Ask any athlete, any artist or any businessperson why they work as hard at their craft as they do and more often than not the answer will be “to be the best.”

That is no different for the fitness facility industry. Everyday, club owners and general managers strive to put the best face on the club and attract new members and retain current ones. That starts from the minute a member or perspective member walks through the door and ends when they walk out. That person is looking to be treated like a friend and see a clean, well-equipped facility. These “little” things can be the difference between a successful club and one that struggles for its survival.

To help determine which clubs are putting their best face forward, Club Industry decided to team with Bare Associates International (BAI) to “shop” the first 100 membership-based clubs (not corporate, hotel, etc. although these categories may be added in the future) that nominated themselves for the Best of the Best. BAI has presented mystery guest shopper reports to chain, regional and independent restaurant, hotel and retail management since 1987. BAI now serves more than 6,000 clients in North America, including more than 600 clubs and spas throughout the U.S. and Canada. For more on the actual mystery shop process, please see page 63.

While these mystery shops can't track the long-term success or consistency for a club or evaluate programming offered and other amenities and services that come to light only after participating for weeks, months or years, it can show what kind of first impression a club makes on perspective members and as the old adage states: You never have a second chance to make a first impression. Additionally, not every club in the country could be shopped for this program, although we do hope to continue to add to the number of nominees in the future to include a wider sampling.

When making the final determination of the Best of the Best clubs, the editorial staff of Club Industry looked at the ratings and comments from BAI, while taking into consideration that in some cases clubs may have just been having a bad day. Perhaps the pool received a lower rating because of construction. Or the front desk staff was seemingly inattentive because they were short-handed due to illness. If the evaluator was informed of these things, it was reported and made part of the final determination. But like any perspective member, we also had to go by what the evaluator saw and how he or she was treated at that moment. In the end, these rankings should serve as benchmarks of service for all clubs to strive for.

The editors also took into account the size of a facility based on number of members. Clubs face different obstacles and enjoy different advantages based upon the number of members served. Because of this, the nominees for the Best of the Best were broken into two groups based on membership: one for clubs with 3,000 members or less and the other for individual clubs with more than 3,000 members. The grades and comments made by BAI were then evaluated side by side with clubs serving similar sized membership bases.

While shopping the clubs, the BAI evaluators looked at many aspects and rated companies for both the look of the club and, when the case called for it (such as reception, childcare and sales), the level of customer service. The areas in which Best of the Best awards were given were: Overall, Reception, Sales, Strength Area, Cardio Area, Pool, Locker Room and Childcare.

People Matter

One of the most obvious findings was that many of the nominees were very comparable when it came to cleanliness and level and maintenance of the equipment offered. Sure, some were stronger in one area than another even within chains (up to five clubs from a chain could be nominated), and there were some differences from one location to another. But the most difference was seen in the level of service. It could be something as little as a friendly hello from the front desk staff or a sales associate taking the time to really pre-qualify the prospect that made a difference between a good club and the Best of the Best in many cases. This was especially true in the case of the Overall Best of the Best.

OVERVIEW

OVERALL

Up to 3,000 Members

BEST OF THE BEST: HFC Athletic Club at One Cleveland Center — Cleveland, OH

HONORABLE MENTION: Total Health & Fitness Center — Royal Palm Beach, FL

3,001+ Members

BEST OF THE BEST: ClubSport Pleasanton — Pleasanton, CA

HONORABLE MENTION: Millennium Sports Club Vacaville — Vacaville, CA

RECEPTION

Up to 3,000 Members:

BEST OF THE BEST: Alexander's Athletic Club/Alexander's Express — Pittsburgh, PA

HONORABLE MENTION: Oasis Women's Fitness & Spa — LaGrange Park, IL

3,001+ Members:

BEST OF THE BEST: Lakeshore Athletic Club-Lincoln Park — Chicago Park, IL

HONORABLE MENTION: ClubSport Pleasanton — Pleasanton, CA

SALES

Up to 3,000 Members:

BEST OF THE BEST: Club Performax — Melbourne, FL

HONORABLE MENTION: WOW! Work Out World — Middletown, NJ

3,001+ Members:

BEST OF THE BEST: Forest Grove Athletic Club — Palatine, IL

HONORABLE MENTION: Millennium Sports Club Vacaville — Vacaville, CA

STRENGTH AREA

Up to 3,000 Members:

BEST OF THE BEST: Halsted Street Multiplex — Chicago, IL

HONORABLE MENTION: University Club Fitness Center & Spa — Lansing, MI

3,001+ Members:

BEST OF THE BEST: Lifetime Fitness-Easton Town Center — Columbus, OH

HONORABLE MENTION: Palos Health & Fitness Center — Orland Park, IL

CARDIO AREA

Up to 3,000 Members:

BEST OF THE BEST: Fitcorp Prudential Center — Boston, MA

HONORABLE MENTION: Shore Fitness Center — Somers Point, NJ

3,001+ Members:

BEST OF THE BEST: Lakeshore Athletic Club — Chicago, IL

HONORABLE MENTION: California Family Fitness Orangevale — Orangevale, CA

POOL

Up to 3,000 Members:

BEST OF THE BEST: Haywood Regional Health & Fitness Center — Clyde, NC

HONORABLE MENTION: None

3,001+ Members:

BEST OF THE BEST: ClubSport Oregon — Tigard, OR

HONORABLE MENTION: California Family Fitness Elk Grove — Elk Grove, CA

LOCKER ROOM

Up to 3,000 Members:

BEST OF THE BEST: Club Performax — Melbourne, FL

HONORABLE MENTION: Hillsborough Pool, Racquet & Fitness — Hillsborough, NJ

3,001+ Members:

BEST OF THE BEST: Centre Club — Libertyville, IL

HONORABLE MENTION: Downtown Athletic Club — Amarillo, TX

CHILDCARE

Up to 3,000 Members:

BEST OF THE BEST: Jackson Fitness Center — Jackson, NJ

HONORABLE MENTION: WOW! Work Out World North Brunswick — North Brunswick, NJ

3,001+ Members

BEST OF THE BEST: ClubSport Freemont — Freemont, CA

HONORABLE MENTION: Cornerstone Fitness Mission — Mission, TX

OVERALL

Up to 3,000 Members:

BEST OF THE BEST: HFC Athletic Club at One Cleveland Center — Cleveland, OH

HONORABLE MENTION: Total Health & Fitness Center — Royal Palm Beach, FL

3,001+ Members:

BEST OF THE BEST: ClubSport Pleasanton — Pleasanton, CA

HONORABLE MENTION: Millennium Sports Club Vacaville — Vacaville, CA

Being the overall Best of the Best takes a combination of outstanding facility upkeep and maintenance, and having the people on staff that make members and perspective members feel welcome, informed and excited to be at the facility.

While many of the 100 clubs received high marks for facility cleanliness, equipment maintenance, and other facility related matters, and while many received high marks for customer service issues, what separated the overall Best of the Best clubs from the rest of the pack was consistency throughout the club. These clubs ranked at or near the top in a majority of the segments evaluated. But the thing that really separated them from the pack was the people working for the club.

“The staff sets the tone for the visit of the member,” says Ralph Rajs, GM at ClubSport Pleasanton. “It's very much like being invited to someone's house. It may have beautiful furnishings, but if the host is rude, it's not going to be a pleasant visit.”

Jennifer Leonard, GM at Millennium Sports Club Vacaville, agrees, “Our members are looking for the experience and service as much as for the equipment,” says “There are tons of clubs in the county that offer the same equipment for $20 month. We are closely connected with our members. That's what makes the members want to come.”

