Why Luxury Big Box Gyms Should Invest More in Group Fitness Instructors
Why Luxury Big Box Gyms Should Invest More in Group Fitness Instructors

With increasing competition from niche workout brands and online fitness offerings, LBB gyms should be investing in the physical experiences members can’t get anywhere – or with anyone – else.

It’s Move It Monday, friends! Barre at 4 pm @balletcleveland, Cardio Dance at 6 pm @alltimefitness, and I have a new dance warm up! #groupfitness #clevelanddance #alltimefitness #balletcleveland #moveitmonday #clevelanddancecommunity #cardiodance #barrefitness #clevelandbarre

Regan takes the stage in the “big studio.” A throng of familiar faces turned profile are before her, conversing with other regulars about weekend plans and the upcoming 4th of July party at Annie’s house.

Annie has been dancing with Regan for five years. She always includes the entire Regan dance community at her annual 4th of July blowout, which has grown substantially, along with Regan’s following. Sometimes Regan goes, too, but truth be told, she’s usually too exhausted at the end of the week to party.

Regan’s eyes move past those first two rows of regulars and sweep the third, fourth and fifth rows of women. Jenni, Lucy, Shauna and... hmm. Regan smiles in the direction of her “hmmm,” and catches the blond woman’s eye.

“Hi, could you please tell me your name again?”

“Mary.” Several of the regulars swivel their heads around in Mary’s direction. Regan knows a few of them will introduce themselves to Mary after class to help her feel welcome.

“Hello, Mary! Nice to see you again. I’ll have your name down by the third class.” Mary smiles back shyly.

“Okay everyone! The first thing you should know is that I am NOT a dance instructor. I do not care about what you look like, I care about how you feel! Just shake your butt and have fun! I have a new warm-up song today, which is always awkward, maybe more for me than it is for you all!”

A few of the girls laugh. The regulars smile knowingly; they’ve heard that line before.

After class, Regan needs to catch up with Shauna. She’s doing squats in an awkward way that could lead to a back injury. But then she has to hit the road. It’s an hour drive to her apartment from here, and then she has to edit some barre routine clips for Instagram and plan tomorrow morning’s 5 a.m. yoga flow, as well as her lesson plans for AP English, the day job can’t suffer, after all.

Regan turns to start the Facebook live feed on her cell. A message from her boss, Amanda, pings over the app.

I see you’re down ten dancers from last week. Better pick those numbers up, or we’ll have to cut this one.

Regan sighs. The music starts.

Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad.


In a world where you can buy a special workout bike that streams classes right into your living room, subscribe to an app for a personal trainer who will track your activity on an Apple Watch and personally nag you about your workouts, find a niche or boutique gym on every corner for any specific workout you can imagine and join cheap, outdoor “bootcamps” by the class that don’t have to charge for any pesky overhead, it’s a wonder that Luxury Big Box (LBB) gyms like Life Time Fitness and Equinox have survived so far.

As with big chain restaurants and big retail clothing stores, one-size-fits-all, milquetoast fitness offerings have fallen short with the Millennial and Gen-Z audiences who want the personalized, unique, local, specialized, handcrafted, grass-fed brands that speak to them personally. Especially the audiences who can and will spend a little more on their fitness goals.

But while Chili’s can’t reasonably start serving locally sourced artisanal cabbage rolls without undermining their skillet queso/baby back ribs branding, and the Gap won’t really be able to compete with boutique clothing stores by including its own hand-embroidered small-run t-shirt lines, LBB gyms can fold in many of the niche experiences their members want without compromising their existing advantages: variety and community.

The key to doing that, however, short of investing in the construction of 20 different specialized studios under one roof, is hanging onto sharp, dedicated Regans who will put in the time and effort to build their own brands and followings under a big box umbrella.

Unfortunately, with low pay, rare offerings of benefits, expensive and time-consuming certification requirements, the leaning toward “boxed” branded workouts and high risks of injury, the Regans of the world are few and far between, and those who exist are nowhere near reaching their potentials as the influencers they could be.



Why Group Fitness?

Among the many amenities of LBB gyms, which usually include some combination of machine weight and cardio equipment, personal trainers, group fitness classes, spas, tennis and/or racquetball courts, pools, rock climbing walls, childcare facilities, saunas, expansive locker rooms and cafes, among others, group fitness is currently considered the least lucrative. To some extent it is considered a money drain, since members may opt for free group fitness classes over paid personal training.

However, according to last year’s Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends, group fitness – specifically the variety led by instructors who personally design their own programming within their training expertise to create unique classes – is among the top trending fitness fads.

To be sure, this trend is not seen in LBB gyms where group fitness is the red-headed stepchild of offerings. But it is very definitively seen among local group-fitness-instructor-founded brands like Fit 4 Dance and Wukkout in Brooklyn, NY or on a grander scale, Kayla Itsines’ Bikini Body Guide and Jay Dang’s 5 Star Fitness.

In an interview with After Class by Class Pass, Krista Martins, Owner & Founder of Wukkout, says her classes offer something members can’t exactly get anywhere else:

I believe my attendees get a sense of community and camaraderie with me. It’s not “every man or woman for themselves” in my class. I encourage you to engage with one another and support one another through various stages of movement. You’ll be dancing with one another and laughing with one another. I want you to come to class to be the best YOU that you can be. I want to celebrate you, as you are, and help you get healthier in the process.

[As an instructor]Learn from other instructors — but don’t try to be them. Find your own way to reach your clients — it’s what makes you special.

