Fitness Career Advice - Which Vertical Market Should I Work In?

5/15/2023
Alan Cohen

Exploring Fitness Careers: Choosing the Right Vertical Market

Wikipedia Definition of Vertical Market: A vertical market, often referred to 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 limited to a subset of a larger industry, also known as a niche market.

The vertical markets within the health, fitness, recreation, and leisure industries are highly diverse. In this article, I will outline these verticals and provide insights into each. The question of which vertical market one should work in is not straightforward, as many individuals work in multiple verticals early in their career. Moreover, as a career progresses, professionals may transition from one vertical to another as experience levels and personal needs change. Having multiple options is advantageous!

Vertical Markets to Consider

1. Health Clubs: With over 30,000 health clubs and studios in the U.S., there are ample employment opportunities. Within this vertical, numerous sub-categories and options exist. Notable chains or multi-club operators include 24 Hour Fitness, Lifetime Fitness, ClubCorp, LA Fitness, Town Sports Intl., Planet Fitness, Capital Fitness, Western Athletic Clubs, Midtown Athletic Clubs, and Health Fitness Corp and many, many more.

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 are almost always made available to full-time employees, with a modest monthly fee deducted from the paycheck
C. Subsidized continuing education
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)

The downside of working for a large chain:
A. Numerous rules and regulations (both advantageous and burdensome)
B. Local and regional management may not always align with top management ideals
C. Financially driven, often to meet stockholders' expectations
D. Potential requirement to work long hours.

Positions that may be available: Front desk, childcare, housekeeping, maintenance, membership sales, fitness managers, fitness specialists, personal trainers, group fitness instructors, spa and salon staff, café 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 are based on the above departments, and club or general manager opportunities.

There are also thousands of independently owned clubs, owned by individuals, partners, or families. Based on their reputation and longevity, these clubs may present excellent employment and career advancement opportunities.

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 operate similarly to for-profit facilities, with the key difference being their non-profit status, which brings tax-saving benefits, among other advantages. Many for-profit clubs find it challenging to compete with non-profits due to the latter's tax advantages.

Benefits of working for non-profits:
A. More stability compared to an individual club/owner
B. Health and medical insurance, 401k plans, and vacation time are almost always made available to full-time employees, usually with a modest monthly fee deducted from the paycheck
C. Subsidized continuing education L. Ongoing staff development and training provided
D. Competitive wages and compensation plans
E.Growth potential
F. Well-equipped and maintained facilities (not always)
G. Usually HR compliant (most often)
H. Greater opportunity to work with kids and coaching.

The downside of working for non-profits:
A. Numerous rules and regulations (both advantageous and burdensome)
B. Operate on tight budgets
C. Potential requirement to work long hours
D. Often utilize volunteers in front-line positions.

Positions that may be available: Front desk, childcare, housekeeping, maintenance, membership sales, fitness managers, fitness specialists, personal trainers, group fitness instructors, spa and salon staff, café 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 are based on the above departments and an executive director.

3. Park and Recreation Departments: Municipal Park and Recreation Departments offer 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. Positions in park and recreation jobs tend to be more stable than traditional fitness jobs, though they can be challenging to obtain depending on the community.

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 are almost always made available to full-time employees, usually with a modest monthly fee deducted from the paycheck
C. Competitive wages and compensation plans
D. Usually HR compliant
E. Greater opportunity to work with people of all ages F. Many outdoor and recreation-based opportunities

The downside of working for Park and Recreation Departments:
A. Upward mobility may be limited in the existing community, requiring potential relocation for desired positions.

Positions that may be available: Front desk, childcare, 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 are based on the above departments and a Recreation Director.

4. Medical Fitness: Medical or hospital-based fitness centers are an emerging market, with close to 1,000 such centers in the U.S. These centers provide a comprehensive medically integrated environment focusing on club members' total well-being, from day-to-day health maintenance to sports performance training, to cardiac and physical rehabilitation. They often boast extensive aquatics offerings. Baby boomers and seniors are avid supporters of medical fitness centers, as they typically have a hospital system as a partner.

If you enjoy working with seniors and have an interest in medicine, this could be an excellent career avenue to explore. The internal management organization in medical fitness centers resembles that of an established upscale health club, often featuring 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 are almost always made available to full-time employees, usually with a modest monthly fee deducted from the paycheck
C. Above-average compensation plans
D. Subsidized continuing education
E. Ongoing staff development and training provided
F. Growth potential
G. Well-equipped and maintained facilities
H. Usually HR compliant.

