s why we’re in this. In this health care crisis, people are beginning to say, “You know, it might be a bit better to be proactive here than reactive.” We know that most of our health cost is chronic disease. Instead of waiting for something to go wrong, I’m seeing a bit of “let’s do something about this now.”
Fulbright: I think that is starting in the medical community, because I see more people in the gym saying, “My doctor recommended it.”

Interview excerpts by Features Editor Hanna Smith, hsmith@sbj.net.

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