Lifelong Learning: The IHRSA Institute

Past IHRSA Institute attendees share what made the event one to remember and one to experience.

A sign hanging in Amy Williams’ office at the Little Rock Racquet Club, in Little Rock, AR, provides a daily reminder: “You get what you demand, and you encourage what you tolerate.”

Whenever she considers these sentiments—attributed to the late Tom Landry, the record-setting head coach of the Dallas Cowboys—she remembers the four enlightening days she spent last August at The IHRSA Institute.

At last year’s session, Brent Darden, the CEO of Brent Darden Consulting, in Dallas, and the former chair of IHRSA’s board of directors, shared Landry’s principle during his seminar, “Strategic Planning for Club Executives,” explaining how it applied to the health club industry.

“These are words to live by,” Williams says, pointing to the sign. “They’re a reminder of how small inappropriate behaviors—such as staff eating at the front desk or taking long personal phone calls—can become ingrained in the workplace culture. But these sorts of things will ultimately detract from a successful business.”

This instructive nugget is but one of the many that Williams mined at The Institute and brought back to her club, where, as assistant manager and membership director, she manages a year-round staff of 20, which expands to 30 to 40 in the summertime.

The 65,000-square-foot club, one of four owned and operated by the Little Rock Athletic Centers (LRAC), is situated on 10 wooded acres, and features, among its many amenities, 12 outdoor tennis courts, a 50-meter Olympic lap pool, and two additional pools. It serves 1,600 members.

Williams has worked for the LRAC family of clubs for 16 years, starting at the age of 16 as a towel attendant at the Little Rock Athletic Club. She then transitioned to the front desk, where she remained for six years, before training for membership sales. In 2010, she became the member services director, and, in 2016, assumed the positions she currently holds.

During her tenure with the company, she earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology, as well as a master’s in industrial and organizational psychology.

Frank Lawrence, the company’s CEO, took note of Williams’ talent, dedication, and hard work, and invited her to attend The Institute. Lawrence also is a member of IHRSA’s board of directors and, himself, an Institute alumnus.

“I was so inspired by The Institute,” Williams says. “After attending and having heard the incredible speakers, I couldn’t wait to hear these people again.

“I wanted to be one of these people.”

And, so, when the opportunity arose to speak at IHRSA’s 38th Annual International Convention & Trade Show, in San Diego, in March, Williams submitted her name for consideration. Although she’d never attended the convention before, she was chosen to participate in IGNITE!, a fast-paced, 75-minute event, during which 10 speakers, making use of 20 slides, share their personal and professional insights on a wide range of subjects.

“I spoke on 'Improve the Day,' which is the theme we bring to bear on the member experience at our club,” she explains. “We try to improve the day of every member or guest who comes through the door.”

Her account engaged the attention of a standing-room-only audience of 200, who responded with enthusiastic applause.

The immense size and scope of the San Diego Convention Center far exceeded that of the UNC campus, but, Williams discovered, thanks to The Institute experience, she felt right at home. “I saw so many people I knew from The Institute at the convention,” she says. “Seeing their friendly faces made it all a lot less intimidating.

“Attending The Institute really prepared me well for the convention ... and for so much more.”

After having successfully carved out a first career as a financial analyst, Scott Marchakitus discovered that he very much wanted to pursue a second career—in fitness.

To achieve that goal, to fulfill his dream, he turned to IHRSA—and The IHRSA Institute—for assistance.

“I spent more than 20 years analyzing companies, both good and bad, and wanted to apply my knowledge to creating a sustainable business of my own,” he says. “I wanted a job that combined my knowledge of finance with my passion for fitness.

“Then, in 2016, I stumbled upon a fitness center at Fort Monmouth and fell in love with the facility.”

Marchakitus is now a founding partner and the largest shareholder in the Fort Athletic Club, a 30,000-square-foot multipurpose facility in Oceanport, N.J. Formerly a U.S. Army installation, the base is undergoing a total transformation as part of a major reuse project.

