Partnerships don't happen overnight. Just ask Mike Alpert. He's been working on a partnership for eight years, and he is still refining and expanding the relationship.

Alpert, president and CEO of the Claremont Club in Claremont, CA, selected Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center as his partner in a three-phase vision for his community. The relationship has helped Alpert reach phase two of his vision (a 3,000-square-foot rehab and physical therapy center that the hospital leases from the club), and he hopes it will also lead him to phase three — a wellness campus with traditional care medicine, physical therapy, alternative care, prevention programs, community outreach and fitness.

“Fifteen years ago before managed health care came on the scene, the hospital people looked at us (clubs) with fear,” says Alpert. “They saw [partnering with us] as losing patients and revenue. In the last few years, people are looking at it differently.”

Christopher Breuleux, Ph.D., president of the Medical Wellness Association (MWA), sees more hospitals and commercial fitness facilities working together. Attendees at the association's conferences are asking for help in teaming with hospitals and physician groups, he says. Initially, hospitals partnered with Ys, city community centers and universities, but now more for-profit clubs are entering into these partnerships, says Breuleux, whose association promotes and integrates professional development of medical wellness programs, professionals, facilities and services.

“We see there's great potential within our industry,” says Breuleux. “Hospitals can benefit from learning more about the membership and retail business that clubs provide. Clubs can benefit from developing more medical and wellness programs because it improves their brand and image in the community. We are going through a period where it is mutually beneficial for them to partner.”

Alpert views a hospital as the foundation of a good community and sought out Pomona because it had been voted one of the top 100 hospitals in the country for several years and had a good reputation in the community, he says.

Sometimes the hospital seeks out the club. Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, MD, chose Lynne Brick's Women's Health and Fitness to help it with its Moving On program, which is for women dealing with the after-effects of breast cancer. After an initial evaluation and education by hospital staff, the program participants are referred to the Lynne Brick clubs where they receive a free month's membership and sessions with a specially trained personal trainer, who may also work with their physical therapist initially.

“Lynne Brick has been one of the biggest proponents for women's fitness in the Baltimore area,” says Maureen McBeth, women's health program manager at the Center for Restorative Therapies at Mercy Medical Center. “Her clubs were voted the best place for women to work out, so she has the reputation [the hospital was looking for].”

Mercy Medical Center does not have its own wellness center, but McBeth says partnering with the health club was the best solution for her hospital.

“Instead of reinventing the wheel or competing against these other facilities that already have a great space and staff, I think the partnership was the way to go,” McBeth said.

Some of the patients already know about Lynne Brick's Women's Health and Fitness. In fact, one of McBeth's patients belonged to the health club before. But when a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, things can move quickly, and a gym membership may be the last thing on their minds, she said.

At the beginning of this year, the Hatfield Athletic Club in Hatfield, PA, sold a corporate plan to an area hospital to allow its employees to use the fitness facility. The Grand View Hospital pays Hatfield a flat fee. That relationship means that thousands of the hospital employees are talking about the facility whether or not they use it, and many of the 300 hospital employees who have joined the facility have purchased other amenities on their own, says Dan Horan, owner of the Hatfield Athletic Club.

“It helps us grow our business,” says Horan. “We like to align ourselves with all the better businesses and community affiliations. So if we align ourselves with the biggest and best hospitals and businesses, then it provides strength and solidarity. We are hoping this is the beginning of more things in the future.”

It's About Image

In essence, good partnerships play off the image equity of one or both partners. Image equity consists of the message that an entity releases about itself, often hammering a market with all the good that it does for that market, which then builds an image of that business as responsible and caring, says Jeff Bensky, consultant and strategist in the health and fitness industry. The best part is, image equity is transferable through partnerships and cooperation. In other words, your good name can rub off on your partner and vice versa.

This idea of image equity has never been more important as the 55-plus market grows not only in the general population but also in the health club membership population. The over 55 population accounts for 17 percent of gym goers, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). The numbers have grown from 4.9 million older club members in 1998 to 10.2 million in 2004.

MWA research shows that by having a hospital's name associated with a fitness facility, people who never belonged to a health club before have a higher propensity to join that facility than a facility not affiliated with a hospital.

“We call that the medical sponsorship factor,” Breuleux says.

When a physician refers patients to a facility, participants are willing to travel further to that fitness facility — sometimes as far as 30 minutes to 60 minutes, Breuleux's group found.

“I believe that the 88 percent of the population that don't exercise regularly or belong to a club of any type has to be medically driven to our industry,” says Alpert. “[The industry has] spent billions to market to the deconditioned, and we still don't have them.”

All Is Not Smooth

Of course, nothing is easy.

“There are challenges when a for-profit partners with a not for profit,” says Breuleux. “Hospitals tend to have unique cultures.”

Hospitals often have a more corporate culture while fitness facilities are more retail-oriented and membership-driven, he says. Each group may have different goals and expectations for the facility, too.

The challenge for Alpert had been to put a not-for-profit hospital together with a group of investors who wanted to see a return on their money. However, they were able to successfully work out this issue, and he's moving forward with his 55,000- to 60,000-square-foot wellness campus.

Sometimes the partnerships don't turn out exactly as expected. One club owner contacted for this story recently began a partnership with a hospital, but while the club owner says his club has followed through on its part of the arrangement, he implied that the hospital had not yet reciprocated.

The issue may become a bit more complicated in December when the Medical Fitness Association introduces its facility standards and guidelines for medical fitness centers.

“Many of the guidelines for medical fitness centers may not be compatible for a commercial center because we suggest a medical advisory board and a medical director,” says Cary Wing, Ed. D., executive director of the Medical Fitness Association, a professional membership organization that helps centers owned, sponsored or operated by hospitals and physician groups. However, she says that it's up to each hospital to decide what works best for its community.

Depending on the community and the entities involved, any challenges could be outweighed by the benefits.

“Clubs are looking for ways to expand market share,” Alpert says. “The big carrot is the 90 percent [of the population] that don't belong [to clubs]. We believe a large portion of that population can be driven into this center. They need these programs. We believe a large percentage will transfer to the Claremont Club.”

To help ensure that, the club management, personal trainers and massage therapists are working with the doctors and nurses at Pomona Valley Hospital as well as providing the leased space at the club for the hospital's physical therapists.

“There are all kinds of ways to blend together and make the transfer outside the hospital easier for patients,” says Alpert.

Providing these services positions the club as a good corporate citizen with cutting edge programs that make it the facility of choice for the community, he says.

But partnering with a health club is also beneficial for a hospital, an entity the public perceives as playing a major role in the community, says Alpert. An increasing number of businesses, cities and schools are now looking to hospitals to lead the charge towards wellness and serve as a catalyst to keep a community healthy, he says.

“In the old days, the perception was that you went to the hospital when you were sick,” he says. “The hospital now wants to be more of a well care provider today.”

And fitness facilities are more than happy to help hospitals with that plan, in the process increasing their own reputation as wellness providers.