When Mark Stevens was 22 years old, he was a senior at Abilene Christian University and on his way to becoming an RN. However, at 22 years old, life has a tendency to throw you curveballs that readjust your perceived life goals.
For Stevens, this curveball came in at a blistering 95 miles per hour, and had about a three and a half foot curve. Stevens had started learning about physical medicine and cardiac rehab at Big Country Sports Rehabilitation in Abilene, Texas.
“We were doing a program through cardiac rehab at the local hospital in Abilene,” Stevens said. “I vividly remember, it was Friday the 13th, we were doing some exercise testing and had some clients and patients in. We were doing some EKG monitoring and we had three of them code status.
“The attending physician said put them on the gurney and roll them to the emergency room. Two of them were DNR — Do Not Resuscitate — basically said, ‘hold their hand and watch them die.’ At that time, young immature, not sure what I wanted to do, I learned very quickly I wanted to be on the side of the industry where people wanted to be, not where they had to be.”
Seven Years Time
Almost 23 years later, Stevens, the Regional Director of The Houstonian’s Clubs and Spas, has accumulated almost 26 years of experience in the fitness industry. However, over the past several years, he has devoted his energy to making The Houstonian not only a fitness facility, but a fitness country club.
The beginning steps in becoming a fitness country club began with a time-honored tradition that had gone out of style before Stevens took charge — a member advisory board.
The board had existed during the early years of The Houstonian, but had dwindled away as the club lost some of its luster. However, when rebuilding that luster, Stevens executed the advisory board with ease.
“It’s comprised of members of all ages,” Stevens said. “We even have a member that is 81 years old.” This allows The Houstonian members to be heard and effective at getting changes made. “We do a little bit of everything; we do mix and mingles — we do member orientation once a quarter so that they are meeting other folks, and they are meeting our team. We also listen to our members and try to cater to their expectations and needs — whether it be a social event, a margarita night around the pool, a jazz night out on the meadow or a dive-in movie for kids and families in the pool. We try to really meet or exceed the expectations or needs.”
Every one of the 12,000 to 14,000 members has a voice at The Houstonian. It’s that voice that helps the club stay modern and in touch with developing trends. One trend that found its way to the surface was club-developed clubs. Sounds odd, but these clubs within the club give members and employees a way to follow their passions.
“We encourage our employees to follow their passions,” Stevens said. “If they love training for triathlons, start a club. Even if it has been done before, we encourage someone to try again. You never know what new spin may get people involved.”
The employees host and take charge of triathlon, running, cycling and other sports clubs. The members take charge of leagues that operate within the club. Most of the leagues revolve around racquet sports, such as tennis and racquetball.
“If a new member joins that played tennis in college or is really good, they will be asked to join a league,” Stevens said. Members have attempted to start other leagues, such as basketball, but they have never taken off like tennis.
In fact, tennis leagues became such a high demand among members that The Houstonian had to expand. “The key to a club’s success is the social aspects,” Stevens said. “We do a little bit of everything. We originally had eight outdoor tennis courts — outdoor only. Because of the Texas heat here in Houston we wanted to do something different and their aren’t a lot of clubs here in Houston that have indoor courts.
“We knew we couldn’t do indoor for all of them, it wouldn’t meet our member expectations. So, we decided to completely redo our tennis and racquet sports program. We designed a facility that has four indoor courts and five outdoor courts, two outdoor paddle courts and what we call the racquet sports pavilion that serves as a social function, hangout spot and great place to watch matches.”
In with the Youth
The youth at The Houstonian has played an integral role in the club’s development. “Originally we were more of a singles oriented club,” Stevens said. “However, as people do, our singles have become older, gotten married and had children of their own.”
Now The Houstonian has morphed into a bi-cultural club, engaging both singles and families simultaneously. The Houstonian has done a great job with its pool area to give separation to singles, while also providing areas that are more family oriented.
Stevens discussed the importance of the children in the club. The Houstonian has a Youth Director that creates activities for children and gets them active and introduces them to new activities.
Aside from adult tennis leagues, The Houstonian plays host to youth leagues as well. The club is even catty-corner from the Fay School, a private education facility. The Houstonian allows the school to use the tennis courts as part of physical education class. “Routinely, throughout the day, one of our tennis professionals will walk across the street and meet the kids at the school, take the kids back to the courts and provide them with an hour to an hour and a half of instruction. We do that on average two or three times a day with different age groups.”
“We have a phenomenal kids program,” Stevens said. “It starts with our Youth Manager. She is highly active with our members’ children. She knows every one of them by name; she knows the parents and they trust her with the safety and comfort of their kids. That has kind of bled over to our junior tennis league.”
