The IHRSA Institute Advantage: Investing in Tomorrow’s Leaders

The IHRSA Institute, a highly focused ‘leadership boot camp,’ will give you all the tools you need to take your club and career to the next level.

Imagine an executive education program that’s specifically designed to help you enhance your leadership skills and transform your club company.

Consider what a pleasure it would be to take a breath, step away from your hectic schedule, and visit a stately and charming university campus in the summer where the pace is noticeably slower—one that’s located on the grounds of a former plantation with lush gardens, warm breezes, and gracious Southern hospitality.

You’d feel calm but energized as you sit in a conference room, or mingle at social events, conferring with top business professors and some of the best minds in the fitness industry. You’d be among a group of highly experienced peers—people you’d be able to call upon in the future, as though you had a staff of personal consultants.

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Luke Carlson, CEO of Discover Strength, at a past networking event.

All of this aptly describes The IHRSA Institute, scheduled for Tuesday, July 31, through Friday, August 3.

Once again, this popular, yet intimate event will take place at a highly respected institution: the Kenan-Flagler Business School, at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill.

The Institute is generously sponsored by Aktiv Solutions, American Council on Exercise, Myzone, Perfect Gym, and Power Systems.

Relaxed, But Rigorous Retreat

This three-and-a-half-day program is highly focused, featuring a fitness industry curriculum taught by both UNC faculty and industry leaders. The all-inclusive registration fee covers lodging, meals, networking and social events, and more than $800 worth of IHRSA publications.

Last year’s program involved 80 individuals, including attendees, faculty, sponsors, and IHRSA staff.

“We chose UNC for a number of reasons, including access to the faculty,” says Pam O’Donnell, IHRSA’s vice president of member experience and development. “Also it’s just 16 miles from the Raleigh-Durham International Airport, so it’s easy to get to. And the service at the hotel and conference center is amazing. When you hear that from IHRSA members, who are in a service business themselves, you know it’s great!”

O’Donnell adds that IHRSA has intentionally kept the price reasonable—about half the cost of other programs at business schools around the world.

“The Institute is something we do to give back to the industry,” she points out.

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UNC touts a lush campus—perfect for learning.

The event details and registration information can be found at the event website.

Many club operators recognize the event as an important benefit of their IHRSA membership.

“I’ve sent staff to The IHRSA Institute in the past, and we’re sending a manager to the program this year,” reports Brad Wilkins, the COO and senior vice president of operations for Cooper Aerobics Enterprises, Inc., in Dallas, and a member of IHRSA’s board of directors. “I’m a big believer in the power of education. It’s imperative that we take the time to strengthen our future business leaders by investing in them and providing opportunities to learn.”

“I’ve been in the fitness industry for 42 years, and I’ve owned my club for 37 years,” says Beth Saroka of Onslow Fitness, in Jacksonville, NC. “Several years ago, I sent one of my upper-level managers, and after she returned, I decided that I wanted to go as well. I believe that anyone in the industry would benefit from attending, whether they’re long-timers like me or brand new to management. My only regret is that I didn’t attend sooner!”

Getting Well Acquainted With the Industry

The event kicks off with an orientation late in the afternoon of July 31, followed by the first session, “Analytics Gone Wild,” presented by Albert Segars, PNC Distinguished Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship, and faculty director of the Center for Sustainable Enterprise at UNC.

Next is a networking session, followed by a welcome reception and group dinner.

“The networking sessions, roundtables, and meals provide a great opportunity for the attendees to get to know the instructors and their peers,” O’Donnell says. “They can ask questions that are pertinent to their clubs, so it’s almost like having a group of consultants at their disposal.”

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Attendees from last year's Institute pose after a morning workout.

Then, for the next three days, the attendees will take part in a truly immersive learning experience.

The list of presenters is, indeed, a roster of luminaries. It includes current and former IHRSA board members, other established industry leaders, and UNC professors.

