A trainer changes the life of a young woman with cerebral palsy. A governor's endorsement puts a national spotlight on children's health. A simple idea for a party grows into much more than anyone anticipated. A group of diverse people come together when faced with a challenge. No, these are not the themes of the latest movies in Hollywood. These are the stories of the winning programs of Club Industry's Fitness Business Pro's annual Best of the Best competition.

Each winning facility plays the starring role. The 2008 Best of the Best winners include the Wyckoff Family YMCA in Wyckoff, NJ, for its behavior modification program; Minton's Sportsplex in Texarkana, TX, for its children's program; and Big Vanilla Athletic Club in Arnold, MD, for its new member integration program. In addition, Bodyworks Family Sports Centers in Lubbock, TX, won best community-based or nonmember program for the second year in a row.

All Best of the Best entries were rated by a panel of judges, who were chosen for their expertise in certain categories, on a scale of 1 to 10 based on their innovation, goal attainment, budgeting, participation, marketing, effectiveness and follow-up efforts. Each judge's totals were tallied, resulting in a total score for each club. Then, the judges discussed the top-ranked programs to determine the final winner in each category.

The editors of Club Industry's Fitness Business Pro would like to congratulate all of this year's winners and thank all facilities that entered the competition. Now, flip the pages to read more about these premier programs and find out what makes them the Best of the Best.

Judges:

  • Nicki Anderson, president, Reality Fitness

  • Kelli Calabrese, owner, Calabrese Consulting

  • Casey Conrad, president, Communication Consultants

  • Geoff Dyer, founder, Lifestyle Family Fitness

  • Jasmine Jafferali, program coordinator and instructor, Educational Fitness Solutions Inc.

  • Julie Main, co-owner and president, West Coast Athletic Clubs

  • Bill McBride, COO, Club One

  • Faith Pulis, president/CEO, Camp Thoreau Inc.

  • Steve Tharrett, president, Club Industry Consulting

  • Ed Tock, president, Eddie Tock Health Club Sales and Marketing Consulting

  • Karen Woodard, president, Premium Performance Training

Best Behavior Modification Program

Wyckoff Family YMCA
Wyckoff, NJ

Personal Partners

Take a quick glance through the Wyckoff Family YMCA's entry for best behavior modification program, and it's easy to see why the program won. Besides a full description of the program and how it met its goals, the entry's three-ring binder is filled with letters from parents praising the program for its life-changing effects.

The program, Personal Partners, is an exercise program for individuals with learning disorders and disabilities, such as autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. The program pairs each participant with their own personal trainer, who does more than just show the client how to work out — each trainer becomes their “personal partner.”

Participants are paired with a Personal Partners staff member for his or her unique ability to connect with the special needs population, says Michael Morley, fitness director of the Y.

“When we started offering the Personal Partners program, we had one goal in mind: Offer an exercise program to those with special needs in which they can feel comfortable being who they are,” Morley says. “Our goal was to offer a program that was reasonably priced and would fit the budget of our projected participants. We expected there would be some interest in this program, but to our delight, the response was huge.”

A 30-minute session costs $15, and an hour session costs $25. Currently, 17 individuals participate in the program, and most of them participate in two one-hour sessions a week. The program brings in about $14,000 a year for the Y. The return on investment is high, Morley says, since the program requires only staff time and previously budgeted salaries.

When the program started in January 2006, the Y marketed it using fliers and postings within the facility. However, because word of mouth has been so strong, the Y no longer relies on paper marketing. Eight people joined the facility specifically to participate in the program. Once a participant starts Personal Partners, they rarely leave, Morley says.

Jasmine Jafferali, one of the Best of the Best judges for this category and the program coordinator and instructor for Educational Fitness Solutions Inc., says the Wyckoff Y's program won because it wasn't just about physical health.

“It helped some [participants] come out of their ‘social’ shell because they are impaired by the lack of social skills. Our preconceived perceptions as a society demonstrates this on a daily basis and how cruel the world can really be,” Jafferali says. “Being able to run a mile not only helped their physical well-being, but as we all know very well, it improves one's mentality and ability to think, and it gives the confidence boost these children truly need to feel socially accepted.”

One example of that is Kelsey, a high school sophomore with cerebral palsy, who was partnered with Amy Jones, creator of the program, to work on Kelsey's specific needs. In a letter to the Y, Diana Lindner, Kelsey's mother, calls the results nothing less than miraculous. She says Jones is a trainer, therapist and friend to her daughter.

