What does it mean to be the “best?” Well, the term is often subjective, but for our third-annual Best of the Best contest, a panel of judges tried their best to quantify the best.

With so many clubs entering high quality programs in each category, selecting the winners was no easy task. The judges — carefully selected by Club Industry's Fitness Business Pro editors for their expertise in certain categories — judged each entry on a scale of 1 to 10 based on innovation, appeal, effectiveness and cost effectiveness. Each judge's totals were then added together resulting in a total score for each club in each category. The facility with the highest overall score in each category was deemed the Best of the Best.

We'd like to congratulate all the entrants in each category, many of which were tight calls. We're sure that all these programs have had a profound effect on their clubs and will continue to do so.

The winning programs featured throughout the following pages will offer some ideas that owners and managers can implement at their fitness facilities across the country.

Best Renovation/Creative Use of Space

Cherry Hill Health & Racquet Club, Cherry Hill, NJ

{It's challenging to turn an indoor tennis building into a successful fitness experience.}

This category was a close call for our judges with just one point separating the winner from the second place finisher, but in the end, Cherry Hill Health & Racquet Club's million dollar renovation, which transformed a tennis club into a multi-purpose facility, won out.

“It's always challenging to turn a bare bones indoor tennis building into a successful fitness experience, and these guys did a great job with a limited budget,” says Hervey Lavoie, one of the judges of this category and president of Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative, an architectural firm that specializes in health clubs.

The club recently renovated to differentiate it from a growing number of big box clubs that had moved into its market. The focus of the renovation, done by J.K. Roller Architects, revolved around the club's new focus on family. What had formerly been a tennis-only facility now includes a full-size wood basketball/volleyball/sport court, group exercise studio, Pilates studio, mind/body studio, women-only fitness center, physical therapy and party rooms.

“We reached the point where the club was in dire need of updating and the market was really changing,” says Lisa Alberta, marketing director of the club. “Other clubs in our market were targeting adults, so we met with a special consultant and decided what to do. Now, we have our own niche to focus on the entire family.”

The SportCourt has played a large role in the success of the club's renovation, Alberta says. It allows for play of three new basketball leagues: 18 years old and up, 35 years old and up and youth. The club also has created volleyball leagues and youth soccer programs since the renovation. Also, the SportCourt is “party headquarters” for children aged 7 to 10 years old, Alberta says. In fact, her son recently had a birthday party complete with a moon bounce that the club can use inside or out.

“The birthday parties are really successful,” Alberta says. “We have a really talented staff and can do a tennis party, a basketball party, or an arts and crafts party. We have a whole catalog of parties, and the parents can work out while the party is going on.”

The club hosts not only children's birthday parties, but also larger celebrations such as Bar or Bat Mitzvahs and graduation parties. The club has created fun and imaginative programming for children as young as 2 years old, and more competitive, challenging programs for teens up to age 18. Through word of mouth the program has grown to include 100 children.

Also, the addition of a mind/body studio and a group exercise studio allows the club to offer more classes in more time slots for members. To remain competitive with the 30-minute, women-only facilities in the area, the club also customized its women-only fitness center.

The renovation has instilled a new sense of pride in the club, Alberta says. After sending out a scrapbook of before- and-after shots of the club to alumni members, it's easy to see how far the club has come.

“We're getting members that had been away for quite a while, and they renewed their membership after years of being somewhere else or not working out,” she says. “We used to primarily have tennis-only members, and then it was 50/50 for tennis and fitness, and now it's teetering. We now have more fitness members. We're trying to break away from being a tennis-only facility.”

Best Non-Member Program

Newtown Athletic & Aquatic Club, Newtown, PA

{The camp worked something special on the campers.}

Newtown Athletic & Aquatic Club doesn't just reach out to any non-members. One of the club's programs, Camp Something Special, reaches out to non-members who many of the staff and members have come to find pretty special. The program, developed three years ago, offers special needs children between the ages of 5 and 21 years old the opportunity to participate in a typical summer camp program that includes activities such as swimming, arts and crafts, music, Tae Kwon Do, gymnastics and team activities — all adjusted to meet each child's individual needs.

