A lot of new members are filtering into health clubs this month, and that presents an opportunity for club operators to offer a variety of small group training classes.

Erica Tillinghast, a certified trainer and the global education manager for Precor, Woodinville, Wash., talked to iClubs about small group training and the potential it has on the fitness industry. Precor has become more involved in group training after its parent company, Amer Sports, Helsinki, Finland, acquired functional training systems provider Queenax last year. Precor has already displayed the Queenax system at trade shows, most recently at the Athletic Business Conference last November in New Orleans. Here is our one-on-one interview with Tillinghast:

iClubs: How important is small group training becoming in gyms?

Erica Tillinghast: I think it’s important for every gym to make sure that they let people know what type of training services they offer. A lot of times, there’s a very small group of people, anywhere from 3 percent up to about 10 percent, that are engaging with personal trainers. Having small group training or even one-on-one training going on in clubs where people can see it can help attract people to those services.

In a small group, you’ve got this great advantage of having that energy, where people get excited, they’re engaging as a team. They’re not only working with the trainer, but they’re also working with each other, creating bonds that tie them into the club.

iClubs: Are you finding more gyms showcasing small group training sessions?

Tillinghast: I’ve seen a lot of small group training happening in separate studios. The advantage was you felt like you were part of this really exclusive group, but the disadvantage was that nobody knew what was going on in that room, especially if you had to pay to enter that space. In general, you couldn’t go in there on your own.

Another thing I hear is that members who are engaged in the program want to also be able to work out on the equipment on their own. That doesn’t mean they don’t want to work out with the trainer, but if they’re with the trainer once or twice a week in a small group environment, they might want to do one or two other days using that product on their own during the week.

Related: Precor Parent Acquires Queenax, Increases Sales

iClubs: Are you seeing more group training with a Queenax-type unit or group training with other pieces of equipment?

Tillinghast: The functional space is really exciting to trainers. That’s where they want to be. That’s where they feel most comfortable and they can provide the most coaching value.

With Queenax, that makes it much more likely to engage with the trainer. Having tools that are intriguing to members that also require coaching is really important for promoting small group training services.

That said, I think that we’ll start to see more small group training happening in other areas of the club as well. The trainers can come where the exercisers are, out in the cardio floor or strength areas and offer services. That’s going to open up a lot of them to a different clientele.

iClubs: Are clubs trending to more group training rather than personal training?

Tillinghast: We are still personal training-centric. We do a decent job of teaching trainers how to be one-on-one trainers. That interaction is really different than managing multiple people at the same time.

iClubs: What are some of the challenges of moving group training sessions around in a club?

Tillinghast: I started doing small group training in clubs as a trainer and as a group fitness professional back in 2004. One of the things that I see is operators want to know how do you reserve space in the club. One of the biggest issues with moving around is not so much people knowing where they’re supposed to go, but taking over an entire area of the club where other people want to train. If somebody wants to train on a treadmill three days a week at 8 in the morning, and all of a sudden there’s a small group class around that treadmill, that can be really frustrating to those members.

For clubs to help manage that, they really need to have buy-in from the top down, the ownership all the way down to the front desk staff, where there’s clear messaging about what programs they offer, when they offer them and why they offer them. If you have a loose link in the chain who says, ‘It’s OK if you work out in this space. We’ll just work around you,’ that can create a lot of confusion. Signage can help with that. Email communication can help with that as well. It’s almost doing a little PR while you’re transitioning into that small group model.

It’s a little bit silly, but I’ve seen some clubs mark off the training area 45 minutes before a session with caution tape. I think there’s probably some other ways to do that, but that’s the direction some clubs are going to try to stake claim on areas for programming.

iClubs: Are there better times for group training sessions than others?

Tillinghast: “You want to look at the demographics in the club and figure out when critical masses of the different demographics are coming in. If you know you’ve got a more senior population that’s going to be in the club between 9 in the morning and 11 a.m., you might want to run a dedicated program for that type of client at that time. But you also want to make sure that you’re running a couple of classes during the busy hours. While that’s going to put some pressure on your system and on your equipment, that’s when you have the most visibility. You want to offer your services when people will see them.

iClubs: How popular is outdoor group training becoming?

Tillinghast: I think that there have always been trainers who have taken groups outside, and they like using the environment to create speed challenges and cardio challenges. Clubs are recognizing that. We’ve talked to clubs that want to put Queenax on rooftops. The challenge is that if you put any equipment outside the club, it’s going to be subject to a different regulatory requirement than any equipment in the club. You have to make sure that the equipment is set up (outside) in a dedicated space where you can only get to it if you’re a member of that facility. Otherwise, there can be a lot of safety concerns.”

iClubs: What trends do you see impacting the industry in 2016?

Tillinghast: I hope to see a segmentation of group personal training. We really lump it into one big category when there’s actually different qualifications of group training. There’s semi-private training (2-3 people), true small group training (4-6 people), mid-size group training (6-10 people) and then large group training (10-20 people). You actually have different groups, and they all require different price points, a different way of reaching out to them. They offer different income potential for trainers, and a different training style is required. My hope is that as we start to become more comfortable in the group personal training space, we start to break that down into different chunks.

The other trend that I’m hearing from a lot of operators right now is a lot of people are interested in treadmill training. There have always been clubs doing group treadmill training. Life Time Fitness has been a good example. A lot of boutique studios do treadmill training. There are a lot of clubs that are interested in building that out and figuring out what the formula is for delivering those classes. That can be anything from running to motivational group coaching classes.”


Stuart Goldman is Editor of iClubs.