“It’s an intimate business learning experience,” says Jarod Cogswell, the founder of Work Like An Athlete, in Beaverton, OR. “The small group setting encourages attendees to be open and objective about their leadership and business challenges. By the end of the experience, you feel sincerely connected with the other attendees. It almost becomes tribal or family-like.”

A Challenging, Deep-dive Curriculum

But make no mistake, as friendly as it may be, The Institute is challenging in the best way.

Similar to the fitness boot camps that many IHRSA clubs offer to challenge their members, The Institute is an educational boot camp, i.e., “a short, intensive, and rigorous course of training.”

“You bring together a small group of people with a set curriculum, so it’s a ‘deeper dive’ than you get at a typical conference,” says Bill McBride, the president and CEO of Active Wellness, LLC, in San Francisco, and BMC3 in Chandler, AZ, a former IHRSA chair, and a member of the IHRSA Institute faculty. “It’s an immersion program and a great opportunity for IHRSA members to get to the next level in their careers.” McBride will offer two sessions, “Industry Trends, Research & Benchmarking,” and “Sales Management.”

Many other familiar names are on the roster, as well.

Brent Darden, the CEO of Brent Darden Consulting in Dallas, and another former board chair, will speak on “Strategic Planning for Club Executives;” and Allison Flatley, the CEO of Allison Flatley Consulting, LLC, in Falls Church, VA, a former board member, and currently IHRSA’s director of industry relations, will present “Strategic Planning for Club Operations Professionals.”

Mark Miller, the COO of the Merritt Clubs in Baltimore, MD, will offer “Non-dues Revenue: Management & Growth Strategies;” and Michele Melkerson-Granryd, the general manager of Castle Hill Fitness 360 in Austin, TX, will offer her best advice on “Employee Hiring, Training & Retention.”

Current board member Alan Leach of the West Wood Clubs, in Dublin, Ireland, will present two courses—“Marketing Strategies” and “Social Media & Digital Strategies.”

Cogswell will cover “Personal & Group Training Management;” Rick Caro, the president of Management Vision, Inc., of New York City, will speak on “Financial Management;” and Helen Durkin, J.D., IHRSA’s executive vice president of public policy, will provide an overview of “Day-to-Day Legal Issues.”

Chris Stevenson, the owner of Stevenson Fitness in Oak Park, CA, will present two classes, “Member Retention, Experience & Engagement” and “Preparing for the Future.”

“It’s imperative that we take the time to strengthen our future business leaders by investing in them and providing opportunities to learn.”

Brad Wilkins, COO and Senior Vice President of Operations

Cooper Aerobics Enterprises, Inc. - Dallas, TX

Finally, UNC faculty member Sridhar Balasubramanian will present a lecture on “Creating and Executing Great Customer Experiences.” He’s associate dean of the MBA program, the Roy and Alice H. Richards Bicentennial Distinguished Scholar, and a professor of marketing.


As the attendees will attest, one of the best things about The Institute is that it’s interactive. The give-and-take allows them the opportunity to ask the questions that are specific and pertinent to their businesses.

“The networking is fantastic, and the roundtables were magnificent,” says José Teixeira, the operations director of Solinca in Lisbon, Portugal. “They were worth the trip—as were the valuable insights from the faculty.”

Attendees unanimously agree that The Institute is money well spent.

“Outside of completing my MBA, attending The Institute has been my favorite industry educational opportunity,” says Wilkins. “It reminds me of grad school, where the professors focus on case studies and student participation to learn, as opposed to just lecturing.”

And the payoff is often immediate.

“After The Institute, we created an action plan to help us get better at what we do,” says Marisa Hoff, the general manager at Stevenson Fitness, who attended the past two years. “I was also really motivated and inspired to come back and share ideas with our staff. Now we have tangible steps to take that will help grow the business.”

Brent Gallagher, the owner of Avenu Fitness in Houston, TX, adds, “To meet people who are a little bit further along on their industry journey—that’s priceless.”

Patricia Amend

Patricia Amend is an executive editor to Club Business International.