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Rochester Athletic Club: Member Experience First

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Rochester Athletic Club

Why Rochester Athletic Club filters all decisions through the mission statement “Member Experience First,” and how this has led to their success. 

Every gym has a purpose, unspoken or otherwise.

For Rochester Athletic Club (RAC) in Rochester, Minnesota, its purpose is clear. And that is to create an excellent member experience for people and families from young to old. 

In fact, RAC’s mission statement, “Member Experience First,” is the filter through which all decisions and actions are made. 

“When we go into a new associate training we say, ‘When you’re having an interaction with a member, just think those three words — member experience first,’” said Matt Remick, the president and majority owner of RAC. “We tell them to think, ‘What can we do to put the member experience at the front of whatever decision or action we take?’”

Remick is a second-generation owner who has been part of the organization since 2000. His father, Jack, co-founded the brand in 1993, establishing it as a staple and fan favorite in the Rochester community. 

The mission statement “Member Experience First” was crafted in 2012, a few years after Remick became president of RAC in 2008 and preceding his move to majority owner in 2016. 

“In 2012, it became important to me to build a leadership team that aligned with my vision and goals for the club,” recalled Remick. “That year I hired a new general manager, Brent Frueh, and assistant general manager, Sarah Stille. We created an executive team that includes our human resource director and finance director.”

With all the key players in place, the first thing the newly formed leadership team did was go on a work retreat offsite with the goal of creating a new set of company values and refined mission statement. This is where the phrase “Member Experience First” was born.

“During this retreat we also reimagined our new associate training,” said Remick. “These changes led to eight straight years of membership growth prior to COVID-19. On our busiest days, we had over 3,000 member check-ins.”

RAC’s bullishness on creating an excellent member experience for individuals and families is exemplified in a variety of ways — including its commitment to investing in the gym’s infrastructure and supporting technologies. 

In 2012, under the new leadership team’s direction, RAC partnered with Fabiano Designs to begin a phased approach at renovating 98% of the facility. “Their expertise and engaging the RAC associates who are most familiar with each space allowed us to create a special club for our members,” said Remick.

One of the most significant aspects of the project was the complete overhaul of RAC’s equipment and cardio floor. 

Previously, RAC had purchased equipment from multiple manufacturers. But after seeing the growing trend of equipment vendors offering personalized tracking with member logins, they felt it was important to make the change to one manufacturer for all their equipment needs. 

“This offers our members a more unified experience — same username and password, familiar interface — and helps our ability to maintain the equipment,” said Remick. “Due to this shift in philosophy, we also decided to lease all of our cardio equipment. We leased equipment from Precor with the highest level of personal displays. Out of over 110 cardio machines, 88 are networked.”

In addition, RAC renovated the fitness floor by removing all concrete, which allowed the team to bury the electrical, coaxial and Cat6 infrastructure. “This results in no plastic raceways or tripping hazards between equipment,” explained Remick.  

Another significant aspect of the project involved the renovation of the locker rooms. RAC worked with GANTNER and Club Resource Group to install networked lockers, which ultimately had an impact on the member experience club-wide.

“This was a real game-changer for us and our members,” said Frueh. “The member card changed to a branded silicone bracelet that contains an RFID chip. Members check into the club, access the lockers, sign onto equipment and even make purchases at our point-of-sale locations using their electronic ID bracelet.”

To further streamline the member experience, RAC has also partnered with Virtuagym to create a branded app through which customers can access all club technologies from within one navigation. Members can pre-order food at the gym’s café, shop online and, for an added fee, access over 600 professional group exercise videos.

“The reservation system we have used during COVID is a great feature of the app we did not plan on when we started our working relationship,” added Frueh. 

RAC’s commitment to the member experience is also exemplified through its goal of creating a fun, engaging environment for people and families of all ages.

For evidence of this, look no further than The Neighborhood, a 35,000-square-foot family entertainment center added in 2006 in an effort to specifically improve the experience for the facility’s 7-to-12-year-old age group. 

“We felt like culturally the U.S. had changed a little bit. When many of us were growing up, you could go play with your friends wherever without adult supervision,” said Remick. “We wanted to replicate that in some form and create an offering that would really separate us as a facility.”

For inspiration, the team visited the International Amusement Park Association show and made plans to carve out space for this unique offering.

“We moved several pieces of the existing club around to enhance the layout and offering to our members,” explained Remick. “We have a successful tennis program and we repurposed five of the original indoor tennis courts into The Neighborhood and other amenities. We could not afford to lose indoor courts, so we first constructed a six-court, fabric-framed structure adjacent to the five remaining indoor courts to move our indoor offering to 11 courts. Once we relocated the tennis program to the new courts, construction was started on The Neighborhood.”