The program began upon the suggestion of one of Newtown's club members, John Cordisco, who had a grandson with special needs. After discussing the idea with his grandson's physical therapist, Robyn Towner, Cordisco got buy-in from Jim Worthington, owner of the club, to hold the camp at the 100,000-square-foot Newtown club.

“What happened was this wonderful response from the other kids and members that we hadn't counted on,” says Linda Mitchell, marketing director at Newtown Athletic. “We were transporting them in their wheelchairs and walkers from one place to another, and people were moved by this. Club members and staff would interact with the kids and got to know their names. The kids got mainstreaming and some attention that they didn't expect to get.”

The child-to-adult ratio was one-to-one or one-to-two, which required a large number of staff members, many of whom were college students studying to work with special needs children. A large staff and specialized attention meant large overhead leading to a cost of $400 per week for each child (each camp lasted a week and children could participate in one or all eight one-week camps). After the first year, Cordisco developed the Have a Heart Foundation to raise money for the special needs children who couldn't afford the camp on their own and to bring in special programs for the children.

Camp participation numbers have grown from 10 campers in the first year to 25 to 30 campers this year, most of whom came after their parents heard about the camp from other parents.

“This year, I had to turn away a few families because of the available space,” says Towner, who is also director of Camp Something Special. “Next year, we can accommodate a lot more families.”

That's because next year Newtown is moving the camp next door to the club's baseball academy building. The campers will just have to make a trek over the parking lot to use the pool and gym, but most of them probably won't mind. Towner saw the camp work something special on several of the campers this year. At the beginning of camp, one young boy used a walker to get around despite his therapist urging him to use his crutches to build leg strength.

“In the second week of camp with the counselors and other campers cheering him on when he used his crutches, he didn't want to use his walker anymore,” says Towner. “He just wanted to use his crutches even though he walked slower [with the crutches].”

Best Program for the Obese Population

Merritt Athletic Club, Baltimore, MD

{My mom was in the program and she wears her pedometer to this day.}

Being ranked sixth on Men's Health's fattest cities list wasn't something that Baltimore-based Merritt Athletic Club wanted to take sitting down. Instead, the club partnered with the University of Maryland Medical Center and the University of Maryland School of Medicine to develop the Get Fit Maryland Program.

“What I specifically liked about the Merritt Program Get Fit Maryland is that they were able to reach 3,300 people, they chose an activity most anyone could do (walking), they made it fun by getting sponsors to donate useful prizes, participants were accountable to themselves and the club via a log book, their marketing efforts allowed the program to score positive local publicity, education was a significant component and they involved the community (including the mayor, hospitals, schools, etc.),” says judge Kelli Calabrese, a consultant with Calabrese Consulting, LLC. “The testimonials were powerful as well.”

Program participants used a pedometer to count steps during their 12-week walking program that was accompanied by a free 30-day membership to the club. Some of the participants were Merritt members, most of them weren't.

“My mom was in the program and she wears her pedometer to this day,” says G.C. Calzetta, area wellness personal training director for Merritt Athletic Clubs. “It was a low-cost program, and for people to become aware of their activity is absolutely priceless.”

The pedometers also fostered a sense of camaraderie amongst the staff. Many took to wearing the pedometers and comparing their number of steps to each other's as a sort of competition, something that created a “buzz” about the small devices.

Through in-kind gifts, donations, grants and careful planning, the club was able to stay within its operating budget and break even in the inaugural year. The program also brought in a few new members — two members signed on at one location on the outskirts of town, and another in the heart of Baltimore lured in 10 to 20 new members. Calzetta says the program allowed the clubs to get their name out in the community and let Baltimore know that they were there to help people.