The downside of working for a medical-based fitness center:
A. May not be as organized or focused as top club organizations due to the uncertainty of their business type
B. Limited growth potential
C. Some medical fitness centers are run by management companies, so thorough research is essential to ensure compatibility.

Positions that may be available: Front desk, childcare, housekeeping, maintenance, membership sales, exercise physiologists, physical therapists, fitness specialists, personal trainers, group fitness instructors, spa and salon staff, café 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 are 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 prefer a smaller, more personalized setting, valuing the attention to their specific needs.

The sports-specific training facilities are excellent for helping athletes gain an edge on the competition by maximizing their potential with tailored training protocols based on their season and sport. This type of training instills confidence in young athletes, with parents supporting their children in this manner. Employees who work in this environment are usually well-educated, often possessing multiple specialized certifications, although it's not a prerequisite, and have a strong passion for working with athletes.

Benefits of working for a personal training/sports specific training site:
A. Subsidized continuing education
B. Opportunity to work in a specialized environment and utilize your degrees, certifications, and experience
C. Ongoing staff development and training provided
D. Well-equipped and maintained facilities
E. Flexible, part-time hours are generally available.

The 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 offer an environment with less stress than health clubs. Working at country clubs, you may even receive 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 are almost always made available to full-time employees, usually with a modest monthly fee deducted from the paycheck
C. Above-average compensation plans
D. Subsidized continuing education
E. Ongoing staff development and training provided
F. Well-equipped and maintained facilities
G. Usually HR compliant.

The downside of working for a country club/master planned community:
A. Members may be demanding and difficult to work with
B. Limited growth potential
C. Some clubs are run by management companies, so thorough research is crucial as some management companies are great to work for while others are demanding.

Positions that may be available: Front desk, childcare, housekeeping, maintenance, membership sales, fitness director, fitness specialists, personal trainers, group fitness instructors, spa and salon staff, café 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 excellent places to work for gaining management experience quickly. Major companies’ contract with management companies specializing 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, possess group exercise and personal training certifications, and have 1-2 years of experience, you would be a great candidate for a site manager in a corporate setting. In this role, you would manage a small staff of part-timers and handle a wide array of responsibilities, from scheduling 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 operate Monday-Friday, with no late nights and/or weekends
D. Excellent healthcare may be available through the company or management company
E. May have growth potential if with a good management company.

The downside of working for a corporate fitness facility:
A. Salaries are typically lower
B. May be very busy with limited staff, or conversely, very slow with not a lot of activity
C. Involves wearing multiple hats, which can sometimes be 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 advantages and disadvantages. The work environment is typically set in a beautiful location, and there is a diverse array of employees from all over the world, creating a vibrant environment. Compensation varies significantly, with cruise lines offering the least and expecting the most in terms of the number of hours worked.

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

The downside of working for Hotels/Resorts/Cruise Ships:
A. Compensation may be low to mid-range
B. May be very 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. Large regional and national companies manage facilities across the U.S.

The crucial factor to consider when contemplating working in this environment is whether you enjoy working with seniors. Have you had much interaction in your past with the aging population, possibly with grandparents, neighbors, family friends, 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 variety of fun activities and trips.

Benefits of working in senior living facilities:
A. Excellent healthcare available through 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.

The downside of working for senior living facilities:
A. Compensation may be mid-range
B. May be very busy with limited staff
C. May require a lot of patience when 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

The 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, childcare, housekeeping, maintenance, membership sales, exercise physiologists, physical therapists, fitness specialists, personal trainers, group fitness instructors, spa and salon staff, café 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 are 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 lack 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 through 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 investigated 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 checkbook 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.

The 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 manage sites. Do your homework and thoroughly 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.

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

13. Vendors and Suppliers: At some point 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 don't, you may not be working for the company very long. It's important to understand expectations and review historical data of previous reps in the territory.

Also, consider 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 they also involve hard work!

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

The downside of working for an industry vendor/supplier:
A. Performance-oriented
B. You often work alone
C. Need to be very disciplined or you will struggle.

 

If you enjoyed this chapter of "How to Land Your Dream Fitness Job" register as a Job Seeker on FitnessJobs.com and you will receive a link to download this valuable 50-page eBook FREE!

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