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Sara Kooperman's SCW

Fitness Education for Life

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  • Sara Kooperman, JD; Danielle Onteveros and Sohailla Digsby

A good idea is a good idea. But, it doesn't mean it will work, at least not right away. The Lightbulb. That's a pretty good idea, right? Well, it took Thomas Edison over 1,000 tries to get it right, and its iterations have endlessly improved over time. A car instead of a horse... A plane instead of a car! Henry Ford and the Wright Brothers (Orville and Wilbur) might have a lot to say about that... They did not get it right the first few times, either.

Many times, the idea itself is not what is flawed when it first fails. It is the method... or, the timing... or, a combination of factors so minute that it takes a while to untangle each and reiterate. And, that is if there is still time, motivation or funding...

Our cover story this month is a good idea about a good idea. Now, post-pandemic, as we move on from the 2024 IHRSA Convention and Tradeshow (now The Health & Fitness Association), and we are full swing into our daily lives and routines, it is important to keep education at the forefront.

The easiest way to witness a piece of bread go stale/moldy is to leave it on the kitchen counter. No movement; unshielded from the elements (i.e. moisture from the sink); and sadly, no protein or condiments. Give it two or three days, and you won't want to eat it. Like bread and like our physical bodies, the human mind is the same. It requires movement, shelter/rest and the right diet.

Sara Kooperman, JD, CEO of SCW Fitness Education is the culmination of this fun little excursion of the written word I have taken. Like any great expert/leader, she comes from initial failure. That failure concurrently created two things: (1) Motivation to succeed next time, and (2) At least one way not to do it. When combined with relentless motivation, it creates the recipe to bring that good idea to fruition.

I invite you to read on about how Sara brought her good idea to fruition, how it is impacting our great industry, as well as how it can impact you...

An Interview With Sara Kooperman, JD, CEO of SCW Fitness Education

Sara Kooperman, JDSara Kooperman, JD

Club Insider (C.I.) - Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
Sara Kooperman, JD (SK) - I was born in Highland Park, Illinois, and this is also where I grew up. I lived in the same house until I turned 17, and then, I ran like hell to college... Away, never to return! (laughing) Honestly, it wasn't that it was really so bad there, but I was eager for new adventures in different places.

C.I. - Where did you go to school, and what did you study?
SK - I went to college at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, where I majored in political science and philosophy. My parents said that I could, 'go eight hours away by car,' so I did! St. Paul is exactly eight hours away from Chicago. I spent my senior year and summers abroad at the University of Cambridge in England, King's College (where King Charles went), and I studied political philosophy, focusing on Karl Marx and French Utopian Socialism. Whew! My minor was impressionism with a focus on van Gogh.

Realizing along the way that I thought socialism would never, ever work, I had to come up with a more practical career option. So, why not try law school? I went to Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, Missouri. And, I still am an art-freak!

But, I wasn't all about left-brain, dry subjects like politics and law. I actually had quite an artistic side as well! While I was in college, I danced both with a professional dance troupe and in some student shows. At Cambridge, I was perceived as a crazy American jazz dancer. That unique designation gave me the opportunity to choreograph the student show.

In law school, as you might imagine, I spent a lot of time sitting and studying. If you know me, I don't do well with being sedentary. So, I decided to apply my dance background to teach group fitness in the basement of the English building, which was conveniently next door to the law school. One student, a professor in English Literature, got me a beautiful space in a gracious hall at Wash U., and I was off.

Those classes helped both my body and mind. Not only did I stay in shape, but somehow, I stayed sane throughout law school. Plus, I had 45 - 50 'paying' students three nights a week. I was making real bank. That led to a bit of a light-bulb moment. Not only did I believe that 'aerobics' would catch on, but I also realized that group exercise could make a terrific career.

C.I. - When and how did you enter the health and fitness club industry?
SK - When I was teaching exercise classes in law school, nothing in fitness had really bloomed yet. Not to date myself, but it was 40 years ago! Yet, I had an inkling that fitness was going to catch on. My sense is that it would grow, and I saw an opportunity.

Fortunately, my boyfriend at the time (whom I met in law school and later became my husband) was very supportive. Never one to shy away from risk, I took out four credit cards, said a whole bunch of deep and meaningful prayers and started a business!

C.I. - Please take us through some of the key roles/experiences that have shaped you into the industry leader you are today.
SK - Honestly, I think failure has been the best training I ever received. When I opened my first studio, which was aptly named 'Sara's City Workout,' I was desperate to drive traffic and make some money. So, I quickly lowered the price of the monthly fee, even though a friend of mine warned me not to, and off I went. Sadly, decreasing my accounts receivable resulted in me losing my entire investment in less than a year. Ouch!

What did I learn from that? A fitness business offers great value. DO NOT undervalue your services and listen to the counsel of others. Both lessons have served me well over the years.

