Fitness Career Advice - Which Vertical Market Should I Work In?
5/15/2013

Wikipedias definition of Vertical Market: A vertical market, often referred to simply as a "vertical", is a group of similar businesses and customers that engage in trade based on specific and specialized needs. Often, participants in a vertical market are very limited to a subset of a larger industry, also known as a niche market.

The vertical markets in the health, fitness, recreation and leisure industries are extremely diverse. I will outline the verticals and share some insight to each. The question of what vertical market 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
1. Health Clubs
With over 30,000 health clubs in the U.S., there are plenty of choices for employment. Within this vertical there are numerous sub-categories and options.
Chains or multi-club operators. Here are some of the largest chains: 24 Hour Fitness, Life Time Fitness, ClubCorp, LA Fitness, Town Sports Intl., Planet Fitness, Capital Fitness, Western Athletic Clubs, Urban Active, Midtown Athletic Clubs, Millenium Partners, Sport and Health, Club One and Health Fitness Corp.

Benefits of working for a large chain:
A. More stability compared to an individual club/owner - most often, but not always
B. 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
C. Continuing education is often subsidized
D. Ongoing staff development and training provided
E. Higher wages
F. Growth potential
G. Well-equipped and maintained facilities (most often)
H. Usually HR compliant (most often)

Downside of working for a large chain:
A. Lot of rules and regulations (good and bad)
B. Local and regional management may not always represent the ideals of top management
C. Financially driven, often to meet stockholders expectations
D. May be required to work a lot of hours

Positions that may be available: Front desk, child care, housekeeping, maintenance, membership sales, fitness managers, fitness specialists, personal trainers, group fitness instructors, spa and salon staff, caf and restaurant staff, racquet sports professionals, pro shop retail positions, aquatics staff, activities/program directors and marketing/public relations. All levels of management and supervisors based on the above departments and a club or general manager.

There are also thousands of independently owned clubs; owned by individuals, partners or families. Based on their reputaion and longevity, these clubs may be excellent options for employment and career advancement.

2. Non-Profits: Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs and JCCs:
There are thousands of non-profit recreation facilities. Most people are familiar with YMCAs and JCCs, 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. Many for-profit clubs do not like competing with non-profits as they have an unfair advantage of not paying similar taxes.

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 facilities 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:
I. More stability compared to an individual club/owner
J. 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
K. Continuing education is often subsidized
L. Ongoing staff development and training provided
M. Competitive wages and compensation plans
N. Growth potential
O. Well-equipped and maintained facilities (not always)
P. Usually HR compliant (most often)
Q. Greater opportunity to work with kids and coaching
Downside of working for non-profit:
E. Lots of rules and regulations (good and bad)
F. Always on tight budgets
G. May be required to work a lot of hours
H. Often utilize volunteers in front-line positions

Positions that may be available: Front desk, child care, housekeeping, maintenance, membership sales, fitness managers, fitness specialists, personal trainers, group fitness instructors, spa and salon staff, caf and restaurant staff, racquet sports professionals, pro shop retail positions, aquatics staff, activities/program directors and marketing/public relations. All levels of management and supervisors based on the above departments and an executive director.

3.Park and Recreation Departments
Municipal Park and Recreation Departments provide a variety of opportunities in diverse areas: Outdoor trail systems, 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:
A. Stability compared to most fitness and recreation jobs
B. 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
C. Competitive wages and compensation plans
D. Usually HR compliant
E. Greater opportunity to work with people of all ages
F. A lot of outdoor and recreation based opportunities

Downside of working for Park and Recreation Departments:.
G. Upward mobility may be limited in existing community; may need to relocate to get DREAM JOB.

Positions that may be available: Front desk, child care, housekeeping, maintenance, membership sales, fitness specialists, personal trainers, group fitness instructors, snack bar staff, racquet sports professionals, aquatics staff, activities/program directors and outdoor/nature recreation specialists. All levels of management and supervisors based on the above departments and a Recreation Director.

4.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, than 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:
A. Stability compared to an individual club/owner (most often, but not always)
B. 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
C. Better than average compensation plans
D. Continuing education is often subsidized
E. Ongoing staff development and training provided
F. Growth potential
G. Well-equipped and maintained facilities
H. Usually HR compliant

Downside of working for a medical based fitness center:
A. May not be as organized or focused as top club organizations due to uncertainty of what type of business they are in
B. Limited growth potential
C. 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.

Positions that may be available: Front desk, child care, housekeeping, maintenance, membership sales, exercise physiologists, physical therapists, fitness specialists, personal trainers, group fitness instructors, spa and salon staff, caf and restaurant staff, racquet sports professionals, pro shop retail positions, aquatics staff, activities/program directors and marketing/public relations. All levels of management and supervisors based on the above departments and an executive director.

5. Personal Training 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 dont care about health club amenities they dont use, and want to work in a smaller, more personalized setting.
Although the current economy has put a dent into this segment, due to the higher fees associated with more personalized service, there are still plenty of people who invest in their health and thats not going to stop.

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

Downside of working for a personal training/sports specific training site:
A. Limited growth potential
B. Benefits may not be available

Positions that may be available: Business development/marketing, exercise physiologists, physical therapists, fitness specialists, personal trainers sports- specific professionals and front desk associates.

6. 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:
A. Stability compared to an individual club
B. 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
C. Better than average compensation plans
D. Continuing education is often subsidized
E. Ongoing staff development and training provided
F. Well-equipped and maintained facilities
G. Usually HR compliant

Downside of working for a country club/master planned community:
A. Members may be more demanding and difficult to work with.
B. Limited growth potential
C. 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.