“In my opinion, Merritt clearly excelled in this category,” says Ronda Gates, a judge for this category and founder and president of Lifestyles by Ronda Gates. “Although others scored reasonably, only Merritt showed comprehensive planning, organization, media attention and awareness of underlying issues.”

Due to the popularity and success of the program, next year's Get Fit Maryland program is already in the works, with a few tweaks here and there to improve upon the old program, including an increased focus on targeting schools in Maryland to get fit and making the program more user-friendly.

Best Children's Programming

Texins Activity Center, Dallas TX

{Children who are introduced to fitness are more likely to be active as adults.}

Children of Texas Instrument (TI) employees wouldn't ever have to participate in a physical education class again if they didn't want to. That's because children in Dallas can opt out of PE classes if they participate in a program at a fitness facility. The variety of activities available to children at Texins Activity Center, TI's employee fitness facility, is large enough that that option might be tempting.

“From my perspective, it's one of the most diverse, well-rounded programs I've seen,” says Rebecca Cooper, marketing and business development manager at Texins Activity Centers, which has been managed by Health Fitness Corp. since 1999. “It offers something for everyone. You look at the expansiveness of the availability of camps — you can find anything you would find in the local community, but this makes it more convenient.”

TI actually has a Texins Activity Center at each of its three Texas locations — Dallas, Sherman and Spring Creek. Programs at the three facilities are also open to children of companies doing business on TI property and contractors.

The programs include Tiny Tots, Fit Tots, Safety Shape Yoga for Kids, ballet, sports agility training, strength training and Fit Kids Certification classes, which teach children between the ages of 8 and 15 years old how to operate fitness equipment. The clubs also offer spring break camps, summer camps, sports camps and social programs such as Monster Mash Bash (haunted house and carnival-like games), Breakfast with Santa and Parents Night Out. Many of the programs serve 50 to 100 children at a time. Some of the family events have involved up to 300 children.

The facility employs about a dozen full-time staff members to handle youth programming plus summer help from college students working toward degrees in kinesiology.

Texins Activity Centers Youth Programs are responsible for 52 percent of the total recreation revenue and operate at a 27 percent profit margin (including staffing).

“We strive to get children of all ages and abilities to take part in programs committed to establishing a healthy, positive lifestyle including exercise and proper nutrition,” says Terri Beauchamp, youth program coordinator at TI's Dallas location. “Children who are introduced to fitness that is age appropriate and fun display a higher self esteem and fitness level and are more likely to be active when they are adults.”

The youth programming evolved from meeting more than just health and fitness needs to also bringing in cultural diversity and other interests, such as theater and a robotics class, says Cooper.

“We have a diverse population here,” says Cooper. “They (Texas Instruments) recruit from all over the world. So some kids don't have a sports interest or fitness interest so to bring them in under robotics gets them into the facility.”

Offering a variety of classes, all of which are active in some way, shows many children that they don't have to be into tennis to be at the facility, says Beauchamp. And that introduces them to a new lifestyle.

“That is the intent,” says Cooper. “Getting them here is the biggest obstacle. We get them here by offering them something they are interested in.”

PHOTOS (under Best of Best/Texins):

DSCN1611.JPG — (left to right) Terri Beauchamp, youth program coordinator; Maureen Campbell, Kid's Room coordinator; Greg Treadway, aquatics coordinator; Jennifer Pell, youth recreation specialist; and Josh Bates, tennis pro.

DSCN0824.JPG — Wanna-be ballerinas strike a pose in the ballet class.

DSCN0724.JPG — The Spring Eggsravaganza provides a social activity for the children.

Best Senior Programming

Fountain Club, Alexandria, VA

{We try to inspire people to work up to another level.}

In the basement of the 10-story retirement and assisted living facility Washington House, a mix of senior citizens gathers six days a week to exercise at the Fountain Club. The Alexandria, VA fitness facility for Washington House residents and seniors who live in the surrounding community began as a social outlet for members but has evolved into a facility with air-hydraulic strength-training equipment, a variety of free weights, treadmills, recumbent stepping machines, resistance bands, 10 types of group exercise classes and an average of six classes each day (including Tai Chi, endurance training, aerobics and gentle yoga).