But, the failures didn't end there (Lucky me!). Once, I tried to host an event in a community that wasn't receptive. Have you heard of 'L.A. MANIA®?' Probably not! I plowed ahead and scheduled a convention. I contracted a hotel and booked more than 50 presenters. And, I wrote, designed, printed and mailed a very expensive brochure.

After all of that, nobody registered. I held a party that nobody RSVP'd to! Hence, despite my perseverance, I was forced to cancel the event. That meant I personally had to contact every presenter and activate the 'cancellation clause' in the agreement, beg my printer to give me a better rate and ask the bank for a loan to help me survive. It was painful but another teaching moment.

The lessons this time? Listen to others (as you can see, it took me awhile to get this one!); always have a good contract (shouldn't I have known this from law school?); and humility beats pride every time. In this business, you're only as good as your last venture, so I learned never to get too comfortable.

There are other stories of my failures throughout my career, which may make you wonder how I actually got to where I am today. But, I firmly believe that these were all valuable teaching and learning experiences that built on each other and helped shape me and my business ventures.

Ultimately, I got a lot of practice at evaluating both the upside and the downside of a business opportunity. That has definitely served me well over the years.

C.I. - When and how did SCW Fitness Education come to be?
SK - When my studio failed, I wasn't going to simply give up. So, I started running workshops, training group exercise instructors how to teach. Actually, I ran one workshop in my studio that made more money in one day than I had made in the entire month. This is when another light bulb went off, and I thought training others would be a great idea.

While I realized that I had 'some' skill, I knew that there were others out there like me who desperately wanted to share their talents and train others. Finding these individuals and providing them with a venue to share these abilities and present workshops to other teachers gave me a strong sense of purpose and fulfillment. I love nurturing talent, and at some level, I enjoy being behind the stage rather than in front of it.

After successfully running one-day events with four presenters, I decided to take a big leap. Forget about proceeding gradually and cautiously. I jumped to an entire convention with 50 presenters. SCW Fitness Education grew out of four credit cards, some prayers and a ton of ambition and optimism!

C.I. - Please tell us about its Mission and Objectives.
SK - The Mission of SCW Fitness Education is to provide high-quality, affordable fitness education in cities, health clubs and homes throughout the United States. The Objective of SCW Fitness Education is to reach as many fitness pros, club owners and managers as possible to push our industry forward. By doing so, we will help more people become active and healthier.

Our annual conventions are called MANIA®, and we run them in seven cities with in-person sessions and livestreamed options. We also run summits for active aging, aquatic exercise, health and fitness business, nutrition coaching and more. Plus, we provide multiple certifications, special programs like WATERinMOTION®, S.E.A.T. Programming® (Supported Exercise for Ageless Training) and a wealth of continuing education courses.

I personally love seeing young or simply 'new' educators (whatever their age) entering the field and sharing their enthusiasm with others. At the same time, our veteran instructors have a wealth of knowledge and expertise that have really shaped the fitness industry, and they continue sharing this with their peers. That's really what SCW Fitness Education is all about. And, of course, 'SCW' stands for 'Sara's City Workout...' I didn't lose by humble beginnings.

Someday, I hope to see the fitness industry integrated into healthcare as a valuable preventative component. While I'm not certain what role SCW would play here, this is a personal mission of mine.

C.I. - MANIA®... What a fun name! Please tell us about that and what one can expect if they attend.
SK - MANIA® is a great name. I was walking down Halsted Street in Chicago during "Midnight Mania," which was when every bar stayed open all night and you went drinking from establishment to establishment. Having just graduated from law school, with friends in town, I decided to enjoy the evening.

Truth be told, during a bit of a drunken stupor that night, it occurred to me that 'Mania' was also a fabulous name for a fitness show. Midwest MANIA®... I liked it! While it may not be the most glamorous or inspiring story, it certainly has served me well!

When people attend a MANIA® convention, they participate in all sorts of sessions, from a cycle class to an aqua program to a social media lecture to a business panel presentation on member acquisition and retention. The goal of MANIA® is to get everything under one roof in your hometown. In fact, we aim to make the convention very convenient, and 90% of our attendees drive to one of our seven conferences.

Not only that, but we bring the highest quality presenters to our attendees. Each convention is a jam-packed, ultra-energized three days of almost 200 sessions. One of the most exciting things that happens at the conference is health club and studio owners and managers get to see what their frontline workers are doing. They witness what group exercise programs and personal training strategies are new, effective, successful, and most importantly, will bring in members!

Plus, these owners and managers use the conventions to bond with their teams and learn financial strategies, social media techniques, AI updates and product and programming trends. They really are comprehensive and all-encompassing experiences. And, yes, they're a lot of fun!

C.I. - What is the best way to sign up for a MANIA® Convention?
SK - Visit and select a preferred city. We are in Washington D.C., San Francisco, Orlando, Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago and Boston.

