A look into the hard work that led Kevin McHugh to The Atlantic Club and how he’s pushing the industry forward with the help of his team.
American television screenwriter, producer and author Shonda Rhimes once said, “Dreams are lovely. But they are dreams. Fleeting, ephemeral, pretty. But dreams do not come true just because you dream them. It’s hard work that makes things happen. It’s hard work that creates change.”
Kevin McHugh, the president and COO of The Atlantic Club, knows first-hand how far hard work can take you.
After receiving his MBA and not seeing any opportunities in his field, McHugh decided to become a professor at his local junior college. In addition, he opened a small consulting firm where he helped two insurance companies’ teams prepare to pass the Series 7 exams.
As McHugh waited for the economy to rebound, he took on additional jobs that included a package sorter at UPS as well as a painter at The Atlantic Club in Manasquan, New Jersey. McHugh began his days painting at 4 a.m. to be done by 9 a.m., just in time for his next job. Most days, he would be consulting and training insurance companies until noon and then teach four afternoons and evenings per week at the college.
“One morning I ran into Patricia ‘Pat’ Laus, the owner of The Atlantic Club, because she liked to swim around five o’clock in the morning,” said McHugh. “Pat had noticed I was a new painter and was confused why I was working so early in the morning. I explained the many job roles I had at the time that I was juggling. I expressed my gratitude for having the opportunity as I was waiting to reenter the job market environment that would utilize my experience and education.”
The next day McHugh received a call from Laus about a potential position that had just opened in her sales department. While grateful, he had to turn it down because he’d already accepted a job in Chicago.
“Pat asked me if I would just consider traveling that upcoming weekend to join her and a group of managers who were going to Boston for the IHRSA Sales and Marketing Conference and meet with John McCarthy,” said McHugh. “I had a very memorable conversation with John. He asked me before departing our meeting if I had made my final decision. His last comment was so powerful to me: ‘If you want to be responsible for changing and improving the lives of people in your community and beyond, I think you know the right choice for you in the future.’”
After that conversation, McHugh became the director of marketing and sales for The Atlantic Club and began his 30-year career with the company changing lives.
Over the years, McHugh has worn many hats. From overseeing antique shows, being the first headmaster of the onsite Atlantis Preparatory School, rebuilding the Tennis Center and then expanding it twice, launching The Atlantic Club Red Bank location, opening two new Milagro Spas and Salons, and numerous other initiatives, McHugh said nothing would be possible without the tireless support of Laus and the team at The Atlantic Club.
“We had a very aggressive vision, and Pat also had that ability to think nothing was impossible,” said McHugh. “We went after a lot of things. I was responsible for owning them until I could pass it off. And if it worked, it worked. If it didn’t work, we just got rid of it. We’re not afraid of going into anything new. But Pat always said it’s got to be within health, education and recreation.”
One of those initiatives was to become the best commercial fitness center in the industry.
In 2012, the facility received its medical fitness certification that opened the doors to both the physicians and the hospital network in the community. Continuing this trajectory, the club was awarded its Medical Fitness Facility Certification by the Medical Fitness Association in January 2023.
The Atlantic Club successfully completed The Medical Fitness Facilities Certification with 100% score in each of its facilities following an intensive two-day site visit by two independent medical fitness certified examiners. It now joins 44 other certified fitness centers throughout the entire industry.
“The Atlantic Club in Manasquan is proud to be the largest certification of any fitness facility in the medical fitness industry,” said McHugh. “It required over 600 staff members to be personally involved over the past six months in all aspects of the certification. It was not only an excellent team building process but also provided a much stronger foundation for the future of our business.”
Another way the facility is solidifying its future is through The Cooper Wellness Center at The Atlantic Club.
Having been in the medical fitness sector since 2011, McHugh said they believed they were in a position to work with not only hospitals but also world-class institutions.
“We explored many possibilities such as Johns Hopkins, The Mayo Clinic and had the opportunity to visit The Cooper Clinic in Dallas, Texas,” explained McHugh. “We met with The Cooper Wellness Strategies Group — Brad Wilkins, Dr. Kenneth Cooper, Dr. Tyler Cooper and their amazing group of leaders. It was clear Cooper Wellness Strategies was the perfect match.”