Among all the other offerings from LBB gyms, group fitness is the only one that has the potential to truly drive loyal membership. The spa, the café and the personal trainers are all additional costs, so there is no reason to shop there even upon membership. Moreover, none of those foster the sense of “community and camaraderie” that keeps members renewing each month. Facilities for racquetball or rock climbing, to those who only want to use those features, are pretty standard and certainly won’t be “better” at an LBB gym or among competing LBB gyms, meaning that users will be beginners or casual, not dedicated repeat customers.

But with the power of social media behind them (and the time and resources to maintain social media accounts), the market has proven that group fitness instructors can attract loyal, dedicated, determined audiences that won’t give up on their New Year’s resolutions come March.

Why Regans?

Most LBB gyms aim to make group fitness “branded” and “stylized,” meaning that a “barre” class should be some combination of a standardized set of exercises with limited equipment specific to that LBB gym barre class such as “Life Barre” or “True Barre.”

There is a case to be made that these branded classes are the way to go: members will know what to expect when they travel to other locations, and isn’t that consistency part of the attraction for LBB gym members? And shouldn’t “kickboxing” be “kickboxing” and “Zumba” be “Zumba” and “Vinyasa Yoga” be “Vinyasa Yoga”? Members know those words and have a vague idea of what they’re getting into when they take classes with them in the title. There is something to be said for limiting creativity. What is a Wukkout? Only Wukkout members really know.

On the other hand, this corporate-generated instruction is exactly the cold, mass-produced, generic, grain-fed, one-size-fits-all experience that supposedly repels younger LBB audiences. For that they can pay $10/month at Planet Fitness or go through the motions at the Orange Theory down the street.

Where, then, is the happy medium that the LBB strives for?


Specifically Regan + social media, which puts the emphasis on Regan’s style over the class she teaches. From Canva on Jay Dang’s six-figure fitness business:

Jay Dang’s personal Instagram account dates back to 2013 when he’d been developing a training program that was just about ready to launch. But...

“I knew people wouldn’t buy from some random person on the internet. I wanted to build rapport and an audience before I launched my program.”

This mix of inspiration and personal connection skyrocketed Jay’s business by 1,250% (that’s more than 12x growth) in 2016, with one-third of new clients coming to him from Instagram. Here’s the most fascinating part of Jay’s Instagram strategy—it looks like it’s all about him (or almost all about him), but it’s really all about his target clients. His rule of thumb: “Focus on the end user and share what you’re passionate about.”

It’s as simple as flipping the script. The key words can still be included – Regan can still teach barre and cardio dance and yoga and kickboxing and even Zumba – but the emphasis on the website, on social media, on promotional materials is Regan and not how the gym has “branded” Vinyasa Yoga across the nation. And through Regan herself, a person, not a gym class, LBB gyms can build that connection with her followers.

From Well and Good:

After all, anyone can demonstrate a proper squat, but a select few instructors inspire you to do those squats over and over (and over…)—and then apply that same confidence to the rest of your life. And that’s a muscle that’s well worth flexing.



How Can LBB Gyms Work With Regan to Maximize Her Impact?

It’s easy enough to say LBB gyms should offer Regan a full-time salary with benefits that allows her to quit her day job and dedicate her life to building this valuable following, bridging the gap between the cold corporation and the wide-eyed Millennial mom looking for “her people” among the community, but it’s not that simple.

While the fitness industry on the whole is booming, there is a reason the niche and boutique studio gyms are beating out the LBB gyms: they’re not spreading their budget over all that “variety.” From the Ringer:

Everything from cellphone plans to cable-cutting options to music downloading allowed people to pay for only what they wanted. Studios wisely picked up on the trend. At the big-box gym, class options and schedules are limited, and everyone has access to the same things. Boutiques, on the other hand, focus on individual convenience and offering classes at multiple times.

So what would it look like for LBB gyms to realistically invest in Regan and motivate her to be a true influencer?

  • Find ways to monetize her following beyond membership dues so you can pay her what she is worth. Ways to do this could include offering a livestream or post-stream subscription for her classes that members can follow at home or while they travel for an additional fee, partnering her with paying brands who might want to advertise to her following or putting quick, simple “specialized content” behind a personal paywall, maybe previews of the next day’s workout or “members only” dance routines. These strategies should only minimally impact the time she already spends and the money you already invest in her.
  • Implement a payment structure that directly rewards her for her most loyal followers. Rather than threaten to cut classes that don’t hit a specific number on a class-by-class basis, pay attention to her social media following over time and the number of members who are regularly attending her classes. They’re the ones who bring in others. The Annies and the regulars are the core of her influence; they’re the ones who keep those memberships going month to month. Regan’s salary should be on a tier-based system tied directly to that loyal following and not to arbitrary class fluctuations.
  • Support her training, but give her a long leash. First and foremost, offset her training costs, the ones that currently come out of her pocket. Given that most are a couple hundred dollars a year, gyms could easily host fundraising events for which proceeds could be directly invested in certification and training. That has the additional effect of allowing members to feel personally invested in her efforts. Beyond that, however, let her take the reins and buck the “branded” class structures that devalue her as an individual. For example, she teaches barre but uses the range of equipment she likes, plays the music she enjoys in the background, paces the class at her speed, etc.
  • Find shortcuts for her to promote quality content. Regan is not a video editor, she doesn’t have a camera, she has no idea how to frame a shot. She is a fitness instructor. When she isn’t teaching high school. If you have already invested in the livestream or post-stream strategy listed above, you are halfway to her already. You film it, she takes easy stills or small cuts to share on her social media. Done and done.

With a few moves, gyms could set Regan up for success where she is currently on the path to near-certain failure, and that could make all the difference in terms of LBB gym longevity.

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