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State of the Union: Insights from Top Fitness Leaders


Fitness leaders recap 2018 and make predictions for the year ahead. 

Ellen Latham, Co-Founder, Orangetheory Fitness

What are you proud to have accomplished this year? Opening our 1,000th studio in the short eight years we have been franchising was a huge milestone. Today, we’re already at 1,150 locations. Also, bringing our technology to the next level in certain areas was key.

What lessons did you learn in 2018? The continuous conversation around our purpose — which is “to give people a longer and more vibrant life” — is something we want to always remind our network to think and talk about. With our “More Life Campaign” we have had the privilege of sharing so many life-altering stories from our members. What was eye-opening to me is how dramatic some of these stories have been. We actually had a member donate a kidney to another member who couldn’t find a match. That’s life changing.

What are your company’s goals for 2019? Our goals are many, but examples include: open 250 more studios; introduce our amazing new technology; and enter the international market with great gusto. Opening up studios in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Australia and Spain — just to name a few — where the workout is performed in different languages creates a goal of mastering what you do globally. We are putting great efforts into this endeavor.

What trends do you expect will be paramount in the industry in 2019? Fitness trends will be about results, and not gimmicks. Top-notch technology that measures specific results will be in demand. We are excited we are leading the fitness trend in regards to technology and how it is used to measure results. I believe more stretch and programs that offer body release will be attractive.

Jim Worthington, Owner, Newtown Athletic Club

What are you proud to have accomplished this year? During 2018 we launched the largest expansion in our history after a two-year exasperating delay due to government approvals for aspects of the project. We are well on our way to completion of phase one of this three-phase project. This project features the development of the up-and-coming boutique style studio concept within high-end, big-box clubs, which we view as the next new wave for this category of clubs.

What lessons did you learn in 2018? Because of the significant delays on our Breaking Boundaries Expansion project, which we started planning over six years ago, we realized our vision — although well ahead of the curve at the time — is still in the front of the line with current innovation in the club boutique concept. Unfortunately, our early vision was forced to give way to issues of timing and implementation. Execution is a much more difficult aspect of development than one often anticipates. Nonetheless, we feel we are still ahead of the curve.

What are your company’s goals for 2019? In 2019 we look to transition from opening phase one of our major expansion to raising our members’ awareness that providing this high level of service and facility comes at a cost, not only to us, but also to them. We will strive to break the glass ceiling of perception of value versus price. As a club, we are competing with no one in our geographic area, we are in our own category of a luxury/hospitality experience. Our goal will be to educate our members and the community that the value of what we offer incurs a fair fee commensurate with the product we provide.

What trends do you expect will be paramount in the industry in 2019? I think almost without exception everyone will agree technology is a trend that will allow us to implement more efficient service delivery, monitor member engagement and provide opportunities both inside and outside of the club, for example, member recognition, live streaming, etc.

Greta Wagner, Executive Director & EVP, Chelsea Piers Connecticut

What are you proud to have accomplished this year? We did an extensive restructuring of our senior and coaching leadership team over the past 12 months. It was a major undertaking and a stress point for both the business and for me. We’ve stabilized, and I feel good about the long-term strategy, direction of the organization and the people who will help us reach our long-term goals. We have incredible physical plants, but it’s our people who bring our mission to life.

What lessons did you learn in 2018? The landscape of our country and industry is changing, but it’s important to not lose touch with your principle values and the reason we all do what we do — help people lead healthy, productive and prosperous lives which enables them to contribute positively to their communities.

What are your company’s goals for 2019? We will continue to expand our brand, Chelsea Piers Fitness. Our first location opened this past June in Brooklyn and we re-branded The Sports Center in our Manhattan location as Chelsea Piers Fitness. Additional locations in the Tri-state area are being surveyed. We will also continue to reinvest in our existing locations and fine-tune, update and focus on our member engagement initiatives.

What trends do you expect will be paramount in the industry in 2019? I’ll be keeping an eye on technology and the new players in our market. Online platforms, virtual training, available apps, wearables and artificial intelligence will continue as a prominent discussion topic. Real-world vetting of the products and services is important; technology for just the sake of having the latest and greatest isn’t worth much. Having a clear understanding and the right people involved in the process of exploring is critical to instituting a new platform or service.

Jon Brady, COO, Midtown Athletic Clubs

What are you proud to have accomplished this year? We have capped membership at our flagship Chicago club and have had to establish a waiting list for membership. We continue to be very active in our communities and have been hugely successful in raising funds for various charities, including our MindStrong event in Montreal, where we partner with the Jewish General Hospital to raise money and awareness of pediatric mental health. This year we raised over $1 million that will help to serve youth in Montreal.

