Game on. Competition was the name of the game for this year's Best of the Best contest. Numerous fitness facilities entered the fourth-annual contest, and after much consideration, our panel of judges decided which clubs were on top of their game for 2006. We'd like to congratulate this year's winners and applaud all those facilities that entered for their hard work in the industry.

All entries were rated on a scale of 1 to 10 based on innovation, appeal, effectiveness and cost effectiveness by our panel of judges — carefully chosen by the Club Industry's Fitness Business Pro staff for their expertise in certain categories. Each judge's totals were then tallied resulting in a total score for each club. The facility with the highest average in each category was crowned Best of the Best.

You may notice that two facilities tied for best specialized program for the obese population. Because we feel both programs equally deserve the title of Best of the Best, we've decided to feature both of them.

Turn the page to read about each of the winners and learn what others in the industry are doing. Their programs are sure to inspire and motivate fitness professionals nationwide.

Best Renovation

The Houstonian Club, Houston, TX

When you have Britney Spears and former First Lady Barbara Bush as guests, your wet areas better be up to par.

The Houstonian Hotel, Club and Spa in Houston, TX, is known for ritzy clientele and luxurious amenities, so it's no wonder that in 2004 when it wanted to become more of a resort property than a hotel and club operating separately, the facility decided to invest in a $3-million renovation. When you have Britney Spears and former First Lady Barbara Bush as guests, your wet areas better be up to par.

Pre-renovation, the Houstonian had three pools: a 25-yard, six-lane lap pool that was 4 feet deep; a 70,000-gallon free-form pool used by mainly hotel guests and families; and a residential, 50-gallon kidney-bean pool for adults only. That wet space was drastically changed on Aug. 20, 2004, when construction began. By May 1, 2005, a resort pool, sports pool, garden pool and pool gazebo had been built bringing in new guests, members and an energetic buzz to the facility.

This buzz was brought on by the wet area's array of features. The 4,000-square-foot resort pool includes a 32-foot long slide, waterfalls, a zero-depth entry with geysers and a separate baby pool perfect for families. The 25-meter-by-25-yard, 10-lane sports pool keeps the temperature at 80 degrees during Houston's hot summers with a state-of-the-art cooling system using a chill water heat exchanger. And, the garden pool features 1,300 square feet and an added lap lane for swimming. For prime socializing, the pool gazebo has a granite pool bar area, which seats 45 people, complete with ceiling fans, plasma TVs, a margarita machine and a dedicated kitchen. On dry land, the renovation added an outdoor surround-sound system, landscaping, cool decks with stamped concrete to create a natural-stone look, and a new service bridge connecting the hotel to the gazebo, as well as the hotel to the garden pool to maximize guest and member services. All pools are open to club members and hotel guests.

Before construction began, the Houstonian used newsletters and its Web site to inform members of the renovation. The club also posted a rendering of the three pools in its lobby as construction started and sent out a series of mailers 120, 90, 60 and 30 days prior to opening to generate excitement and increase the number of visitors to the pools. The mailers were sent to members; 9,000 households who requested membership information; and to a list of $150,000-plus income households in a seven-mile radius.

When the pools opened, beach balls and picture frames were given out to all members, and hotel room keys featured pool images and mentioned the pool opening. Press releases were also sent out about the new wet areas, and advertising featured the pools as a main selling point.

The renovation was worth it. Business increased for weekend travel and social events, member use of the spa picked up, the Sports Shop sold more swimwear and loungewear, outside dining at the gazebo doubled its revenue, swim lessons increased by 60 percent, and aquatic classes increased 40-50 percent. Most notably, membership increased from April 2005 through August 2005 by 118 members, resulting in $2.1 million.

Now that's a paycheck even big-name Houstonian guests would respect.

Best New Member Integration Program

Healthtrax at Avon Wellness Center, Avon, CT

A member coach is a partner in figuring out how to get started and keep going based on what they really want to do for a fitness program.

Healthtrax at the Avon Wellness Center in Avon, CT, is hoping to solve a mystery that clubs have struggled with since the fitness industry was born — why members quit within their first 90 days of membership.

The facility is cracking the membership code with the Healthy Connections member retention system that helps members get more out of their membership and stay connected to their fitness programs. At the core of the system is the member coach, who helps on all fronts of member integration and retention. The member coach provides welcome calls to all new members within their first 30 days of joining; facilitates coaching sessions to get them started, explains more about fitness programs and services, and how to stay motivated; provides followup to members who are at risk due to low usage; and manages weekly e-mail communications. In general, the position was designed to provide a more welcoming and supportive environment by personalizing a member's orientation into the fitness center. Originally, each member, regardless of his or her fitness level, stage of readiness or personal preference to exercise was oriented into the center in a cookie cutter fashion, says Kristine Blaha, executive director.

