In 2002, Mike Elinski decided to take the knowledge he garnered by working for major club chains around the country and implement it into his own clubs — “The Club” in Jackson, Miss. was established.
According to Elinski, these clubs, positioned in the heart of Mississippi, were created to help fight the surging obesity rate in the state. A CalorieLab report in 2011 stated that Mississippi ranked as the most obese state in the U.S. for the sixth straight year. It’s Elinski’s dream to continue to grow his brand, The Club, in order to reach more people throughout Mississippi and reverse the growing obesity trend.
Mike Elinski filled out his first application to work for Bally Total Fitness in 1985. He was studying nutrition in college and had just completed his first bodybuilding competition. “They hired me to write up workouts for the new and existing members,” explained Elinski. “I learned, if you took an interest in each and every member and cared about them as a person, they would always be loyal to you. On the club side, I noticed that a very clean facility, along with well-maintained machines, cut down on many complaints and allowed for a seamless and fulfilling workout experience.”
Elinski worked his way up through the ranks at Bally’s before he took jobs with Northeast Racquet & Fitness in Pennsylvania and Eastern Athletic Club in Medford, N.J. He looked up to the big guys in the industry and did everything he could to discover what they did well, and where he thought the clubs could improve.
In 1996 Elinski was offered a position with Q Clubs, later bought out by 24 Hour Fitness. The new position brought him out of the northeast and into the south by way of Memphis, Tenn. Elinski was only at the Q Club for 13 months before he left fitness altogether for a short stint. However, it was in that time that he truly learned how to operate fitness facilities and sell the value of the club.
Once he got out of the industry, Elinski moved back to Manhattan where he was selling computer software. Knowing he was still inspired by fitness, his father-in-law, owner of Courthouse Racquet Club in Flowood, Miss., near Jackson, Miss., gave Elinski a call with the idea of opening a chain of clubs in Jackson.
The idea of going into business for himself and getting back into the fitness industry was what appealed to Elinski. So, in 2002, Elinski, former fitness professional and bodybuilder, moved into the obese state of Mississippi to open up a chain where no other major box-club chains would go.
The Club was established to take the best ideas from every club that Elinski ever worked for. “We are now in the process of mimicking the best ‘family’ oriented centers in the U.S.,” said Elinski. “I believe in looking at the best operators out there and taking bits and pieces of the best that fit our model here in Mississippi. The goal at this point is to differentiate ourselves from the other clubs in Mississippi.”
Although Mississippi might be a bit behind the active norm in the U.S., it has still seen an influx of small gym chains over the past few years. Clubs like Anytime Fitness and Snap Fitness have opened as competition for Elinski.
To differentiate The Club from other competition, Elinski has made a focus towards getting children fit, and teaming with local healthcare facilities, such as St. Dominic Hospital. “It seems we need to get to the children and educate them, because the parents are having a tough time putting wholesome foods on the table,” he said. “To battle this with the younger children we have installed children’s fitness classes two times a week, and even allow the parents to workout with them. These 45-minute classes teach them how to exercise and take care of their God-given bodies.”
The Club has also instituted nutrition into the program. “For adults we encourage the ‘Advocate 24 Day Challenge,’ which is a nutritional startup and supplement program to help with wellness and some weight loss,” said Elinski. “About 500 folks have gone through the program and the average weight loss is 10 pounds and 10 inches. This helps show them that it can be done.”
The venture with St. Dominic Hospital has been a massive game changer. The hospital provides The Club with a physician-monitored program called “Health Weight Advantage.”
“[St. Dominic Hospital] became partners in our newest facility,” said Elinski. “This facility has a medical wellness facility called the Sanctuary Body Spa. St. Dominic’s and The Club are creating unique health-focused lifestyle centers. Our goal is to improve the physical, medical, spiritual and emotional health of our community — in other words, we want you to live life well!”
The Southern Culture hasn’t helped The Club any. In fact, the perpetuating obesity issue has only debilitated the club in correcting a long-running issue. “Part of it is the diet and the other part is that we are the most obese state in the nation,” explained Elinski. “Meaning, we are the most obese place in the world, considering we are the most obese state in the most obese country.”
