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Entries in Phil Wendel (8)


Lessons in Fitness Leadership: Treat Customers and Employees Well

The Lessons in Fitness Leadership series highlights IHRSA’s industry leaders and thanks them for their continued commitment to growing, promoting, and protecting the health club industry. By sharing their business expertise, we hope that you will get to know them, what they've learned along the way, and how they view leadership. 

Phil Wendel
Charlottesville, VA

What is the most fulfilling part of being a business leader in the fitness industry? 

This is a feel good way to make a living. At ACAC, we say that we help people “live their best.” We’re part of the solution to America’s healthcare crisis. So, while we’re making a living we’re also helping other people live.

If you were able to go back in time, what is one piece of leadership advice you would have given your younger-self about working in the fitness industry?

1. Focus on sales, sales, sales. I’ve had two jobs. The first was at a student travel company, and the second was in this industry. I started a fitness center (ACAC) in 1984. When we started, we focused on tremendously building the top line. I had a piece of advice I would always give to anyone that put a great idea on my desk; I would ask them—do you have someone that can sell this?

2. If your business is based heavily in sales, make sure there are an equal number of people working to manage the expense side of your business.

3. Treat your customers and your employees extremely well.

What prompted you to join the Industry Leadership Council (ILC)?

Any industry is far more effective if it has somebody that represents your common interests. IHRSA’s most effective tool and their best work—other than providing an A+ convention every year—is their work on fighting sales tax battles.

One of the best IHRSA member benefits is allowing individual club operators to contribute to legislative outcomes. Collectively we are stronger. Together we have a broader and more effective voice than any of us can have individually. 


$23,950 raised through ACAC membership drive donated to B&G club

ACAC President Phil Wendel, right, presents a check for $23,950 to, from left, Boys & Girls Club of Central Virginia Executive Director James Pierce, Board President-Elect Wistar Morris, and Board President Kate Zirkle. Photo by Jen McCallum The recent ACAC Fitness & Wellness Centers’ membership drive, 25 Days for 25 Dollars, was a win-win-win situation.

Not only did the clubs benefit, but those who joined will become healthier by working out a club. The third winner was the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Virginia, which recieved 100% of money raised.

ACAC Owner Phil Wendel presented the check for $23,590 on Wednesday.

“The Boys and Girls Club of Central Virginia does exceptional work in Charlottesville and Albemarle for those most in need, and they accomplish so much with limited resources,” said Wendel. “We couldn’t be prouder to support such a worthy organization.” 

ACAC also is working with youth in the club in an effort to combat childhood obesity. Children ages 6-9 can spend time with staff twice per week. 

The close to $24,000 will allow the Club to remain open longer, better sports leagues and to implement more fitness activities and programs.  


Opinions differ on how and when to 'fire' a member

Best Practices saw Bill McBride, Rich  Andrae, Phil Wendel, Brent Darden, Chez Misko and Brad Wilkins all weigh in for a quandary: whether it is worth getting rid a member who is often late or misses personal trainer sessions, as well as continually complaining about the club.

"We have a member/personal training client who continually shows up late, cancels workouts at the last minute, and always seems to have something to complain about while she is at the club.  It has become increasingly difficult to work with her and we have even received a few complaints from other members – is it possible to 'fire' a member?"

A. I had just such a situation. It seemed that no matter what we did it was not right for this person. I even put her on one of our Club Committees in the hope that she would see a little of what it takes behind the scenes to make the club run, and all she did was upset every member on the committee. Luckily for me, she was a relatively new member (less than 3 months). I brought her into my office and told her that despite our best efforts, we were obviously not the club for her so I refunded all her monies (including the initiation deposit and monthly dues) and told her to go find a club that better suited her needs. At least when she complained to someone else about how “bad” she thought we were if they asked what happened, she had a “good” story to tell that we refunded her money. 

Rich Andrae
Wellness & Recreation Director
The Briar Club


A:  In a heartbeat you can 'fire' a member. Just as is the case with a difficult employee, you must do the value equation:  "Is this person worth more than the trouble they are causing?”  If the answer is no, let her go. On the other hand, if she's spending tons of money on personal training, then you determine if the revenue stream is worth the difficulties she is causing. 

