Chicago — Economic woes were on the minds of many last month at Club Industry 2008 in Chicago, causing many of the seminars and events to focus on how to survive during a tough economy. The majority of speakers said that to weather the downturn, fitness facilities must focus on retaining current members and make sure that facilities and staff are operating at their highest level.

The four-day conference and trade show drew more than 6,000 professionals and featured special events, educational seminars and a trade show floor with 900 booths of fitness-related products and services. Highlights of the show included the keynote and presentation of Club Industry's Fitness Business Pro's Lifetime Achievement Award to Dr. Kenneth Cooper, along with a panel session about weathering the economy.

Cooper, founder of the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas and the “father of aerobics,” graciously accepted the award to a standing ovation on the second day of the show. He then gave a 45-minute presentation about exercise and how it has changed over the years, going from an aerobics and jogging boom in the 1980s to a drop in exercise levels and a startling rise in obesity levels today.

Cooper also addressed the childhood obesity epidemic. With the help of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who signed the Fitnessgram bill in 2007, Cooper was able to persuade the Texas legislature to mandate that Texas schools test students to gauge their fitness levels. Cooper is passionate about helping America's next generation to be healthier.

In fact, with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Cooper stressed the importance of healthy, fit troops and how important it is to start getting them fit as children.

“The security of our country is at stake because of what we're doing in our schools,” Cooper told the standing-room-only crowd.

The show also featured the panel session “Fitness Business at a Crossroad: How to Hold on in Today's Economy and Prosper for the Future.” Moderated by former Lifetime Achievement Award winner Rick Caro, the session addressed issues affecting club owners today in a weak economy. The panel consisted of Carl Liebert, CEO of 24 Hour Fitness; Jeff Klinger, CEO of Anytime Fitness; Gale Landers, CEO of Fitness Formula; and Scott Chovanec, president of Scott Chovanec and Associates. Details about the panel session appear online at www.fitnessbusinesspro.com/forprofits/club-industry-panel-session-0811.

Educational seminars echoed the trend of retention. “Retention Planning that Works” was led by Mark Miller, vice president of Merritt Athletic Clubs, Baltimore, who said that the average length of a membership is 80 weeks, but if clubs can lengthen that time, then they can add thousands of dollars to their bottom line. In fact, 52 percent of members who visit a club less than four times in the first month quit within the first year, Miller said.

“Strengthening Your Business in a Weak Economy,” led by Amanda Harris, vice president of fitness and wellness at ACAC Fitness & Wellness Centers, Richmond, VA, also offered suggestions to help clubs thrive during a tough economy. Harris noted that more millionaires were made per capita during the Great Depression than at any other time in the history of the country.

Four facilities that have been following these tips and creating great results were recognized at the show, too. Club Industry's Fitness Business Pro presented this year's Best of the Best winners with their awards prior to the economic panel session. Wyckoff Family YMCA in Wyckoff, NJ, won the award for best behavior modification program for its special populations program Personal Partners. Minton's Sportsplex in Texarkana, TX, won best children's program for its after-school program. Big Vanilla Athletic Club in Arnold, MD, won best new member integration program for its 90-day weight-loss challenge. The fourth winner, Bodyworks Family Sports Centers in Lubbock, TX, won best community or nonmember program for the second year in a row for its party programming but was unable to attend the awards ceremony.

Club Industry 2008 also marked the kickoff of Club Industry's Fitness Business Pro's yearlong 25th anniversary celebration. The welcome reception on the first evening of the show featured a presentation of the magazine's history, and 25 prizes were awarded to attendees during trade show hours.

For more about the show, read the Club Industry 2008 blog. You can also read about some of the products introduced at the show.

Next year's show will be held Oct. 14-17, 2009, in Chicago.