As a personal trainer and fitness instructor living in the mountain community of Bishop, Calif., I’ve been struggling to find answers for small markets since the early 1980s. I went to work developing my own plan of action, and am now working to help others achieve success in their small fitness business pursuits. In this first column, I’ve briefly outlined some of the major issues with which to be concerned. In future columns, I’ll address the specifics of those issues, and offer additional tips for running a successful business in a small market.
Creating a small-business plan
Every business even Stationery Supplies business– large or small — needs a plan. You can use a large market plan if you scale it down and choose your techniques wisely. Also, carefully consider your long- and short-term goals. You may also need to change your goals from last year. Look at the inflow and outflow of your budget, including advertising costs, rent, utilities, staff and miscellaneous expenses. See what changes need to be made to improve operating on a limited scale.
A great benefit to operating in a smaller market is that you can get a little more personal. Service is the key. And not just any service, but great service. If you provide your clients with exemplary service, the word will travel fast. Not only is customer service cost-effective advertising, it is often the most effective.
When I owned my studio, people were always telling me they wanted to join but were intimidated. To make them feel at ease, I would pick them up before class so they wouldn’t be alone when they walked into the studio. I would also spend a few minutes before class showing them some of my choreography. What a difference it made. They felt better about themselves and more comfortable being in the class. This little bit of services always helped me gain new clients through word of mouth.
Another free marketing tool is the telephone. When you encounter people who say they want to start exercising, write their names down. If in a week if they haven’t contacted you, give them a call. Tell them how a trainer can help them feel better. Share with them some of the benefits of exercise. Give them a 30-minute session to show them how good exercise makes them feel. Most people know they should exercise. And if you take the time to show them how, you will likely gain a new client.
Traditional mediums of advertising, such as newspapers, TV or radio are OK, but for the money, the return may not be so great. If you are set on paid advertising, but don’t have a big budget, the least expensive way to go is classified ads. But be careful of your choice of words. Use terms like “stress reduction,” “weight management,” “healthful lifestyles,” etc., in place of body-image terms, such as “look better,” “the body you’ve always wanted,” etc. People are born with only one body, and we need to make them happy with the one they have.
Lastly, if you live in a small community, it’s fairly easy to write a column for your local newspaper, and it’s a great way to gain exposure. Or, if your community has a small cable company, see if you can do a health segment. Both ideas offer great PR at little or no cost.
Public exposure is not only highly effective, it’s usually free. People know of your service and what you do, so use that to your advantage. There are several “national” days that offer an opportunity for local exposure, such as National Employee Health and Fitness Day, Project A.C.E.S. (All Children Exercise Simultaneously) and National Nurses Week, to name a few. Organizing events for these days will give you free publicity and an opportunity to sell yourself. For example, I organized a small event for National Employee Health and Fitness Day. We met at a little park in the city limits and took a 15-minute walk that ended at a restaurant downtown. While the participants enjoyed a healthy lunch, I gave a presentation on active lifestyles for busy people. The exposure I received was well worth the couple of hours of time that was required.
Another way to gain exposure is to affiliate yourself with local schools. Most schools are looking for assembly ideas and would love to have a professional come in to teach kids the importance of regular exercise. Also, kids love to participate in Project A.C.E.S. (held nationally in May), and you can solicit help from parents to schedule a local event.
Service clubs like Rotary, Lions, Altrusa, etc., are also on the lookout for speakers. When I speak for these groups, I make it an active lecture by getting audience members out of their chairs and having them do simple exercises where they are standing. This provides a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate your services and show people they don’t have to spend a lot of time to improve their health and feel better. These speaking events have always led me to more clients.
One of the greatest challenges facing small fitness business is finding affordable rent. Most rents are high and as a small business, you may tend to have a lot of down time. One way to get around this is to share the rent with other professionals, such as dance teachers, gymnastics teachers, martial arts instructors or anybody else looking for part-time floor space. To protect your business, get an agreement in writing and a security deposit. If you are just starting out, you might consider using space at a community center or any other business that has a basement or extra floor space. Find a place where you can pay rent by the hour. This way, you can build your clientele and have a good idea of what you can afford down the road.
When I sold my studio to go solely into personal training, I wondered how I would ever afford to buy equipment. Somehow I thought equipment would make me more professional. I soon found that a step, some exercise bands and a lot of manual resistance could give anybody a great workout. In classes, partner training is a great alternative to buying expensive equipment. If you live in an isolated area like I do, shipping costs alone are expensive. To save money, I wait to make big equipment purchases until I go to a larger area, where I can pick up the equipment myself. Also, try adding to your equipment collection piece by piece in order to keep your debt down. If you still cannot afford to invest in equipment, take a good look around you. I live in a beautiful area, which makes walking a perfect choice for fitness. Use the environment to your advantage. As long as you give people a workout that meets their ability and show them how much you care, equipment will not be crucial.
Stepping out of your club and taking your services beyond your facility is a great way to increase your revenue. In small markets, we need to meet as many needs as possible. With a little creativity, flexibility and innovation, along with superb service, you will meet the needs of more individuals and increase your business. We can all overcome our limited resources through careful planning, and experience small-market success.