Our clubs charge the client for personal training if they are no-shows. They must call 24 hours in advance to cancel a session. If they don't call within the 24-hour period, then their account is charged. If she's late for a session, I wouldn't extend her session beyond the time she had booked. 

On the Legal side, does your 'membership contract' allow you to 'remove a member at your discretion?

Phil Wendel
ACAC Fitness & Wellness Center


A: Yes, it is very possible to “fire” a member, but just as with an employee, you should have a process so that you are treating members fairly. I think in this case, you might want to start with a Personal Training agreement that outlines the prices, “policies/expectations”, etc.  If you are late for a session, your session will be cut short and end upon it’s originally scheduled end time. Sessions not cancelled within 24 hours in advance will be charged (either fully or half rate) - you set the expectations in the beginning so the client is aware. Additionally, when there is an issue, someone (either the trainer, Fitness Director or GM) needs to privately have a conversation with the client to let them know their behavior is affecting others adversely. First offense, verbal; second, written; third, terminate the membership. Always use common sense and discretion. As a private club you have to protect the environment of your staff and other members and create a comfortable atmosphere. Of course you want to make sure your staff never discriminates by treating individuals differently/adversely or making any decisions based on any form of discrimination. There are times when you have to tell a member what is acceptable and what is not with regard to their behavior in the club.

Bill McBride
President & COO
Club One, Inc.


A: In short, yes it is possible to ask a member/client to take their business elsewhere, and it sounds as though this may be best for everyone involved based on your description. In these situations, which are more common than you might think, one person can negatively influence the club experience for your staff, other members, and even prospects. A good process is to schedule a private meeting between this individual and the general manager, to share the impact her behavior is having on other people and the business in very straightforward manner. Explain the policy for late cancellations, including possible fees, as well as the club’s desire to provide a positive, stress free, uplifting environment to support the pursuit of a healthy lifestyles. Then communicate your position that, based on her continued dissatisfaction, it seems the club is just unable to meet her expectations, and it may be best for her to seek other alternatives that can do so. Often, these chronic complainers react with surprise and claim their comments are only intended to help, even pledging their admiration for the club and desire to remain a loyal member. If this occurs, and you are willing to provide her a second chance, outline your expectations regarding her behavior going forward and let her know that failure to meet these parameters will result in the termination of her membership. If, on the other hand, she reacts with indignity and declares she will happily take her business elsewhere – good riddance. Make sure to document details of the facts leading up to the discussion and the outcome of the meeting in her membership file for future reference. 

Brent Darden
Co-Owner/General Manager
TELOS Fitness Center


A. The simple answer is, yes, you can fire a member! Some people you can’t afford to have as a member and you and your club is better off without them. 

With that being said, in my opinion, terminating a membership should always be a last resort. Ideally you want to address the problem areas before it gets to the point that you have to terminate the member. 

The following are a few tips to remember when dealing with difficult members.

  • —  Address the issue ASAP! The longer it goes on, the hard it is to change!
  • —  Address the situation privately
  • —  Address the action/behavior, not the person
  • —  Address only what the person can change
  • —  Be specific
  • —  Avoid sarcasm
  • —  Do not use “always” and “never”
  • —  Give options on how to rectify the situation
  • —  Have a conversation, not a lecture
  • —  Be clear on what will occur if their behavior continues
  • —  End the conversation on a high note

Document any interactions that you have that involve addressing behavioral issues, this can come in handy at a termination meeting or if any legal issues follow. 

If you have addressed the behavior and it still persists and you have come to the conclusion he/she/they must go, terminate the membership in person. 

A few tips for the termination meeting:

  • Ideally, involve two staff members
  • Be honest, direct and brief in the explanation of termination
  • Review the appropriate documentation if needed
  • Do not allow termination to become a debate
  • Explain financial arrangements if applicable (refund of training sessions or membership paid)
  •  End the meeting quickly and without additional comments

Good Luck!

Chez Misko
COO / Partner
Wisconsin Athletic Club


A. It’s never easy to execute an involuntary termination of a member/client; and if you’ve been in business long enough then you’ve probably had to do this at some point in time.

In my opinion, handling a problematic member/client situation is a lot like handling a problematic employee. You want to handle the situation swiftly, respectfully, and appropriately to maintain the integrity of the club.