Targeting members through personal training and Group X programs, just like many clubs around the country, has been beneficial, but more in-depth programs have been key. The Club created the Advocare Supplement line to help push members in the proper nutritional direction, and teamed it with its Healthy Weight Advantage program. “Advocare was a safe bet for our clubs, because of the thorough testing of all 203 known performance enhancing ingredients,” said Elinski. “The future looks bright when it comes to installing dietitians and physician networks in our locations through our joint partner St. Dominic’s.”
Elinski said that The Club was just scratching the surface with its joint venture with St. Dominic’s. However, its partnership has created excitement throughout the community and helped separate them from other clubs in the area. “Our facilities would like to cater to the older population, but again, folks in their 60s and 70s have not been schooled in the culture of fitness,” said Elinski about the older demographics around his clubs in Mississippi. “We have in our chain, The Club at St. Dominic, and they provide a very good program for the senior population, and have been very successful in this area for a long time.
“The positive shift I see is the parents are more aware, and they want their children to be more active in our clubs. We are really driving activity with our kids through swim team, swim lessons, fitness, camps and movement classes.” The Club’s partnership with Les Mills has helped them get the younger population moving in Group X classes. Elinski said that the certified trainers from Les Mills and Zumba have helped get members of all ages in better shape.
“We listen to what our members say,” said Elinski. “Group X will change people’s lives. Bodies change quickly in the classes.” The Club has installed shades on the windows of the Group X classes so that they can be shut during class hours. This allows deconditioned individuals to enter Group X classes without the intimidation that everyone in the club will be able to watch them exercise — or that they could be seen by passerby’s. The classes at The Club change every three weeks with new audio tracks and movements.
“Our sales staff will meet with their new members before a class starts to ensure they are properly introduced to the class instructor. New members are then positioned in the back of the class to make them feel more comfortable. “They can join in if they feel like it, or they can stand in the back and watch how the classes operate,” explained Elinski. “We separate our membership sales team from our personal training sales staff.”
The separation of the membership sales and the personal training sales for The Club is because of how Elinski desired personal training to be sold. As opposed to filling a calendar with clients, The Club has begun to truly sell the value of the personal training department. “It’s taken almost nine years to have the right personal training staff, to sell the benefits,” said Elinski.
Elinski searched high and low for great personal trainers, but said he could never get the quality that he knew would be needed in Mississippi. His continued search gave him the idea to look outside the box. He started thinking about the companies that would enter a club and maintain personal training for a profit exchange. But, that wasn’t the direction Elinski wanted to go. He wanted The Club to have its own personal training department that could hire new personal trainers from the area and teach them how to instruct new and existing members.
Elinski reached out to trainers he had known to work for those profit sharing personal training companies. He knew they’d make good trainers, so he brought them in, offered them more money and allowed them to create a solid personal training department that was focused on the member’s success, as opposed to more and more clients.
“The excitement comes from knowing that you are part of a club that has set no limits on the employee and member,” said Elinski. “I see this as a career choice, one that I had when I worked for Bally’s and 24 Hour Fitness. I feel my staff sees the future and the vision I have for bringing a better product to Mississippi.”
Elinski hopes the future will be bright for relationships between The Club and St. Dominic Hospital. “I see counseling in all areas, plus the added benefit of having someone guide you to the medical person or area you need. It will alter us and provide instant ‘medical’ attention, which we never had in the past.
“What I enjoy the most about owning fitness facilities is that every day I come into my clubs, I meet my family. Each club is like a little city — you have the member, ‘mayor,’ you have your regulars, and you have the new folks that just joined. I love the atmosphere and love to exercise in my clubs. I’m one of them, and they know they can trust me and they can always ask me a question.”
Elinski plans to open seven more locations in Mississippi, in addition to his current five locations, before he moves on to the rest of the southern states. Elinski hopes to have the same affect on Alabama (the second most obese state according to CalorieLab) and Mississippi’s other neighbor, Louisiana (number five on the most obese list). For Elinski it’s more than simply owning successful clubs. For him, it’s about changing the mentality and physical structure of the southern individual.
By Tyler Montgomery