As a gym owner or manager, there's one phone call, above all others, that you do not want at 1 a.m. — a call from your alarm company.

That was the call we got on a cold night in January. Our sprinkler system had gone off, and given the bitter temperatures that plagued so much of the country this winter, we knew that the building wasn't on fire. It was surely a burst pipe — and, boy, were we right.

A single sprinkler head in our babysitting room — which is on our second floor — had burst. Thousands of gallons of water under high pressure poured into our building, and by the time our local firemen shut it off we had a river flowing through our hallways. Then, of course, that water needed someplace to go. Our entire upstairs — lobby, locker rooms, offices, halls — was soaked. The water made its way downstairs, collapsing the ceiling tiles in our group fitness room and puddling, and then absorbing into our wood flooring. The ceiling in our cardio room collapsed and water poured onto our treadmills and ellipticals. (Did we mention they were only 18 months old?) We knew that the walls weren't going to last long before they started absorbing the water out of the carpet.

So, it now was 2 a.m. We were the only ones in the building, our feet literally ankle-deep in water. We were angry and frustrated. We've owned our business for 18 years for this to happen? In January, our busiest time? Really?

 

DECISION TIME
With more than a few expletives coming from our mouths and feeling totally overwhelmed, we wondered if we should just go home and sort it out when the sun came up. We didn't, and it was the first of many good decisions. What we did that night and in the next 48 hours was about as well executed a response to a crisis as we could have imagined. We're not usually that impressed with ourselves, but we made a lot of good choices, and we hope that other club managers can benefit from what we did and how we did it. Here are the key points:

Time is of the essence. Going home that night would have made a bad situation worse. By staying, we got the ball rolling on many fronts. First, even with just one of us working a single wet vac, we slowly but surely arrested the spread of water. By doing so, we undoubtedly saved the sub-floor beneath the carpet while also preventing the walls from becoming sponges.

When help arrived later that morning, we made great strides in cleanup and prevented additional damage. That fact was not lost on the cleanup professionals from ServPro who worked with us and helped with our insurance claim. They went to bat for us in the insurance process to explain that much of our building would have been a total loss had we not acted quickly.

(As a side note, our insurance agent called first thing that morning and endorsed what we were doing. We never imagined it, but it seems that many people, when faced with a situation like ours, will do nothing until the insurance company comes to see the damage. His insight was that we would not be penalized by our insurance company for taking immediate and reasonable measures, and that advice has proven sound.)

The other nice thing about being awake at 2 a.m. was getting a jump on communication. We called ServPro at 3 a.m., and they called back at 3:30 a.m. By 8 a.m., they were onsite with dehumidifiers and fans. They apologized profusely for not having manpower (pipes had been bursting at homes and businesses for days before our event occurred, and they had no staff). We told them that we didn't need manpower, but we desperately needed and were grateful for their hardware.

We emailed and left voicemails for our insurance agent, our mortgage company and our cardio equipment vendor, and by 5 a.m. we were getting in touch with our morning staff.

Take photos. We almost started to clean up before we took photos. Thank goodness for smart phones! Having those photos proved invaluable when dealing with insurance. In fact, because our cleanup happened so fast, it would have been impossible to tell our story without the images. We also needed photos for our mortgage holder, our equipment vendor, and, of course, our members.

Communicate, communicate, communicate. In addition to our early-morning staff, we had to get in touch with our members to stop the 6 a.m. rush. We use a texting service to communicate with our members, and we hate to send a 5 a.m. text, but we had no choice. By 5 a.m. we were texting, Facebooking and tweeting, announcing that we were closed and that we would provide updates. The photos in the Facebook post made it clear what we were dealing with, and by 6 a.m. we were being liked, commented on and shared faster than anything we had ever posted. Very few members pulled in between 6 a.m. and 6:30 a.m., but still we had a staff member ready to intercept them. We had him run out to the parking lot — the temperature was near zero — to prevent members from even getting out of their cars. Throughout the day, we kept someone at the front desk, watching for members and answering the phone, but most members were getting word. We sent updates throughout that day and the next, and received some very positive feedback.

Get help. We didn't need ServPro's manpower because we knew we'd have plenty. After all, we had a whole staff of trainers who suddenly couldn't go to work, and their response was immediate and gratifying. Many of our staff members arrived in grubby clothes, ready to work, and by 8 a.m. we had a terrific team in place. We needed the phone answered, the parking lot watched, things moved around while we vacuumed, and lots of debris removed from the building.

We also had help from unexpected places, especially a local contractor who has been a member and friend since he worked on our expansion project years ago. With one phone call, he had an entire crew of guys at our site. They did what we didn't have the stomach to do, which was to get the cardio and group fitness rooms cleaned up. Hundreds of ceiling tiles needed to be removed, and the flooding in both rooms was remarkable. His guys worked for hours, and by 2 p.m. both rooms looked almost normal. That leads us to our next piece of advice, which may be the most important.

Have the right relationships before disaster strikes. We must be doing something right with our staff. Naturally, there is always some "we" versus "them," since we are the owners and they work for us. But when the chips were down, there was a selflessness and camaraderie that only comes from having mutual respect and a shared sense of responsibility and ownership in the business. When our friend the contractor, along with some other friends and former employees, arrived to help, we were more grateful than these folks knew. We were glad to have the kinds of relationships that would generate that response.

The flip side of that is that we know all too many gym owners who quite likely would not get the same response from their community. Ask yourself, "If I sent out word at 6 a.m. that I needed help, who would arrive?"

 

BACK IN BUSINESS
It took two very long days, but we were reopened in 48 hours. We never would have believed it at 2 a.m. on the night of the flood. But that was really just the beginning.

The process and paperwork involved in the insurance claim is like having a fulltime job (for Barry). Dealing with the facility, quotes from contractors and equipment suppliers is another fulltime job (for Rob). That's not easy, because we both already had fulltime jobs.

In the coming weeks and months, we expect to replace all of our carpet, to rebuild the group fitness room from wall to wall and ceiling to floor, and to replace all of the equipment in our cardio room. In short, we'll be renovating about one-third of our facility, which wasn't exactly in the business plan for this year. But, we made it through the crisis, and at least this upcoming work won't be done at 2 a.m. with water up to our ankles.


This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Athletic Business under the headline "The 1 a.m. Phone Call."

Rob Bishop & Barry Klein is Guest Contributors of Athletic Business.