“By capitalizing on the members' interests and motivation level, as well as understanding how the member wanted to be supported, our member coach helped co-create a comprehensive fitness plan with the member,” Blaha says. “By providing this level of support and guidance, our goal was to help members be more comfortable and confident in their program, increase their participation and ultimately decrease the number of members who quit within the first six months of their membership.”

So far, the program has decreased sixth-month cancellations of new members (when comparing June 2004 to June 2005) by 34 percent, and it has better integrated new members into the center's programs and services including additional coaching sessions and personal training and group training referrals.

While the new 25-hour-a-week position cost the center $25,000 a year, it earned an additional $83,000 by increasing membership retention 3 percent (keeping 72 members at a membership rate of $1,125 per year).

The program has also led to a cultural shift operationally at the facility, as each employee is more cognizant of assisting members to become more active and comfortable in the facility, Blaha says.

However, the position's success lies in maintaining integrity, Blaha says.

“Members are aware that a member coach has no hidden agendas, i.e. selling personal training services,” she says. “A member coach is their partner in figuring out how to get started and keep going based on what's best for them and what they really want to do for a fitness program.”

Making sure new members are comfortable and supported is a sure way of keeping them, she says. Mystery solved.

Best On-Site Community Program

The Keller Pointe, Keller, TX

Offered free to the community, participants came to the event to “swim with the pumpkins” in the facility's indoor pool.

Ever wonder what more than 350 pounds of fruit might look like in your facility's indoor pool? Ask the staff at the Keller Pointe, the city of Keller, TX's community recreation center. They dunked 350 pumpkins (yes, pumpkin is technically a fruit) in the pool for their second-annual Pumpkin Splash event last October. Offered free to the community, participants came to the event to “swim with the pumpkins” in the facility's indoor pool. Swimmers then picked a pumpkin, dried it off, decorated it and took it home for Halloween, which was just a few days away. Other activities included face painting, darts, beanbag toss and a bounce house obstacle course.

“Parents were so thrilled that at that time of the year the kids could be indoors and do something safe around Halloween time,” says Elizabeth Hart, recreation supervisor of the Keller Pointe. “Community members thought it was a great idea.”

And the community sure did come out to the event — 350 of them to be exact. Through a sponsorship with Verizon, the Keller Pointe was able to offer the event for free. That sponsorship helped to bring more people to the event than the previous 2004 event, which drew roughly 200 people who each paid a small fee to attend.

Staff handled the large crowd with a well-thought out plan. Check-in was conducted outside, which alleviated a crowded lobby and long lines inside the facility, and registration was split into three alphabetical groupings to expedite check-in. The center gave each participant a goodie bag, wristband, agenda, program evaluation and a ticket for his or her wave. Each wave of 50 participants (most were children, but many adults also jumped in) had 15 minutes in the pool to find their perfect pumpkin. After all the waves were finished, the pool was opened for a free swim.

To ensure the safety of all participants, 15 lifeguards were on hand, along with part-time and full-time staff and 20 volunteers. This many hands on deck and planning helped the event run smoothly, Hart says.

Advertising was one major reason for the event's success, Hart says. The staff posted event flyers throughout the 82,000-square-foot facility, and Hart placed an ad in the local newspaper and on the city cable television channel. She also asked other local businesses for help. Three months before the event she informed business owners about it. Many let her hang posters in their buildings or donated funds or supplies.

However, word of mouth was the best advertising tactic.

“Friends told friends about the event and brought their friends,” Hart says. “People were able to see the facility and what we are about, and a handful of people signed up for new memberships that night.”

The Keller Pointe staff is busy planning this year's third-annual Pumpkin Splash. Because the 2005 event went so well, Hart doesn't foresee many changes.

“Not as of now,” Hart says. “Because it went so smoothly and was so successful, we're just trying to run it the same way that we did last year.”

Best Non-Member Program

Genesys Athletic Club, Grand Blanc, MI

The REACH program doesn't weigh its participants because the program is about lifestyle change, not a number on the scale.

