When Patricia Laus took over The Atlantic Club 34 years ago, then known as “What’s Your Racquet,” the club had lost almost all hope for success. However, Laus saw something in the facility that gave her hope and inspiration to not only bring it out of despondency, but to make it one of the most successful clubs in the U.S.
Laus, the owner and CEO of The Atlantic Club, the name she founded, came from a nursing background. She had worked in hospitals and helped establish hospital committees and programs relating to health and wellness. Prior to buying The Atlantic Club, the closest she had ever come to working in the health and fitness industry had come in the form of opening five Jacki Sorensen aerobic studios.
“I took up aerobic dancing and opened a number of [Jacki Sorenson] locations,” explained Laus. “Then the opportunity came along to take over a failing family business. I didn’t realize at the time — I thought I was just going over to spend a little time trying to fix it, and it ended up, 34 years later, being much more than that.”
Laus took notice that The Atlantic Club in Wall Township, N.J. was established in a blossoming community full of young professionals developing their families. However, she also noticed that the club wasn’t capitalizing on the opportunities that lay before it.
“My advantage [was], it was just a year after IHRSA had been started, and the industries were coming together — the racquet sports, a little bit of group exercise, tennis and fitness, as we knew it then,” said Laus. “I had the advantage of coming in at the beginning of the industry as we know it today.”
At the time that she took over The Atlantic Club, Laus had practically zero knowledge concerning how to operate a health club. Although, it was that lack of knowledge she attributed to her early success, because she wasn’t afraid to ask questions and network.
“That gave me the opportunity to learn from my peers going to IHRSA, and a number of really key people became my friends and consultants,” said Laus. “I was able to have a very open way of thinking about things.”
When she took over the club, it had expanded from about five acres to a little over 20 acres, but the community was growing and Laus planned for the club to be the fitness home for people in Wall Township. “It was the right time, right place,” she said. “When the original 5 to 10 acres came available, I was able to purchase it at a nominal fee. Because I was able to pick up that property early on and add on to it at a significantly low cost — that’s how we were able to have our 44 acres in Wall Township.”
The township grew up around The Atlantic Club, providing new residents a prime location for exercise and recreation. “The club itself, as most clubs were then, was pay as you go — which we know did not keep the lights on,” said Laus. “I was very fortunate because it was right when the industry was taking a look at monthly dues, and I made the decision shortly after I took over the business to change, being advised by my mentor, Curt Buesman from Sawmill Club.”
The Atlantic Club established 800 members paying $58 a month for a full membership. “At least I knew I had 58 times 800,” joked Laus. “That was the beginning of what you see now. We’ve continued to grow through the years — we’ve had our dips like the rest of the world, and we’ve always come back stronger and more diverse than we had been.”
The Atlantic Club is a $30-million facility that spends roughly $1 million annually. The Manasquan (Wall Township) location is approximately 300,000 square feet under roof, which includes the tennis centers, fieldhouse, school and main club — all of which are found on 44 acres that also includes outdoor walking trails and outdoor pools. Additionally, the club boasts a second location in Red Bank, N.J., a 33,000-square-foot, adult-only facility that opened in 2002. According to Laus, the Red Bank location is primarily fitness and The Atlantic’s premier spa, Milagro Salon and Spa.
When The Atlantic Club pursued Red Bank, it was on a mission to develop five clubs in total within a half-hour drive of the Manasquan location. “We built Red Bank and had success there,” Laus said. “It was difficult to find a good location, because parking is paramount in that town. We were fortunate enough to purchase a closed car dealership, so all of those lots eventually became parking. The third club was designed and was about ready to go, but then 2008 hit. I hadn’t yet signed [an agreement] on the existing real estate we were thinking about transforming into the third club.”
The Atlantic Club decided at that time, during the recession, that it should hold back and focus on the two clubs it already had in existence. It was during those three to four years that Laus decided it was more important to consider the future of the fitness industry, as opposed to seeking out new growth.
With 44 acres already owned by The Atlantic Club’s Manasquan location, it was obvious that more could be accomplished. Laus took a small look around and took notice of the developing obesity trend that had been brewing over a couple of decades. She knew that without some type of interference, the epidemic would continue to flourish and ravage our population.
Two years ago, Laus and her team at The Atlantic Club went to a seminar on “Exercise is Medicine.” The seminar showed Laus the future for The Atlantic Club’s location in Manasquan. Not only would the club be able to grow, but it would also become a place of wellness for its members.