So, at what point do you terminate a member/client? At the point where you feel the club’s integrity (i.e. values, rules, regulations, culture, safety for employees and/or members) is at risk. 

Therefore, as facility owners and/or managers, it is our responsibility to uphold the integrity of the club and create a safe and welcoming environment for both our internal (employees) and external (members/clients) customers. 

Everybody’s heard the old adage “it just takes one bad apple to spoil the bunch”…well, your club actually experiences this when a problematic member/client isn’t dealt with appropriately.  But, before you go and start throwing out all the “bad apples”, here are a few bits of advice to consider:

1.  Be Proactive and Communicate Effectively:  make all of your members/clients aware of the rules and regulations of the facility; and the consequences for violating them. A great way to do this is to make it part of the new member/client signup process; by having the rules and regulations (and the associated consequences) listed either in the membership/training agreement document or on a Member/Client Code of Conduct form.  Either way you want the member to read it and signoff on their acknowledgement of it.  By doing this you’ve created the positioning you will need if you ever have to address a member/client on an issue or take disciplinary action against them.

2. Move Quickly and Accurately: There is nothing worse in the eyes of the consumers (both internal and external consumers) than the perception of disregard. When a problem occurs try to gather all the facts as quickly and efficiently as possible; and only communicate to those who are in the “need to know”.  Typically, most problematic issues with members can be averted if they are address in a timely and professional manner. 

3)   Judge Fairly and be Respectful:  Review the facts thoroughly and make sure the punishment fits the “crime”; and no matter what the member/client has done, it is imperative to show respect at all times.

Brad Wilkins
Vice President and General Manager
Cooper Fitness Center, Dallas  TX




Is it better to hire a sales rep or have a trainer sell training?

Phil Wendel and Phil Kaplan discuss discuss the pros and cons of hiring a sales rep to sell training in this week's Best Practices.

Q: "What are the advantages and disadvantages of letting my trainers sell training vs. hiring a fitness sales representative?" 

A. Thomas Plummer is a strong advocate of having a 'selling specialist' be the gatekeeper to 'personal training'.  His thinking is solid:  trainers are necessarily skilled at providing personal training skills and not necessarily at selling.  We, at ACAC, do not have a 'selling specialist' but are planning on trying this approach in order to improve Personal Training revenues.  You will likely find that your more successful trainers also have strong selling skills.  Another approach might be to invest in training your 'trainers' to become more effective at selling. 

Phil Wendel, Owner - ACAC Fitness & Wellness Center 

A. Because personal trainers are typically altruistic by nature, and because salespeople are perceived as selfish and perhaps greedy (not a truth, but a widespread stereotype), trainers often reject the idea of selling. The interesting paradox is, people are more likely to buy from an expert with strong rapport skills than from someone who appears to have a self-interest.  I recognize and value the potential of the trainer:client relationship and believe it’s best if the initial “sale” is made by the trainer.  There are two prerequisites.  One, you have to streamline the process so the “capture” part is simple (no hard negotiating, just determining whether this is the right decision now).  The second is, you have to train your trainers to understand sales, not as conventional selling, but as persuasion and influence.  When you help them understand the disservice they’re doing by failing to help people grasp the value and virtues of retaining a personal trainer, they become not only open to, but excited about the idea of recruiting and influencing.

The downside is, what I’m suggesting takes a great deal of front-end work.  The easier path is to get a seasoned salesperson to sell training as a commodity.  Given the choice between “easy” and “long term valuable,” I’m passing on easy.

Phil Kaplan

This post is a part of our weekly Best Practices series. We post a new question and answer every Monday morning. If you have a question you'd like our Industry Leaders to answer, submit your question today.


Doctors Training Doctors

By Craig R. Waters

In the March issue of CBI, which you should be receiving shortly, you will read about a remarkable physician-referral initiative—the Physician Referred Exercise Program (PREP)—developed by the ACAC Fitness & Wellness Centers, based in Charlottesville, Virginia.

You will not, however, read about the connection between PREP and the “Exercise is Medicine” (EIM) initiative, championed by Dr. Edward Phillips, an assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School, and actively promoted by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).

IHRSA is a member of the EIM Network.

