Mike Motta has more than 18 years of experience in personal training, corporate fitness, design development and coaching. Since opening the first Plus One Fitness in 1986, the personal training studio turned on-site management company has grown from four employees to 530 people. Despite tough economic times the past two years, Plus One has continued to find a way to carve out a successful niche.

Ci: Let's talk a little about your background.

I've been in the industry for a long time. I actually started as a physical education teacher and a coach. I coached football and lacrosse at State University of New York at Albany. I did that for nine years. At that time, at the state university system, if you wanted to stay they made you go and get an advanced degree. I had a Master's degree in physical education, so they wanted me to go on and get a Doctorate and so I came to New York on a leave of absence from SUNY to get my Doctorate in applied physiology at Columbia University. While I was doing that I was working at a place in Manhattan called the Sports Training Institute. I got a job as a personal trainer. They were one of the first places — this was in 1983 — that was doing just personal training and physical therapy in a stand-alone environment. So I was going to school full time and working full time and learning the industry from the ground up. In 1986, a guy that I was working with at the Sports Training Institute and I opened up our own business — a 1,300-square-foot personal training and physical therapy studio in SoHo. We called it Plus One. Just like any start-up we were doing everything: training people, doing the billing, cleaning and marketing. We were fortunate, you know, in New York where there is a lot of media attention we had high-profile clients who got our business a lot of attention at that time.

Ci: So, Plus One started with physical therapy and personal training. Where do you see yourselves now? What is your market?

We characterize ourselves as a design and management corporation. When a company or a hotel or a hospital or any client wants to design and develop a program and have a fitness facility or spa, that's what we do for them. We take their asset, which is usually space and equipment, and we'll help them design it. We work with their architects and engineers to make sure that their space is fitted out the right way. We purchase all the equipment, lay it out and then, from soup to nuts, run the place. Our facilities run the gamut from 30,000-square-foot on-site fitness facilities to a 1,200-square-foot commercial space. We also do hotels such as the Plaza spa, which is a luxurious fitness center, and spa that services the hotel guests. It does a lot of spa treatments, everything from facials to aromatherapy to regular massage therapy. We also have some medical and hospital sites such as the New York Presbyterian Hospital fitness center, which services all the doctors.

Ci: How different is building a business model that crosses so many different niches and client bases?

Our business model is really about customer service first, taking the things we've learned in the hotel environment and applying them to any fitness center. Many of the bigger fitness center operations and the commercial clubs are really about real estate and facilities. We are more about the people working in those places. That's what we provide. We now have five fitness centers for Merrill Lynch. They have everything in them from spa services to personal training to group classes, fitness assessments and general activity. We're really providing the people and the programs, the client provides the place and the equipment. We provide everything else.

Ci: You brought up the hotel environment in learning customer service. There is a great correlation for the whole fitness industry to look at a real service-oriented environment like that.

Fitness and health really is a people business. People have to keep coming back to get results and they are only going to stick with your club and give you their money if they are getting those results. Exercise is not really a pleasant thing. How many times have you heard someone say that a massage or spa service was a horrible experience? Not often. But if they come into a club and don't get top-notch service and education along with a clean and pleasant atmosphere they aren't going to want to come back. From the front desk to policies, procedures and signage, your staff powers the whole attitude of the club that your members see and feel.

Ci: You have an interesting and dynamic Web site that also incorporates online training. How did that come about?

We just decided that our trainers are best at building programs and giving advice to our clients. We figured why just limit it to people that can walk through your doors — that is a limited audience. Anywhere from 25 percent to 30 percent of our members are using the service to work with their trainers. We have another 300 to 400 retail customers that are using the program that are not members. The difficult thing for clubs looking to do this is on the technology end. It is confusing and expensive. It isn't like calling the phone company and turning it on. It is difficult but not impossible. We did it but we put a lot of energy, time and resources into it. You really can't go out and buy a pre-packaged program for this kind of fitness industry application. It isn't like buying a word processing or finance program. It's growing, but it is such a small market so we wound up having to build our own. Online personal training has been running for about two years, but it is far from what we would call successful as a retail product. It is great for the members and our relationship with them. Is it going to be the great moneymaker we thought any Internet product would be two years ago? We aren't sure. But it will survive and may turn out to be. The one great offshoot of this was that our IT department has helped us work with our corporate clients to reach their employees and market the fitness program to them and help them join — all in a paperless environment. At some point, this will be the way that a club will communicate, manage, sell and interface with staff, members and potential members.

Ci: Coming from the physical education background there was a time that was the only real career track for fitness-minded people. You seem to be a proponent of keeping people in the company.

The first thing that clubs need to do is work on their staffing model and get professionals in there that can interface with the members from fitness trainers to the front desk to nutritionists. There are plenty of options for people to come into the industry and grow with a real career track — be it in spa services, fitness, sales, all of it. The key is to have a good management team that really can run the business, and we are lucky here. From Liz Neprent who does a lot of our public relations and creative to Jay, Jamie and John Bizary who are vice presidents who run all of our accounts. That's how I've been able to do it; by finding the right people and stay the hell out of their way.

Ci: Do you do a lot of nutrition counseling? It seems to be a staple in corporate fitness.

We find that trying to force fitness and nutrition on new people at once is a lot to bite off. We think getting them to do one is the way to get them going down the road. We had a fitness division at one time that worked with teams in New York such as the Giants and Mets, even some of the New York ballet companies. It was a fully staffed division but we wound up closing it since we couldn't find a way to make money at it. We had done our research and thought we had it, but it didn't work. We decided to go back to what we know and do best: personal training, physical therapy and spa services. I think we'll wind up getting back into it at some time but we haven't figured it out yet. One problem is that people are all experts at eating — they've been doing it a long time. But it is a difficult science so there is a need. But we weren't the best at it so we will pass for now until we can be.

Ci: Talk more about spa services. How did you get into it and is it successful?

We got into the hotels by a fluke. We had two commercial clubs in 1990 during a serious recession. We had to figure a way to expand our reach and our business model and just happened to hear that the Waldorf-Astoria was looking for a fitness manager. We put in our bid and got it. That was our first managed property. We won it because of our customized model at our SoHo site. We did massage at that time and today we do everything including facials, body wraps and more. We never looked at it as can we make money renting space to this group but can we make money with this group as a division, which is a little different than the model used by most commercial clubs. This way you don't just send them a rent bill, you have to embrace them, hire them, train, motivate and manage them. You really have to bring them on the team. We found that we could do that well. We just gave them a uniform, good management and rewarded them as we do our other employees, based not only on their success but the success of the whole company.

Ci: With your business concentrated in the Metro New York area, what effect has the economy woes in that region had on your operations?

We haven't seen any facilities closed. We have seen some of our corporate clients cut back and some facilities have been consolidated if they were close to each other. In December, we opened up a new place. In January, we opened three new sites. Last month, we opened up another, and this month we opened two more. We have opened up more places since 9/11 than we did two years prior to it. We haven't seen anything shelved. On the hotel side, the utilization is light when the travel has slowed down, but the demand for spa services is still good. Companies are looking at this amenity as just that and when the ducks are flying we're hunting.