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Metamorphosis: The Transformation of Merritt Clubs

Merritt Clubs

Transformation is a central aspect of life. For caterpillars, this process is called metamorphosis, in which the insect undergoes a remarkable transformation into an entirely new form — a butterfly.

In the health club world, Baltimore’s Merritt Clubs has undergone a metamorphosis of its own, the result of key changes within the organization that have made it stronger and better positioned for success than ever before.

“In the last three years we have undergone a transformation,” said Mark Miller, the chief operating officer of Merritt Clubs. “We have decided to play chess not checkers, as we call it, and we are trying to operate on a new paradigm and focus.”

The most literal example of this metamorphosis is the company’s rebrand from Merritt Athletic Clubs to Merritt Clubs in early 2017.

According to Miller, they wanted members to think of the brand as more than just a gym or health club, but rather an extension of its members’ lives. And after learning the word “athletic” in the previous name was intimidating and preventing people from joining, the change was a no-brainer.

“We offer so much more than just a place to exercise,” explained Miller. “So, we dropped Merritt ‘Athletic’ Clubs and emphasized the word ‘clubs’ to represent a place where people belong.”

A functional training area at Merritt Clubs Canton.

The rebrand made sense from an overall branding perspective as well, with the goal of better aligning Merritt Clubs with Merritt Properties and Merritt Construction — which together fall under the parent brand Merritt Companies. 

“It made the most sense to bring all three divisions of ‘Merritt’ under one brand: Merritt Companies,” explained Miller. “Our marketing teams did an awesome job on this project, and today, our brand recognition is stronger than before.”

The rebrand coincided with a goal for Merritt Clubs to be more service-driven rather than sales-driven. As a result, the company has empowered its teams to do what it takes to fix member issues, including offering a free one-year membership if necessary. It has also offered more services free of charge, versus charging for them.

In addition, Merritt Clubs is currently in the midst of a $9 million capital upgrade throughout all of its nine locations. Recently, its Fort Avenue location was renovated to include a new indoor cycling studio, café and bar, and expanded fitness area. And earlier this year, the brand completed a $20 million expansion of its Canton neighborhood facility.

In fact, the newly-completed Canton project is a perfect example of Merritt Clubs’ commitment to create more value for members. Upon completion, the club was expanded to double its size to accommodate for 20,000 square feet of new fitness space, including an indoor/outdoor turf area and a 67-foot monkey bar system that peaks at 11 feet, expanded indoor aquatic pool, larger kids club and full-service café.

The rooftop at Merritt Clubs in Canton.

And then there’s the crown jewel of the project — a rooftop boasting two pools, a hot tub, seating for 500 guests, a full kitchen and bar, and 360-degree views of the city that sit atop a brand-new, seven-story parking garage with 300-plus spots.

According to Andrew Barranco, the regional operations and aquatics manager for Merritt Clubs, initially the main driver for the project was to secure long-term parking for the membership. Being located downtown, members sometimes had to circle the community in an attempt to find a parking spot.

However, the Canton project quickly evolved beyond that main driver into a vision to create something special for all of the company’s members and the community at large.

“We were really looking at how we could add more value for our members, and wanted to create something that people were going to want to travel to and experience,” said Barranco. “That was a focus in all aspects of the project, from the parking to the turf to the café — everything added value.”

Communicating this vision was vital to ensure members were bought in to the project, considering certain amenities — such as the indoor pool — would be inaccessible during the renovation.

Prior to breaking ground, Merritt Clubs hosted a Town Hall meeting that created a forum in which to announce the project, explain the benefits, set expectations and provide members with the opportunity to ask questions.

And then as plans evolved — for example, when they had to close the basketball court for a time, or when floor layout changes were made — Barranco explained they ensured members were made aware via email, boards in the club and in-person communication.

In the end, the effort was well worth it. “The result is a really ‘wow’ location that helps set us apart,” said Barranco.

Outside of capital improvements, another key aspect of Merritt Clubs’ metamorphosis is its rejuvenated commitment to taking care of its internal teams.

Two years ago, Merritt Clubs decided to “up its employee game,” said Miller, by enhancing compensation, enriching its benefits to pay 85 percent of premiums, adding maternity pay and creating a structured and comprehensive training program for work and life skills. These skills include topics such as communication, how to buy your first home, and tips for proper investing.

“We want our employee benefits to focus on our employees when they’re at work, and to enhance their personal lives outside of Merritt,” said Miller.

In addition, Merritt Clubs has made a concentrated effort to select the right team members who want to stay with the company for the long-term. Its average general manager tenure is over eight years, and its regional team tenure is over 12 years. “This translates to more loyalty, less debt, a smoother sales process and long-term retention,” he said.

As Miller explained, the investment in employee benefits and retention makes sense, when you consider that the company’s staff are the key drivers of its purpose and values.

Mark Miller, COO of Merritt Clubs.

“We live purpose, not policy, and at the end of the day, our teams simply do the right thing and members see it, feel it, and now we hear it,” continued Miller. “However, we still have so much to do. In my opinion, we are just scratching the success surface. We are looking at how we can cover 100 percent of benefits, how we attract and retain team members for life, how we can offer more employee life skills training, and how we can deliver more value for members and our communities. In all we do, it’s about making a difference.”

Ultimately, the key changes Merritt Clubs has made over the past few years have resulted in a company that’s transformed — with a more recognizable brand, clubs that offer greater value, and teams that are more empowered.

And more metamorphosis is still to come.

“We are learning that member expectations are different today and constantly evolving,” said Miller. “This demands that we evolve, too.”

Rachel Zabonick-Chonko

Rachel Zabonick-Chonko is the editor-in-chief of Club Solutions Magazine. She can be reached at rachel@peakemedia.com.

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