Funding Fitness

By Kat Ricker
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / monkeybusiness

Once considered a luxury, personal trainers have become commonplace in health clubs in the private sector. Yet the presence of such professionals who focus on customized, one-on-one instruction varies widely in park and rec fitness facilities. How much close supervision on exercise and equipment use do we—or should we—provide patrons? Because personal training is an educational service concerned with health, safety, and recreation, how much of an ethical responsibility do we have? What does it take to make personal training a viable component of fitness programming?


Here are three different perspectives from agencies with thriving personal-training programs. All three consider this a special service, and all three compete head-on with a vigorous private industry.

Denver , Colo.
Denver Parks and Recreation has a thriving program, with 22 trainers on staff in various facilities, with a goal to expand to 35 trainers. The program drives revenue for the city’s general fund.

“Our personal-training program is extremely successful,” says Tommy Karaffa, Regional Fitness Lead Coordinator. “A 90-percent client-retention rate speaks highly to the quality of our training program. Our personal training has gained an excellent reputation in the Colorado fitness industry.”

As one of the largest recreation districts in the country with 27 centers, more than 400,000 patrons use the city facilities each year. Karaffa says the personal-training program averages 1,600 training sessions annually, and anticipates the program growing by 75 percent in the next year and a half.

Being operated by a government agency, the department relies on capital-improvement funds that go directly to facility upgrades (i.e., equipment and physical upgrades to the recreation center). Hourly pay increases are offered to trainers who obtain additional certifications on their own, Karaffa notes. He adds that preference is given to candidates with a degree in exercise science.

“We hold client safety to the highest standard,” he points out. “This is why we require our trainers to hold one of the big four personal training certifications.”

The “big four” include the American Council on Exercise, the National Academy of Sports Medicine, the American College of Sports Medicine, and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. A fifth certification worth noting is the International Sport Sciences Association. Although this industry remains unregulated, the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association recommends that its facilities only accept personal trainers with certifications recognized by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies or an equivalent organization.

“Our philosophy is to hire the best trainers with great attitudes and a commitment to helping people achieve their fitness goals,” Karaffa says.

He attributes the program’s success in a competitive market to hiring the right people, introducing them to potential clients through group activities, and keeping rates in line with and even lower than those of competitors.

“Over three-quarters of our trainers teach in other capacities. We offer over 200 fitness classes per week and outdoor boot-camp classes. We feel this is one of the main reasons why our training program is so successful; participants get a taste of each trainer’s style, and in return, purchase training packages,” he says.

“We are seeing more clients leaving big-box competitors to train with us. Clients feel they are getting better, more individualized attention (they’re not just a number) and a higher quality of training with us.”

Deerfield , Ill.
Deerfield Park District in Deerfield, Ill., has 10 trainers on staff at Sachs Rec Center. Fitness Manager Tim Johnson says although fewer than 100 of their 1,800 active members regularly use personal trainers, it’s enough to be profitable.

“Generated income is approximately 10 percent of our total revenue,” says Johnson. “We are very invested in the continued growth of this program.”

With several competitors within a 5-mile radius, Johnson says their sessions are priced in the middle of the rate spectrum in their area.

“Based on my experiences, park and rec has a much more vested interest in the actual training of a client than does the private sector. It’s more than just performing the sessions with clients for our trainers. They take the time to get to know their clients personally. They reach out to their clients throughout the week in addition to communication surrounding training. We know what is going on with their families, we know about their vacations, we know their birthdays. [Our customers] love the personal touch that we give. They also love the variety of training techniques that we provide—kettlebells, jungle gym (workout), Indian clubs.”

Johnson says he sees a responsibility to provide guidance. Fitness floor attendants are on hand to ensure safety and answer questions, he says, and personal trainers serve patrons who want program design and monitoring.

“Our personal-training philosophy is to provide a team of educated professional trainers with a variety of experiences to guide our patrons as they strive to reach their personal fitness goals,” Johnson says. “We ask our trainers to stay current in our industry and stay creative in their workout-session design,”

Bend , Ore.
Bend Parks and Recreation District generally has between eight and 12 trainers on staff at Juniper Swim and FitnessCenter.

Monica McClain-Smith is Fitness Coordinator. She says less than 10 percent of the patrons use trainers, but the bottom line is good.

“This past fiscal year is the first year we have met or exceeded budget expectations, so we are getting there.”

The budget for trainers is approximately $20,000 to $30,000 annually, she says. Part of their formula is partnering to tap into an existing niche.

“Many of our clients are part of our Therapeutic Next Step training program, referred by and transitioning from a physical therapist, as well as those looking to just improve health, lose weight, or perform at a higher level.”

McClain-Smith describes the competition as “significant,” and that the district’s rates are very comparable.

The Art Of Fine Tuning
Knowing the market, being aware of fitness trends, and delivering that personal touch are all important components of these three successful personal-training programs. Fine-tuning and developing the right services to suit patrons’ needs requires finesse.

For example, while Karaffa and McClain-Smith attribute success in their markets in part to introducing staff to patrons through group-fitness activities, keeping trainers specialized and more exclusive seems to be paying off in Deerfield, where only two of Johnson’s trainers are involved in group fitness.

Even if it is only a relatively small part of a fitness department, personal training can be viable and sustainable, surviving and thriving in a competitive-market climate. Park and rec professionals should have a clear philosophy to guide this program development. From hiring to every aspect of performance through delivery, we should strive for not only the health, fitness, and safety of patrons, but their satisfaction and loyalty.

Kat Ricker is Public Information Coordinator for Chehalem Park and Recreation District, based in Newberg, Ore. She has worked in the fitness industry as a personal trainer and operations manager, and is currently a USA Weightlifting Sports Performance Coach. She can be reached at . Visit her website for more fitness information at