Fitness Instructor Trainers – Chris & Tamara

Fitt (Fitness Inspired Teacher Training), a company that provides accredited courses for exercise professionals, is growing significantly year on year. Keen to find out more, we met with its directors, Christina Donoghue and Tamara Hodgson, at Tamara’s home and office base in Chichester.

As they tell their story, Chris and Tamara are never more than a few seconds away from laughter. Having now worked together for nearly 20 years they talk with and for each other, but rarely over each other. It is easy to see how the rapport and bond between them has formed the basis of a successful business.

The duo met back in the mid nineties, when they were both working at Westgate Leisure Centre, Chichester. Tamara, who was brought up in Mediterranean Europe, had initially answered a job advertisement that asked – Are you a strong swimmer? “I thought – That’s something I can do!” Meanwhile Chris, a dancer and performer, was returning home after a spell on the cruise ships, a world of feathers and high kicks.

Alongside teaching at Westgate, Chris and Tamara started designing and delivering Health and Fitness courses together for Chichester College. Then over time the management at the College changed for the worse. “Sometimes we’d be sitting in a room at the start of a new course, and we wouldn’t even know what students would be turning up.” Their frustration with this predicament prompted the thoughts that inspire many an entrepreneur to go it alone: “One day we had a conversation and it was just – We could be doing this for ourselves.”

Chris and Tamara’s decision to take action is all the more notable because of the other work and family responsibilities they carry. When Fitt was founded in 2006, Chris already had a toddler daughter. A second daughter was born during these early days and she has since had a third, now aged 3. Tamara, who was awarded a BSc in Health Science in 1996, has been equally busy. When Fitt was launched she had already begun a successful career in the health care industry. As well as being a director of Fitt she is currently a Business Development Manager for Alliance Healthcare and Alcura Homecare.

Fitt offers CYQ (Central YMCA Qualifications), REPs (Register of Exercise Professionals) accredited courses and Ministry of Defence (MoD) personnel education at a number of centres across the South Coast. Fitness is a growth industry, so the practitioner accreditation business must surely be booming as well. We ask why the business women believe this sector to be expanding, despite the recession. “We’re so much more health conscious these days,” Chris explains. “People are now prepared to try things they never thought they would.” “And it’s fun,” adds Tamara, “people come out of a session and they’re on a high, they’re buzzing. They feel so good about themselves.” The need for fully trained instructors is also something that people are more aware of. Fearful of injury, clients “want to do things properly”.

Fitt courses are designed both for instructors who require continued professional development, and for those hoping to enter the industry for the first time. We are particularly intrigued by this latter group. “Some of our students do change their lives completely,” Chris and Tamara explain. “We had somebody quit her corporate job – I think it was in advertising – even before she was accepted onto the course.”

As well as providing a structured course, Chris and Tamara offer ongoing mentoring to their students. This can sometimes go above and beyond the call of duty. “Someone rang me once to say – I can’t switch my computer on!” laughs Chris. “I can’t help you I’m afraid!” Humour aside, the personal touch is what Chris and Tamara believe sets them apart from their competitors. This, and practical experience in the studio. A number of big companies offer distance learning courses to would-be instructors, but although these qualifications may come cheaply and are quick to attain, awards can be earned with no contact time. “Everything’s being squeezed,” the partners explain. “It’s unethical. When we ask our students if they could have done our courses more quickly they always agree that they definitely needed the time.”

In addition to practical training, Fitt offers a business management course. Delivered by Tamara, the course covers the nuts and bolts of running any business, as well as the specifics of setting up in the fitness industry. “Our students often ask – Do we need to do this? And once we’ve explained what it covers they do come on it.” The concept of name and brand is highlighted as being very important “as it can attract people or put them off so easily” and students are encouraged to “think clearly about their target audience”.

The fact that 80% of Fitt students come back to do further courses is testimony to the quality of the training. The career successes of Fitt alumni are also a superb advert for the company. “We worked out that we’ve trained over 900 people through Fitt,” the partners tell us. “If you add that to the 900 or so we taught at the college, that’s nearly 2000 people trained by us working across the UK.” Indeed students from as far afield as Birmingham and Jersey have travelled to be trained by Fitt. Chris and Tamara have started profiling successful ex-students in their newsletter, “so other people can see what’s possible”. They are mindful of the fact that £2000 (the approximate cost of a full personal training accreditation) is “a lot of money to part with when there’s not a tangible product changing hands”, so evidence of positive outcomes gives assurance to potential students. The popularity of Fitt courses can also be attributed to the fact that they are often scheduled to suit people who work full time.