The Fort Athletic Club, he says, will ultimately be “a family-friendly facility with fitness and group activities for all ages.” It will include yoga, HIIT, and group cycling studios; a full-service spa; physical therapy; a coffee bar; two side-by-side hardwood basketball courts for basketball, soccer, and lacrosse training; and a year-round kids camp.

The new club is scheduled to open at the end of this year.

In preparation for the grand opening, Marchakitus has availed himself of as many resources as he could.

In March of 2018, he attended his first-ever IHRSA International Convention & Trade Show, in San Diego, and closely followed the educational track. While there, he heard about The Institute and learned about its novel model and unique offerings.

“I was intrigued by the idea of spending a full week with industry professionals, educating myself about major trends, as well as about potential industry hurdles I might encounter,” he says. “As a lifelong financial analyst, someone always immersed in the details, I wanted to learn, firsthand, about everything that goes into running a successful club, and to bring back as many relevant ideas as possible that could enhance the culture of my facility.”

A New Classroom, a New Career

While at JP Morgan, Marchakitus specialized in emerging markets and credit research, covering a range of sectors, including media, energy, rails, airlines, telecom, technology, and chemicals.

At Goldman Sachs, he was promoted, in 2006, to managing director and, in 2012, named head of credit research, managing a team of some 40 people, before he retired in 2016.

At Chapel Hill, he turned his attention to such club-centric topics as sales strategies, market differentiation, competition, membership pricing options, integrating new employees, industry best practices, and member retention.

“The IHRSA Institute helped me to truly understand my target audience; to think of new and different ways to appeal to this group of prospects; and to recognize how I could utilize new technologies to create a differentiated experience for them,” Marchakitus says.

Given the timing of his new venture, he also profited from the invaluable networking with industry veterans facilitated by The IHRSA Institute. Many have since continued to offer their insights, expertise, and support as he prepares for the opening of the Fort Athletic Club.

“I found the networking to be unbelievably helpful, especially given the fact that I’m a first-time club owner,” he says. “I developed several close confidantes, and have tapped them a number of times.”

Marchakitus now recommends The Institute highly to his industry peers, and plans to return in the future—as a student, certainly, but, perhaps, also as a member of the faculty. “I’d love to go back and teach a course that focuses on finance, and the financial drivers that are relevant to running a healthy, happy, and successful club.”

Since she was young, Swedish entrepreneur Annie Fältman has proactively, and persistently, pursued her career path of choice. At 16, she started her first fitness business—teaching group classes and courses for spinning instructors—and today she owns and operates four 360 Träningscenter clubs.

Fältman understood the importance of professional development, and appreciated the special value of attending The IHRSA Institute, held each year at the Kenan-Flagler Business School, at the University of North Carolina (UNC), in Chapel Hill. Undeterred by the distance or financial burden involved in traveling from Sweden to the U.S., she applied for and was awarded the John McCarthy Merit Scholarship.

The scholarship made it possible for her to attend the 2018 session of The Institute.

“I’m very proud and honored to have received this scholarship!” says Fältman, who holds a degree in physiotherapy. “The Institute represents a unique opportunity to learn and network with the greatest leaders in the global fitness industry.”

The scholarship covered the cost of the Institute, and provided a travel stipend that enabled Fältman to make the trip from the city of Skellefteå, where all four of her clubs are located. The flagship 360 Träningscenter, which opened in 2009, is the original and at 22,000 square feet is the largest of the four facilities. Centrally located in Skellefteå, it’s her premium offering. The other three units are low-cost models, ranging in size from 2,000 to 5,000 square feet, and situated on the outskirts of the city.

Combined, all four 360 Träningscenters serve a total of 4,000 members, a number that’s rising.

At home, Faltman regularly attends networking meetings and trade shows, as well as the annual IHRSA European Congress, regardless of which country it’s held in. “It’s important to stay updated and participate in discussions about the latest trends and predictions about the industry’s future,” she said.

Her abiding curiosity and ability to adapt made Fältman a natural fit for The IHRSA Institute, where she had the chance to engage in rewarding conversations—one on one—with some of the industry’s most accomplished veterans, as well as a number of its rising stars.