What lessons did you learn in 2018? We have, unfortunately learned that the technology solutions for managing our businesses are not keeping up with consumer demand or expectation and that we as an industry need to be looking for platforms that better meet our member needs. While there are a plethora of products and apps, solutions and gadgets, very few of them are designed to work within an existing ecosystem. The ecosystem needs to be relooked at and configured to meet not only existing demand, but also future expectations of highly diverse consumer groups.

What are your company’s goals for 2019? To deliver transformative renovations in selected clubs as per our Chicago club model, as well as learning how to best use the data we have access to, to provide services and product recommendations to our members, thereby improving the member experience. 

What trends do you expect will be paramount in the industry in 2019? The continued increase in group training and the expectations of experiential performances from instructors and facilities. The challenge in finding, developing and securing talent in all aspects of the business, particularly in tennis and fitness coaching. Also, the development of virtual reality and artificial intelligence technologies.

Mark Ryan, VP of Member Experience, VillaSport Athletic Club and Spa

What are you proud to have accomplished this year? We are proud to have continued our growth in 2018 by expanding into Northern California with the opening of our San Jose location and the groundbreaking of our club in Roseville. Additionally, we successfully tested several new offerings to enhance our member experience, including a dynamic personal training program, exciting member engagement events, premium membership benefits, and facilities improvements that have had a meaningful impact.

What lessons did you learn in 2018? As the industry continues to grow and consumers are offered an increasing amount of fitness and lifestyle options, members are demanding greater value from their membership. We can do a better job to further understand and serve our members’ needs in order to create a more personalized experience. With the rise in the loneliness epidemic in America, it’s critical we connect with our member community through our club programs, including group exercise classes, small group training, competitive leagues, and social clubs and events. Our people and our culture are our greatest assets. As such, it is paramount we continue to develop employees who are highly passionate about serving others and making a difference in people’s lives.

What are your company’s goals for 2019? With the maturing of our existing clubs and continued expansion into new markets, our goal is to efficiently operate and effectively grow our business. We will introduce new technology to enhance our members’ experiences, particularly in the areas of individual and small group training, group exercise and social programming. Employee development and retention of top talent will be critical areas of focus in 2019, with the implementation of an online learning management system designed to improve the quality and delivery of employee training. Our people are essential to the VillaSport mission, which is to be the best part of our members’ day through engaging hospitality and exceeding expectations.

What trends do you expect will be paramount in the industry in 2019? The adoption of new technology will be important toward fueling member engagement both in and away from the club’s four walls. From biometric measurement and wearable tech; to offering remote access to group classes; to delivering a personalized digital experience that enables members to schedule classes and sessions based on their preferences, trainer or instructor compatibility, and other members’ reviews and recommendations; to providing platforms for social engagement within the club community, I anticipate that leveraging these and other trends will play a key role in how well we keep our members motivated and engaged. Also, the continued growth of boutique studios and fitness communities in our markets is something we are watching closely, as we are innovating with small group training and group exercise programming to meet this demand.

Ralph Rajs, SVP of Operations, Leisure Sports, Inc.

What are you proud to have accomplished this year? This year, we set out to scrutinize every expense line in the clubs and at the corporate office. We went through every contract and agreement we had and asked: Do we need it? Is it cost effective? And, can it be renegotiated? We were able to find substantial savings that did not affect the member experience or the associates’ ability to do their jobs. I am proud of the exercise and the outcome.

What lessons did you learn in 2018? The biggest lesson I learned in 2018 is the power of staying positive even in the face of disruption and uncertainty. In business and in life, things are constantly changing. I learned my outlook and positive reaction to change are the most important part of successfully leading a team and maintaining my own well-being.

What are your company’s goals for 2019? One of Leisure Sports’ goals for 2019 revolves around labor management. Faced with escalating labor costs, our challenge is to maintain our current labor ratios while attracting top talent and maintaining our very high service standards. It has forced us to rethink how we staff, how we program and how we on-board new associates. Our goal is for every department manager to be an expert at utilizing labor management tools and developing the soft skills to manage their people and costs.

What trends do you expect will be paramount in the industry in 2019? Within every club’s communities, there are unique micro-trends happening. In a lot of ways, these are more important than any macro-industry trends. Keeping tabs on how the community demographics are changing is one example. This makes us look at how we market, sell and program a club. How members use the club is changing in all the clubs, but not all are changing in the same way. So really understanding the trends in a specific area is the first challenge. Then overlaying that on the greater fitness industry trends is our call to action.

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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