There is a connection, and one that makes an important point, but we ran out of room in the magazine. Christine Thalwitz, the director of communications and research for ACAC and the author of “Just What the Doctor Ordered!” (March, pg. 60), described PREP in compelling detail, but, because of space restraints, we were forced to do some trimming.

Dr. Edward PhillipsOur apologies to Thalwitz and Phillips.

Kelly Lynn, one of ACAC’s physician liaisons, makes the point that Phillips’ efforts have helped raised awareness among physicians about the importance of discussing physical activity with patients during office visits. Phillips is also the founder and director of the Institute of Lifestyle Management (ILM), and co-author of Exercise is Medicine: A Clinician’s Guide to Exercise Prescription.

The institute’s defining objective is to help train physicians to effectively coach their patients to make better lifestyle choices. It conducts seminars and has developed courses for medical professionals about nutrition, stress management, and exercise prescription, as well as other tools for promoting healthy change.

Phil Wendel, the owner of ACAC, first heard about the ILM courses in 2009 when he was preparing a joint presentation for an IHRSA convention with Phillips and Amanda Harris, one of the founders of the PREP program, about engaging the physician community.

“It was wonderful to hear from a Harvard faculty member who believes in the power of exercise prescription as much as we do,” says Wendel. “The more we talked, the more I realized how important it was to have him come share his message with professionals in my hometown.”

The PREP program in action at ACAC Over the next several months, Wendel brought Phillips to his club communities in Virginia and Pennsylvania to speak to local medical professionals. The workshops were extremely well received, and it was obvious that the physicians wanted to learn more.

“The seminars were fantastic, but we needed a better ongoing solution for familiarizing doctors with exercise prescription and lifestyle coaching,” explains Wendel. “It was too cost-prohibitive to keep flying Eddie into town, so we looked for a local expert to be his evangelist.”

Since then, ACAC has partnered with Ina Stephens, M.D., who’s become a local resource for teaching doctors how to prescribe medicine. Stephens, who has undergone training with Phillips, is also a certified yoga instructor and is now able to be able to deliver the ILM’s seminars. “It ‘s exciting to play an active role in the integration of exercise and medicine,” says Stephens. “This alliance is the perfect example of how we should redefine our nation’s approach to healthcare.”

- Craig R. Waters is the editor-in-chief of CBI and can be reached at


What do you do to attract members to your club who feel self conscious while working out?  

Karen Jashinsky, Nicki Anderson and Phil Wendel discuss what do you do to attract members to your club who feel self conscious while working out in this week's Best Practices

Q: "How do health clubs handle obese members who feel self conscious while working out in public?  What do you do to attract these members to your club?”   

A: I think the key is to make the member feel comfortable and to recognize that it might not happen right away. The more information the club has before the customer shows up, the more they can help this potential member. We connect them with someone that makes them feel comfortable and also help them get started without feeling like they are being judged. To really make a lasting impact, it is important to get them started quickly but not put emphasis on getting a scale from the get go.  We work closely with our clients so they are comfortable with their workout building their confidence so they never feel self-conscious at the gym. We insure they understand the fundamentals of the program we create with them always reminding them their fitness goals are a process not perfection

Karen Jashinsky
O2 Max Fitness 

A: I have said for years that Health Clubs tend to turn away the exact people they need to attract. I believe that is why small boutique studios are doing well, they are attracting those that feel self-conscious in larger settings. I have a studio with all private rooms to accommodate those that have had a bad experience at a gym. This population needs to feel valued. In a larger setting, they tend to get lost and feel like a face in a crowd. I’m sure there are some clubs that “get it” but for the most part, larger health clubs are still falling short of creating programs that not only attract, but retain this population. New Year’s is a perfect opportunity to create a retention program for those hoping to actually stick with their resolutions. Imagine if larger facilities created a “Buddy system” or a mentoring program that could take these clients (who typically drop off in a month) and actually retain them. It is programming and customer service that’s seems to be lacking in some larger facilities.

Nicki Anderson, AFP, CPT
Reality Fitness


A: Let's begin with this premise:  65% of Americans are overweight and half of those, around 32% are obese.  If that type of individual wasn't welcomed, didn't feel comfortable, you would be virtually eliminating two-thirds of your potential market. 

