Almost all club owners have intriguing stories about the grand opening of their first club. Some stories are great, some disasters, but they’re all individually interesting and share beneficial advice.
For Larry Gurney, the founder of The Rush Fitness Complex and a former president of 24 Hour Fitness, the grand opening of his first two clubs in Knoxville, Tenn. on Sept. 23, 2001, was extremely disheartening.
Launching a new club concept to the market was thrilling. “We were set for our grand opening and we went out in August of that year, set to put on the biggest grand opening I’d ever been part of,” Gurney said. “We had put up billboards throughout the city and a multitude of radio and TV commercials building up the date.”
The Rush had cloaked their clubs with giant black veils, ready to drop during the opening. “People were ready to sign up after they got the first look inside the club,” Gurney continued. “Then, the exclamation marker … all of this led to September 11, 2001 when the terrorists attacked the World Trade Center. We had put all this money into the opening and then September 11 happened. It crushed two grand openings of a startup company in East Tennessee.”
Overcoming the Odds
In 2005, despite the setback of 9/11, Rush Fitness still hit its goal of five clubs.
The Rush’s strategy was to open the first two clubs in September of 2001 and the third on Jan. 1, 2002. However, with attacks fresh on the minds of Americans, Rush found itself opening its third club on Jan. 1, 2003 — a full year later.
“It started a slow crawl for us,” Gurney said about September 11. “I think what we had to do then was persevere. A lot of things had been based upon success and had been contingent on the tsunami of new members.”
Gurney readjusted his game plan and increased his marketing reach to counteract the shortage in the initial member influx. Over time, these adjustments, that came in the form of radio, TV and billboard advertisements, brought enough members to warrant more clubs.
After 2005, The Rush broke into its first out-of-home market in Chattanooga, Tenn. The company then continued to expand into North Carolina and Georgia — and have future plans for expansion into South Carolina, Alabama, Kentucky and Florida.
While building more clubs, competing local gyms used distractions that highlighted the West Coast mentality of the former 24 Hour Fitness president. “They would try and tell people we aren’t from here, we aren’t like them,” said Gurney, who grew up and attended college in Texas. “We set up temporary locations and displayed the top-of-the-line equipment we would have in each of our 40,000-square-foot clubs.”
The Rush promised potential members that toured the temporary locations, that if they signed up prior to opening they would incur a better price for the duration of their membership. Gurney said a lot of people bit at the opportunity to save money on a membership.
“We focus tremendously on getting people started out right,” Gurney said. “The first 30 days is the most important.”
In Gurney’s opinion, members join a gym with every intention of getting back in shape, but can quickly lose sight of their goal.
“In many cases someone will join with the best intentions, but they’ll let life get in the way,” Gurney said. “We have to get the member back in the club.”
Rush uses its free “Rush Hour” to help put members on a path to success. In the first few days of a membership, trainers set up appointments with new members to give them a physical analysis and useful information about their bodies, and workout tips to assist their goals.
Moving forward, members have the ability to purchase additional packages referred to as “Right Start.”
Right Start can be purchased by members in three, six or 12, one-hour sessions. It may seem like another personal-training program, but it truly is unique to Rush Fitness. This is because not only are all trainers certified, but, once trainers are brought onto the team at Rush, they must go through an additional three-week certification — developed by the heads of training at Rush Fitness.
The training course puts potential trainers through how to work with clients, to the anatomy and physiology of the human body.
Gurney understands that all of his members don’t have time or money to set up personal-training sessions for months on end. However, a lot of members still need a little more assistance to help them get on the right track.
The Rush also gives members the opportunity to sign up for a version of the Right Start program that allows members to have four, 30-minute express sessions with a personal coach for $99.
Having multiple opportunities ensures members at Rush Fitness understand how to get fit and promises that they are aware of all the amenities throughout the club.
More than Just Exercise
According to Gurney, fitness clubs are in a good position. The government is pushing people to become healthier, identifying the obesity epidemic, and the Surgeon General is encouraging people to exercise an hour a day and eat better.