When participants of the Genesys Athletic Club's REACH program attend their first group exercise class, it's important that the door is shut and the blinds are closed to ensure privacy. But a few weeks into the program, participants couldn't care less about privacy, says Ruth Anne Harmes, REACH program coordinator. Increasing a woman's self-esteem along with her health is the reason she started REACH.

“I would run into women outside of the club who said, ‘I'll join the club when I lose weight,’” she says. “Because we're associated with a hospital, our median age is 43. We're not just fit 20-year-olds. We really focus on health, and I wanted to create a program that addressed these women.”

Harmes pitched the idea — a low-cost, effective program for the deconditioned female market — to the hospital-based athletic center's management, and in January 2005, the REACH program was born. Each eight-week session consists of three components: weekly nutrition lectures, daily exercise classes (45 minutes in length) and a half-hour weekly coaching session with a personal wellness coach. The club gives participants a notebook with weekly education handouts, healthy recipes, and a daily food and thoughts diary to record food intake and emotions. So far, more than 500 women have completed REACH.

Harmes attributes the program's success to an attention to making deconditioned women comfortable. Besides placing group ex classes in a private studio, REACH doesn't weigh its participants. Instead, measuring is encouraged, because the program is about lifestyle change, not a number on the scale.

“I don't want any obstacles to stand in their way, and I didn't want there to be any reasons a woman wouldn't join,” she says. “If they leave feeling just a little better than when they came through the door, then that's a success.”

However, the program has also been successful financially. Each session has turned a profit, and in a year-and-a-half, more than 60 new memberships have been attributed to REACH. Many of these new members took advantage of their REACH incentives; the program is $249 for non-members and $199 for club members, and at the end of the eight weeks, $199 of those fees can be applied to the facility's $395 initiation fee. Also, the club invites participants to bring their family members into the facility for a free workout while they are in REACH classes. Many families take advantage of that incentive, Harmes says.

“Everyone is getting fit together, and then it becomes a family lifestyle change and not just hers,” she says.

Although the program takes employee training and a dedicated staff — up to 10 coaches — it's worth it.

“Many women join because at [the end of the program] they have a relationship, and they've made exercise a part of life,” she says. “We don't have to sell it because we make our money with monthly dues.”

Blinds opened or closed, the REACH program is a win-win.

Best Children's Program

Bodyworks Family Sports Center, Lubbock, TX

We've opened the doors of the imagination and made each element special and unique — just like the kids.

Their mission statement may be a mouthful, but it helps keep the staff at Bodyworks Family Sports Center focused: “To help our members attain mastery and control over their bodies and lives, renewing and fulfilling their spirit, so they may use their own unique gifts and talents to become all they are meant to be.”

That mission is greatly embodied in the GO! program, Bodyworks' youth fitness program targeted to children ages 2-12. The program provides a variety of weekly classes to both youth members and nonmembers including a Target & Skills program designed to teach children more specific skills such as dance, tumbling, Kung Fu and swimming.

“We knew that we wanted kids to feel like individuals with individual needs, talents and goals, so we tried to create a program that welcomed diversity and fostered originality,” says Kristi Franks, youth fitness director at Bodyworks. “However, our focus is always on fun. Without it, the kids lack motivation and habit development — the same things adults need to work out.”

Bodyworks' Get into the GO! Zones are designed to keep those fun levels high. Available for all youth members, they include: the AthletiZone (a full indoor basketball court), the CyberZone (an interactive gaming area with Dance, Dance Revolution and Xbox games), the GrooveZone (an exercise room with kid steps, balls and ballet barres), the RepZone (a series of hydraulic strength-training equipment made just for kids), the SplashZone (an indoor waterpark), the VertiZone (a two-story climbing wall) and the AquaZone (a junior Olympic-sized pool completed in July). During summer camps this year, the CyberZone was probably the most popular, Franks says.

“In dividing our space into these exciting areas, we were able to really highlight all the features of each zone,” she says. “We've opened the doors of the imagination and made each element special and unique — just like the kids.”

GO! started January 2006 with the official opening of Bodyworks Family Sports Center. The facility hoped to earn $1 million in revenue for the new center, but exceeded that by reaching $1.3 million. This spring, the center was $300,000 above its revenue goal. Since its opening, the program has helped Bodyworks almost quadruple its memberships. The facility spread the word about the program through TV and radio ads, local conventions and mailers.

The program's success has lead to additions in the program's classes including swimming lessons and possibly a special needs program later this year. To keep fresh, the GO! staff (composed of everything from elementary PE teachers to stay-at-home moms and exercise sports science majors) hosts quarterly meetings to review teaching strategies and catch up on continuing education in the field.