“It was incredibly valuable to be able to talk to colleagues from all over, and to share information and experiences with them. It not only yielded a wealth of new knowledge, but also confirmed that we’re moving in the right direction with respect to improving and developing our business,” she says.

“Sometimes,” she says, “it’s just as important to stop doing things as it is to start doing things. This is where networking comes into play. Meeting experienced industry people can inspire you and give you the courage to make critical, sometimes difficult, changes.”

In particular, says Fältman, she gleaned telling insights from an IHRSA Institute seminar on marketing strategies, conducted by Alan Leach, the chief executive of West Wood Clubs in Ireland. Leach described the makings of a successful marketing strategy. He offered detailed advice on creating marketing campaigns; developing timelines; defining and learning about one’s audience; and integrating one’s plan with the club’s sales, social media, and member communication efforts.

“Alan’s seminar provided actionable ideas about how we can enhance our premium brand and, as a result, increase our price level,” Fältman reports. “He also inspired me to ‘stay true’ to our brand, and remain focused on our business model, even in the face of growing pressure from low-cost competitors.”

Overall, she says, the event challenged her to think about new approaches to doing business.

“The IHRSA Institute offers you four solid days to think about the way that you’re doing things, and to consider how they might be done differently—and better.”

Paul Hudson, the general manager and personal training director of The Cambridge Club, in Ontario, Toronto, Canada, has always been a firm believer in education. In fact, his career essentially took root while he was still a student at Brock University, in St. Catharines, Ontario, about a decade ago.

So, when the opportunity arose last summer for Hudson to attend the four-day, 2018 IHRSA Institute at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, he enthusiastically raised his hand to return to the classroom.

As a university student, Hudson had worked as a youth program coordinator and then as a personal trainer at Premier Fitness in St. Catharines, before graduating in 2010 with a degree in recreation and leisure and community development.

Since then, he’s continued to learn—by doing—at independent stand-alone clubs, and with a national chain.

GoodLife Fitness, based in London, Ontario, recruited Hudson to serve as the fitness manager of one of its locations. In time, he was named general manager of a smaller GoodLife unit and subsequently moved to the training department at one of its larger facilities.

“Working with GoodLife was a really great opportunity to learn about the industry,” he says of the experience.

Hudson also served as the strength and conditioning coach for the Cornwall Colts Junior A Hockey Club, at the Own the Ice Hockey training facility, in Cornwall, Ontario, where he trained and coached more than 50 athletes, ranging from amateurs to professionals.

Finally, The Cambridge Club came knocking—inviting Hudson to join its team. Last May, at the age of 32, he took the reins of the upscale, 13,000-square-foot, men-only club, which serves 1,200 members in downtown Toronto.

Immersed in the Industry

Suffice to say that after this promotion, the timing of The IHRSA Institute in August was ideal, Hudson acknowledges.

“I want to learn from people who’ve been successful in the industry,” he says. “Hearing from professionals from all over the world about the trials and tribulations of their own businesses—what worked and what didn’t—was really important to me.”

Several of the sessions resonated with Hudson at this pivotal point in his career.

“Hearing from professionals from all over the world about the trials and tribulations of their own businesses—what worked and what didn’t—was really important to me.”

Paul Hudson, General Manager and Personal Training Director

The Cambridge Club - Toronto, Canada

One was “Employee Hiring, Training, and Retention,” presented by Michele Melkerson-Granryd, the general manager of Castle Hill Fitness, in Austin, TX, and a member of IHRSA’s board of directors. Another was “Non-Dues Revenue: Management and Growth Strategies,” led by Mark Miller, the COO of the Merritt Clubs, based in Baltimore, MD.

Hudson found Melkerson-Granryd’s ideas and insights about building a cohesive and supportive team invaluable and since she helms a large and well-established club, credible and compelling.

“Getting—and keeping—the right people on your team can either make or break your success,” he says. “Michele talked about the importance of defining what your vision is and getting your team to embrace it.”