Having worked for so long in the local fitness industry, Chris and Tamara have so many contacts that they are often asked to suggest students for particular jobs. As well as helping instructors to further their careers, Fitt’s informal recruitment consultancy helps to promote the company name in the right circles. “You get a sense of who would be suitable for the different centres, as the needs of the particular clientele vary,” they explain. Chris and Tamara go on to reflect that there are aspects of being a successful trainer – “the personality, the charisma, that rapport with the class” – that cannot be taught.

While much of Fitt’s growth is down to word of mouth recommendation, the online presence of the company is very important. Courses are advertised and can be purchased via the website and Fitt has both a Facebook Page and a Twitter account. However, Chris and Tamara have not lovingly embraced the world of social media. “I can’t understand how people have the time for Twitter!” says Chris, “I struggle to answer all the emails we get.” The women also frequently intend to take photos of courses in action to post on Facebook. The camera might make it to the class but then they find themselves so preoccupied that they forget to use it!

Being reluctant Facebookers has not, thankfully, hindered Chris and Tamara’s progress. Since Year 1, the turnover of the limited company has doubled annually. From an initial turnover of next to nothing, Fitt is now set to reach the VAT registration threshold of £79,000. “I’m about to meet with our accountant to discuss things,” says Tamara. In the midst of such growth and with a young family and a full time job, aren’t Chris and Tamara working constantly?

“I don’t feel like I’m working all the time,” says Tamara, who has just returned from a snowboarding holiday. “Things have been better lately. Although sometimes I do find I’ve been working 13 days in row.” With her extensive business management experience Tamara is always looking to implement new structures to enable Fitt to grow successfully. A new database system has just been put in place, for example. And when work does get too much the partners have a discussion and think, “What can we cut back on, what can we give to someone else?”

Streamlining notwithstanding, Chris’s life does entails a lot of juggling. “Sometimes I realise I haven’t seen my husband or children properly for days on end,” she tells us. Chris teaches classes and runs Fitt while her eldest daughters are at school and her youngest is in childcare. Then having ferried them to various after school activities she will begin work in the evenings. Chris is often at her desk until 1 or 2 in the morning and also works at weekends. She is lucky enough to to have a mother-in-law and an extended family nearby who help her out with babysitting. “I couldn’t do it without them,” she explains, “I really couldn’t.”

Chris also feels the omnipresence of technology makes it harder to relax. “Now you get email on your phone it is very difficult. We try to answer enquiries quickly, because that could be our chance to get business before one of our competitors does.” She and Tamara also aim to respond to their clients within 24 hours. “When you work for someone else you can come home and switch off,” she reflects. Life is rather different as an entrepreneur.

Chris and Tamara consider whom they contract to teach their courses very carefully. Training other practitioners is a often a welcome option for the more mature instructor. “There are people who no longer want to do jumping jacks but who want to stay in the fitness industry,” Chris explains. Sometimes Tamara and Chris will invite one of their own students who is particularly talented to become a tutor. Their Head of Pilates, however, was recruited via a more unusual route. At the very time that Fitt was looking for a Pilates leader, Tamara met the ideal candidate in a shoe shop. “It was just one of those very strange meetings.” Today, Fitt’s Pilates courses are among their most sought-after.

At the moment Fitt courses are taught in rented rooms at various leisure centres. Some centres will often put one of its staff on a course in lieu of rent, which is the ideal situation for both parties. Although this arrangement works well, Chris and Tamara do have a dream of buying their own premises. However, they are aware of the difficulties of finding a building with planning permission “for doing all the things we want to do”. A new centre aside, Tamara has plans for a large office in her extensive garden, somewhere that Fitt students could even come to sit exams. Her other half is an engineer, and she has various relatives in the building trade, so the project has the potential to be home grown.

With Fitt in such a healthy condition, what are the directors’ other plans for the future? Certainly one aim for Tamara is to start working for Fitt full time, but are they on the lookout for another Chris and Tamara? This would be the ideal way of scaling up the business, but the duo share the reservations of many entrepreneurs who are contemplating the franchise model: “The trouble is finding the right people.”

Although running Fitt can be highly demanding for Chris and Tamara, it is clearly a labour of love. Driven by the satisfaction of seeing their students succeed, they seem especially proud of those students whom they have helped to change their lives completely. The critical decision they made to act on an impulse and go it alone was definitely the right one. Eight years on the Fitt entrepreneurs are still bursting with enthusiasm for their work: “We both love it!” they tell us.