South Beach Style

There is never enough time for Terry Dezzutti, the COO of Merritt Athletic Clubs. Since coming on in 1996, Dezzutti, 55, has spent all his energy taking the already successful club in the Baltimore area even higher.

How has he done so?

It’s been a long ride that is just now reaching the end of its destination — to be a five-star health and fitness club. To reach such a prestigious goal, Dezzutti has had to think outside the box and do things with his clubs that both reflect the Baltimore market, and separate them from other clubs.

Welcome to the Nightlife

Like many clubs in the summer, Merritt Athletic Clubs were struggling to entice members to its clubs. Members wanted to be outside in the nice weather, walking around a warm vibrant city.

According to Dezzutti, Baltimore is the type of community that thrives on an active social scene. Not only is it assisted by Johns Hopkins University, but they also play home to the Baltimore Ravens, Baltimore Orioles, and a multitude of waterways for boating and water sports.

Pools were thriving in the daytime and bars into the night. Dezzutti took notice and decided to implement a combination.
It might be odd to think about a health and fitness club being associated with a bar, but more commonly the two are going hand-in-hand. To help summer attendance, Dezzutti decided to implement outdoor swim facilities.

The facilities gave members a place to socialize during the day and cool off during the hot summer months. “The summers used to be dead for us, and six or seven years ago we decided we wanted to be the place to be,” Dezzutti said. “Last year we built our first wave pool and it’s been a big wow. Our retention levels have stopped falling and sales are up.”

They’ve continually added more pools and social amenities. “At our Ford Avenue club, last year we built a pool bar and this year we are building a sun deck around the pool,” he said. “As that becomes more social, we have DJs and people hanging out all day playing beer pong and water polo, and meeting new friends.”

At their club in Canton, on Saturday night, they give the pool area a complete makeover. They turn the club into a Miami South Beach nightclub referred to as Aqua. For members the entrance is free, but it’s $10 for everyone else.

The club has a liquor license and brings in local DJs to spin until 2 a.m. “We use a lot of lighting and music, and it becomes a night club. That becomes a great source of lead generation,” Dezzutti said. “That gets us out of the realm of a regular health club chain in the summer.”

Dezzutti said the nightclub has been in operation for about six years. “It took off from the very beginning,” he said. In the beginning, the nightclub was driving in traffic of over 1,000 people a night. Over the past couple of years the numbers have barely dwindled to about 800 people due to direct competition from other local night clubs.

[zanmantou type=”audio” file=”″ title=”Interview with Terry Dezzutti, COO of Merritt Athletic Clubs”]

Above: Merritt Athletic Clubs COO Terry Dezzutti interviewed by Club Solutions Magazine Editor Tyler Montgomery

Everyone Gets Results

It’s safe to say that the vast majority of clubs are in business to get members results. Merritt Athletic Clubs take that responsibility extremely serious.

Once a person becomes a member of Merritt Athletic Clubs, they are inundated with the Results Program. “It’s unique in our market,” Dezzutti said. “When you join you have the ability to opt into this program. You have to show up twice a week and you have to initially meet with a health advisor.

“In that six weeks, if they don’t see results, we give them their money back. Initially, we test their BMI, thigh measurement and cholesterol. At the end of the six weeks, if we haven’t lowered one of those three things, they will get a full refund.”

Dezzutti feels that this program helps new members get involved and keeps them motivated. “Once they get involved in the program, they will get into a routine and start to like exercising,” he explained.

Getting new members results is just the first step. Merritt then transitions its focus to the kids. It has teamed up with the famous Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps.

Phelps had one aquatic academy in Baltimore, already. Developing the partnership gave members at Merritt more locations to train. With the inclusion of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore — a top two, Division III swim club — swimming is a major competitive sport. Therefore, the partnership with Phelps has enhanced Merritt’s reach within the aquatic market.

“When we met with him, we had several swimming facilities already, and we discussed with him to become a spokesperson for our facilities,” Dezzutti said. “We reached an agreement and now we are using his protocols and practices as part of our system.

“It helps with community awareness. People know the work ethic that he has and we are using that to inspire kids to come in and start exercising.”

Still Attracting Members

Group X does a lot for clubs all across the country, and Merritt Athletic Clubs are no exception. “We’ve made a major investment over the past five years with Les Mills,” Dezzutti said. “I would say they do such a great job of choreographing the music and changing the programs that it inspires everybody. Now we are in the process of expanding all of our rooms and adding music and light fixtures to become more of an entertainment value while they are in there.”

There are ups and downs to installing extra lights and audio to boost the Group X experience. Dezzutti said one woman complained that she became dizzy due to the lights spinning. However, out of the vast majority of club members that participate in Merritt’s Group X, she has been the only complaint.

“People seem to like it because of the entertainment value,” he said. “We’ve also seen Group X change in other areas. Personal training for example, has turned into groups of three to five people because it saves time and money. For people who are looking to workout quickly, we’ve put in these fast track circuits. There are trainers that put members through machines and they get a good workout in half an hour as part of their membership. We are looking at obstacle courses and how we can incorporate those in the future.”

Group X is continually changing at Merritt. “People need a friend, they need a buddy, and Group X gives them that opportunity,” Dezzutti said. “When you have someone that pushes you every day, you show up and you get results.

“In the future people will be doing classes for specific body types and specific ages. You’ll see more seniors working on balance classes with balance boards to get through their daily life.”

However, to simultaneously connect with the youth and seniors of Baltimore, where could one man find enough time? Somehow Dezzutti has done the impossible. He has found time to create a harmonious balance between the two and still continue to grow and improve — teaming with Phelps, a nightclub atmosphere, family-oriented pools and special senior-focused Group X classes are all examples of this effort.

In a continually evolving market, Dezzutti must stay aware of trends for all populations. In fact, for the most part, Merritt’s demographics are pretty equal across the board — that means, with the nightclub atmosphere, summer pools, gym equipment and ever-changing Group X classes, all demographics must be reached. And, even when it has seemed impossible to wrap all that into a nine-club, Elite Sports Club Network, Dezzutti and his team found a way to do so.

It’s not a surprise the ideas Dezzutti has implemented at Merritt Athletic Clubs. He’s spent 30 years in the fitness industry, starting when he was 19 years old at Broome Racquet Club in Binghampton, NY.

After he graduated from State University of New York in Portland, NY., he felt a desire to pursue a life in fitness. “I always liked the atmosphere,” Dezzutti said. “People are always trying to stay healthy and you’re in a positive environment.”

After college Dezzutti worked at several health clubs, starting at the Denver Sporting Club. From there he found himself traveling across the U.S. looking for great opportunities and clubs trying inventive ideas.

In 1996, when Dezzutti took his role at Merritt Athletic Clubs, he became an active member of Rex Rountables. “I enjoy hearing from other CEOs in other industries,” Dezzutti said. “I listen to their ideas and think about how they can be implemented in our industry.”

It’s that constant attempt to think outside the box that has made Merritt Athletic Clubs a poolside-gathering place during the summer, a nightclub on Saturday nights and a place for people in Baltimore to get fit all year. -CS

By Tyler Montgomery

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