“Kelsey has become stronger and more flexible and has gained a physical confidence that has transcended into a great personal self-esteem that she didn't have prior to working with Amy,” Lindner writes.

Because of countless letters like this, Morley urges other fitness facility operators to consider adding this type of programming at their facilities.

“Programs like Personal Partners are in dire need in every single community,” Morley says. “We believe it is our responsibility to supply this demand.”

Best Children's Program

Minton's Sportsplex
Texarkana, TX

Shrinking Waistlines, Expanding After-School Program

There's nothing like a strong political endorsement to draw a little positive attention to a program. That's what happened in June 2005, when Minton's Sportsplex's After-School summer program received a visit from then-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. The next year, the children's program was featured in the March 2006 issue of TIME magazine alongside Huckabee in an article titled “The Politics of Fat.”

Huckabee is well known for his work fighting childhood obesity in Arkansas and lost more than 100 pounds in 2003. His physicians had told him that he was obese and would not live 10 more years if he didn't lose weight.

“The visit was prompted by our active involvement and work with youth obesity,” says Amy Cornish, youth program director at Minton's Sportsplex in Texarkana, TX. “Gov. Huckabee observed our summer program in full swing and complimented our work in providing awareness about a concern that was personal to him.”

Minton's Sportsplex first developed the fitness-focused after-school program in 1997 to fight childhood obesity and encourage more families to come into the club, Cornish says. When the program started, 27 percent of Texas children were obese.

“Examining these issues brought our attention to the public school system,” she says. “As we looked into the needs of parents and children, we decided to focus primarily on after school, which is a time when the children are out of school, but the parents are still working.”

In 1997, to help bolster the program, the facility expanded considerably, adding a pool and a one-acre Oasis complex featuring a Caribbean-themed water park-style interactive pool, basketball court, two beach volleyball courts, outdoor concessions and a pavilion. The first goal of the program was to break even and pay for the $600,000 expansion, says Mike Minton, owner of the club. However, the program was so successful that the facility had the means to expand two more times. In 2000, Minton added a $500,000 family recreation facility, and in 2002, the club invested $200,000 to include a six-lane junior Olympic lap pool in the Oasis.

The first year of the program, 27 children signed up. Since then, enrollment has increased year after year, sometimes as much as a 50 percent jump each school year. Today, 300 students participate in the program. The program is only offered to members.

As a result of the program's success, more families have joined Minton's Sportsplex. At the onset of the program, 70 percent of memberships were singles. Now, 70 percent are family memberships.

“All of our child care prices include a family membership, making the membership tax deductible and enticing the family to become fit together,” Minton says. “Our price for the school year is $394 monthly, and our summer price is $699 monthly.”

While the summer program focuses on sports and swim camps, the after-school program includes homework help, fun fitness activities and a healthy snack. Both programs require significant resources in terms of supplies, building maintenance, food and beverage costs, utilities, and payroll and commissions. On average, the program has a 40 percent return on investment.

Within the next 18 months, Minton plans to develop a $6 million, 1,600-square-foot charter health and wellness preschool.

“Our expectations were far exceeded when we realized our fastest growing membership population is young teens and families who retain their memberships once the child has become too old for the after-school program,” Cornish says. “The habits that families form when the children are young do create families that exercise together and are ultimately stronger and healthier as a result.”

Best Community or Nonmember Program

Bodyworks Family Sports Centers
Lubbock, TX

Back-to-Back Winners

Winning a single Best of the Best award is no doubt exciting, as it denotes a facility's program as “the best.” However, winning back-to-back Best of the Best awards is pretty impressive.

When Krista Burns, events coordinator for Bodyworks Family Sports Centers, heard the news that its Party Zone program had won best community or nonmember program for the second year in a row, she felt honored.

“We have always been proud of our program, and when we won the first time, we were so excited,” Burns says. “To win two in a row is even more exciting because it is just that much more confirmation that we are doing something right and helping to fill a need in our community.”

Party Zone is the overall name of Bodyworks' special events programming. Events take place in one of many of the club's eight themed areas: the AthletiZone, the CyberZone, the Maze, the SplashZone, the VertiZone, the AquaZone, the Virtual Zone and the Jump Zone. Birthday parties are still the most popular type of Party Zone event, Burns says, but the area has also been used for field trips, church lock-ins and family reunions.

Since last year's win, the Party Zone's offerings and success have increased significantly. The club has added additional party packages and 24-hour online booking for members and nonmembers. Also, themed parties, including character appearances, have been added to the Party Zone options. Parents and children can choose from Spider-Man, Darth Vader, a Jedi Knight, a pirate, a butterfly fairy, an Indian princess and a clown. So far, the most popular option has been the pirate, Burns says.

