When the shootings occurred at the LA Fitness in Collier, PA, last month, I was shocked and saddened along with the rest of the country. It was a tragedy that so many innocent lives were affected by a man who seemed to be so disturbed and bent on violence. (See the cover story in this issue for more details.) Our hearts go out to LA Fitness and its staff, members and family members affected by this tragedy.
As we covered the story as best we could in the days following the incident, I was curious about how LA Fitness would react to the situation. Management at the company is adamantly private. I've covered the industry for seven years and have spoken to just one person at LA Fitness — and that was at the club level. When I've called and identified myself as a member of the media wanting a tour of an LA Fitness or to talk to a general manager for a story, I'm always told to call the corporate office. Calls and e-mails to corporate go unanswered.
Everyone in the fitness industry knows who LA Fitness is — a giant company of more than 300 clubs that is steadily and adeptly moving into new markets — but few in the industry know the faces behind LA Fitness like they do for giants such as 24 Hour Fitness and Bally Total Fitness.(See sidebar on page 32 for more about LA Fitness.)
When this tragedy occurred, LA Fitness put a note of condolence on its Web site. Although the note expressed sincere sentiments, I had hoped that LA Fitness would do more publicly. I had hoped that a representative would be at the press conferences answering questions or reading a statement. I had hoped that at the memorial service a representative from LA Fitness would have spoken to the crowd. All reports I have seen (and the reporters in Pittsburgh I spoke with) indicate that no one from LA Fitness did so, although the company did have at least one representative there at the scene.
In situations like this, a company needs to put a human face on itself. A few years ago, I served on a jury in which the defendant was a utility company. The utility sent one of its most genteel and least intimidating looking executives to just sit with its lawyers through the trial so that the utility company seemed more human. It did have an effect on me.
LA Fitness is made up of people. It's not just an inanimate entity. We needed to see a face at the forefront noting how the company was working with police on the investigation and helping the victims. After all, LA Fitness was a victim of George Sodini, too. Its staff went through the trauma of the evening just as its members did. In fact, the staff reportedly performed admirably getting members out of the club quickly. We needed to see and hear from those staff members.
I'm sure LA Fitness has its reasons for not putting a face on the company during this time. Perhaps concerns about litigation are one of those reasons. Perhaps a crisis is not the best time to suddenly take on a new persona. No one expected this to occur, after all, so no one had time to plan how to react. However, every club company should have a plan in place for how to deal with situations like these. (A town hall meeting on Oct. 16 at Club Industry in Chicago will delve into this topic.)
I hope that in the future, we see more of the personalities behind this large force in our industry. The company's success indicates they'd be interesting to get to know — and we hope to do so under more pleasant circumstances.