There is nothing better than a pat on the back or a word of praise for a job well done. Well, the Fitness Business Pro Best of the Best Awards are our chance to take a moment and praise clubs for doing a nice job in a number of categories.

While we are highlighting the winners here, it doesn't mean that other entries don't deserve recognition. Our judges were faced with some difficult choices and some close races in a number of categories. All entrants should pat themselves on the back for jobs well done.

Judging was done on a scoring system from 1 to 10 in a number of subcategories such as innovation, effectiveness, cost effectiveness and appeal to community/membership. These rankings were then totaled from each judge's sheet, and the facility with the highest overall score was deemed the Best of the Best for the category.

Looking over the entrants for each category, the judges and editorial staff noticed several trends. Leading the way was that the focus on children is increasing rapidly as many of the entries beyond Best of the Best in Children's Programming (the most heavily entered category) revolved around children and teens. In fact, the winners of the Best of the Best for On-Site Community Programming and Best of the Best for New Member Integration were directly aimed at children.

On the flip-side, the Best Information Technology Program category received no entries showing, perhaps, the continuing need for the fitness facility industry to catch up with others when it comes to information technology.

By bringing to light the winners of the 2004 Best of the Best Awards, we hope that we not only give them the kudos they so richly deserve, but we also inspire other clubs to implement programs of their own and let the industry know about their great work.

We welcome every facility to enter the 2005 Best of the Best when ballots are ready in a few months so that you, like this year's Best of the Best facilities, can get the praise you deserve for a job well done.

BEST On-Site Community Program

Chester Youth Program, Healthplex Sports Club, Springfield, PA

Drugs, gangs and low graduation rates plague many school districts in the country, but when Healthplex Sports Club saw the issues plaguing one of its area schools, it took action. Healthplex teamed with Crozer-Keystone's Community Hospital in June 2003 to launch the Chester Youth Program, a weightlifting program for middle school and high school students in the under-funded Chester-Upland School District. The hope was that the program would reach out to “at-risk” students.

“We wanted to provide a free, safe place for the kids to lift, but we also wanted them to focus on their schoolwork,” says Jim Gallagher, general manager of Healthplex. “The kids have to maintain a C average or get up to a C average to participate.” Along with the physical aspects of the program, the children are mentored.

The program began small with just a few children, but grew to 15 to 20 children at its peak, Gallagher said. It has spurred a second program about lifestyle and weight control for children 5 to 10 years old and now has an additional six children in that program.

The physical part of the program, which takes place in a renovated space in the Crozer-Keystone's Community Hospital, is comprised of three tracks: weightlifting, powerlifting and sports conditioning — all of which are supervised by staff from Healthplex Sports Club.

Having staff attend to the program has had minimal impact on the club's costs. The club donates to the program much of the equipment used while private donations fund the rest. Hospital employees can become members, which helps fund the program, so the children incur no costs.

“For the kids it's free,” says Gallagher. “The hospital system allows us to use the room for free, and we gave [the hospital] an employee fitness program where staff pay $20 a month to work out. That money goes into a foundation and a fund to support staffing.”

While not gaining direct monetary benefits from the program, Healthplex Sports Club has provided teens in Chester a safe place to practice strength training and an opportunity to improve school performance.

“We never expected any of these kids to join the club. This was more of a community service. One kid who started the program after being out of school for a few years went to 8th grade (he was 16), stuck with it, got good grades and now is in high school and playing football,” recounts Gallagher. “The long-term goal is that we want those that are successful to come back and be mentors. For us it's the beginning of what we want to be a long, successful program. We're thrilled we were recognized for it.”

BEST Renovation/Creative Use of Space

TCA/Fitness at Port Clinton, Highland Park, IL

What can a satellite club do in a highly competitive market with only 6,000 square feet of space? If TCA/Fitness at Port Clinton is the satellite club, the answer is a lot.

Fitness at Port Clinton is located in the heart of downtown Highland Park, a small yet highly sophisticated suburban enclave on Chicago's North Shore.

“We were facing some new competition from the city's park district and Equinox to the east of our Bannockburn facility. We felt a little vulnerable,” says Steven Schwartz, president of TCA. “To help fortify our position we decided to provide our current members and some new ones with a convenient location to get in a quick workout.”