Hudson also appreciated Miller’s overview of nondues revenue, and his suggestions about maximizing growth and profits. “Most of my experience was in the personal training department, so this really helped me to understand the various parts of a club’s operation that can be additional sources of non-dues revenue.”

Overall, The Institute helped broaden Hudson’s view of the industry he’s already passionate about.

Hudson adds that, in addition to attending the educational sessions, he enjoyed sharing lunches and dinners, and working out, with club professionals from near and far. As a result, he’s made new friends in Ireland and Australia that he can reach out to for inspiration, advice, and support in the future.

“You’re there for less than a week,” he says, “but The Institute’s impact is significant and enduring.”

Ali Granryd, the assistant general manager of Castle Hill Fitness 360, in Austin, TX, understands better than most the critical importance of the word “ongoing” in the phrase “ongoing education.”

Which is why, last summer—despite a nearly lifelong involvement with health and fitness facilities—she was eager to attend The IHRSA Institute at the renowned Kenan-Flagler Business School, at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill.

The Institute provides an executive-level education for industry professionals, and Granryd was delighted to discover, the valuable lessons go on and on.

While a great many club practitioners have forged their careers by rising through the proverbial ranks, Granryd has grown up—quite literally—in the industry. Her first glimpse of her future came as a toddler in the child care center of The Hills club, in Austin, where her mother, Michele Melkerson-Granryd, worked as a group exercise instructor and personal trainer.

During her teenage years, Granryd experienced the business from the other side of the child care equation—taking care of young children while their parents worked out at the club that would eventually become Castle Hill 360 Fitness. Later, while attending the University of Texas, she took a part-time job at the club’s front desk, and began to develop relationships with the clientele.

“The Institute provides an executive-level education for industry professionals, and Granryd was delighted to discover, the valuable lessons go on and on.”

About six years ago, she landed a full-time sales position with the club, which solidified her commitment to a career in the industry. Now, Granryd, 26, the mother of a 4-year-old son, serves as the assistant GM of Castle Hill. Today, she works alongside her mother, the club’s general manager.

Granryd, who earned a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and holds an ACE personal training certification, also teaches group classes, and has developed Mama Strong, a cardio and strength-training program for moms-to-be and new moms. “I love working with them, and being able to provide a sense of connection to a community of women who are sharing a similar experience,” she says.

Actionable Ideas Put to Work

When she attended The Institute, Granryd had just recently been appointed to her current position, and embarked on her own personal executive track. She was inspired and impressed by her classmates.

“It was really amazing to have direct access to so many industry leaders,” she says. “There were lots of networking, information sharing, and opportunities to ask questions and have one-on-one discussions.”

In addition to forming valuable professional connections, Granryd found two of The Institute’s educational sessions especially enlightening and instructive. The first—“Sales Management,” presented by Bill McBride, the president and CEO of Active Wellness and BMC3—described strategies to make a club’s sales team more effective. The second—“Member Retention, Experience, and Engagement,” with Chris Stevenson, the owner of Stevenson Fitness— explored approaches to successfully engaging and retaining members.

From both sessions, Granryd gleaned ideas that, she decided, she wanted to implement immediately upon returning to CHF 360.

Back in Austin, she quickly introduced one of McBride’s suggestions: To provide the front desk staff with a script of key questions to ask prospects who call seeking information about the club. “The questions are designed to engage the caller, get them to schedule a tour at the end of the conversation and ultimately join the club,” she says.

In response to Stevenson’s directive to engage new members with a special introductory offer, Granryd designed a Personal Passport Package, which includes one personal training session, one Pilates class, and one spa service for new members—at a discounted price. “It’s been well received,” she reports, “and very effective in welcoming new members into every area of the club—places that, without the Personal Passport Package, they might not find their way into.”

Without The IHRSA Institute, these subtle, but significant, improvements wouldn’t have occurred.

“I definitely recommend attending,” Granryd says. “The Institute provides connections, tools, and lots of valuable, actionable information that you just can’t get anywhere else.”

Jennifer H. McInerney

Jennifer H. McInerney is a contributor to Club Business International.