The facility also offers balance assessments and fall-risk reduction consultations twice per week. If a member or resident needs more intensive care, he or she can see an in-house physical or occupational therapist or a dietician. The facility recently installed a wellness kiosk where participants can track their vital signs and report them to a health care practitioner.

The club also offers a pet therapy program involving its club mascot, a black lab named Midnight.

“She is actually one of our biggest attractions,” says Adriana Carr, manager. “She's a great plus for promoting consistency because a good number of our members show up to exercise on a regular basis so they can visit with her.”

The facility sponsors fitness-related events within the community and organizes two outreach activities each month. A representative from the program speaks to community and civic groups about the importance of physical activity, how to chose an age-appropriate fitness facility and/or fitness myths.

“I liked the varieties of opportunities in the Fountain Club — six classes per day, tracking systems, etc.,” says Sandy Coffman, president of Programming for Profit and one of the judges for this category. “It also served a great purpose to dependent and independent people.”

Residents at the retirement home may join for free — and about 30 of them have already signed up. The 70 members from the outside community pay $49 a month for individual memberships and $69 for a couple.

Members' ages and physical abilities run the gamut, says Carr who along with Leigh Ann Slonka, community outreach coordinator, are personal trainers and the only staff at the facility. The facility accommodates various physical abilities by offering different levels of classes at different times. While everything is low impact and can be modified, the two have changed the workout level to suit a more active population and encourage some people to be more active.

“When I first started, all the aerobics classes were seated, but we found that a lot of seniors were working out here, but the chair classes weren't up to their level,” says Carr, who remedied the situation by adding strength-training classes with standing warm ups to the group exercise schedule. “We try to inspire people to work up to another level.”

That inspiration has worked as Carr has seen improvements in many of the residents. One member found that after several weeks of circuit training, he could get up and down from a kneeling position while at church, which motivated him to continue working out. Another member found that after two months of twice-a-week personal training sessions she could walk up the stairs instead of crawling up them.

“It's beneficial for residents and the community,” says Slonka. Not only does the club build community for those who live in the facility, but it acquaints those from the outside with the facility for the time when they may consider moving to a retirement home, she said.

Best Professional Development Program for Staff

WOW! Work out World, Brick, NJ

{We knew it would only happen if we made it happen.}

When you want to keep the cream of your personal training crop from being plucked by other clubs, you have to develop a program that gives those individuals a career path, and that's what WOW! Work Out World has done with its personal training staff.

Started about eight months ago, the WOW! Personal Training Staff Education Program begins on the first day of employment with a multi-day orientation program where the personal trainers' immediate personal training managers coach them through the basics of their position, says Todd Brown, vice president of personal training for WOW!

Once orientation is over and the trainers begin working on the floor, the club tracks their performance statistics (number of appointments, shows and closing percentage), which are reviewed to identify areas of weakness. The trainers then attend an education clinic in whichever area they are underperforming. As trainers progress, they become eligible to interview for a position within the Future Manager's Club (FMC), a select group of trainers preparing for management.

Once trainers complete this curriculum, they can become personal training managers at which time they are enrolled in the company's Management Development Program. This program entails a weekly 30-minute group leadership meeting with the owner and other personal training managers and a 60-minute group management meeting/roundtable with the vice president of personal training.

The other part of the personal training manager program involves the one-on-one Management Mentorship Program in which the managers participate in weekly one-on-one, 60-minute meetings with the vice president of personal training to work on the employee's top three areas of weakness.

Brown says the program was developed to ensure personal trainers were being developed in a consistent manner.

“We wanted to centralize a lot of the staff training to ease the load for our personal training managers and provide them with some training leverage,” he says. “And we really wanted to have the most qualified personal trainers around. We knew that it wouldn't happen on its own and would only happen if we made it happen.”