Positions that may be available: Front desk, child care, housekeeping, maintenance, membership sales, fitness director, fitness specialists, personal trainers, group fitness instructors, spa and salon staff, caf and restaurant staff, racquet sports professionals, golf professionals, pro shop retail positions, aquatics staff, activities/program directors and marketing/public relations. All levels of management and supervisors based on the above departments and an executive director.

7.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:
A. Gain management experience
B. Diversity in responsibilities
C. Many corporate fitness facilities are Monday-Friday, with no late nights, and/or weekends
D. Excellent healthcare may be available though the company or management company
E. May have growth potential if you are with a good management company

Downside of working for a corporate fitness facility:
A. Salaries are typically lower
B. May be really busy with limited staff, or really slow with not a lot of activity
C. You wear a lot of hats that sometimes can become overwhelming

Positions that may be available: Front desk, housekeeping, maintenance, membership sales, fitness director, fitness specialists, personal trainers, group fitness instructors and club/site manager.

8.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 amount 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, in regards to the amount of hours you work.

Benefits of working for Hotels/Resorts/Cruise Ships
A. Excellent healthcare available though the company or management company
B. May have growth potential if you are with a good management company
C. Employee meals or substantial discounts on food and beverage
D. A lot of employees to meet and have fun with
E. Relocation possibilities to other locations
F. Beautiful facilities/amenities
G. Staff development and customer service training

Downside of working for Hotels/Resorts/Cruise Ships
A. Compensation is low to mid-range
B. May be really busy with limited staff
C. Very high expectations to satisfy guests

Positions that may be available: Fitness manager, fitness specialists, personal trainers, group fitness instructors, activities and recreation manager, sports staff.

9.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 all 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:
A. Excellent healthcare available though the company or management company
B. May have growth potential if with a regional or national company
C. Employee meals available
D. Relocation possibilities to other locations
E. Staff development and customer service training

Downside of working for senior living facilities
A. Compensation may be mid-range
B. May be really busy with limited staff
C. May require a lot of patience working with seniors

Positions that may be available: Fitness manager, fitness specialists, personal trainers, group fitness/aquatic instructors, activities and recreation staff.

10. College/University Fitness and Recreation Facilities
Almost all colleges and universities have elaborate 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:
A. Excellent healthcare and other benefits usually available through the company or Management Company
B. Compensation plans vary between management companies versus working directly for the educational institution
C. Fun environment to work in
D. A lot of perks: Tickets for sporting events, education contribution
E. May have growth potential if with a regional or national company.
F. Relocation possibilities to other locations
G. Staff development and customer service training

Downside of working for College/University Fitness and Recreation Facilities:
a.Working for management companies may have lower compensation plans and high financial expectations

Positions that may be available: Front desk, child care, housekeeping, maintenance, membership sales, exercise physiologists, physical therapists, fitness specialists, personal trainers, group fitness instructors, spa and salon staff, caf and restaurant staff, racquet sports professionals, pro shop retail positions, aquatics staff, activities/program directors and marketing/public relations. All levels of management and supervisors based on the above departments and an executive director.

11.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:
A. Start one from the ground up
B. Buy an existing facility
C. Buy a club/business that has just closed
D. Become an equity partner in an open club
E. Buy a franchise

Your economic position will have a lot to do with which option to pursue. If you have years of experience, but dont have cash reserves or financing options, than 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.

A. 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.

B. 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.

C. 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.

D. Becoming an equity partner in a club. I looked into this at one time in my career and had 5-6 opportunities. None of them were good! Find out who you may be getting in bed with and do your due diligence regarding your partners and how the business is performing. Understand your responsibilities and financial obligations, if any.

E.Buying a franchise is often 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:
A. Earning potential is almost greater than being an employee, but not always
B. Job security; as long as you are successful
C. You may have greater control over your schedule to watch your kids grow up
D. Build equity if you own the building
E. Building a business to sell or will to your family

Downside of owning your own club:
A. The buck stops with you
B. Employee hassles
C. Maintenance challenges
D. May not make any money for a while
E. Need to prepare for unexpected expenses
F. Change in market conditions/competition

12. 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
A. Growth potential if the management company you are working for is proactively securing new contracts
B. Staff development opportunities from the management company
C. Opportunity to travel to different geographical areas
D. Excellent health insurance and benefits usually available

Downside of working for Management Companies:
A. Performance oriented
B. May not have job security if the management company loses the contract of the project you are working for

13. Vendors and Suppliers
At some time in your career you may consider working for an industry vendor/supplier. This is usually for sales and marketing professionals. Account managers and sales reps are the most common positions. Typically you are assigned a local or regional territory, calling on accounts from all the verticals I have discussed above. Selling equipment, computer programs/software solutions, consumables, or club related services are the most common.
Most of these positions pay a salary or draw, offer car and travel allowances, benefits and have great commission/bonus programs. If you produce. If you dont, you may not be working for the company very long. Its important to understand expectations, see some historical data of previous reps in the territory.

Also, what type of training is offered at the onset and what ongoing training support is required?
How much travel is involved? Usually you can count on attending several national and regional trade shows. Trade shows are fun and exciting, but also hard work!

Benefits of working for an industry vendor/supplier:
E. A nice change from club operations
F. Great way to learn about all the verticals
G. Excellent networking opportunities to keep a pulse on job openings in the industry
H. Opportunity to travel

Downside of working for an industry vendor/supplier:
C. Performance oriented
D. You often work by yourself
E. Need to be really disciplined or you will struggle