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How to Recognize the Positives of Health Club Ownership

Rob Barry Feature

We're often accused of being negative on these pages. Our response is that we're not negative at all. We're realistic. Rob would liken our opinion about owning and operating an independent health club to his opinion of marriage. To anyone who has never been married before, Rob will try to tell them, "Marriage is not what you think it is. Maybe for better or worse. Maybe for good or bad."

We meet many prospective fitness business owners, and — with 20 years under our belts — we want them to understand, "It's not what you think it is." So, we wrote columns in April and May about the realities of owning a fitness business. Not negative at all, right? Just realistic.

Then our AB editor emailed to tell us, "I'm starting to wonder why you're still in this business." It seemed we had some soul-searching to do.

Certainly, on a day-to-day basis, our job is often to respond to problems. Our staff and managers are closer to our members than we are, and they do a great job, so our job is to back them up, get them out of issues that will bog them down and try to help them be successful.

We also have responsibilities that necessarily live with us. Just this week, we've been dealing with a member who wants to cancel due to relocation but seems incapable of delivering anything from her new address that shows she lives there; a member who will not accept that, for legal reasons, we only allow parents and legal guardians to bring their children for our babysitting service and that grandparents, neighbors and boyfriends/girlfriends cannot bring other people's kids; and our state unemployment office regarding paperwork that has not been processed properly and, as a result, is costing us money.

Okay, we lied. That wasn't just a week. That was one day.

So, is there any joy left? If there is, where does it come from?
 

THE JOYS OF...
The good news is there is joy, but it's mostly different than it used to be. What's satisfying now is knowing that we have created a business and an environment in which our staff succeeds and enjoys the more typical positive feedback that people think about when they enter our industry. Call it reflective satisfaction. It's sort of parental — the kind of joy you get when you watch your kids.

It happens when we enter one of our clubs and there's lots of laughter, high-fiving and energy, and we had nothing to do with it. We've walked into our pool building on a Saturday morning to see 10 kids doing swim lessons while serious adult swimmers trained using resistance bands on the far side of the pool. It was heartwarming to see everyone cooperating, sharing the limited space in the pool and getting along. On this particular morning, the right thing simply happened, and we didn't have to get involved.

Perhaps surprisingly, social media is often a great source of satisfaction, but it's indirect. Certainly, we appreciate positive reviews, "likes" and happy comments on our posts, but the best part of social media is when members don't really know they are praising us. It's a post that says, "Great class this morning with..." and they list a few friends and maybe one of our really great instructors, and they link to having been "at" our club. The beauty of this is that we, as owners, didn't really do anything, per se. What we did was create the environment and opportunity for these relationships to thrive. In fact, we often wonder how many lives we've changed simply by having our business exist for 20 years, and not in pounds lost or years of life gained, but in the lifelong friendships forged.

Of course, those pounds lost and years gained and lives improved are huge positives that we try to remember when we're dealing with daily distractions. We have always thought that if we can make a living while people improve their lives, then what's wrong with that? We've got the photos of people standing in their old "fat" pants, the thank-you notes from members who have overcome injuries and physical limitations, and countless "thank you" exchanges in the hallways from members who can climb stairs without losing their breath or who can play with their kids in ways they couldn't before joining our clubs.
 

LITTLE MOMENTS
Now, the best moments are often much smaller. Every so often, someone will thank us directly for existing, and that's pretty cool.

Those moments are also deeply affecting because they don't come with caveats, suggestions or complaints, which is what often happens when members know they are talking to the club's owners. For example:

Member: "It was so great to have [really great instructor] teaching tonight. She does such an amazing job."

Us: "Thank you!"

Member: "Because I'm sure I don't have to tell you, not all of your instructors are that good."

Another example:

Member: "The members here are so nice, and everyone gets along so well."

Us: "Thank you!"

Member: "But there's a real problem with that person's body odor. Can you talk to him?"

Now, compare those moments to this: It's a Saturday morning. All you want to do is pick up the paperwork you need and get out. A fellow standing in the hallway outside the locker room rooms says, "Excuse me. Are you one of the owners?" Inside your head: No, that's the other good-looking bald guy. From your lips: "Yes, I am. What can I do for you?"

"I just want to thank you for having built a facility like this in our community and for having such a terrific staff. I'm waiting for my daughter who is taking swim lessons again. She loves coming here. Everyone is so nice to her, and she's really learning to swim. Thank you."

As you shake his hand and return the "Thank you," you find yourself otherwise speechless. A pure compliment with no caveats, suggestions or complaints. Real gratitude for something that you, as the owner, did. You built it. It's your staff. It's the environment you created.

We made a dad and a little girl happy. He paid a fair price for a quality service and was thoroughly satisfied. And we're reminded that there's nothing wrong with making a living while having a positive impact on people's lives. To put it in an even more positive light, we're reminded that we're doing something right.


Rob Bishop and Barry Klein are owners of Elevations Health Club in Scotrun, Pa.


This article originally appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Athletic Business with the title "ON THE PLUS SIDE"

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