These efforts have helped improve the retention rate of the personal training staff to 90 percent.

“We've seen a dramatic increase in the personal training staff confidence level, which has also led to a significant increase in revenue production,” says Paul Laudermilch, director of personal training. “Trainers are therefore earning more money at WOW! and viewing their employment with us as a viable long-term career.”

Best On-Site Community Program

American Family Fitness, Richmond, VA

{We do what we can to get exercise in their lifestyle.}

No tours and no membership information. That was American Family Fitness' criterion for their Fit Families community service program designed to help Richmond, VA-area families make better choices for better health.

“We didn't want the community to think [the program] was some well conceived, cloaked membership drive because it wasn't,” says Yvonne Nelson, director of corporate wellness and Fit Families coordinator. “The program was free and open to the public with no intimidation factor. Some people just don't feel comfortable coming into a health club, and that's why we wanted to give the program.”

From Jan. 16 through March 6, 2005, American Family Fitness opened its doors to the public for eight consecutive Sundays for the free program in all six American Family Fitness locations. During the weekly sessions, families were encouraged to exercise together through age-appropriate activities for children and their parents such as kids' hip-hop, family yoga, mat Pilates, kids' cycling, basketball and pool play. Parents were encouraged to learn about a variety of subjects that could affect their children's and their own health from topic experts covering heart health, diabetes and others.

Guest speakers included doctors, certified diabetes educators, psychologists, motivational speakers and exercise physiologists along with the most popular presenter, puppeteers who put on an exercise-promoting themed show. The presenters provided information about the benefits of exercise, how to raise self-esteem through activities for children and the role of good nutrition and an active lifestyle. About 3,000 individuals attended the activities.

“We do a lot of community things, but we wanted to really reach out to the Richmond community,” says Brian Evans, president and CEO of American Family Fitness. “It's an obligation to do what we can for the people of Richmond and get exercise in their lifestyle.”

The club reached out to the community through marketing opportunities in print, radio and television, and by partnering with community members such as local school districts, current members and local merchants. Due to the clubs' increased exposure, sales increased in three of its six clubs. One participant even said, “Thank you for living up to your name,” on an evaluation survey.

Granted, a few members expressed concern over the increased number of people in the clubs on Sunday afternoons, but most members were happy with the clubs' interest in the community.

“What we said to [concerned members] was that this program was designed to help their friends and neighbors, and we encouraged them to bring in someone as a guest,” Nelson says. “We didn't make them feel that it was wrong in saying that, but more importantly, we tried to get them on board with the effort.”

Due to the program's success, the second round of Fit Families has already begun. This time, the club is targeting more schools and physical education classes. Nelson hopes to continue encouraging those who might be a bit intimidated by a health club to try any type of activity — inside or outside of the club.

Judges

Kelli Calabrese, Calabrese Consulting LLC

Bruce Carter, Optimal Fitness Systems International

Laurie Cingle, Club Northwest and Club Programming Resources

Joe Cirulli, Gainesville Health and Fitness Center

Sandy Coffman, Programming for Profit

Dr. Mark Dedomenico, Pro Sports Club

Terry Dezzutti, Merritt Athletic Club

Geoff Dyer, Lifestyle Family Fitness

Terry Eckmann, Fitness First

Nestor Fernandez, Western Athletic Clubs

Grant Gamble, ACAC Fitness and Wellness Center

Ronda Gates, Lifestyles by Ronda Gates

Jill Kinney, Club One

Gale Landers, Fitness Formula

Hervey Lavoie, Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative

Julie Main, Santa Barbara Athletic Club

Colin Milner, International Council on Active Aging

Thomas Rhind, Power Wellness

Doug Ribley, Akron General Health & Wellness Center

Steve Tharrett, consultant

Jim Worthington, Newtown Athletic Club

(None of the judges judged a category in which their facility entered)