RECEPTION

Up to 3,000 Members:

BEST OF THE BEST: Alexander's Athletic Club/Alexander's Express — Pittsburgh, PA

HONORABLE MENTION: Oasis Women's Fitness & Spa — LaGrange Park, IL

3,001+ Members:

BEST OF THE BEST: Lakeshore Athletic Club-Lincoln Park — Chicago Park, IL

HONORABLE MENTION: ClubSport Pleasanton — Pleasanton, CA

It is the first and the last area perspective and current members see when visiting your club. It is the “face” associated with the facility and it is important that clubs put on their best face at all times. That's why these clubs earned their positions among the Best of the Best. While other clubs performed well, they often dropped the ball by ignoring the shopper while speaking with friends. Some had cluttered desk areas, littered with personal items. And others, while gracious and inviting as members and shoppers came, failed to acknowledge them as they left. Sometimes last impressions count, too.

SALES

Up to 3,000 Members:

BEST OF THE BEST: Club Performax — Melbourne, FL HONORABLE MENTION: WOW! Work Out World — Middletown, NJ

3,001+ Members:

BEST OF THE BEST: Forest Grove Athletic Club — Palatine, IL

HONORABLE MENTION: Millennium Sports Club Vacaville — Vacaville, CA

There are two components to the sales process: the tour and the close. These two steps are independent and intertwined causing the membership staff to perform dual roles at the same time — a balancing act worthy of a carnival performer. Shoppers evaluated the sales staff on points such as asking pre-qualifying questions, personalizing the tour to goals, demonstrating equipment, discussing price options, handling objections, offering to follow-up, all leading to the shopper determining if they would join the club based on the presentation. Perhaps one of the most shocking findings was that a great number of salespeople, while doing a good job overall, never asked the shopper if they wanted to join. Sales staffs don't want to be pushy (a negative in the evaluation), but if they don't ask for the sale, they will not get it.

STRENGTH AREA

Up to 3,000 Members:

BEST OF THE BEST: Halsted Street Multiplex — Chicago, IL

HONORABLE MENTION: University Club Fitness Center & Spa — Lansing, MI

3,001+ Members:

BEST OF THE BEST: Lifetime Fitness-Easton Town Center — Columbus, OH

HONORABLE MENTION: Palos Health & Fitness Center — Orland Park, IL

This was perhaps the closest category to call as most facilities work hard to keep their strength area clean and organized with working equipment. But that doesn't mean that some clubs don't work just a little bit harder. Much of the final decision by the editorial staff came down to the evaluators' comments rather than just the rankings of the area based on criteria for free — weight and selectorized areas, such as availability of equipment, cleanliness, availability of staff in the areas and working conditions of equipment. The clubs given the Best of the Best nod as well as the Honorable Mention status received comments that highlighted the layout, amount of equipment per member, state of the equipment and personal training activity in the areas setting these clubs apart from the rest.

CARDIO AREA

Up to 3,000 Members:

BEST OF THE BEST: Fitcorp Prudential Center — Boston, MA

HONORABLE MENTION: Shore Fitness Center — Somers Point, NJ

3,001+ Members:

BEST OF THE BEST: Lakeshore Athletic Club — Chicago, IL

HONORABLE MENTION: California Family Fitness Orangevale — Orangevale, CA

Much like the strength area of a facility, a great many of the clubs that were shopped for the Best of the Best were on fairly even ground when it came to cleanliness and equipment. Here, though, it was the little things that set the winners apart from the field. Again, layout and spacing between machines made a difference. Also affecting the decision were time limits or lack thereof on equipment, amount of machines and entertainment systems.

POOL

Up to 3,000 Members:

BEST OF THE BEST: Haywood Regional Health & Fitness Center — Clyde, NC

HONORABLE MENTION: None

3,001+ Members:

BEST OF THE BEST: ClubSport Oregon — Tigard, OR

HONORABLE MENTION: California Family Fitness Elk Grove — Elk Grove, CA

While not all clubs had a pool, those that did generally provided an area that was clean, well maintained and well staffed. But some were special having multiple pools, attentive staff (inattentive life guards were a problem at several of the nominees) and extensive programming options leading to being named among the Best of the Best.

