When Fitness First, the leading international fitness chain headquartered in the United Kingdom, decided to launch a centre each in Mumbai and Delhi in April this year, they recruited six call centre executives, sent them abroad for training and brought them back to India as team leaders and managers.
But why call centre employees and not body builders?
"The best trainers need not necessarily have a body like that of Salman Khan. But they need to have the knowledge to make and advise Salman Khan," said Vikram Bhatia, CEO of Fitness First. "They should be good communicators and be able to give customers educated advice."
Bhatia said that there was a dearth of qualified fitness instructors in India's cities and a large gap between demand and supply.
"A shortage of manpower is the biggest challenge facing the industry," concurred Prashant Talwalkar, one of the promoters of Talwalkars, the oldest and largest fitness chain in the country. "But what I look for in a trainer is his appearance. Even if someone is an MBA, if he has a paunch, the client will not have confidence in him," he said.
They may differ in their approach but they agree on one thing: that the Rs 2,500 crore fitness field is set for exciting, exponential growth. While Fitness First will launch an 18,000 sq ft gym in Andheri aiming at a membership of 5,000, Talwalkars has started a gymnasium training centre in Thane to produce enough certified trainers to feed its 33 health centres across the country.
Also making her presence felt in Thane is fitness guru Leena Mogre, who is setting up a 12,500 sq ft centre there. Creative Fitness, which manufactures fitness equipment and sets up gyms for corporates, plans to start its own chain of gyms, and the first one is likely to come up in Mulund.
Clearly, the sector is in for a lot of action and some keen competition. Professionals who used to be paid a pittance will command respectable salaries. "In most gyms, the managers get only around Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000 while trainers get even less," said Daylyn Rodrigues, who runs Creative Fitness. "Till now, trainers didn't have the required knowledge and employers did not recognise those with skills. But we are going to change that."
Perhaps for the first time, Talwalkars will pay a stipend to students selected for its course. "We will also provide boarding and lodging and absorb them in our centres. The education we provide will be of international standards and trainers will be brought in from England," said Talwalkar.
Is it a good field to get into? "A trainer will be able to make Rs 35,000 to Rs 50,000 a month," he said.
There is also an increased awareness among entry-level trainers to get certified and acquire necessary skills. "In the mid-'90s when I started a fitness academy, it was the first of its kind in the country. The first batch had nine people, most of them my friends. Now, we have two batches of 25 students and already 5,000 students have passed out of L.M. Fitness Academy," said Mogre.
Nasir Khan, director of LM Fitness, who used to run a weight-loss centre in New Zealand, said: "I feel the potential is more in our country than New Zealand because population density is more here. Besides, we are now matching the gyms abroad in equipment, infrastructure and professionalism."
An increased awareness that it was better to pay the gym a few thousands than pay the hospital a few lakhs, and the urge to look good was sending people to the gyms, said Talwalkar.
"They tried the beauty parlour and tried to change their clothing line. They did not succeed. So, they are trying out the gyms. They know that even if they train for 45 minutes, there will be a big difference in their looks and even a Rs 50 T-shirt will look great on them," he said.