C.I. - While we are on the subject of industry education, please tell us about Talks & Takes.
SK - I have absolutely loved my time on Talks & Takes with Brent Darden, Bill McBride and Blair McHaney. These gentlemen have become not only my business partners but also my friends. It has been such a wonderful experience! We are a strong, unique team. And, anyone who has listened in can see that it's a lively discussion where we aren't afraid to disagree with each other.

Brent Darden is Mr. Organized. I thought he was going to be the most difficult one to work with, and it's so funny, because we are so much alike! Crossing every 'T' and dotting every 'i'! He has been our gentle but firm, fearless leader!

Bill McBride is absolutely a joy and a little bit nuts! He shows up last-minute but with these flashes of brilliance, keeping everyone on their toes. It never ceases to amaze me where he finds his facts and figures and personalizes everything. What a pro!

And, Blair McHaney is funny and the most well-read person I have ever met in the fitness industry! Always an opinion, always a comment, always great support!

Not only have I benefitted personally from Talks & Takes, but it has helped the industry overall come together. This show was started during COVID and was a lifeline for many club operators and fitness professionals. Today, it serves as a helpful forum for the industry to highlight broader issues that affect our day-to-day experiences in gyms, manufacturers, suppliers or professional organizations.

Although I think the talk show is just about at its end, my hope is that we are going to turn it into a monthly 45-minute webinar (and podcast) loaded with fitness business advice! Look for 'It's none of YOUR BUSINESS!' And as we say, 'It should be YOUR BUSINESS!' As Club Insider always says, Stay Tuned on this one!

C.I. - Looking in the crystal ball, what do you see for the fitness industry in the next 3 to 5 years?
SK - That's a tough one. For group exercise, I see a lot of pre-choreographed programs, making it quicker and easier for group fitness instructors and small group trainers to get certified and upskilled.

In fitness education, I'm predicting a lot of automation and more certifications and education delivered online. This is a bit scary because we are such a hands-on community, and nothing can replicate the in-person experience of conventions. The good news is that live events aren't going away, and thank goodness, they are coming back! This year, our Florida MANIA® event is as big as 2019. Wow! and Whew, this was a relief.

Although a lot of boutique studios closed during the pandemic, they're coming back strong and continuing to grow. People like the sense of community and belonging that smaller facilities offer.

And, as fitness becomes more of an accepted --and encouraged-- lifestyle, I expect hotels, apartment buildings and condos will also continue to provide --or even upgrade and expand-- their fitness facilities. This will not keep people from joining clubs, however, as they will continue to be members at multiple facilities. It will just serve to grow and encourage the number of exercisers and increase the value our medical community places on 'wellness' and movement in general.

C.I. - What lessons and advice do you have for industry participants, whether they are just getting started or are seasoned veterans?
SK - Stay on top of industry trends, and of course, artificial intelligence (AI). Technology is exploding quickly, and unless as a business you maintain and expand your understanding of AI, you will die. We need to constantly upskill ourselves and evolve our businesses.

Employ diverse staff that will keep you on your toes, offer different perspectives and push you ahead. Solicit input from and listen to your frontline workers, your front desk staff, group instructors and personal trainers. They know the trends, whether those trends come from Instagram or an educational convention.

And, collaborate with your competitors. Ask them for their best practices and share your own. Be generous with your knowledge. The only way to generate a thriving business is to be generous! When we share, the industry and its professionals (everyone) ultimately wins. We have come a long way, but we will go much further together!

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Fit For BusinessFit for Business is an inspiring memoir by fitness entrepreneur Sara Kooperman that chronicles her journey to founding a successful fitness education company. Kooperman overcame a difficult childhood to discover her passion for dance and teaching. After graduating from law school, she took a leap of faith and invested her small inheritance into opening a fitness studio. Eventually, Kooperman pivoted her focus to fitness workshops and went on to grow her business into a thriving national fitness education company.

Throughout the memoir, Kooperman shares the hard-won lessons and strategies that helped her succeed, from learning to trust her instincts and find her niche to the importance of embracing change and pushing beyond your comfort zone. With honesty and humor, she recounts both her failures and successes, including nearly losing everything and rebuilding after a disastrous first fitness studio venture.

Fit for Business is a motivating story of an entrepreneur who wasn't afraid to take risks, make sacrifices and do the hard work necessary to turn her dream into a reality. Kooperman's memoir will resonate with any aspiring entrepreneur and offers an inside look at the fitness industry from a pioneering female CEO. While sharing plenty of tough love, she empowers readers to believe in themselves, face their fears and follow their passion to build the business and life they want.

To read Fit for Business today, go to:

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Thank you to Sara Kooperman, JD for this great cover story interview. Additionally, thank you to Sean Seningen for assistance with photos and graphics. Folks, never let your mind go stale like a piece of bread! Move, rest and keep a good diet. It's what we want members to do for their bodies, right?

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