Today, The Neighborhood includes a mini-golf course, full-size gym, climbing structures by PlaySmart, trampoline basketball — also known as Aeroball — batting cages, golf cages, synthetic ice, four-person air hockey, electronic basketball and various other games.

This addition has paid off. According to Remick, RAC saw a significant spike in membership after the incorporation of The Neighborhood, plus conversions from individuals and couples to family memberships.

“Although we have an outdoor waterpark, indoor pools, basketball courts and a kids club, The Neighborhood was the final piece of creating a truly family-friendly club,” said Remick.

Of course, there was no greater test of RAC’s commitment to the member experience — kids, families or otherwise — than the COVID-19 pandemic.

RAC navigated two shutdowns from March 17, 2020 to June 9, 2020, and November 20, 2020 to December 18, 2020. Being in the financial position to do so, they chose to pay all staff — full-time and part-time — at 80% of their average January and February earnings during the first shutdown, and at 75% of their September and October earnings during the second shutdown.

“We tell all associates in the new associate orientation they need to step up when it is their turn,” said Remick. “It was our turn to step up as owners. I am proud to have been able to do that, and in hindsight it has brought the team closer. We were ready to go when we reopened both times.”

After the initial shutdown, Frueh and Stille gathered the leadership team to brainstorm what a successful path forward would look like. Unsurprisingly, the member experience was at the forefront of the conversation.

“After the first month of shutdown our management team met every day on our basketball court,” said Frueh. “We spread out around the basketball court and talked about what a reimagined club would look like. The following questions guided our reopening plan: How will the member walk through the club? How will they walk through each area? What will they see? How will they feel safe? How will we foster social distancing? How will we foster proper sanitization? How will we keep our staff safe? What processes will need to be implemented?”

During this talk, they created specific teams — each with their own purpose, goals and action items. Examples included a member communication team, supplies and inventory team, and member flow/front lobby team.

“We also created a point person for cleaning and sanitizing,” added Frueh. “This person worked with each department to develop processes. We developed a reservation process and ultimately created a three-minute video that painted a picture of the member experience.”

With the city of Rochester being home to the Mayo Clinic, a nonprofit academic medical center, the RAC team knew it had to reopen effectively and safely. “To this day, most people who use our club feel safer here than any other business they have visited,” said Frueh. “We feel we will be in a great position to recapture the robust membership we had before COVID.”

In fact, recognizing the RAC’s family-friendly atmosphere and safety protocols, the Mayo Clinic even partnered with the club to be a childcare facility for Mayo Clinic staff on a temporary basis. “That relationship lasted about a month and we served a real need in our community,” said Frueh.

RAC further served families in the community through “Camp Einstein” as part of The Neighborhood. The offering gave working parents a place to send their kids for childcare and virtual schooling with educators and trained staff. 

“Their grade school children received childcare with a structured classroom setting,” explained Stille. “Camp Einstein ended in early March of 2021, but it was an important part of our community and our members’ lives.”

A final example of RAC’s commitment to the member experience during the pandemic came about when the club moved to a blended system of some areas needing reservations, while others did not. 

Reservations are still necessary for areas where RAC has limited availability due to distancing or use, such as the lap pool. However, for use of the fitness floor, locker rooms and The Neighborhood, the team created flexibility in their approach.

“We wanted to improve the experience for our members and no longer tie them to a 90-minute period,” explained Remick. “We wanted to offer something that was more normal and that would allow members to choose when they wanted to come and stay as long as they like, while following the capacity requirements of the state. Minnesota at the time of this interview has a 25% of fire code or 250-person limit, whatever is lower. The 250 is less than 8% of our fire code capacity, so we need to be creative to give the best opportunity for our members to use the club.”

RAC found a solution through Irisys SafeCount sensors. They are bi-directional, counting people going one direction through the gate as an “add” to the count, and going the opposite way as a “subtract” from the count. The team installed the sensors, worked with its website partner and created a simple capacity indicator for members.

“This indicator is available as a pop-out from the right side of any page on our website and as a tile on our app,” explained Remick. “It allows us to comply with the 250 max, while adding flexibility for our members. After the pandemic we will still use it to show how busy the club is for the members who want that information.”

The investment in the Irisys SafeCount technology cost $3,500. For Remick, it was well worth the purchase by giving members peace of mind and flexibility to enjoy the club at a greater level.

At the end of the day, no expense is too much to ensure RAC lives up to its mission statement of “Member Experience First.” Whether it’s leasing all-new equipment, adding a 35,000-square-foot family entertainment center or partnering with organizations like the Mayo Clinic, the team is committed to doing whatever it takes to serve customers in the best way possible.

“As a business owner, you have to reinvest if you’re expecting your members to continue to reinvest in you month after month after month,” said Remick. 

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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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