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Fitness Professionals: Which Vertical Market Should You Work In?

The vertical markets in the health, fitness, recreation and leisure industries are extremely diverse. The question “What vertical should I work in” is not a fair question as many of you will work in several verticals early on in your career. Even as your career progresses, you may shift from one vertical to another as your experience level and personal needs change. Having multiple options is a good thing!

Vertical Markets to Consider

Health Clubs

With 50,000 health clubs in the U.S. there are plenty of choices for employment. Within this “vertical” there are numerous sub-categories and options.

Benefits of working for a large chain:

  • More stability compared to an individual club/owner – most often, but not always
  • Health and medical insurance, 401k plans and vacation time is almost always made available to full-time employees. Usually a modest monthly fee is deducted from your paycheck
  • Continuing education is often subsidized
  • Ongoing staff development and training provided
  • Higher wages
  • Growth potential
  • Well-equipped and maintained facilities (most often)
  • Usually HR compliant (most often)

Downside of working for a large chain:

  • A lot of rules and regulations (good and bad)
  • Local and regional management may not always represent the ideals of top management
  • Financially driven, often to meet stockholder’s expectations
  • May be required to work a lot of hours

Non-Profits: Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCA’s and JCC’s:

There are thousands of non-profit recreation facilities. Most people are familiar with YMCA’s and JCC’s, but there are many others including the Boy and Girls Clubs, scouting organizations and actual hospital-based medical fitness centers, which we will discuss in another segment.

Non-profits often run like for-profit facilities. The difference is they have a non-profit status, which saves them on tax obligations among other things.

Non-profits offer great facilities with community-based programs that are usually well run. They have a similar management structure as traditional multi-purpose health club facility and almost always have a board of directors made up of community leaders. Their disadvantage sometimes is operating capital. This affects employees as you are often undercapitalized for equipment purchases, repairs, payroll and general supplies. At times, you may have to do a combination of management and front-line duties.

Benefits of working for non-profits:

  • More stability compared to an individual club/owner
  • Health and medical insurance, 401k plans and vacation time is almost always made available to full-time employees. Usually a modest monthly fee deducted from your paycheck
  • Continuing education is often subsidized
  • Ongoing staff development and training provided
  • Competitive wages and compensation plans
  • Growth potential
  • Well-equipped and maintained facilities (not always)
  • Usually HR compliant (most often)
  • Greater opportunity to work with kids and coaching

Downside of working for non-profits:

  • A lot of rules and regulations (good and bad)
  • Always on tight budgets
  • May be required to work a lot of hours
  • Often utilize volunteers in front-line positions

Park and Recreation Departments

Municipal Park and Recreation Departments provide a variety of opportunities in diverse areas: Full-blown health club-like facilities, Outdoor trail systems/workouts, sports leagues, golf course management, tennis court management, aquatics, water parks, community centers and even marinas.

Park and recreation jobs seem to be more stable than conventional fitness jobs. These jobs can be difficult to get based on the community you live in. Programs and facility operations are sometimes affected by politics and government budgets/cuts.

Benefits of working for Park and Recreation Departments:

  • Stability compared to most fitness and recreation jobs
  • Health and medical insurance, 401k plans and vacation time is almost always made available to full-time employees. Usually a modest monthly fee deducted from your paycheck
  • Competitive wages and compensation plans
  • Usually HR compliant
  • Greater opportunity to work with people of all ages

A lot of outdoor and recreation based opportunities

Downside of working for Park and Recreation Departments:

  • Upward mobility may be limited in existing community; may need to relocate to get your “DREAM JOB”.

Medical Fitness

Medical or hospital-based fitness centers are an emerging market. There are close to 1,000 medical fitness centers in the U.S. Fully-integrated health and fitness campuses set the stage for a comprehensive medically integrated environment focused on club members’ total well-being, ranging from day-to-day health maintenance, to sports performance training, to cardiac and physical rehabilitation. Most often they have extensive aquatics offerings. Baby boomers and seniors are big supporters of medical fitness centers as the centers almost always have a hospital system as a partner. If you like working with seniors and enjoy medicine, then this would be a great career avenue to explore. The internal management organization looks very similar to an established upscale health club. Often, you will see more medical personnel with office space within the facility.

Benefits of working for a medical based fitness center:

  • Stability compared to an individual club/owner (most often, but not always)
  • Health and medical insurance, 401k plans and vacation time is almost always made available to full-time employees. Usually a modest monthly fee is deducted from your paycheck
  • Better than average compensation plans
  • Continuing education is often subsidized
  • Ongoing staff development and training provided
  • Growth potential
  • Well-equipped and maintained facilities
  • Usually HR compliant

Downside of working for a medical based fitness center:

  • Limited growth potential
  • Some medical fitness centers are run by management companies, so do your homework. Some management companies are great to work for and some are not.