Stevens said the parents are also a major factor in getting the kids involved in tennis leagues. “With our membership interest in racquet sports, they want their kids to be involved,” he said. “We have certainly seen the benefits of that. We have a phenomenal tennis professional that runs our junior program. He is one of the constants that has been involved in that program over the last 12 years. He is always there, always on the court; kids know they can go to him. He is a phenomenal teacher and very kid friendly. He challenges them and can also recognize talent. He encourages them to play at a higher level or get involved in competition around the city.”
The tennis and padel professional, Leo Contini, has been with The Houstonian since 1998. He competed with the USA Padel Team in the 1996, 2002, 2004 and 2008 world championships of padel.
“We have registered dieticians on staff,” Stevens said. “Ours are athletes as well as clinicians. They understand the fitness minded individual. They have the ability to put it into the American Heart Association guidelines, but they can also put it in the athlete’s perspective. It becomes real to our membership.”
The registered dieticians will meet The Houstonian members at the grocery to help them shop. They show them exactly what they need to purchase in order to match lifestyle and health. Also, they host dinners at local restaurants and at one of the many Houstonian restaurants on its 20 acres where the dietician can order for the members and show them exactly what to eat. “They will actually go with you, talk to you about the menu, what’s in the menu; they’ll talk to you about what to order, and they teach you how to live a healthy lifestyle in today’s world,” Stevens said.
Additionally, The Houstonian has the Voyagers Program — a program for seniors that focuses on the needs of the older generation at The Houstonian. Stevens said the concept came about before he was at the club, but it required a lot of study.
“They went to places that had successful programs and they asked what had made them successful,” Stevens said. “They built a program that wanted to serve our membership as our membership aged. That’s where the Voyager came from. We are all on a Voyage and we are all going on a Voyage together.”
Originally, the Voyager Program was intended to be a component of membership. “Apparently, after a year, people didn’t want a Voyager membership, but they wanted the benefit of the Voyager service,” Stevens said. “The program is highly successful. The majority of our participants are the age 75 and older. We’ve struggled with that active aging model, because as we’re all actively aging we are remaining fit, healthy and vibrant longer, and when our Voyager coordinator walks around the corner and sees someone that is 50, 55 or 60 years of age, he’ll tell you that typically the member will turn around and run away. It’s like the grim reaper coming around the corner.”
Stevens said that the younger people that are members in the club, as they’ve aged have been active for long periods of time. “An active healthy person doesn’t want to be associated with a senior,” he said. “They see themselves as, ‘I can do a traditional class and I can go in there with those 40 and 45 year olds.’”
The Houstonian just started a new program called “Just for Men.” “We started off with about three individuals that didn’t have medical, but physical limitations,” Stevens said. “They were aging and they were having some balance issues. Now we have about 25 gentlemen in that class on a regular basis, working with limitations they may have. But, if you want to talk about a bonding experience, these guys may not have known each other, but you would think they have grown up together and served in the war together. If you want to hear stories and camaraderie, go to that class. It’s like the ‘good-ole-boys’ club. It’s awesome.”
“A lot of people refer to these facilities as satellite facilities,” Stevens said. “They’re not, they’re stand-alone health clubs. They have The Houstonian name on them, but while we are 125,000 square feet, The Houstonian Lite are 15,000 square feet.”
The two Houstonian Lite locations are in corporate settings in downtown Houston. “The idea is the express concept,” Stevens said. “Come in, get fit, get out, kind of thing. Very high-end service with The Houstonian look and feel, with the knowledge of the team and staff, but very much an express type organization.”
The Houstonian Lite has allowed The Houstonian as a brand to stretch throughout the entire city, engaging more citizens on a daily basis.
Where The Industry Grows
Like most fitness industry experts, Stevens has a desire to lobby and come to a working agreement with the government, medical community and insurance companies. “I think the American population has had just about enough of high-priced premiums,” he said. “Maybe there is a way in the future to partner with those organizations to recognize the value of preventative health measures. Maybe lower insurance premiums. If I’m a non-smoker I get a discount at the doctor. I think preventative care is going to become more of a common place where people are more interested in getting fit, staying fit and as a result reaping some benefit.”
These goals probably won’t happen anytime this year, but they are long-term desires. With the overweight population still being a vast majority of the world, there needs to be something in place to get everyone motivated. “More than just their personal health, but because their not a smoker or a drinker, they need some kind of a discount or reward for their efforts.” -CS
By Tyler Montgomery