And the move has worked, according to Schwartz, who says the company has not lost members to the new competition but has added some new members who are looking for alternatives to mega clubs yet want to have the highest service and sense of community.

But convenience alone would not serve the purpose or keep the members of this community, even if the club is surrounded by a variety of local businesses and only a block away from a Metro train station.

“We knew that to appeal to this clientele we would have to go with a very high-end build out, which can be challenging in a smaller space such as this one,” says Schwartz.

To help approach the level of sophistication the company felt would appeal to the discerning demographic — mid-40s, high household incomes, often joining as couples or families — the club had to pay attention to every detail.

“Every finish we used in the club is high-end from glass shower doors to radiant-heated shower floors and granite counter tops,” says Schwartz. “When someone walks into the facility, they instantly get the feeling of a high-end, urban fitness facility.”

Also important within the neutral-toned club with a minimalist décor is what the company calls state-of-the-art equipment and technology, such as plasma screens, personal DVD devices and digital lockers.

So far, the design and the concept have been a success for TCA in terms of keeping members from leaving for other clubs. But it is not necessarily a concept the company plans on rolling out in a larger scale, or is it?

“It is very expensive to build a satellite facility such as this, and it, on its own, is not a big money maker,” Schwartz says. “Chicago, though, is an over-supplied market, and we will go to great lengths to protect our market share — and this concept is part of that.”

BEST New Member Integration Program

TnT-Teens in Training, TriHealth Pavillion, Cincinnati, OH

With all the talk about obesity in children — and the myriad of health issues and complications attributed to it — clubs are increasingly trying to recruit and retain young members. Lost in the shuffle thus far has been the teenage group — especially the younger end. Well, TriHealth Pavillion has focused on attracting this age group with its four-week TnT-Teens in Training program, which teaches the importance of exercise and good nutrition.

“We got the idea from all the literature that is out there about teenage obesity, lack of exercise and lack of willingness to exercise,” says Todd Willke who heads the program at TriHealth Pavillion. “We developed the program based on what we thought was best suited for 13-year-olds to get them in and interested in exercising. There are a lot of kids not [exercising] correctly.”

The program, which launched in April, is broken into four parts covering everything from rules of etiquette, sound workout principles, specific exercise recommendations and education on the healthiest food choices and proper supplementation.

To participate, teens pay $48, which includes seven hours of personal attention. “That alone would cost a member $50 an hour for a personal trainer,” explains Willke. “It doesn't cost us anything to maintain the program, except for staff participation. That time is minimal because it's already in the employee's regular hours. It is a very cost-effective program to operate.”

While the short-term goal of the program is to educate and inform teenagers about proper exercise and nutrition, the long-term goal for the company is to see increased membership.

“It's tough to see the results right off the bat, but one girl went through the program and has increased her weight lifting by 380 percent. That's good results,” says Willke. As the program has progressed, the club has increased the fun activities associated with it, such as adding basketball and scavenger hunts, to make it more inviting to teens and increase the turnout.

And that turnout theoretically should increase the number of TnT-Teens in Training participants that matriculate to full members.

While it is still early to tell the long-term value of the program, TriHealth Pavillion saw an initial boost due to the TnT-Teens in Training Program with 11 of the 13 graduating teens (out of 19 enrolled) becoming full members. The club estimates this will generate more than $3,300 in revenue in a year's time. And the club expects bigger benefits to come as the TnT-Teens in Training graduates become “active members for years to come,” says Willke.

BEST Non-Member Program

Gainesville on the Go!, Gainesville Health & Fitness Center, Gainesville, FL

One step at a time, Gainesville Health & Fitness Center is doing its part to help Gainesville, FL, maintain its status as “the healthiest community in America.” Gainesville on the Go! is a community-wide walking initiative of the Gainesville Health & Fitness Center.

The goal of the program is to increase the physical activity levels in the community by getting people walking and educating them about the benefits of exercise and the risks of obesity.

Gainesville Health & Fitness began the program in a partnership with Shands Healthcare, the Gainesville Chamber of Commerce and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida. The latter served as title sponsor and provided all of the pedometers used in the program.

