Industry experts hold the key to proven performance strategies. But that key may have a fee.

If you want something done right, do it yourself.

Do you believe in this saying? If you do, good luck.

Managing staff, administration, retention strategies, equipment maintenance, and sales and marketing efforts are more than enough to consume a 10- to 12-hour workday. This leaves little time to get creative or upgrade problem-solving skills.

How, then, do managers learn new tactics and keep a club growing? In some cases, they turn to outside experts. Consultants can show club operators how to keep a steady course for growth, teach new ways to approach old problems, and provide insight into successful strategies used by other clubs and businesses.

Naturally, all of this advice comes with a fee. And that's not something club operators always want to pay.

Jamie Fairley-general manager of Court House Plus in Vernon, Conn., a 40,000-square-foot, multipurpose club with more than 4,000 members-has heard the whines and groans of club operators who, working on a budget, complain about spending money on consultants. In his opinion, however, consultants are well worth the cost. A 27-year industry veteran, Fairley sees contracting a consultant as a learning experience.

"I tell people the old adage that if you think education is expensive, try ignorance," he says, adding that his club has experienced a dramatic increase in sales since bringing in a sales and marketing consultant. Fairley is in contact by telephone with the consultant two to three times a week to analyze the club's sales numbers. And he meets with her on-site regularly-usually monthly-to review strategies and re-evaluate long-term goals.

Fairley says he sought a consultant who shared his marketing philosophy and approach. He sees marketing as being solution-oriented, with a focus on the "headline," or strategy, of the marketing campaign. Fairley's goal is to get to the heart of the marketing solution and build unique concepts from there. For example, diverse populations, such as young families or seniors, have different fitness needs; a generic approach using one marketing concept may not work for them all. That's why Fairley wanted a marketing consultant who could help him implement a successful marketing program suited to individual targets.

When searching for a consultant, however, you shouldn't hire someone simply because he agrees with your opinions. As a club operator, you'll want someone with a proven track record. "Initially you are attracted to a certain consultant by the work they've done," Fairley says.

Fairley recommends that you check consultants' references and see if their background matches the club's needs. For example, a consultant who has only worked with multi-location clubs serving young professionals may not be able to help a single-site club seeking to increase senior membership. Also, the consultant should be familiar with your market and consumers, according to Gary Polic, national sales director for Chicago-based Tennis Corp. of America.

Before choosing a consultant, it helps if you catch him or her in action. Fairley saw his consultant speak at a seminar. He liked what he heard, talked to her and returned to his club to evaluate her presentation-to see if it matched his goals. He liked her turnkey operation approach and marketing suggestions, noting she provided the details to her strategy in a workbook fashion.

Keep in mind that a consultant's marketing suggestions may not always be what operators want to hear. Fairley says that, when working with consultants, club managers need to look at things differently and admit that they don't have all the answers. Consultants are familiar with the industry and other clubs, so they can offer an objective point of view. And they provide a broader perspective.

Still, that doesn't mean managers should accept all of a consultant's advice as absolute, according to Fairley, especially if the consultant suggests that the club stop doing something that has proved successful previously. A consultant may have excellent references and experience, but each manager knows what approaches have worked for the club in the past. Just as managers should be flexible in working with consultants, consultants should be flexible in working with clubs.

While a single club such as Fairley's may seem like the best candidate for consultants, larger chains can also benefit from some outside expertise. TCA, an owner and operator of multipurpose clubs nationwide, has been working with its current sales consultant for more than four years.

Polic points out that this consultant has helped his organization expand its sales efforts. She has also brainstormed fresh ideas with TCA employees. "We believe in growing outside of our little world," Polic says.

This belief has paid off, according to Polic, who notes that the consultant has brought improvements to TCA. "We need to get better and better," he says, referring to TCA's sales and marketing objectives. "We saw that her successful strategies matched our marketing objectives, and [she helped to] make it better."

For example, the consultant suggested that, as part of a promotional effort, TCA send birthday cards to members. That stirred a heavy influx of renewals, Polic reports. Also, when TCA expressed interest in increasing family memberships, the consultant suggested that TCA target new mothers and people who had just moved into the community with trial memberships and/or promotional gifts. This approach also paid off for TCA.

TCA's consultant meets with club employees monthly to discuss sales strategies. By combining business philosophies, the consultant and club enhance, critique, construct and advance marketing efforts. For example, when Polic's sales staff failed to achieve expected sales leads, the consultant gave Polic a list of activities sales reps could do to promote leads. Once this strategy was implemented, sales significantly increased in 15 days.

Since TCA competes in many markets, outside advice can provide an edge. Still, even clubs in a relatively quiet location can use a little help from consultants.

Steve Vukovich, owner of the Apple Athletic Club in Idaho Falls, Idaho, admits that his club is small by some standards, and he teases about "being stuck in southeastern Idaho." However, being the only commercial club in the immediate area doesn't guarantee a club's success, he notes.

Vukovich works with sales consultants to keep Apple's business booming. "I would prefer to learn from other people's mistakes," he explains, noting he primarily uses sales consultants so he can learn about what's new and innovative in other clubs around the country.

"I get tired of the same old, same old," Vukovich says.

One of the advantages of getting new ideas from consultants, according to Vukovich, is that they have already seen these ideas in action. They've witnessed what works and what doesn't. Therefore, working with consultants shortens the learning curve on new and successful techniques. Learning from the success of others strengthens Apple's market position.

Thanks to consultants, Apple has experienced a dramatic increase in personal-training revenue, showing a 10 percent jump in gross sales over the past two years. Vukovich credits this increase to a membership promotion that the sales consultants developed; specifically, the promotion offered a personal-training option to members at a reduced rate. This encouraged people who wouldn't normally sign up for personal training to try the service. It was a great way to draw-and keep-interest.

And the rub hasn't been limited to personal training. "We haven't done a program currently [with the consultants] that hasn't worked," Vukovich says, pointing out that the strategies that the consultants provided Apple have a proven track record at other clubs.

Naturally, this success has come with a cost. Vukovich warns that consultants "don't come cheap. You need to weigh the value, not the expense."

Part of the value could include a long-term business relationship. For example, Greenville Racquet & Fitness in Greenville, S.C., has worked with the same sales consultants for more than 12 years.

The consultants were particularly helpful in 1997 and 1998, when Greenville went through a $2 million expansion. "When we started our construction project in 1997, our member base was at 2,100," says Mary Beth Provost, the club's general manager. Today, membership has surpassed 4,000.

Although members initially saw the construction as an interference, the consultants came up with strategies that showed members the expansion would eventually benefit them. The consultants emphasized that any inconvenience posed by the expansion project would pay off upon completion-with larger space and enhanced services. "They [the consultants] played a big part in our success," Provost says.

In addition to aiding the club during expansion, the consultants have really given a boost to Greenville's sales training. Provost points out that as general manager, she can only wear so many hats. Turning the training over to consultants not only makes things easier for her, but it brings a new type of thinking to the club. "Sometimes it's really nice to have an outside perspective," Provost says.

Indeed, consultants study industry trends and apply proven tactics to gain clients. That's how they earn their living. And while each new client brings new challenges and strategies, each success delivers more momentum on which consultants build their reputation as well as their profits. The formula has proved to be a winner for both the consultants and the clubs they serve.

So, if you have the time, the energy, the commitment and the passion to balance all the tasks it takes to keep your club running smoothly, go ahead. But if you want an outside opinion and access to industry success stories, you may want to partner with-and pay for-a consultant.