The group exercise department is the heart and spirit of many fitness facilities. We see members on a regular basis, over long periods of time, giving us the unique opportunity to develop community. It’s a juggling act to keep as many regulars as possible happy while integrating new members into our classes. When done well, our core membership sticks with us, newer members join and stay, and our bosses are happy that we’re helping them stay in business.
I’ve had two of my morning cardio classes for nine years. Along with a core of members who have been with me since day one, my class has grown year after year. Here are the strategies I use to retain students in the short, medium, and long term.
Think and act long-term
Have the expectation that your students will be with you for years, then treat them that way. This lets us teach from a place of confidence. We needn’t feel pressured to teach every fitness tip we’ve ever learned in a single class; we can educate, meaningfully, over time.
Make people feel welcome
I want people to feel welcome to my class, and I take several steps to make that happen.
- Welcome every entrant.
I try to welcome every new person who comes in before class, learning their name as I introduce myself and tell them what to expect during their first class.
- Introduce new attendees to regular members.
I have several regulars who arrive early. I use them as an unofficial welcoming committee, introducing the new member to at least two regular members, who usually draw them into conversation. I also benefit from these introductions, because repeating a name helps me remember it, and if I forget a person’s name, I have at least two people who can remind me.
- Connect members:
This works to help get members acquainted, no matter how long they’ve been attending class. If I learn something that two of my members have in common, I foster that connection. Sometimes, it’s a shared name. “Welcome, Heidi! I have another Heidi in class over here! Heidi, meet Heidi!” Sometimes, two people share a hobby or a hometown.
Make people feel seen
In every class, I acknowledge each long-term member at least once and each new member at least twice, giving them a smile, a wink, or some other courtesy to let them know I’m glad they’re in class. Depending on the size of the class, I might use several of these methods in the same class.
- Meet them at the door.
I stand by the door, greeting and high-fiving everyone as they enter and exit class.
- Make eye contact during your class!
This is the simplest way to connect with a student and can be done from far away.
- Work the room.
Teach in different areas to increase contact with students in that part of the room. Thumbs-up, high fives, and encouraging words can also help bring the energy up.
- Correct with compassion.
Sometimes we need to help a student with alignment or safety. How succinctly and kindly we do this can make a difference between impressing and alienating a member.
- Break a big class into smaller groups.
Spread out the experienced members among the groups. My weight training and HIIT classes typically contain a circuit component. Assigning experienced members to each group ensures that no matter what group a new person joins, they’ll have a person demonstrating proper form that they can emulate. This frees me up to travel around the room and coach.
Have a consistent class personality
We’ve all heard this since we were kids – be yourself. It’s still great advice. For each type of class you teach, decide what core elements of your personality and style you want to reflect, and act in that manner consistently. For example, in my boot camp classes, I’m known for being playful, inclusive of all fitness levels, and a fitness geek. In my classes, you can expect a few bad jokes, options for injuries and intensity, and a 30 second mini lesson on a current fitness topic. By teaching this way consistently, it gives members an idea of what to expect, so they can decide whether my style and class are the right fit for them.
Consistency takes some thought, some attention to our core values, and some resolve that by teaching in the manner we choose, we will attract some members and repel others. No matter how skilled we are, how great our programming is, not everyone is going to like our classes.
It used to hurt my feelings when someone criticized my class. Now, I listen to criticism with an ear towards customer service. First, I consider whether making a suggested change helps me fulfill my core values or draws me away from them. Then, I either implement the suggestion or politely refer unhappy attendees to an instructor who is a better fit. Win-win!
Deliver what you promise
This starts with an accurate class description, so that any information given about your class matches the class you actually teach. In addition, if you promise an intensity level, strength gains or calories burned, make sure your class is designed so attendees following your class properly will reach those targets.
Never complain about the size of your class
Have you ever had a member walk into your class and say, “Where is everyone?!” It’s not a good feeling for me as the instructor, nor for the people who showed up. I never justify class attendance to a member. What I say, with a huge smile, is, “The cool people are here! You get more of my attention on the days class is small.”
By neutralizing the complaint, I’ve honored the people in attendance and re-directed the energy in a more positive manner. If a class is really small, I make that a positive by mentioning that we can put extra focus on a topic / exercise / movement of their choice.
Harness your positive energy before class
Before I set foot into the studio, I pause, breathe, and give thanks for the opportunity to share my energy with class. Even if I’m having a bad day, I remind myself that I have an amazing job and that I can make the next hour amazing for others. I think, in many ways, this last tip is the most important. We have the power to make an instant positive change on peoples’ lives. When we enter the group-ex room with that joy and gratefulness in our hearts, it’s contagious.
Each instructor is unique. By employing customer service strategies such as those above, consistently over time, our classes also develop a unique personality and sense of community.
For information about the financial importance of client retention, check out this great article.