Insurance for the Unexpected
But, no one ever said the world was perfect. Sometimes, no matter how great the coverage is, insurance isn't enough to pull a fitness facility through hard times. Some events are so enormous, so disastrous, that no amount of coverage can salvage the facility. Other events are so unlikely that specific coverage was never considered in the first place.
Here's a more realistic concept of insurance coverage: a necessary precaution against foreseeable events. As for the rest of it? You'll cross that bridge when you come to it. There are, after all, only so many things you — or your insurance company — can prepare for.
Flirting with formulasThere are formulas insurance companies use to identify the likelihood of a disaster, and, most of the time, they're right on target. But the fact is, these formulas are conjecture, at best, and make assumptions based on past events. For example, if your town has never been attacked by terrorists, battered by floodwaters or shut down after a bomb threat, insurance companies assume it won't be subject to those events in the future. Psychics aren't on the payroll, but insurance companies and fitness facilities are nonetheless forced to predict the future when deciding on coverage. And sometimes, they're wrong.
When no coverage is enoughEven businesses sunk deep into the bedrock of a particular community are not immune to the unpredictable nature of disaster. The Downtown Athletic Club was located in a 35-story building at 19 West Street in Lower Manhattan, New York, N.Y. It was founded in 1926, and moved to this site, next to the Hudson River, soon after. The fitness center had everything: a swimming pool, fitness center, miniature golf course, squash and tennis courts. It was most famous for hosting the Heisman Trophy award ceremony, presented every year to the most outstanding college football player and named after John Heisman, the fitness center's first athletic director.
The Downtown Athletic Club no longer exists. It closed in 2002 after suffering damage and financial difficulties following the events of Sep. 11, 2001. The 35-story building is now a residential tower named The Downtown Club. The fitness center's demise begs an uncomfortable question: If a nationally known landmark doesn't have sufficient insurance coverage to survive a disaster, what would happen to your facility if a similar event occurred in your town?
Cross Gates Athletic ClubCross Gates Athletic Club, Slidell, La., found out what could happen in a disaster in 2005, when the privately owned fitness center's two locations were battered by Hurricane Katrina. Slidell is located about 30 miles northeast of New Orleans, on the northshore of Lake Pontchartrain. "One of our clubs is an 80,000-square-foot multi-purpose facility located on 10 acres," says Dion Grossnickle, general manager. "The other was a 24,000-square-foot fitness-only facility. ... Our larger club sustained about $600,000 worth of damage, caused mostly by wind. ... Our smaller club was a complete loss, due to 5 feet of water caused by [the] storm surge," says Grossnickle. "Nothing was salvageable from that club."
After the hurricane, the facility's staff and membership were reeling from the devastation. But the biggest shock came when Cross Gates Athletic Club contacted its insurance company for assistance. Management assumed that the fitness centers had sufficient insurance to cover flood damage. Unfortunately, they did not. "Our small club did not have flood insurance," says Grossnickle. "Therefore, it was a total loss."
The idea that Cross Gates' problems would have been lessened if they had ponied up for flood insurance is, quite frankly, absurd. It's akin to chastising a New England facility for not having earthquake insurance. According to Rachel Abercrombie, a CAS associate professor of earth sciences, there is a 19- to 28-percent likelihood that an earthquake will occur in New England by 2013, and a 41- to 56-percent likelihood by 2043. Consider, for a moment, how many of those fitness facilities have purchased earthquake insurance. Cross Gates Athletic Club was in a similar situation. "Both of our clubs are located out of flood zones," says Grossnickle. "Like many residents of Slidell, we could have never imagined that the entire city could be under water. Unlike New Orleans, Slidell is above sea level."
Curves For WomenOn Oct. 10, 2007, a man robbed and threatened to blow up the Sovereign Bank in Jersey Shore, Pa. He left a suspicious bag just outside a rear entrance to the bank, and police shut down a section of Jersey Shore for much of the afternoon. Businesses and residences were evacuated. One of those businesses was a Curves for Women facility managed by Wendy Cooper. "A few blocks surrounding the area of the bank were blocked off, including the parking lot to our Curves, and traffic was rerouted," she says. "People were asked to stay indoors or leave the area."