While the Cooper Wellness Center at The Atlantic Club has been around for over a year, the first programs weren’t launched until October 2022. In February 2023, The Atlantic Club began its Living with Arthritis and Living with Diabetes programs. Additional offerings that will soon roll out include Woman’s Health and Our Health, Fitness 101, and the Cooper Tracks which are focused on heart, cancer and Parkinson’s disease.
“We understand The Atlantic Club is still pioneering this sector and investing time,” said McHugh. “Our capital in 2023 is to be able to offer one of the most comprehensive chronic and preventative care centers, which is in addition to our outstanding team of fitness professionals, programs for all ages, equipment and our tremendous facilities for the traditional member. Medical fitness is engrained throughout all areas of the club and truly raises the bar for quality in all areas of the business.”
While the programming for the Cooper Wellness Center at The Atlantic Club is just now taking off, Toni Ann Visco, an instructor at The Atlantic Club, said she can already see the impact it’s making.
“My favorite part of working with the Cooper Wellness Center at the Atlantic Club is making a positive difference in people’s lives,” said Visco. “I have experienced all-around improvement in the participants’ quality of their daily lives after taking our programs. Many have come back to me and specifically said they appreciate how much better they feel and can move around with more ease and strength.”
Visco added members stand to gain strength as well as better balance, flexibility, stability and cardiovascular health from taking the Cooper Wellness Center at the Atlantic Club’s programs. “Making a difference in people’s daily lives is the most rewarding experience,” she said. “To see someone coming from a very deconditioned state of fitness and becoming a person who is feeling better and more motivated to keep on moving forward is bar none.”
Dr. Tyler Cooper, the president and CEO of Cooper Aerobics, said he hopes the success they’ve experienced in The Atlantic Club partnership will create more opportunities to expand their shared vision all over the world through Cooper programs.
“Working with Kevin McHugh and The Atlantic Club team has been a great experience as he shares our vision of making real change in people’s lives,” said Cooper. “He looks at it from a holistic perspective of a community trying to create real change beyond just going to a fitness center. Our facilities are more than just gyms — we want to improve the quality and quantity of people’s lives. Kevin and his team are enthusiastic, cooperative and passionate about transforming the lives of others for the better.”
While it’s clear the Cooper Wellness Center at The Atlantic Club is making positive impacts on The Atlantic Club community, McHugh isn’t stopping there. He has his eyes set on a bigger goal to change even more lives — working as one industry in each state on positive advocacy efforts.
“I am very passionate about industry advocacy,” said McHugh. “It’s a responsibility for all individuals in the industry to be involved in our advocacy. It starts at the top and can easily channel itself throughout any organization. The most important potential negative impact to our business isn’t the other clubs in our marketplace. The biggest danger is our positioning and the negative perspective that government officials have of our industry at all levels.”
In New Jersey, The Atlantic Club was a part of restarting the NJ Fitness Alliance. The club worked with the governor’s office to develop workable guidelines. Although they were closed longer than the team wanted to be during the pandemic, McHugh said they now have acceptable guidelines including steps to eliminate the restrictive business parameters implemented during COVID-19.
McHugh also helped develop a New Jersey Fitness Leadership Team of approximately 12 individuals who were successful in securing 11 of the 12 House of Representatives and both their Senators in New Jersey to cosponsor the GYMS Act.
While the GYMS Act failed in the Senate by seven votes after passing The House of Representatives, McHugh said it was a great energizer for the industry and the first time it came together and took responsibility for meeting local, state and federal politicians.
“Our clubs need to stay relevant and more active in their state and federal positive advocacy efforts to never let what happened to us with COVID-19 or prior state taxation legislation happen again,” said McHugh. “We need to work as one industry in each state on positive advocacy efforts that will help our members as well as our businesses with legislation such as The PHIT Act which would grant members the ability to use their health savings account and flexible spending account for expenses such as chronic disease programs and health club memberships. This will be one of the first positive fitness industry legislations if passed in the upcoming year. It’s the start of game-changing legislation.”
Political advocacy will be an uphill climb of changing preconceived notions legislators have of the industry. It will take collaboration, tenacity and a lot of hard work. Luckily, McHugh has never been afraid of facing a challenge or taking on another project.
From advocate and headmaster to president and painter, McHugh is the jack of all trades and willing to help push the industry where it needs to go.
“I do not believe anything is impossible,” said McHugh. “The solution is always out there if you are willing to look for it.”