Personal Training, Specialty Studios and Sports-Specific Training Studios 

Personal Training and Sports Specific-Training Studios are typically smaller and offer more personalized attention than traditional health clubs. One-on-one or small group training has become extremely popular. Customers who patronize these facilities usually don’t care about health club amenities they don’t use, and want to work in a smaller, more personalized setting.

The sports-specific training facilities are great facilities to help athletes get an edge on the competition by maximizing their potential with the exact training protocols based on their season/sport. This type of training also gives young athletes confidence and parents are onboard with supporting their kids in this manner. Employees who work in this environment are usually well educated, have multiple specialized certifications, (not a prerequisite however), and are passionate about working with athletes.

Benefits of working for a personal training/sports specific training site:

  • Continuing education is often subsidized
  • Opportunity to work in a specialized environment and use your degrees/certifications/experience
  • Ongoing staff development and training provided
  • Well-equipped and maintained facilities
  • Flexible, part-time hours generally available

Downside of working for a personal training/sports specific training site:

  • Limited growth potential
  • Benefits may not be available

Private Country Clubs and Master Planned Communities

Country clubs and master planned communities provide a very comfortable work environment. These clubs usually have experienced leadership, full service amenities, excellent benefits and provide an environment with less stress than health clubs. In country clubs, you may even get an employee meal each day or major discounts on food and beverage.

This is an emerging market and it is estimated that over 65% of country clubs now have fitness/aquatics and even spas.

Benefits of working for a country club/master planned community:

  • Stability compared to an individual club
  • Health and medical insurance, 401k plans and vacation time is almost always made available to full-time employees. Usually a modest monthly fee is deducted from your paycheck
  • Better than average compensation plans
  • Continuing education is often subsidized
  • Ongoing staff development and training provided
  • Well-equipped and maintained facilities
  • Usually HR compliant

Downside of working for a country club/master planned community:

  • Members may be more demanding and difficult to work with.
  • Limited growth potential

Some clubs are run by management companies, so do your homework as some management companies are great to work for, and some are very demanding

Corporate Fitness Centers

Corporate fitness centers are great places to work for getting management experience quickly. Major companies contract out with management companies that specialize in running corporate fitness centers. Some corporations may even run their own centers with in-house management and staff.

If you have a degree in the exercise sciences, have group exercise and personal training certifications and 1-2 years of experience, you would be a great candidate for a site manager in a corporate setting. You would manage a small staff of part-timers and you would be doing it all; from scheduling staff to teaching classes and everything in between.

Benefits of working for a corporate fitness center:

  • Gain management experience
  • Diversity in responsibilities
  • Many corporate fitness facilities are Monday-Friday, with no late nights, and/or weekends
  • Excellent healthcare may be available though the company or management company
  • May have growth potential if you are with a good management company

Downside of working for a corporate fitness facility:

  • Salaries may be lower
  • May be busy with limited staff, or really slow with not a lot of activity
  • You wear a lot of hats that sometimes can become overwhelming

Hotels/Resorts/Cruise Ships

Working in the hotel/resort/cruise ship industry has its pluses and minuses. The work environment is typically a beautiful setting. There is a huge number of employees from all over the world, which creates a fun environment. Compensation will vary tremendously with the cruise lines paying the least and expecting the most, regarding the number of hours you work.

Benefits of working for Hotels/Resorts/Cruise Ships

  • Excellent healthcare available though the company or management company
  • May have growth potential if you are with a good management company
  • Employee meals or substantial discounts on food and beverage
  • A lot of employees to meet and have fun with
  • Relocation possibilities to other locations Beautiful facilities/amenities

Staff development and customer service training

Downside of working for Hotels/Resorts/Cruise Ships

  • May be busy with limited staff
  • Very high expectations to satisfy guests

Senior Living Centers

With the baby boomer population becoming the largest segment of the population, senior living facilities will be employing a variety of fitness and recreation staff for decades to come. There are large regional and national companies that manage facilities across the U.S.

The important thing to consider if considering working in this environment is do you like working with seniors? Have you had much interaction in your past with the aging population? Possibly with grandparents, neighbors, friends of the family or in previous jobs? If you think you are interested in working with seniors you may consider working part-time hours if available to test the waters.

A position in a senior facility may involve running fitness classes, managing group exercise/aquatic instructors and even planning a lot of fun activities and trips.