“We are 360 degrees,” Gurney said. “We’ll work on your nutrition, get you active, improve your attitude at work and make you feel better.”
Nutrition is a necessity for Rush Fitness. Gurney has teamed up with dotFIT, an online nutrition-counseling source, to create “R3” — a private labeled program standing for Rush Real Results.
The dotFIT platform allows Rush to push nutrition to its members and give them a full-time connection to the club. The platform is web-based. It allows members and their trainers to access nutritional data to assist in following a healthy lifestyle.
Getting All Members Involved
The member must get started right. Nutrition can’t be 80 to 85 percent of the equation if a fitness routine doesn’t already exist. Rush understands that for many members, it’s all they can afford to be inside a health club. For these members, it’s important that they know how the machines work and the basics of exercise.
The Rush experience employs vibrant colors and exciting music. They strive to make the club a place where someone can escape from the real world and enjoy life through exercise.
The colors play an important role in representing the Rush, but also helping members move around adequately without the assistance of a trainer.
“When you look out across the gym floor, many clubs put out the same colored equipment,” Gurney said. “We forget that 80 percent of people don’t understand how each piece of equipment works. To go along with our color scheme and create a user-friendly workout floor, we created a color coded workout area.”
During the Rush Hour, trainers explain to members the color diagram for the workout floor. So, when they enter the club, they know exactly what colors correspond with what machines. It helps the members get a solid and timely workout.
“If we have a chest machine it’s orange,” Gurney said. “When you want to work a certain area, you look out across the gym and you see exactly where to go.”
Working at a Health Club
Gurney never thought he’d be interviewed about owning health clubs at 49 years of age.
“I started in the industry in 1983 while attending college in Texas,” Gurney said. “I was looking for a way to make some additional income. I applied and became a trainer.”
After college Gurney went to work for Bally’s in Houston. During his time at Bally’s, Gurney was sending out resume after resume attempting to land a job in big business and oil. “I was sending out resumes and going on interviews, but I was extremely happy where I was,” Gurney said.
During a routine club tour, a potential member told Gurney that her uncle in Southern California owned a chain of health clubs. Gurney gave the woman his card with zero expectations — the next day Ray Wilson, the owner of Family Fitness Center, was calling to get a little more information about the young Gurney.
“That turned into him flying me out to Southern California,” Gurney said. “I was 25 years old and I had barely been out of the state of Texas. Ray had mesmerized me discussing the industry and his company.”
To make a long story short, upon returning to Texas, Gurney moved his family, including his six-month-old baby boy, to California to start managing Family Fitness Centers.
After becoming a partner with Wilson, Gurney was part of transitioning Family Fitness Centers from 17 clubs to over 65 locations.
The growth grabbed the attention of the entrepreneur in Mark Mastrov, who also was situated in California. Mastrov desired to grow his company, 24 Hour Nautilus, but he and his investors wanted to acquire a club chain that was double his 35 locations.
Mastrov went into a deal with Wilson, Gurney and the other partners of Family Fitness Centers — eventually combining names to create 24 Hour Fitness at 100 locations.
It was 1995 and Mastrov had become like a mentor to Gurney. Starting as vice president and eventually president, in 1998 Gurney expressed interest with Mastrov of launching his own brand.
Being a great entrepreneur and friend, Mastrov encouraged Gurney to follow his dreams, but offered to make him president of the Southern Region to give Gurney some much needed experience at the top.
“The reality was, when I was vice president, I was talking to Mastrov, and I told him I’m thinking of going out on my own,” Gurney explained in his own words. “He said before you do that, I think you should serve as president here and learn at a higher level. I learned a lot and added a lot of information about the industry.”
Gurney started looking around the country. Rush was to be comprised of an already developed team, in the best possible location and the greatest opportunity for survival and growth.
