The president of the MVP Sports Clubs invites IHRSA 2016 attendees to visit its premier RDV Sportsplex facility in Orlando.
CBI: One of the most influential relationships in your life is, arguably, the one you have with Richard DeVos, the cofounder of Amway, and his family, who also own RDV Sportsplex, the MVP Sports Clubs, and the NBA’s Orlando Magic. How did it come about?
KARL DROPPERS: I went to college to coach and teach, but, when I got out in the early ’80s, it wasn’t a great time to go into teaching, and schools certainly weren’t paying coaches what they pay today. Fortunately, in 1989, Ben Emdin, a former president of IHRSA, gave me my first job in the industry, as the sales manager of his East Hills Athletic Club chain, based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
After a number of years with the East Hills group, I purchased one of their smaller clubs. At 32, I became the sole proprietor of the 40,000-square-foot Lakeshore Athletic Club, in Holland, Michigan. I’d found my dream job!
CBI: But you didn’t stick with it …?
KD: Things change. In 1995, three years into owning and operating my club, I was approached by the DeVos family to consult on a potential project—RDV Sportsplex, named for Richard DeVos—that they were considering building in Orlando, Florida. After a few visits to the city, I was hired as an operations consultant, and, subsequently, offered the job of director of RDV Sportsplex.
I brought on a partner to help run the club in Michigan and moved my family to Florida. Sixteen months later, I sold the business and committed to developing RDV Sportsplex full-time. We opened the $60-million, 365,000-square-foot facility in 1998.
CBI: Mr. DeVos had a rather unique vision—that of “linking health with sports” and of “connecting” the family’s Orlando Magic NBA and Orlando Solar Bears IHL franchises with the Central Florida community. How did that drive the development of RDV?
KD: Part of it came from the need to have a corporate home and a practice facility for the Orlando Magic. The DeVos family’s passion for community, plus the need for a place to practice, sparked the RDV Sportsplex concept. Florida Hospital is a great organization in the Orlando area, has strong ties with the Magic, and decided to join the DeVoses in this wellness venture.
CBI: Six years later, in 2005, you launched the MVP brand with the MVP Sportsplex in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can’t get much farther away from Florida, from a cultural standpoint. So, why Michigan?
KD: With the success of RDV Sportsplex in Orlando, the DeVos family, who are originally from the Grand Rapids area, were eager to bring that unique blend of health and fitness to their hometown community.
CBI: Between 2005 and 2015, you oversaw the opening of 10 clubs in the Central Florida and West Michigan areas. You describe the resulting group of facilities—e.g., MVP Sportsplex, MVP Athletic Club, MVP Metro Club, etc.—that compose the chain as “eclectic.” Why that adjective?
KD: It has to do with the number of different activities the clubs house. From the beginning, we had to understand both the athletic-club and the sports-management businesses. RDV Sportsplex has two sheets of ice, and is one of the busiest ice rinks in the Southeast. Over the years, we’ve built or acquired two additional sports facilities, which include a dedicated indoor soccer center with five indoor fields; and a multisport property with five indoor basketball/volleyball courts, and four outdoor full-turf fields for football, soccer, and lacrosse.
At our core, we’re a membership-based athletic club company—that’s our bread and butter for operations and profit. Our ownership owns all of its real estate and the operating/management company; the only exception to that is The Villages, two residential facilities for people 55 and older, in Lake County, Florida.
CBI: Is there a corporate philosophy that explains the varied contents of MVP’s portfolio?
KD: We’ve been focused on activity, health, and sports from the start. Our philosophy has always been to play at the highest-quality level possible, to be servant-leaders in our communities, and to make this a fun place to work and belong to.
CBI: How do you balance the challenges involved in managing such a variety of facilities and business units? Are certain services shared or centralized?
KD: Once you get to a third facility, you quickly realize that you either have to release control, and embrace an individual management style, with each building being run separately … or, conversely, institute a centralized model, doing everything in as similar a fashion as possible, in order to grow the brand. We utilize a centralized model, with building directors who are responsible for the day-to-day operation of each facility.