Gainesville on the Go! is a follow-up to the Well City USA project, which earned the city of Gainesville a Wellness Councils of America Gold Well City Award in April 2003. That program resulted in close to 60 percent of the working population participating in wellness programs at the worksite.

“It started with trying to make Gainesville a healthy city, which is a big part of our mission,” says Joe Cirulli, owner and founder of Gainesville Health & Fitness Center. “It took three and a half years to get the Gainesville on the Go! program up and running, but it was time well spent.”

That time resulted in a program in which approximately 34 local businesses and 29 area schools participated to walk more than 385,000 miles — far exceeding the original goal to “walk around the world.”

To reach the community, Gainesville Health & Fitness created in-house and community posters and packets and built a buzz in the community by publicizing the effort through local media outlets. They also focused on bringing the message to community businesses — or more accurately, bringing community businesses to the message.

“We had two staff members from our marketing and PR staffs working on promoting the Gainesville on the Go! Program as part of their regular job description, so there wasn't extra payroll costs for getting the word out,” says Cirulli. “We also held all of the meetings for the program in our club, so the businesses got to know us and our facility. That way they could see us and hear the benefits of them being a wellness-active organization.”

In the end, though, Cirulli says that any extra expenses or time spent by staff volunteers to get this program running is worth it to build a healthier community.

“A lot of health clubs go out to the community only looking to sell memberships. It is important to occasionally do something where you are just looking to spread the health and fitness message without selling,” Cirulli says. “We will continue to keep searching for new ways and better ways of staying involved in the community and bringing them health and fitness.”

BEST Children's Programming

Kids Power Hour, Gerstung Inter-Sport, Baltimore, MD

For 40 years the Gerstung name has been known for flooring. But, what people don't realize is that the name Gerstung is rapidly becoming known for children's programming thanks to company founder Siegfried Gerstung's passion and the company's Kids Power Hour program.

The Kids Power Hour is a fitness program designed to help kids get in shape or develop athletic skills by boosting cardiovascular and muscular endurance, increasing strength and improving flexibility through activities such as rock climbing, hiking, cardio circuits, gymnastics and more.

In part, this program was developed a year ago as a response to the growing number of overweight and obese children and the cutting of physical education in many schools facing budget cuts.

The first semester that the school, Gerstung Inter-Sport, offered the program more than 30 children enrolled, leading to a year-round program.

The school was started after Gerstung's movement education classes, then taught at private schools, surged in popularity. Today, the school runs 110 classes a week and has two, 16-week semesters. Programs vary depending on the child's age. Classes for children 12 months to 7 years old use climbing equipment and parent-child classes, says Kimberly Mackin, director of the school serving as the pilot for the program. At 8 years old, the children start working out on the equipment.

Each Power Hour child receives a personal log to track their achievement, a T-shirt, water bottle and an official membership card.

“Kids in the program are more confident. They learn more and they socialize better with other kids. They're more comfortable going out in their free time and actually playing instead of sitting on the sofa,” says Ron Keech, sales manager at Gerstung Inter-Sport. “As they get older, they are more likely to be active. They don't have fears about joining a gym. They are likely to become more of a conditioned market rather than a deconditioned market. It starts when you're young.”

The benefits for the company are seen not only in the improvement in the children currently enrolled and in its connection in the community, but also by the interest being shown from others.

“Most people don't know that we have this. We have had a large amount of interest from IHRSA. More YMCAs and schools have taken an interest,” says Keech, who believes the program can translate to almost any location where children can be reached. “More independent businesses are talking to us saying they'd like to do the program at their location. We have lots and lots of people that we are working with that are planning to do something in 2005. It bodes well for our program and for the health of children going forward.”

Our Judges

Fitness Business Pro would like to acknowledge the judges for this year's Best of the Best. Without the hard work and expertise in the individual categories of the best of the best in judges, these awards would not be possible.

Bill Abramson
Tony de Leede
Geoff Dyer
Nestor Fernandez
Hervey Lavoie
Thomas Rind
Steve Tharrett
Jim Worthington
Joe Cirulli
Terry Dezzutti
Rudy Fabiano
Grant Gamble
Julie Main
Steven Schwartz
Ed Williams