Benefits of working in senior living facilities:

  • Excellent healthcare available though the company or management company
  • May have growth potential if with a regional or national company
  • Employee meals available
  • Relocation possibilities to other locations
  • Staff development and customer service training
  • Downside of working for senior living facilities
  • Compensation may be mid-range
  • May be busy with limited staff
  • May require a lot of patience working with seniors

College/University Fitness and Recreation Facilities

Almost all colleges and universities have comprehensive fitness, aquatic and recreation facilities. There are numerous opportunities in this arena. While in college, you may have the opportunity to work part-time in a facility to get a feel for this environment.

Many of these facilities are managed by companies that specialize in running college/university recreation complexes.  Some schools manage their own facilities. It would be beneficial, to know in advance, who your employer is.

Benefits of working in College/University Fitness and Recreation Facilities:

Excellent healthcare and other benefits usually available through the company or management company

  • Compensation plans vary between management companies versus working directly for the educational institution
  • Fun environment to work in
  • A lot of perks
  • May have growth potential if with a regional or national company.
  • Relocation possibilities to other locations
  • Staff development and customer service training

Downside of working for College/University Fitness and Recreation Facilities:

  • Working for management companies may have lower compensation plans and high financial expectations

Ownership

Becoming an owner can be an exciting opportunity in any business, especially in the fitness industry. Most people who become owners have several years of experience in the industry. Others, who are passionate about fitness, become owners after having a successful career in another field.

There are several ways to go about owning a fitness facility:

  • Start one from the ground up
  • Buy an existing facility
  • Buy a club that has just closed
  • Become an equity partner in an open club
  • Buy a franchise

Your economic position will have a lot to do with which option to pursue. If you have years of experience, but don’t have cash reserves or financing options, then D may become your only option. These arrangements require a lot of due diligence on your part. I have known people who have become wealthy with this arrangement and others who have received nothing for their efforts.

Is a great option if you have had extensive experience with start-ups and grand openings of clubs? You must be properly capitalized to open a new club! Owning real estate also sweetens the payoff.

Buying an existing facility may work if you do your research. Is there a legitimate reason the club is for sale? How is the business performing financially? How are the demographics in the area? Is it a growth area or declining demographic? How old is the facility? Will it require a lot of maintenance dollars to maintain the club? Do your homework.

Buying a club that has just closed could be a great opportunity. Do your due diligence and negotiate the best deal possible with the landlord. Find out who owns the equipment! Landlords often need a club in the retail center they own to drive traffic to other retailers. So, you may be in a good position to negotiate. You also need to find out how dues are being billed, how many members have pre-paid and a host of other financial questions.

Buying a franchise can be a safe bet.

Really good franchises require a lot of money upfront. Franchises offer a successful track record and a plan to follow. Research the companies and watch out for a sales environment that is designed to garner “a yes” from everyone they speak to.

Some franchises require specific business skills and do a great job “Qualifying” prospects to see if you meet their qualifications. Other companies qualify you by making sure you have your check book with you. Do your homework.

Benefits of owning your own club:

  • Earning potential is almost greater than being an employee, but not always
  • Job security; if you are successful
  • You may have greater control over your schedule to watch your kids grow up
  • Build equity if you own the building
  • Building a business to sell or will to your family

Downside of owning your own club:

  • The buck stops with you
  • Employee hassles
  • Maintenance challenges
  • May not make any money for a while
  • Need to prepare for unexpected expenses
  • Change in market conditions/competition

Management Companies

There are management companies in a few of the above verticals:  health clubs, colleges/universities, corporate fitness centers and even medical fitness centers.

Really good management companies own and manage their own facilities as well as managing sites. Do your homework and really investigate/research the management company you are going to consider working for.

Benefits of working for Management Companies

  • Growth potential if the management company you are working for is proactively securing new contracts
  • Staff development opportunities from the management company
  • Opportunity to travel to different geographical areas

Excellent health insurance and benefits usually available

Downside of working for Management Companies:

  • Performance oriented
  • May not have job security if the management company loses the contract of the project you are working for

Introducing the new NCCPT Career Corner!

To see more of articles like this, and receive career tips, job opportunities and more, sign up for the NCCPT Newsletter at https://tinyurl.com/nccptnewsletter

One of the things that sets the NCCPT apart from other organizations is our focus on the business end of fitness. The science is important but equally important is ensuring our trainers have the resources to help them succeed. To help with everything from a job search and interview to asking for raise the NCCPT is proud to partner with Alan Cohen, President of fitnessjobs.com and a life time industry expert.

Article reprinted with permission from NCCPT. Written by Alan Cohen. Alan is a career expert in the health & fitness industry and founder of FitnessJobs.com. He can be reached by email at alan@fitnessjobs.com or by calling 800-259-4397.

MFN Contributing Author