I sneaked into the back of an Orange County Convention Center conference room to check out a couple of speakers I had yet to experience at the Athletic Business Conference (now AB Show). At the front of the room, already in the middle of their session, were a pair of independent health club owners from Scotrun, Pa. Looking somewhat alike, at least from the ears up, they referenced their mutual baldness with self-effacing ease. But Rob Bishop and Barry Klein were different than other health club experts — mostly because they'd be the last people to seek that label.
These teen buddies turned business partners would make show appearances over eight consecutive years, often offering two or even three sessions per show. By 2010 they were co-authoring a regular column in Athletic Business magazine. The personalities on display at the front of that conference room translated well to the written page, and a loyal following grew. Rob and Barry covered everything — from plunging clogged toilets to identifying which bills could go unpaid the longest during a cash-flow shortage — with a combination of candor and humor. Over the course of nine years and 87 columns, no recurring feature in AB has garnered more reader feedback.
If you have been part of that following, you know that Rob, who assumed the byline outright once Barry left the business in 2016, has been filling this space with more candor than humor lately. September's issue will serve as epilogue to Rob's 24-year career as co-owner and managing partner of Elevations Health Club.
In the meantime, we asked our friend and colleague to look back on the years of contributions to AB and share reflections on and excerpts from his favorites. "Some of these I just liked because I thought they were the most helpful to other club owners," Rob told me. "Others seemed popular with readers. And others stood out because it was, to me, an important topic, such as the fatality we had at the club. It was funny to see the column change over the years, and it was strange to see us cover such a wide range of topics in a fairly narrow field."
March 2010: Total Fitness
Rob: On why we hate Bally, a big company that just couldn't be honest with its customers.
Key excerpt: "Dear Bally Total Fitness: Please go away."
January 2011: Healthy Finances
Rob: This column on merchant cash advances was really hard to go back and read. All the signs were there. We weren't in the business of managing money at all. It was 2010 when the problems really started, and I didn't see it then. By the time he wrote this column, Barry was already struggling to manage the club's finances the right way.
Key excerpts: "... you find yourself addicted to the service." "... you will eventually find yourself falling behind again, which means you will go back for another advance as you pay back what you owe." "You might even say we are now in two different businesses ... our clubs, and ... finding, saving and managing money."
October 2011: Explicit Content
Rob: This list of 19 rules for dealing with Millennial employees got a good amount of feedback and led to a follow-up column and a talk at the AB show.
Key excerpt: "No personal business should be conducted at work. Pay your bills at home."
December 2011: Sales Pitch
Rob: This basic primer for small clubs that don't have salespeople was, and still is, representative of the way sales should be conducted — in a customer-focused way.
Key excerpt: "We are happy to admit that we are not very good at selling, but what we have done ... is create a sales culture that is consistent with everything else that we do in our business ..."
January 2012: Foreseeing is Believing
Rob: A tribute to the movie "Groundhog Day." We list certain truths that we learned just by being around for so long.
Key excerpts: "... if your facility isn't performing like you'd like it to ... you either caused the problems that are occurring, ignored the conditions that led to them, and/or enabled the problems to fester." "Failure to learn that lesson will keep you stepping in that same slush-filled pothole day after day."
April 2013: Baby Steps
Rob: This was another example of the best of what we wrote about, I think. Simple advice for people who just want to be healthier.
Key excerpt: "We don't want them to reach for the stars ... We don't even want them to join our gym. We just want them to eat a little less and go for a walk every day."
June 2013: No Answer
Rob: About trying to limit cell phone usage and how we were ready to just give up. It was timely and funny.
Key excerpts: "We've got signs up ... but it's pretty much a waste of time." "Just because you can talk on your phone in our lobby, doesn't mean we can't hear you. Trust us, we'd rather not be able to ..." "We can hear it all because ... YOU'RE SHOUTING IT ALL INTO YOUR PHONE."
December 2013: Need to Know Basics
Rob: A checklist of what you'd need to know to work for us. A follow-up to the 19 Rules column about Millennials.
Key excerpts: "Don't stink up the building by reheating fish in the microwave." "We're not really 'asking,' we're 'telling.' It just sounds nicer to say we're 'asking.' " "You own your job. Take responsibility for being good at it." "You own the facility when you are there. That's a bigger responsibility than you understand."
April 2014: The 1 a.m. Phone Call
Rob: About the flood that was caused by a burst sprinkler pipe. The photo in this article really hit me. I guess I'd forgotten how bad it was. Getting open in 48 hours was nothing less than a miracle. And I'll never forget the contractor friend who showed up with a crew and a dumpster to help. He paid his guys to help us. I'll never forget that.
Key excerpts: "His guys worked for hours, and by 2 p.m. both rooms looked almost normal." "... when the chips were down, there was a selflessness and camaraderie [among Elevations staff] that only comes from having mutual respect and a shared sense of responsibility and ownership in the business."
August 2014: Dealing With a Death
Rob: This one was hard to read, even after all these years. The traumatic nature of such an event for all involved is hard to put into words.
Key excerpts: "Please read this column." "If you can benefit from the details of this experience ... then that's a good thing." "His shocked wife met us in their front yard (when we returned his belongings) and thanked us. Again, nobody prepares you for that in How to Run a Health Club School."
July/August 2016: Lessons From the Unenviable Process of Closing a Club
Rob: Right after Barry left the business, I was forced to close our smaller club. It was a huge drain that never really made money, and I was already trying to save the main club.
Key excerpts: "... one guiding principle ... Do the right thing." "I wanted the staff to know before anyone else ..." "At first, it was quiet ... but soon there was shock, sadness, anger." "I wanted to make sure that we respected the fact that this was going to be a shock to members ..."
April 2017: Still Pumping: How the Fitness Industry Has Changed, Stayed the Same
Rob: Just a really fun column to write.
Key excerpt: "How about teaching an 80-year-old woman to do deadlifts and burpees? No one ... saw this as a viable business plan for the industry."
May 2017: 5 Tips for Retaining Your Newest Members
Rob: A basic business column — the kind I'd like to think people counted on to help them in their business.
Key excerpt: "Our members should come to the club and feel like they belong. The more they come, the better their chances of reaching their goals and feeling good about themselves. And the more we can help them, the more likely they are to stay members ... It's how all of this is supposed to work."
September 2018: Horror Stories from the Front Lines of Customer Service
Rob: Funny stories, but things readers could really relate to.
Key excerpt: "But what nearly got Mike thrown out of the club was the time he opened the shower curtain while I was showering."
January/February 2019: Lessons from a Quarter Century in Business
Rob: AB encouraged me to write this one, a way of maybe trying to get me to see that the past 25 years weren't a total waste — lol.
Key excerpts: "For the overwhelming majority of people we reach on a daily basis, we help improve their day. Never forget that." "Have a healthy personal life. It will make you a happier person and a better boss." "I've had members tell me that ... the club was the only place they could go to keep from going crazy ... it really makes me thankful that this is what we do for a living."
This article originally appeared in the July | August 2019 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Reflections on favorite AB contributions." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.