In response to the emergency, the Curves facility closed its doors. "The gym was locked and staff remained inside," says Cooper. "A few members were inconvenienced by the lockdown." Cooper says the loss of revenue wasn't significant, and the facility was able to rebound quickly. However, a bomb scare was certainly unforeseeable, and not all insurance policies may cover these kinds of emergencies. In many cases, the very best insurance is a sizeable amount of money squirrelled away to buffer the loss of business incurred by these events.
When you recover and rebuildCross Gates Athletic Club suffered lasting effects from Hurricane Katrina's wrath. "For the first three months following the storm, we were greatly affected by the loss of memberships. Many of our members lost their homes, which, in return, caused them to either cancel or put their memberships on hold due to relocation or [the] rebuilding of their homes," says Grossnickle. Cross Gates Athletic Club was prepared to wait it out, with hopes that membership would rebuild along with the city. The hunch paid off. "[Later,] the Slidell area's demographics were greatly affected by many people moving back to the area, as well as new residents moving into the area, as their homes in the New Orleans area [were] in disrepair. Our population seemed to double within a very short time. Great news for us! In 2006, our larger club had its best year due to the growth in membership. Our smaller club was and is a different story."
Lack of flood insurance coverage sunk the smaller club into a hole it has been struggling to climb out of since 2005. "About nine months after the storm, we relocated into a 6,500-square-foot temporary location near our lost club," Grossnickle says. "Our hopes were that we would only be in this location for six to eight months. Now, two years after the storm, we are still in that location, awaiting the rebuilding of our original 24,000-square-foot club that was located in a shopping center. ... Our hopes now are to be back into a new club by the end of April 2008."
A new worldWhen an unpredicted disaster devastates an area, there may be crippling long-term consequences for fitness centers that find a way to continue operations. "The largest effect, post-Katrina, is the expense to run a business," says Grossnickle. "Our insurance premiums have gone from under $20,000 a year to about $80,000 a year. Our payroll has also increased by nearly 20 percent. And, with new owners of the building we are leasing comes a higher cost of rent — which is nearly double."
Cross Gates Athletic Club had emergency procedures in place before Hurricane Katrina hit, and the facility's first concern was safety, not insurance. "Prior to Hurricane Katrina, our main goals were to be certain that our team members and members were safe," says Grossnickle. "We prepared by having a communication plan in place. But, as the storm passed, it was very hard to communicate, as phone service and electric were out in our area for nearly three weeks. It was even difficult for cell phones to work."
Now that the fitness facility has come out the other side of a natural disaster, some changes have been made to its emergency procedures. The inability to communicate via telephone has been addressed by focusing on the Internet. Cross Gates Athletic Club now has "a blog set up through our website [where] our team members, as well as members, can get updates on the club and the Slidell area. We now also have an updated database of our 200 team members' phone numbers and email addresses to keep them up to date on the company." It's hardly the equivalent of surrounding the facility with a 40-foot-tall flood wall, but Cross Gates is doing what it can. "There is not much more we can do to combat mother nature," Grossnickle admits.
Prepare for the worstLife is unpredictable, and even the most conscientious facility owner can't prepare for everything. Realistically, there is no possible way any fitness facility could have adequately prepared for — or predicted — the terrorist attacks that leveled the Twin Towers and surrounding area. It was, in effect, an act of war, and purchasing insurance coverage to prevent ruin from enemy attacks is an impractical way to run a business. However, fitness facilities should still be prepared for the worst (while hoping for the best), no matter where they are located. "Have a plan to communicate to not only your staff, but to your members, as well. And, on top of that plan, have a back-up plan just in case. Get email addresses for all members. This is the best way to communicate with them and to keep them up to date on the club," says Grossnickle. "Inspect your insurance policies and understand them. If you don't understand them, talk to someone who can explain them to you."
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