CBI: Do different types of facilities imply a variety of membership types?
KD: Actually, we don’t offer that many different types. We sell, predominately, on a month-to-month basis, with an option for enrollment savings, given an annual commitment. However, we’re monitoring the boutique-studio product line and visit-based pricing—we haven’t gone there yet, but it’s very interesting.
CBI: Speaking of pricing, has the high-volume/low-price (HVLP) club model impacted MVP? Any thoughts on making use of it yourself?
KD: Everyone is a competitor, but, at the same time, everyone also creates fresh prospects. When a HVLP club moves into one of our markets, it generates new lookers and shoppers, people whom we haven’t yet managed to reach. It also generates members, who sometimes realize that they want to move up to a full-service club experience, one with something to offer their kids and families.
In a competitive sense, I’d suggest that we’ve been affected more by smaller, boutique-style, community providers than by HVLP operations—they’ve established a niche among customers who value convenience. When a studio can charge a fee 30% higher than our dues, and provide a service level that competes—that’s something you have to acknowledge.
But, no, we don’t see HVLP as our model. Whatever we do, we want to achieve the highest possible levels of quality and service.
CBI: Returning to MVP’s owners, what sort of working relationship do you have with the DeVos family? How involved are they in the clubs?
KD: Working for the DeVos family has been, and remains, an amazing experience. They’ve given us a great deal of freedom to drive the business, and to create exciting products and programs. They’re always interested in what we’re doing for our people and our communities. They’re very smart businesspeople — great to work with.
I currently report to a “sports” subcommittee of individuals from the DeVos family. I meet with them quarterly to obtain their insights on strategy, planning, and the performance of our operations.
CBI: How do the Florida and Michigan markets compare?
KD: Are we talking February or July? Weather notwithstanding, the two markets actually have quite a bit in common. The economy and demographics are fairly similar. In terms of infrastructure, Western Michigan has an incredibly strong corporate structure that was created in the state, and that’s grown over two or three generations. Orlando’s is a service-driven economy, but features a high-end, technology growth sector, represented by companies such as EA Sports, which develops sports video games.
CBI: How do you feel about the fact that IHRSA 2016 will be taking place in Orlando next March?
KD: It’s great. I’ve only missed one IHRSA convention in 20 years, and this will make it even easier for me to attend. I’m more excited for team members, who don’t ordinarily go to national conventions. They’ll be able to view the industry on a much bigger stage, and consider it within a larger context.
In fact, we’re working with a few of our equipment and programming partners to conduct some special events at RDV during the IHRSA convention. We want people to experience our “wow” factor for themselves, so we’re actively encouraging people to visit RDV. We’re also sponsoring a breakfast with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes near the convention center, and IHRSA attendees are welcome to attend.
CBI: Other than RDV and Disney World, what local attractions would you recommend?
KD: Central Florida is an amazing place. On the bucket list for anyone should be an Orlando Magic Game at Amway Center; a stroll down Park Avenue in Winter Park for dinner (Luma on Park is a great option); a visit to “restaurant row” on Sand Lake Road for some amazing dining options (Seasons 52 is a favorite); Orlando’s new Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts; and a Cirque du Soleil performance at the convention center.
CBI: What’s next for MVP?
KD: Well, we’ve built two new clubs over the past two years, and we just opened MVP Well-Fit, a 6,500 square-foot, dedicated senior facility, in Grand Rapids. I’m not sure what’s coming next, but we always want to make sure that all of our units are operating at the highest level.
CBI: Finally, you joined MVP in 1996, as “an original employee.” Did you plan to spend your entire career there?
KD: I’m a firm believer in “one-day-at-a-time.” I thought I’d get bored eventually, but working for this organization offers new challenges every day. I get to do so many things in my job and in the community. I still enjoy coming to work, and I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be. But, if God has a new plan for me tomorrow, I’ll happily move on.