LOCKER ROOM

Up to 3,000 Members:

BEST OF THE BEST: Club Performax — Melbourne, FL

HONORABLE MENTION: Hillsborough Pool, Racquet & Fitness — Hillsborough, NJ

3,001+ Members:

BEST OF THE BEST: Centre Club — Libertyville, IL

HONORABLE MENTION: Downtown Athletic Club — Amarillo, TX

A locker room is a locker room, right? Well not always. Gone for the most part are rows of lockers reminding people of high school rather than an oasis. While most are kept as clean as possible, today some of the Best of the Best locker rooms feature amenities and services worthy of top-notch hotels, from body wash to towel and laundry service to lounges with TVs and more. Still, others offer multiple locker rooms for members and families making the facility more inviting to a wider number of members.

CHILDCARE

Up to 3,000 Members:

BEST OF THE BEST: Jackson Fitness Center — Jackson, NJ

HONORABLE MENTION: WOW! Work Out World North Brunswick — North Brunswick, NJ

3,001+ Members:

BEST OF THE BEST: ClubSport Freemont — Freemont, CA

HONORABLE MENTION: Cornerstone Fitness Mission — Mission, TX

As more families look for ways to fit fitness into their lives, childcare has become more important than ever when reaching potential members and keeping ones whose lives have changed over time. Many clubs have seen their child care services blossom into full-fledged programming. But those offering even the minimum of day care for members' children have to make sure they are providing clean, safe, educational and motivational centers. While most have the first covered (some going as far as closed-circuit TV monitors watching the day care room), the Best of the Best clubs went the extra mile hiring attentive, interactive and responsible staffers to play with and keep a sense of control among the youngsters in their charge.

2003 Best of the Best Mystery Shop Procedures

By Guy Caron, director of health & fitness services, Bare Associates International

Bare Associates International (BAI) was extremely delighted to have the opportunity to participate in mystery shopping the 100 health clubs that were nominated for the 2003 “Best of the Best.” BAI is an established mystery shopping company that has been in business for more than 16 years and specializes in providing services for fitness centers, spas, clubs and leisure facilities of all types.

Once given the go-ahead, BAI began careful development of a scorecard to be used to assure the gathering of precise information that could measure customer service levels, sales presentation, facilities, and general cleanliness to name a few.

Once the form was complete, BAI began the task of recruiting qualified shoppers in each of the areas that one of the 100 clubs is located. All of the shoppers were carefully screened in order to provide the highest quality reporting. Each shopper is graded on every report they submit. The rating is based upon certain criteria, including: timeliness, accuracy, completeness, clarity and substantial commentary. For the “Best of the Best” project we selected our most experienced shoppers with the highest possible grade.

Each shopper was required to complete 30-minute telephone training prior to performing their assignment, so they knew exactly what to look for during their visit, how to fill out the scorecard, and what was expected in the narrative. After the shoppers were trained, shop guidelines were sent out to each evaluator. The guidelines were specific and precise and the evaluators were required to follow them exactly.

Each shop was scheduled for a precise day and time. The evaluator had 24 hours from the time of shop completion to submit the report. If the shop report was received and was incomplete in any way, the evaluator was immediately contacted. If the evaluator did not update and complete the report within 12 hours, the shop was re-scheduled and shopped by another shopper.

As soon as the shop report was received by BAI, it moved to the editing phase, a multi-step, in-house process to carefully evaluate each report. First, the editor checked the report for completeness of data. This includes checking that the comments match YES/NO answers, the answers are clear, and that employee descriptions are accurate.

The final step of the process was that editors ensure that the report was well written, clear and complete. If necessary, they contacted the evaluator directly to clarify any areas of concern. Only then was the report released to Club Industry for inclusion in the search for the Best of the Best.

BAI would like to thank Club Industry and all the clubs that participated in the Best of the Best 2003, and we look forward to working together with the editorial staff and adding to our evaluation process for future Best of the Best projects.