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Best Club in Town

You’ve seen this type of award many times: “Best of Boston,” “Best of Philly,” “Best of Chicago.”

Lists that rank the “best” and, therefore, most highly desired products and services appear everywhere—in magazines, on Websites, and on television programs in cities large and small throughout the country.

And although some may seem to be little more than popularity contests, motivated, in part, by the sponsor’s desire to increase its readership, audience, or advertising, the truth is, they do provide value. Educated consumers who want some assurance that they’re spending their money wisely make use of these awards to identify the firms (or the club) they want to do business with.

Think of them as a convenient, slimmed-down form of Angie’s List that awards its Seal of Approval to a single company.

For that and other reasons, a “Best Of” designation is something many club owners dream about. It attracts a lot of attention, validates the job a club is doing, sets it apart from the competition, attracts prospects, and makes its current members proud. Beyond that, such an award, if marketed properly, can go a long way toward enhancing a club’s brand, having a distinct impact on its growth, bottom line, and long-term success.

“Awards are always a great validation of your gym’s success,” says Lindsey Richardson, the director of marketing at Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego, who’s moderated roundtable discussions on marketing strategies at IHRSA’s annual convention and trade show. “Because of that, they should be part of the message you get out there describing what a good job your club is doing.”

How can you, first, get your club on a local list, and, then, leverage that honor to the hilt?

To find out, CBI talked with three leading club companies that show up regularly on “Best Of” media lists, to demonstrate how these awards are generally conferred, and how clubs can capitalize on the marketing opportunity they proffer.


Company: Owns and operates nine multipurpose clubs in and around Chicago, and manages four others.

Recent awards: “Best Gym Under $80,” Chicago Magazine, 2013; “Best Club in the Midwest,” Competitor Magazine, 2013 and 2014.

Chicago magazine excerpt: “Beyond the expected features—weight rooms, cardio machines of every ilk, and a packed group fitness calendar—there are many amenities, including indoor lap pools, rock-climbing walls, free parking, onsite baby care, full-service spas, and cafés. Fitness Formula Clubs could compete handily with the upscale gyms in the city...”

Making Chicago magazine’s coveted “Best of Chicago” list in 2013 was no small feat— even for FFC, one of the best-known regional chains in the country. The prestigious monthly, after all, boasts more than 700,000 readers, most of them educated and affluent, and features different business award categories every year. The last time it included a gym category in its “Best of Chicago Lifestyle” rankings was in 2007.

So when, in late 2012, the magazine’s editors called looking for information, the club handled the request very carefully, recalls Jeff Riney, FFC’s vice president of operations. “Rather than just give them answers over the phone, I invited them to meet me at one of our clubs, so I could give them a tour and answer their questions in detail. The plan was to guide their experience to put us in the best possible light—the same way we do with any telephone inquiry about membership.”

After scrutinizing the impressive facilities and amenities offered, and considering what the club charges for membership, the editors named FFC the best lower-priced gym in the Chicago area.

That recognition set into motion a well-orchestrated marketing campaign to make the most out of the honor. Signs thanking the members for helping to make the club great were quickly posted throughout its nine locations. In addition, the company created its own “Chicago’s Best Award” logo and placed it prominently on every page of FFC’s extensive Website, and provided posts and links to the original magazine article on the club’s Facebook and Pinterest pages.

The effort has paid dividends.

Its increased online presence has helped FFC move up on Google’s search engine, “making it a whole lot easier for people shopping for clubs in Chicago to find us,” points out Riney. He’s also convinced that the bump provided by Chicago, which was followed by Competitor magazine’s naming FFC “Best in the Midwest” helped the company post an 8.5% year-over-year increase in membership sales in 2013.

In turn, the resulting increase in sales helped FFC earn a spot on IHRSA’s 2013 Global 25 list, as one of the industry’s fastest-growing clubs, with respect to revenue growth.

“No doubt, the publicity surrounding the award keeps FFC front-of-mind to many consumers and members,” points out Gale Landers, the chain’s founder and CEO. “But we don’t compete to be ‘best.’ We compete to be unique. Competing to be unique thrives on innovation and creating a point of differentiation—when we do that, the ‘best’ ratings often follow.”


