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Sunday
Sep302012

Mount Vernon’s Magic

Aaron Volbrecht, the general manager of the Mount Vernon Athletic Club, credits innovation and customer service for its 40 years of success and its future promise.

CBI: The Mount Vernon Athletic Club (MTVAC) recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. That's no mean accomplishment. To what do you credit its success and longevity?

Aaron Volbrecht: Both can be attributed to the strong sense of community that we’ve been able to develop, which has resulted in an unusually large number of long-term members. Some have been active for the entire 40 years. Now their children and even their grandchildren are members. We’ve also differentiated ourselves in the highly competitive Washington, D.C., market by constantly evolving and adding to our services. The changes we make are predicated on a yearly blind survey that goes to all of our members; they have a voice and affect the club’s direction. Based on member input over the past seven years, we’ve built a wellness spa, expanded our tennis department, added a functional training studio, expanded our class offerings and per- sonal training department, and introduced nutrition and corporate wellness programs.

CBI: How did the club celebrate this significant milestone?

AV: We held a gala event that was attended by the owners, employees, members of long standing, and several local dignitaries. In fact, several Virginia officials—State Senate Delegate Scott Surovell (D), State Senator Adam Ebbin (D), and Delegate Mark Sickles (D), presented owner Joan Van Metre and the MTVAC staff with a resolution from the Virginia General Assembly.

CBI: Mount Vernon seems to offer an impressive number of services beneath one roof. What’s the value in doing so, and how do you manage that sort of complexity?

AV: Each department focuses on its own piece of the puzzle, but it also understands how that piece fits into the whole member experience. For example, our tennis pros and personal trainers appreciate how important massage is in the wellness continuum, so they refer their clients to our massage therapists. We train all of our employees about every area of the club, so the member experience is seamless and congruent.

As a result, our members receive the guidance they need to produce optimal athletic performance—to improve their strength and endurance, play a competitive round of tennis, take a shower and dry off in the sauna, receive a massage or a facial, or take a free nutritional seminar. Members who have youngsters can drop them off in the childcare facility or even enter their children in one of our many youth tennis programs, such as the USTA Quickstart program.

By offering a variety of valuable services, we enhance the lives of our members, and also help them save time and gas. Most importantly, though, we provide them with a social outlet that’s focused on their health and wellness. 

CBI: Mount Vernon seems to be very involved in the community. Tell us what it does, and explain how it pays off for the club.

AV: We’ve developed successful partnerships with several local businesses to raise money for them or charities that they support. For example, our annual Swing for Pink fundraiser for breast cancer, which benefits the Inova Mount Vernon Hospital and Inova Alexandria Hospital, has raised more than $85,000 over the past six years. We raise funds for a local Alternative Paths Training School (APTS), a pioneer in educational, behavioral, and vocational programming for students with autism. We’ve partnered with the local Fairfax fire station to conduct a kids’ fun run to help combat childhood obesity, and gave backpacks, sports equipment, and new sneakers to everyone who participated.

Those are just a few examples— I could go on.

The benefits? The club has become a true part of the fabric of the community. It’s regarded as a hub for anything associated with health, wellness, and tennis that occurs in the Mount Vernon/ Alexandria, Virginia, area.

CBI: As an independent club operator, what have been the most challenging issues you’ve had to deal with over the past few years?

AV: The biggest one has been to introduce new systems—both to help us grow, and to create a greater general awareness about all that we do. We’ve reorganized responsibilities in each of our departments and have upgraded our software. We now use a number of venues to reach people—our Website, Facebook, Groupon, Living Social, Troop-Swap, and e-mail drip-marketing, which delivers a set of prewritten messages to prospects and members over a given period of time. Groupon and Living Social have been huge for us, and massage, Zumba, and Cardio Tennis have been our best-performing online promotions.

The club’s location has also been an issue for us. We’re not situated on a main road, and are tucked away behind a mixed-use area, with no signage, and with restrictions on directional signs along the route to the club. To help remedy that situation, we’ve increased our community outreach and done more internal marketing via social media, an e-newsletter, and the drip-marketing system. In addition, we’ve upgraded our technology to enable online reservations and the purchase of services, such as massage, personal training, etc.

We’ve also rededicated ourselves to providing exceptional customer service. While that’s always been a priority for us, we’re now trying to improve upon even the smallest aspects of the member’s experience. For instance, we’ve changed the focus and title of our sales team to “client coordinators,” conveying the understanding that our principal responsibility is to serve clients, not to sell memberships. If we do the service right, we’ll sell memberships. 