The most memorable party for Burns was a graduation party and lock-in that hosted 275 students from a Lubbock, TX, high school.

“We actually cleared out the entire free weight area to give them a hangout area,” she says. “We had recently purchased an oversized blow-up projection screen and sound system. We set up a ‘dive in’ movie for the pool area where they could swim or float and watch movies outside. We converted our group exercise room into a casino, where there were all kinds of casino tables and games that the kids could play — for no money, of course.”

Two of Bodyworks' five locations have Party Zones. The company holds about 20 to 25 events per week, each with 10 to 20 participants. In May, the Party Zone brought in $24,000, well over the company's monthly goal of $10,000. Party packages range from $150 to $210 for general parties and upwards of $400 for private parties. Club members receive a 10 percent discount off of all party packages, Burns says.

Because the events are open to nonmembers, the Party Zone also brings in many new memberships. In fact, at Party Zone's main location, the events bring in an average of 20 memberships a month, resulting in $30,000 in additional dues each month — in addition to the revenue of the events themselves.

To continue to meet the needs of the community, Burns is working out the logistics of offering at-home parties, which will include use of Bodyworks' mobile rock wall, spider climber and multi-sports jumper. Burns credits print advertising, television ads and word-of-mouth advertising as instrumental to the program's success and second consecutive win.

“Every day, we get phone calls from people wanting to book a party that don't even know our prices or what we really have to offer,” she says. “They have just heard that we are one of the best places for a party, and that's what they want.”

Best New Member Integration Program

Big Vanilla Athletic Club
Arnold, MD

The Big V 90-Day Challenge

Some of the members at Big Vanilla Athletic Club in Arnold, MD, are pretty good friends. They have formed weekly cooking clubs, go on trips together and create their own Web sites.

This type of camaraderie and friendship in a fitness facility is a club owner's dream, and one made into reality through Big Vanilla Athletic Club's 90-Day Challenge program, says Julie Lincoln, director of fitness at Big Vanilla Athletic Club.

The program assigns new members into five teams of 12 to 20 people. For 90 days, the teams compete against each other by gathering points for coming to the club at least three times a week, attending an educational lecture, participating in a team challenge or trying a group exercise class. Participants have scorecards that track their workouts and attendance at weekly events. Those totals are combined with the totals of their teammates and are averaged at the end of the 90 days to determine the winner. The name of the winning team is engraved on the official 90-Day Challenge trophy, which is on display in the club's café. Individual winners from each team, who are chosen by the team coaches and team members, are also recognized and receive free personal training or a massage.

The program began in 2005 and runs twice a year with a fall and winter challenge. Although competition is important in the program, Big Vanilla Athletic Club wanted the challenge to be less “The Biggest Loser” and more accountability-based.

“We view the challenge as a starting point for permanent lifestyle alteration, not as a simple goal-achievable program,” Lincoln says. “Goals are set, but ultimately, the true benefit is that a habit to exercise a minimum of three times a week at the facility is established, and now you have peers who interact with you as long as you are a member.”

The challenge attracts all types of exercisers, Lincoln says, including beginners, competitive athletes and morbidly obese members. Many even repeat the program several times to stay on track with their health goals, she says.

“Some of our repeaters, which there are many, credit the program for drastically improving their quality of life,” Lincoln says. “It never ceases to amaze me how supportive perfect strangers can be to one another when they are told that they are now a ‘team.’”

The 90-Day Challenge costs members $120. Repeaters pay $90. Nonmembers can join the challenge if they purchase a three-month membership to the club, but only a few of the 500-plus people who have completed the challenge do this, and those who have opted for the short membership usually join the club after the challenge's completion, Lincoln says.

Marketing for the program includes in-house fliers and banners, promos on the Big Vanilla Athletic Club Web site, and inclusion in the club's program guide that is published three times a year and distributed within the club and throughout the community. The club's sales staff also hype the program with new and prospective members, which Lincoln says helps promote the program and sell more new memberships.

Once costs for marketing, staff (10 employees), the awards and the closing ceremony are factored in, a typical single challenge with 50 participants nets $3,725.

Besides bringing in revenue, the program also builds a strong and supportive community within the club. The participants make friends with each other and the staff, Lincoln says.

“It is a labor of love,” Lincoln says, “and to be recognized for a program that has improved hundreds of lives is wonderful.”