Now some specifics:

  1. Hire some staff that look like 'overweight individuals'...they can be trainers, front desk people, salespeople, etc.
  2. Provide encouragement, especially from the Fitness Team....make sure you fitness team spends as much time with these individuals, if not more, than the already fit individuals that frequent your club

Summary:  if you truly want to grow your membership, make sure that your welcome mat is broader than those individuals that are already very fit! 

Phil Wendel
ACAC Fitness & Wellness Centers


This post is a part of our weekly Best Practices series. We post a new question and answer every Monday morning. If you have a question you'd like our Industry Leaders to answer, submit your question today.


Coming Attractions! ACAC: A Medical-Alignment Role Model 

By Craig R. Waters

For nearly as long as I can remember, there have been animated discussions about emphasizing - focusing on - the medical benefits of regular exercise.

Clubs have been exhorted to introduce medically-oriented programs; to reach out to local physicians to obtain referrals; to align themselves with the healthcare community….

And much – but not nearly enough – has been done along those lines.

In the March issue of CBI, you’ll read about one club company that seems to have mastered this particular art form. The ACAC Fitness and Wellness Center(s), which has four “flagship” facilities in Virginia and Pennsylvania, has developed a unique Physician Referred Exercise Program (PREP) that has paid dramatic dividends:

Among them:

• More than 1,100 medical professionals have referred patients to ACAC facilities within the past year

• ACAC has averaged 280 new referrals per month for the past two years.

ACAC Owner Phil Wendel• Phil Wendel, the owner of ACAC, estimates that PREP sales have directly generated more than $12.6 million since the program was launched in 2004.

Want to know more? Want to know how Wendel and the ACAC team have done such an incredible job? Want to know how you can do something similar at your own club?

Keep your eye out for the March issue of CBI! You’ll find all that you need within its pages. But, in the meantime, check out the two PREP ads below.


How To Answer the Enrollment Fee Question

Bill Windscheif and Phil Wendel discuss how to explain your enrollment fee to prospects:

Q: “What's a great answer to a prospect asking 'why do you charge enrollment?'”

A: I would recommend putting a script together for the sales staff so you are all able to relay a consistent and confident message. You could use ideas or phrases from the following example; “Your enrollment includes the start up costs to activate your membership, including processing your paperwork and set up of your EFT payments. It also helps to cover the costs of your membership key tag as well as your initial orientation with a personal trainer. It is similar to the activation fee you typically pay when purchasing a cell phone agreement, or the initiation you would pay to join a gold club. Additionally, it allows us keep the monthly dues at a level that almost everyone can reasonably afford.”

Depending on your pricing structure, you can also justify an enrollment fee to effectively “buy down the dues” of a membership. For example, let’s say you offer two pricing options that prospect can choose from. Option 1 has an enrollment of $99, and monthly dues of $29.99. Option 2 has a $0 enrollment and monthly dues of $39.99 per month. Over the course of the first year, the gross value of both membership options is about the same, but into the second year and beyond, option 1 is clearly the better value, saving the consumer $120 annually. The prospect is paying the enrollment fee to essentially “buy down the dues” for a discounted rate. I have personally found this pricing model to be a very effective, but that’s a question for another time.

In my experience, 99 out of 100 prospects would typically not ask such a question as they have been somewhat “conditioned” to expect to pay an “enrollment”, “initiation”, or “startup” fee. Therefore, I would try not over think the issue and allow the staff to become “afraid” of charging an enrollment fee, as this will negatively affect their sales presentation.

Bill Windscheif, VP - Gym Development
World Gym International, Inc.

A: It is hard to explain to the consumer that we're covering our sales costs; it's hard to elicit sympathy for that. Here's another approach that makes more sense.

If a club operator provides value for the joining fee, a fit pass for example, as we do at ACAC, then the enrollment fee is a much easier sell. Each new member at our clubs receives a fit pass. The fit pass includes a goal setting session with a fitness specialist, two personal training sessions, one small group training session, access to one of our family programs or our outdoor water park, a discounted chlorestol test, 25 minutes with a nutritionist, a 50% discount on squash or racquetball lesson and discounts on tennis lessons or a massage.

From the club owner's perspective, as you have noted, the higher the initiation fee the more likely one is to stay for a longer period of time.

Phil Wendel, Owner
ACAC Fitness & Wellness Center