Company: Part of the Ochsner Health System, four multi- purpose locations in and around New Orleans, serving approximately 25,000 members.

Recent awards: “Best Health Club,” Gambit, “Best of New Orleans,” 2013.

Gambit excerpt: “Whether you’re a seasoned triathlete training for your next Ironman competition or a child learning to swim, you’ll find the classes, equipment, nutrition advice, and professional support you need to achieve your fitness goals at this 175,000-square-foot center, an outpost of Ochsner Health Center.”

When the readers of Gambit, the city’s most popular weekly newspaper, once again voted the Elmwood Fit- ness Center the “Best Health Club in New Orleans” in 2013, the club’s marketing team was ready to celebrate, and broadcast, that fact. They splashed the exciting news on two 12-by-25-square-foot billboards positioned on two of the busiest highways in the New Orleans area.

“We don’t normally spend a lot of money on any one marketing campaign, but this was a great opportunity for us to get the word out about our quality facilities and staff, and also to thank our members,” says Randy Strassel, the general manager of the center, about the billboard advertising.

Strassel, who estimates that his club spends between $8,000 and $10,000 per month on marketing, notes that Elmwood Fitness has made the Gambit awards list, “something like 18 of the last 20 years”—mainly on the basis of its reputation for providing outstanding personal attention and amenities for its members.

Gambit—an independently owned newspaper and Website, with a print circulation of 40,000, and an online audience exceeding 230,000 visitors, who generate some 600,000 page views per month—is the go-to news and entertainment source in New Orleans. “It’s something that nearly everyone here knows about and looks at, and refers to at one time or another,” says Strassel. “So, of course we want to get on the list.”

How does the center do it? “The truth is we don’t ask our members to vote for us,” he responds. “They do it because they love what we offer here at our clubs, which is something special and individualized for every one of our members.”

In addition to the highway signage, the Elmwood Fitness Center has made mention of its Gambit awards in TV ads, as well as in direct-mail pieces sent out to the prospective members in the community.

And although Strassel admits that the new members gained via the advertising blitz may not always justify the marketing expense involved, he says that the recognition his staff receives is invaluable. “The awards serve as a reminder, to everyone who works here, of how much we’re helping the members of our community achieve their fitness goals,” he maintains.


Company: Seven multipurpose clubs in and around Milwaukee, serving approximately 24,000 members.

Recent awards: “Best Gym,” the A-List, (WISN- TV, Channel 12), 2013.

A-List, reader review: “This club has the best vibe, great staff, and standards that beat every other club. I’ve cancelled three other club memberships due to the WAC being more encouraging to sticking to a plan and executing it.”

WISN-TV’s WISN A-List, which was introduced in 2007 and is now highly coveted in the Milwaukee area, has grown in popularity each year. It currently recognizes 175 award- winning businesses—selected from a pool of more than 4,100 nominees—with the results based on the votes of more than 138,000 local experts, according to

Because of the desirability of being endorsed by the TV station, Ray O’Connor, the general manager at the WAC, and his staff were ready for the most recent award competition in early 2013.

To help remind members about the A-List voting, the club placed a public computer in each of the lobbies of its seven locations, with homepage links posted to and its online ballot page. The club’s marketing department also sent e-mail reminders about the ballot voting to its members, and made mention of it on its Facebook page weeks prior to the voting deadline.

At the same time, O’Connor was careful to handle the situation with a light touch, and to be a little modest. “You can’t ask people to vote for you, but you can certainly make people aware of the awards,” he says, adding quickly, “Our philosophy has always been, ‘yes, we want the recognition.’ But it’s our members who will ultimately decide whether or not we’re deserving.”

What does the award say about the WAC? What’s the award’s true value?

“We’re not the largest club around here, but we’re very fortunate to have incredibly loyal members who think enough of us to vote for us,” replies O’Connor.

“The award has become a way for us to validate what we do, and why we’re doing it. It reinforces, for everyone here, that we’re making a real difference in people’s lives.”

And what could be more rewarding than that?

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