Lifelong Learning: The IHRSA Institute

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

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.