“I think one of the biggest reasons for our success is the willingness to share ideas, communicate regularly and keep the focus on the children.”

Mission accomplished.

Best Senior Program

Fairhaven Retirement Community, Sykesville, MD

One resident improved her muscles, joints and energy level; another brags about her “25-year-old blood pressure.”

Live Well. Be Well. Belong. Fairhaven Retirement Community's wellness program's marketing message says it all — promotion of a valued lifestyle, not a promise of a certain lifespan. And the Community of Well Being (COWB) program helps Fairhaven do just that.

Owned by Episcopal Ministries to the Aging, a nonprofit organization, Fairhaven began contracting Corporate Fitness Works' fitness services for the retirement community in September 2002. COWB evolved from that partnership in February 2004 and urges Fairhaven residents to “be” six things: independent, creative, strong, involved, vibrant and well. All six pillars of wellness are promoted through various events including luaus, healthy dinners, resident-organized hikes and dances, memorial candelight services around the pool and health fairs.

The program was started to emphasize the way in which Fairhaven residents were already living, says Robin Shepherd, director of residential communities at Fairhaven.

“Our community's philosophy empowers residents with opportunities and respects their right to divert from the traditional road of aging, to their own path of aging well,” she says.

Part of that package includes the on-site fitness center. Besides offering treadmills, recumbent bikes, a stretch station, strength machines, a pool and a spa, group exercise classes such as yoga, Tai Chi, Pilates and water aerobics are offered. The seasonal shuffleboard court is also a popular spot.

Staff at Fairhaven constantly track enrollment and participation in monthly and quarterly events; at each COWB event residents register before entering the event and sign in at the door. All flyers and educational materials have a number in the top right corner to track distribution, and evaluations are available for each Fairhaven resident at each event.

With countless activities and offerings, COWB has surpassed its program goals. Fairhaven wanted to increase the number of residents participating in the fitness program from 211 to 235. It did that and more by recruiting two new members to the fitness program each month of the year. Fairhaven also wanted to retain at least half of its membership in the fitness program on a monthly basis. It retained 51 percent. The program also updated its pedometer program, Stepping into Spring, and the Maintain Campaign, a motivational program to help residents maintain their weight over the holidays.

Many residents have benefited from the fitness program. One resident improved her muscles, joints and energy level; another brags about her “25-year-old blood pressure.”

However, COWB is much more than just fitness, Shepherd says. It practically markets itself.

“[COWB] is more than just the programs and field trips that are being offered; it is an approach to life infusing everything that takes place at Fairhaven,” she says.

Best Specialized Program for the Obese Population — TIE

Elmwood Fitness Center, New Orleans

Not only does the program help make the New Orleans community healthier, but it also earns the facility $10,000-$12,000 every three months.

Nothing could stop New Orleans-based Elmwood Fitness Center's I Can Do It program — not even a hurricane. Sure, Katrina may have knocked the program a bit “off track,” to use Elmwood Fitness Center Child Specialist Michael Heim's words, but it certainly didn't stop it.

The category-five storm hit the southeast Louisiana coast and Mississippi state line the morning of Aug. 29, disrupting lives, damaging property and interrupting one of I Can Do It's three-month sessions. In a region known for its delicious food and battle with obesity, the fitness and nutrition program helps children develop skill sets to regain control of their health, happiness and futures.

“Katrina hit in the middle of a session,” Heim says. “Then [while everything was shut down and access to foods was limited], people started putting on pounds. When the kids were able to come back and finish the program, they actually gained weight.”

Although recovery in the storm-wrecked region is ongoing, the program is doing better than ever. In fact, since Heim developed the program in 2002, the program has helped more than 350 children aged 7-17 years old increase their self-esteem and change their lifestyle.

Each session includes 36 hours of circuit training, a six-lecture nutrition series, and three guest lectures and a cooking demonstration for parents. The center even designated 2,400 square feet for strictly children's fitness.

Elmwood Fitness Center, a service of the Ochsner Health System, offers the program to members and nonmembers four times a year, charging $350 for each child per three-month session. Many children and parents are referred to the program via their primary care physician, but the program is marketed to Elmwood members through newsletters, brochures and posters. Local media — news stations, newspapers and magazines — have also helped gain notoriety for the program.

Not only does the program help make the New Orleans community healthier, but it also earns the facility roughly $10,000-$12,000 every three months, Heim says.