CBI: I’m surprised that you didn’t mention the recent recession. How did it affect you, and what were you able to do to minimize its impact?

AV: The recession hit everyone’s business, but we’re fortunate in that we have a large and solid base of long- term members. However, given our location, we have a highly transient population due to the large proportion of government and military personnel, so keeping our numbers strong is an ongoing challenge.

We’ve combated the recession successfully in several ways: by reducing expenses; by boosting revenue by adding specialty classes and clinics, both in the fitness and tennis departments; and by increasing discounts to family, friends, and employees, which has yielded new business for us. The steps we’ve taken help keep the club busy, and also provide natural advertising for our programs.

CBI: Today, one of the greatest competitive challenges facing multipurpose clubs are the no-frills, low-cost providers. Has this been an issue for Mount Vernon, and, if so, how have you responded?

AV: We deal with this threat by providing good value and high-quality service. The low-cost providers are targeting a different segment of the market, one that we’ve strategically decided not to pursue. Our demographic wants one of two things: they’re either very interested in tennis, or they want a high-value, service-rich, community-focused fitness experience. They appreciate the convenience of having access to numerous services, and they also want a safe, fun, and effective environment in which to maintain their health and make new friends. Really, the greatest asset and most effective differentiator we have is the number of friendships we’ve made with our satisfied, loyal, long-term members.

CBI: Let’s return, for a moment, to the digital domain: has your Facebook page proved helpful in terms of creating a community?

AV: Absolutely! During the severe storms that occurred recently in the D.C. area, the first thing that we did was to warn members about the imminent weather; then we posted updates about area power outages. When the club lost power and had to close, we found it invaluable in terms of informing clients. We’ve also used it to promote community causes, post pictures from internal and external events, offer special deals, and invite friends and family to free guest days. When a long-term member passed away recently, we used Facebook to provide memorial service information and a link to the funeral home and memorial page.

CBI: Has the move to online booking for services been equally productive? Has it had a positive impact on business?

AV: It’s increased sales by 20%, while requiring less labor. Many of our employees are commission-only, so, if they’re not serving clients, they’re not making money. Reducing the amount of administrative time involved saves the client time, saves the club money, and keeps the staff more productive.

CBI: The Tennis Industry Association (TIA) recently reported that tennis revenues were down last year. What has your club’s experience been? How do you promote tennis to increase participation?

AV: We’re fortunate to have an excellent tennis staff, and our program has enjoyed exponential growth in the junior and adult categories in recent years. Our High Performance program has received numerous awards, including one designating Mount Vernon the United States Tennis Association (USTA) 2011 Mid-Atlantic Tennis Facility of the Year. Tim Bainton, our tennis director, was named the USTA Virginia Teaching Pro of the Year 2011, and the 2010 USTA Mid-Atlantic Teaching Professional of the Year. And our tennis pro, Patrick Escalambre, was selected as the USTA Virginia Tournament Director of the Year 2011.

Ongoing summer camps, and the development of top local players and programs to support them have helped increase revenues. Our other initiatives—our Cardio Tennis, cross-fit tennis training, free Friday night clinic and social, and providing a place for competitive league play—keep our adult players active and are a natural way to promote tennis and increase participation.

CBI: You’ve recently launched a new division, the Blue Chip Tennis Academy, to better serve the tennis stars of tomorrow. Tell us about it.

AV: For years, our tennis programs have been bursting at the seams. It got to the point that our five indoor courts were no longer adequate to handle the demand, so, in order to expand, we had to think outside the box. We decided that we could continue to grow in the Northern Virginia area, without investing capital, by working with other clubs and making use of their facilities. We reached out first to our local tennis and swim clubs. 

At the moment, we’re managing nine other facilities. The courts’ owners are responsible for the physical maintenance of the property, but we conduct the lessons, clinics, and tournaments. We’re also considering the possibility of getting into complete facility management.

Our plan is to grow this business, adding permanent indoor and outdoor tennis locations over the next five years. We’d also like to launch similar subsidiary brands for our fitness, spa, wellness, and corporate wellness divisions; we already manage the corporate wellness program for the Van Metre Companies, the real estate development firm that owns Mount Vernon.

CBI: What other plans do you have for the club?

AV: Among the objectives enumerated in our five-year plan are maintaining and expanding our successful corporate wellness program, getting our medical-referral program off the ground, and increasing our retention rate among new members. We’re so optimistic about the future that we’re also planning to open a second location.            

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