P.R.E.P. for Success
The snow had started to fall on Charlottesville, Va. in early December. Phil Wendel, the founder of ACAC Fitness and Wellness in Charlottesville, looked out his office window and contemplated what else would have pulled him from his warm home and out into the snow — ACAC was the only reason.
Wendel founded ACAC in 1984 to help teach more people about strength training and fitness. “I was always active, but I didn’t know anything about strength training until a friend introduced it to me,” Wendel explained. “Once I learned, I was having friends over to my home to teach them the benefits of weight training.”
People would enter Wendel’s home for hours at a time to learn the art of weight lifting. “It was amazing seeing someone try extremely hard at something they weren’t sure they could do,” he said. “Their accomplishment was rewarding.”
When ACAC opened, Wendel couldn’t reach the masses of his community. Now, the 17,000-member fitness company, nestled around the University of Virginia, provides class and a warm environment for fitness enthusiasts, as well as beginners.
The Best Idea
Charlottesville, Va., a city of about 45,000 people, located in the north central portion of the state, has a vibrant atmosphere instilled by a vast history dating back past the Civil War.
The University of Virginia located in Charlottesville, founded by President Thomas Jefferson in 1819, supplies the city, and the country, with a multitude of highly educated doctors and lawyers. Many of those individuals find themselves dispersing back to their home states, but many take up stake in the college town. Having so many educated doctors located within his city gave Wendel an original idea to boost his revenue.
He needed to get local doctors and their patients into the club. However, he understood that many doctors felt awkward pushing their clients to exercise when the doctors themselves didn’t. This posed a question for Wendel: How could he get the doctors to exercise; and exercise at ACAC?
Wendel started meeting with doctors throughout the city and university to develop a generous list of names for an advisory board. The advisory board utilized ACAC as an athletic facility, meeting hall and gathering room for special occasions. ACAC used the advisory board to develop innovative ideas and increase members for the ever-growing facility.
“They allow us to tap into the deconditioned population,” Wendel said of the advisory board. In the early 90s, the writings of John McCarthy, the former executive director of IHRSA, about the deconditioned population, amazed Wendel. He sees it as his, and the rest of the industry’s, biggest opportunity.
Wendel said the deconditioned population is comprised of about 140 million Americans. “This demographic is the future of the industry,” Wendel said. This belief had him develop the Physician Referred Exercise Program (P.R.E.P.).
Wendel quickly realized that this population would be a never-ending cycle. If he could assist the aging deconditioned population, he would always have potential members.
With P.R.E.P. in place, ACAC continually received members through physician referrals. Many of the referrals were middle age or older. Many of them needed rehabilitative exercise or training. Wendel had to develop his club to reflect his members’ needs.
The age demographic at ACAC usually begins in the mid 20s with UVA graduate students and continues through the 60s and higher. ACAC has implemented functional training, Group X classes and aquatic classes that can be geared to all populations. Wendel said a lot of his members are moving towards functional training using TRX systems. ACAC has even geared certain personal training classes to focus entirely on older members.
As the population aged, Wendel had to develop a club design that was concurrent to its members. He used Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative to develop a design that made his club more than a gym. “We host a lot of events at our club,” Wendel said. “Those are designed to get people from the broader community that may not have seen the inside of our clubs, into the club. We will host a Heart Ball and get people inside all dressed up. When the club is decorated and doesn’t look like a gym, people get inside and realize it isn’t intimidating.”
Pursuing a Dream
In 1984, Wendel admittedly didn’t know too much about owning a health and fitness club. His expertise had been with his company Lakeland Tours, a tour company devoted to charter tours. However, Lakeland Tours had about 450 employees — managing and motivating people was Wendel’s specialty.
Regardless, a club can’t function without revenue. And, in the mid 80s, ACAC wasn’t exactly raking in new members. Wendel said in the beginning ACAC was lucky to sign up 30 to 35 members a month.
“In the early 1990s I left my traveling company that was doing well,” Wendel said. “We spent the next two years driving all over the country. The goal was to decide; do we want to seriously get into this business, or do we want to get out?”
Driving across America, Wendel would visit three or four clubs each month up and down the East Coast for two years. He would attend a number of industry trade events, all in an attempt to develop the best solutions for running a health club.
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Wendel said in the first 10 years of the club’s operation, it wasn’t bringing in a lot of revenue. “We were funding it through the travel business,” Wendel said. He remembers times when he wasn’t sure if the risk was worth it.
“The club was never in trouble,” Wendel said. “But, I spent two years really studying the industry, and the turning point for me, was 65 percent of Americans believe in our product, but don’t embrace it. And, I believed I could do something to capture that percent. That was the ah-ha moment.”
Inside the Club
The design of ACAC motivates members and Wendel alike by making equipment easily accessible and creating open space for members to interact. He spends about six to seven days a week working out in the clubs. It’s during that period he finds time to research and speak with members about the club.
In 1997 and 1998, when ACAC decided to spread its wings, it built its first flagship facility. They went from a 30,000-square-foot club to a 60,000-square-foot facility with every imaginable highend amenity, from spas and saunas, to pools and basketball courts. ACAC has four flagship facilities with another club in Richmond, Va. to open in late 2011.
“I probably spend an equal amount of time in each of the facilities,” Wendel said for when he speaks with members. “I guess it’s more on a friendly basis, when you’re riding your bike or something. In the 1970s when someone introduced me to strength training, it became a new life passion for me. For the next 10 years I kind of became a disciple for it and tried to teach people about it. It made such a difference in my life I wanted to pass that passion on.”
Before strength training, Wendel played basketball and baseball primarily — he remembers when he was staying active, people thought he was crazy. “It wasn’t normal to stay active after college,” Wendel said of his fitness. “I decided I wanted to spend as many years on Earth as possible and I wanted as many of them to be in good shape.”
Wendel’s desire has spread throughout his clubs. Members can still see their club’s founder pushing his life-long belief of being fit. Today, he’s not strictly devoted to getting people involved in strength training, but instead it’s his mission to get people healthy and help them live healthier lifestyles.
Wendel understands how intimidating health and fitness facilities, as well as exercise, can be. When he would introduce people to strength training in 1970s and 1980s, he could see fear in a person’s face when they thought about lifting heavy weight. Wendel sees that fear in the typical American searching for better health. He has designed his club and filled it with a staff that can remove that intimidation and make ACAC a comfortable place for Charlottesville to exercise. -CS
By Tyler Montgomery
Photos by Andrew Shurtleff