Staying in shape in a tough economy

Local personal trainers changing routines to keep business healthy

By Zack Hall / The Bulletin / @cogolfguy

Published Jan 23, 2009 at 04:00AM

Kyle Will is in a lot better shape than the economy.

But the recession has negatively affected Will’s WillRace Performance, a personal training business in Bend.

He’s not alone.

Many personal fitness trainers in Central Oregon have experienced a slowdown of sorts, even in fitness-crazy Bend, where “triathlete” and “cyclist” seem about as common a job title as “waiter.”

“Business is definitely down,” Will said Thursday. “I didn’t really start to feel it significantly until April or May of last year and then it probably dropped off 20 to 25 percent. A lot of our clients, like so many people in this town, were somehow involved in construction or building or development. And people were losing jobs or moving out of town or whatever.”

With the jobless rate hovering around 10 percent in Deschutes County and around 12 percent in Crook and Jefferson counties, it’s little surprise that people are looking to trim expenses.

For many, that means scaling back or cutting out luxuries altogether.

The Athletic Club of Bend also has seen a decrease in its personal training take. General Manager Kip Heilman said personal training revenues fell 6 percent in 2008 compared with 2007.

Despite the year-over-year decrease, 2008 was still 15 percent better than 2006, Heilman said.

Still, the slowdown has given the Athletic Club a chance to re-evaluate the way it provides personal training, including focusing more on small-group classes rather than one-on-one training.

“It has really given us a chance to sit back and think about personal training in a new way,” Heilman said, adding that group training revenues have increased 300 percent compared with 2006. “We will be able to get to more people.”

Group classes seem to be one way for personal trainers to cope with the slowdown. The classes often offer similar training to one-on-one classes but with a handful of people. That allows the trainers to charge each student less than they would for a more personal experience.

It is a model that is proving popular at the Pilates Center of Bend, which offers three-person classes in equipment training. The cost is $32 per person for one session rather than $60 an hour for a one-on-one training session.

“I haven’t necessarily experienced a loss of clientele,” said Pilates Center co-owner Diane Murray. “But a lot of the clientele that I have had that have been either solely private clients or they have done maybe one private class and one group class, are now sticking with group classes. Or, instead of coming three days a week, they’re coming two days or one day a week. People are not leaving us, thank goodness, but they’re definitely making it more affordable for themselves.”

Will also is focusing on group classes. He’s moving from a 1,500-square-foot facility on Southwest 13th Street in Bend to an 8,000-square-foot gym on Lolo Drive in NorthWest Crossing.

The larger space will allow for more group classes, Will said. To help attract clients, WillRace Performance is offering a flat-fee membership for $99 a month to start, and $119 a month after that, which is good for entrance into the 20 to 25 group classes (with no more than eight people in each class) each week.

That can be a significant savings from the $65 per hour WillRace charges for hourlong, one-on-one training sessions.

While the economy was a driving force in offering group classes, Will said: “Even if the economy wasn’t where it was, I would still be doing it just to try to make it more accessible for more people.”

Heilman agrees the industry would still emphasize group training even if the economy hadn’t headed south.

He also said health clubs will focus more on training for children. With a child obesity problem nationwide, that can benefit the fitness industry and fight a growing epidemic, Heilman said. “My professional opinion is that personal training is going to group, and it is going to focus on kids in ’09,” he said. “Our kids programs have held steady, even in this economic climate. I’m a dad, I’ve got a 6- and a 4-year-old, and we aren’t pulling back on what we are spending on our kids.”

Murray and Will agreed that fitness trainers would do well, in this economy, to market the benefits of regular exercise in tough times. “It is a luxury, but hopefully people who do it on a regular basis realize the benefits far outweigh the cost of not doing it,” Murray said. “It is a luxury, but it is so worth it in terms of stress reduction and feeling better about yourself and feeling healthy.”

Few fitness trainers have experienced the pain that can be caused by a slow economy more than Will.

WillRace Performance expanded into Redmond in the spring, but it was forced to close because of a lack of business. That wasn’t enough to dissuade Will from expanding his Bend operation, though.

And he has seen a bit of a pickup, adding seven new clients the past two weeks, he said. He’s hoping that’s a sign of things to come.

“It’s been a tumultuous year,” Will said. “A lot of ups and a lot of downs. I’m looking for 2009 to be a little steadier. And like I said, I am seeing good signs right now that things are going to take off and do well. I’m anxiously excited about what is ahead for us.”