Last year, in a mid-American city chosen for its location equidistant between north, south, east and west with availability of a major airport, a highly secret, two-day meeting of fitness facility operators was held. Club owners — large and small, big-budget and small-budget, big city, suburban and small town, male and female — got together to discuss and ratify common practices of fitness facilities. This meeting was not part of a major industry conference or trade show, and only two requirements were necessary for attendance: 1) the facility was an independently owned operation; and 2) the facility was in business for more than five years. Amazingly, thousands of people showed up.

As word has it, all issues were presented for vote, and the dominant phrase heard at ratification was similar to the call of an auctioneer at the conclusion of a transaction: “Sooooooold!” So the gathering has become known as “the meeting of the SOOLDD Society.”

A 10-principle platform evolved around continuing basic health club business practices. Agreement was quickly reached by all but a handful (who, I am told, were later asked to leave the premises) that facilities should persist in the pursuit of memberships as the central theme of operating health clubs and that all discussions to be held should be pertinent to that theme or not be discussed. This was presented as the over-riding principle and was listed as Principle One. Here are the other nine principles as reported to me.

  • Principle Two: Clubs, no matter how many years in business, should place primary emphasis on new membership sales.

  • Principle Three: Acceptable and recommended advertising vehicles for new membership sales are: newspaper, direct mail, radio, television, billboards, lead boxes and door hangers.

  • Principle Four: All clubs should have a captive sales staff whose principal function is to tour prospective new members and present membership options, preferably with some kind of “first day incentive” (such as lowering of price or dropping of the initiation fee).

  • Principle Five: Clubs should spend as much money as possible on fitness equipment, preferably with duplicates and triplicates of frequently used pieces…and have huge cardio sections.

  • Principle Six: Clubs, no matter what size, should have group exercise classes sufficient to entertain no more than 10 percent of the total membership and should not cancel or drop any classes no matter what the attendance. The group agreed that the average club should have 35 to 40 classes per week and pay instructors the highest hourly wages of all staff.

  • Principle Seven: Clubs, no matter what size, should have free child care to complement the group exercise patrons.

  • Principle Eight: Clubs in highly competitive areas should attempt to compete on the same level with blockbuster chain clubs and/or with huge category-killer clubs — no matter what. When asked to justify this, the answer “because bigger is better and we can learn by copying those guys” was wholeheartedly endorsed by attendees.

  • Principle Nine: As for the issue of member retention, the group consented that while retention was important, it was not that important because clubs have always been able to sell enough memberships to cover those leaving anyway.

  • Principle Ten: Profit centers came under discussion, and the group agreed that profit centers come after the efforts at getting as many members as possible to join. The group further stated that while profit centers can be good, they are often a lot of extra work, don't bring in as much as they are supposed to, and thus should be pursued only for purposes of diversification.

After adoption of the 10-principle platform, the group held a mega-roundtable to substantiate general beliefs that it is okay for clubs to suffer lower and lower profit margins because of adherence to the above principles, as long as a) the owners keep taking at least some salary; b) you don't have to pay too much for staff or staff training; and c) you don't go out of business.

A special committee was formed to adopt a slogan for the society, and accord was reached on: “To Change Is Too Hard.”

Thirty days after the meeting, an underground e-mail survey was sent to each participating club, asking each owner the following question: “What percentage of clubs in your area would you say operate according to our Platform Principles?” The average determined after tally of all the survey results was that more than 90 percent of clubs in any region operate this way. A follow-up e-mail was sent to all members, declaring that the SOOLDD Society meeting was indeed a success and that another meeting to keep things the same will be convened in the summer of 2005.

After weeks and weeks of diligent sleuth work, I was finally able to learn what the acronym SOOLDD represents. I proudly report it to you here: Sleeping, Old-Fashioned, Outdated, Lethargic, Devolving Deadheads.


Michael Scott Scudder is a 30-year veteran of the fitness industry. He is a personal business trainer operating Fitness Focus, a consulting company that offers private workshops on pertinent fitness business matters. Questions and comments are welcomed by Michael at 505-690-5974 or mss@michaelscottscudder.com.