Although the idea of being a great facilitator of health, as well as fitness, in the industry, is a noble venture, it has been a long journey over the past two years — and will continue for the next 24 months. However, by November, The Atlantic Club will have reached the first milestone in its mission. It will receive its Medical Fitness Certification, which Laus has ensured will cover the entire 44-acre campus of The Atlantic Club in Wall Township, making it the largest medical fitness facility in the world. Overall, this has transformed the typical club budget, which typically boasts approximately $1 million a year in improvements, to $2.5 million over the next 24 months. The Atlantic Club will launch two programs this fall in coordination with its medical fitness direction. “One being directed at Type 2 diabetics, and the other one being directed to physical therapy,” said Laus. “Along with that, next year we’ll be adding a warm water pool to our indoor pool renovation, and soon after, there will be a 10,000-square-foot fitness facility expanded on our existing fitness space.”
Laus always has been one with her members. She listens to their needs and truly attempts to accommodate their loyalty over the years as they’ve watched the club grow. This means that throughout the fall of 2013, she will be purchasing a lot of new cardiovascular equipment to help offset the changes in the old facility. According to Laus, it’s important that while the club grows, her members know who comes first.
“It’s going to keep us busy for the next three to five years,” she continued. “At the same time, I’m looking at the possibility for other facilities on the back acreage — all that would have to do with keeping the health and well-being theme going for the entire campus. The exciting thing for me is to be going full circle in my life with health and well-being.”
As mentioned earlier, when Laus founded The Atlantic Club she had taken a good look around Manasquan and Wall Township to see a developing area full of young professionals searching for a future. Additionally, more than 30 years down the road, Laus has found herself in a similar perfect storm.
As she has strived to mold The Atlantic Club into the world’s largest medical fitness facility, she has also successfully worked with her members until a large portion has become the aging baby boomer demographic. “Those individuals that got us off and started years ago, are now in their [50’s],” she explained. Laus admitted that not even she has a plan that fits that perfectly, but when examined from a distance it appears that she saw the development of The Atlantic Club in this way before she ever stepped foot through the front door. “We have a very strong senior population up to the age of 90 that’s with us every day, so we have the best of both worlds,” she said. “You add all of the youth training that we have on the campus — we’ve got every population from age 2 ½ to 92 active and doing something every single day. It’s an awfully good feeling to get up every day, for myself and my staff, and know that you’re making a positive difference in so many people’s lives.”
Although the positive difference is crucial in Laus’ life, as a true businesswoman and entrepreneur, she believes wholeheartedly that without her staff, The Atlantic Club wouldn’t be what it is today. “Recently, we added up, and we have about 184 years of experience amongst seven people,” she laughed. “It speaks to the fact that my senior director that oversees everything on the campus has been with me 30 years. Kevin [McHugh] has been with me for 19. My senior director that oversees spas, and now fitness, and will soon be overseeing the medical fitness as well, has been with me for 25 years. We learned together, done the journey together. I love growing people, so I haven’t spared a nickel in us all learning together and bringing people in for us to learn with. The Atlantic Club is not one person, not one person’s vision and it’s not one person’s effort. When you look at what drives The Atlantic Club, it’s relationships, and it starts with all the employees.”
Neither The Atlantic Club, nor Laus, ever stays still. In addition to the medical fitness plan being executed over the next 24 months, the club has also started consulting other facilities, being spearheaded by Laus herself.
“I knew we were very well branded in the industry and in the community,” she said. “I wanted to see what else was out there for us. We’re overwhelming when you first step foot onto that campus because there is so much going on and so much energy.”
When outside clubs come onto the campus for consultation, Laus joked that “it’s like Sesame Street on Powerbars.” However, the key factor that Laus has pushed all clients to understand has been the power of relationships. She says that clubs can have all the top equipment lines, and they should, because The Atlantic Club does. However, it’s not about the equipment, it’s about the relationships between the trainers and clients, the salon stylists and their clients. “We have such significant retention,” she said. “We have a 16 percent attrition rate, which is unheard of in the industry. Last year, we grew 500 members, and we are right on target now to grow another 500 members this year. That’s without expanding our medical fitness programs.”
Laus relies on the values that her parents taught her growing up to teach her current staff. “Our parents raised us with very simple values,” she explained. “Those values are what are shared with all of my staff and answer most of the questions every day. They are always do your best, do what’s right and treat other people the way you want to be treated. That’s it! It’s not much more complicated.”
It all seems so simple 30-plus years down the road. Laus said club owners continually walk into the doors of The Atlantic Club and believe that it was all a master plan conjured up by Laus from the beginning. She laughs because to the naked eye, it appears to be perfectly planned.
However, Laus would be the first to tell you that it wasn’t all perfectly planned. Instead, it was a lot of hard work, brainstorming and her ability to be open to new ideas. She could have easily turned her back on monthly EFTs, avoided the transition from racquet sports and not purchased any of the land around her at first opportunity. If she would have balked at such changes or ideas, things might not be the way they are today. In fact, if Laus didn’t stay open minded to the shifting trends in the industry from the very beginning, she would have failed to develop a medical fitness center that would cement The Atlantic Club as one of the premier health and fitness centers in the world.
By Tyler Montgomery