Gurney discovered Knoxville, Tenn. The mountains and the people made him and his team feel at home. They started building, setting plans and marketing the launch of a new club — the birth of Rush Fitness 24-7.
You’ve Gotta See
“This guy walks up to me on the street and says, ‘yadesee,’” Gurney said. “I kept asking him what he said, and he kept saying, ‘yadesee.’”
This was in Tennessee, not some remote location in Eastern Europe. For minutes Gurney was baffled by what was being said. Then the situation became clear.
“I walked into a meeting with my architectural team, and I said ‘yadesee,’” Gurney said. “They looked at me like I was crazy.”
Gurney told them the story of the man on the street. He figured out, the guy was saying, “you’ve got to see.” “That’s the way people talk around here,” Gurney said. “We have to come up with the ‘yadesee’ factor of our club.”
Rush Fitness started implementing the yadesee in all of its clubs. Since they just opened their 21st Rush Fitness in Georgia, I had to ask, what’s the yadesee?
“Ring of Fire,” Gurney said. “It’s a circuit training platform. There is a station where each member has something different for them to work out on.”
The station sits about 10 feet above the club floor, in the center of the club. It’s in the shape of an octagon and is built to grab the attention of everyone in the club.
Six members enter into the octagon and take their places at one of the six workout stations. A trainer they have all worked with stands ready to relay orders and advice to the members. The clock starts — the sweat and weight start to drop.
“We sell the training session and they rotate through,” Gurney explained. “Everyone in the club is able to listen to this and watch.”
The station’s design purpose is to motivate members throughout the club and help increase training and the member experience. It is another phase incorporated within the Rush Fitness philosophy.
Like many clubs we interview, Rush’s philosophy is built around the member experience. The only difference is Gurney understands that the member experience doesn’t exist until after the employee experience.
“It’s like a family,” Gurney said in reference to his employees. “If you go into any of our locations and ask an employee, 80 percent will say that their work environment is like a family.”
The employee connection is so strong in fact, that Gurney has become the godfather for many of his employee’s children. “I’ve been the best man at weddings,” Gurney said. “This is different, but I had two employees ask me to marry them. I went out and got ordained so that I could marry the couple.”
On a business note, Gurney remembers the family atmosphere and believes it must stay intact even in growth. “We build managers from the inside,” Gurney said. “That means we have to have happy employees to grow, but when we expand, we get more potential managers.”
It’s important for growth to exist within the neighboring states to Tennessee. Each quarter, Rush Fitness hosts a quarterly meeting, or “Family Reunion,” as Gurney likes to refer to them.
“We bring in 250 people,” Gurney said. “In October, we had our third quarter family reunion. Each club brings 10 people. We go over numbers, but we also play games and hang out with each other.”
During the meetings, Gurney uses member testimonials to transition from topics. He said the testimonials help keep the employees focused on their purpose. “That goes with our mission statement, and we really emphasize living by these core commitments,” he said. “That has a lot to do with the pride they take.”
With continuing expansion, Rush will bring more and more employees to the family reunions. This is why Gurney insists on staying close to Tennessee. “We want to be able to keep having these reunions,” Gurney said. “That means keeping people within a reasonable driving distance.”
Gurney attributes almost everything he learned and practices from his days with Wilson and Mastrov. “Ray Wilson treated me like family and treated me like his son,” Gurney said. “Mark Mastrov was like a brother. He brought me in and helped me.” Gurney also credits his grandfather Bob Delmonteque and his original partner Bill Hubner for much of his success.
It comes without saying that Gurney has developed some ingenious ideas over the years. He had some great instruction that eventually helped him develop and fine-tune the ideas that grew 24 Hour Fitness to 300 clubs and spawned Rush Fitness. He doesn’t forget where he came from, but he’s not a man that dwells on the past. He has pushed forward, and even though the recent recession may have currently moved Rush to the sideline, it’s only momentary, and the company has planned to forge ahead and invade many more states in the near future. -CS