Although a nice bonus, revenue is not the main reason the program is offered. In fact, in 2005, Heim started Rock & Ride: Fight Against Childhood Obesity Fundraiser, a group cycling ride, for those families not able to afford the program fees. Elmwood plans to give out the $8,800 raised at the 2005 event, and hopes to raise more at the 2006 ride on Nov. 5.

Seeing the children's progress is the most rewarding part of the program, Heim says. One 15-year-old participant lost 25 pounds in 12 weeks and attended 33 out of 35 sessions, despite being a 45-minute drive away from the facility.

“If the children come and do what they're ask-ed, they find out it's actually really fun,” he says. “They all start to realize what it takes to get the goal they want.”

Best Specialized Program for the Obese Population — TIE

PRO Sports Club, Bellevue, WA

So far, the program has helped more than 3,500 people lose an average of 40 pounds and reduce their medication costs by $1,300 a year.

Although you can't place a price on good health, the PRO Sports Club in Bellevue, WA, has found that moving people from unhealthy habits to an active lifestyle is quite costly; however, it's a cost well worth it.

In 1993, Dr. Mark Dedomenico invested $1.4 million in the 20/20 LifeStyles program at the club. The program includes diet and nutrition education, exercise and behavior modification, all lead by a staff of physicians, registered dietitians, psychologists and personal trainers. That investment has been well worth it, Dedomenico says.

“We've recapped that money,” he says. “We had to try a lot of things, and as the program developed, we could do more and more.”

The hardest thing was to get people to come in to buy the program, Dedomenico says. Depending on a participant's needs, a program can last between 10-20 weeks and costs an average of $6,110-$10,290.

That cost became much easier for participants (PRO Sports Club members and non-members alike can sign up for the program) to swallow after large companies such as Costco and Nintendo agreed to add 20/20 LifeStyles as an employee benefit, picking up part of the tab. Participant numbers rose. At any given time, about 60 percent of the program's participants are from a large company. Microsoft has been with the program the longest.

Microsoft covers 80 percent of the program's costs for its employees and their spouses, and the PRO Sports Club also supplies the company with health club services. Although investing $4,888-$8,232 per employee and staff seems a hefty price to pay for healthier employees, Microsoft realizes a 195 percent return on its investment in four years.

“Mostly companies look at how they're going to save money with their budgets,” Dedomenico says. “The cost of medicine is getting out of hand.”

So far, the program has helped more than 3,500 people lose weight and become healthier. Participants lose an average of 40 pounds and reduce their medication costs by $1,300 a year.

Each year the program grows in size and revenue. In 2003, 536 participants helped bring in $4.1 million; in 2004, 648 earned the facility $4.8 million; in 2006, 726 signed, boosting revenue to $5.4 million. Although 2006 isn't over, 800 people are projected to bring $6 million into the program.

Ninety-eight percent of those who join the program finish it, and almost half maintain their weight loss after three years versus the national average of 2 percent. Many alumni sign up for the club's alumni program that includes fitness challenges, seminars, cooking classes, newsletters, follow-up appointments with a staff physician, repeat health assessments and access to an interactive Web site.

With the obesity epidemic getting worse every year, Dedomenico says clubs are critical.

“People need help and are looking for help,” he says. “You have to help them every step of the way. That's what the health club business does.”

Judges:

  • Vernard Alsberry, Kids Health Club
  • Cuoco Black, fitness facility designer
  • Lauri Bradley, Lady of America
  • Bruce Carter, Optimal Fitness Systems International
  • Kelli Calabrese, Calabrese Consulting LLC
  • Laurie Cingle, Club Northwest
  • Joe Cirulli, Gainesville Health and Fitness Center
  • Sandy Coffman, Programming for Profit
  • Terry Dezzutti, Merritt Athletic Clubs
  • Geoff Dyer, Lifestyle Family Fitness
  • Rudy Fabiano, Fabiano Designs
  • Nestor Fernandez, Western Athletic Club
  • Grant Gamble, ACAC Fitness and Wellness Centers
  • Ronda Gates, Lifestyles by Ronda Gates
  • Jasmine Jafferali, East Bank Club
  • Diane Kelton, Milestone Wellness Center
  • Jill Kinney, Club One
  • Gale Landers, Fitness Formula
  • Julie Main, Santa Barbara Athletic Club
  • Colin Milner, International Council on Active Aging
  • Joe Shank, Almaden Valley Athletic Club
  • Steve Tharrett, consultant