Wellness is a word that gets bandied about a lot in the fitness industry, but for 15 years, wellness has been the basis of the business model for the Maryland Athletic Club and Wellness Center (MAC).

Last month, the MAC’s founders, Tim and Liz Rhode, celebrated their business’s 15th anniversary with 1,000 of their closest friends and club members with a Hollywood-style party.

Tim Rhode says it is hard to believe how far the business has come since the couple renovated a vacant warehouse in Timonium, MD, to open their first club in 1996.

“On the one hand, it’s been a gradual evolution,” Tim says. “It would have been hard to think when we started thinking about it that we would be sitting here now, and yet it seems like it’s been just a blink of an eye. It’s been our passion. It’s been our life’s work.”

Their passion was to bring wellness to the people of Maryland. The first club underwent four renovations in just the first few years to keep up with the demand. Their motto was and is: make it easy, have fun, get results. They have held true to that mission while adapting to changing times that have led them through remodels, expanded programming and the opening of two more clubs, including an express model.

“We were fortunate that we had a great location that’s worked well for us and the club just took off,” Tim says. “It’s been a series of consecutive expansions and growth and development since then. We’re very fortunate.”

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Last year, the company pulled in $13.1 million in revenue, placing it at No. 58 on Club Industry’s Top 100 Clubs list. The company also has been recognized three times by Baltimore magazine as the top health club in the area.

Tim credits much of that success to the wellness aspect of their business model, even though at the time they opened their first club, they did not have a definition of wellness.

“We were very determined to develop a wellness model,” he says. “We felt that there were certainly fitness models that had viability, but we felt that fitness was really a subset of wellness and that it would broaden our market if we could deliver on something broader than just the fitness itself. Not only would it be of interest to more people, but it would help them across a broader spectrum as well.”

The Rhodes offered nutrition and education on top of fitness.

“We teach our team that the biggest difference between fitness and wellness is education,” Tim says. “If people know what their options are, if they know what their healthy choices are, they can make good choices, but if they don’t know, they are destined to keep repeating their old habits.”

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Through the years, the Rhodes continued to evolve the wellness side of their business into a wellness system that divides the concept of wellness into five key categories. Their staff members figure out where each of their clients are and where they should be in those categories, and then they create a plan to help them succeed.

They also offer a program called Healthy Start, which was created by their partner, Phil Wendel, who implemented it under a different name at his clubs, ACAC Fitness and Wellness Centers in Charlottesville, VA. The program is a physician referral program that offers health and wellness services to people for 60 days for $60.

“They are actually paying us $60 to have eight weeks to convince them that this is something they should do for the rest of their lives,” Tim says.

This type of program was important to the Rhodes because after 45 years, fitness facilities still attract just 15 percent of the population.

“So are we going to stand here with that or are we going to try something else?” Tim says. “We decided to try something else.”

The goal now is to transition people from that Healthy Start program to a regular membership, Tim says. It can be difficult because participants go from paying $60 for two months to paying $90 per month.

“So we’ve experimented over time with different programs, step up programs, with some success,” he says. “We are increasingly finding ways to mainstream these people into our regular service offerings.”

The Rhodes had about 150 to 200 members who were doctors, so they first marketed the program to them, some of whom were on the club’s medical advisory board. Once a few doctors signed on, they used their names in marketing materials to entice other doctors to commit. Later, they offered the program to their corporate clients and then to their members with the thought that every member knows someone who needs to get healthier but is hesitant to commit to a full club membership.

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A big part of the wellness aspect of the MAC is the company’s aquatics program. Both the Timonium facility and the second club in East Harbor, MD, which opened in 2007, have aquatics programming that includes a master swim program and swim lessons, but the aquatics program is almost exclusively wellness and conditioning, including warm water therapy, water walking, deep and shallow water exercise.

“That aspect of our operation has won awards at a national level on four or five separate occasions,” Tim says. “Having one of the top aquatic programs in the industry—we are very proud of that. That is hard to replicate. Our aquatics program is a really good one.”

Despite his pride in the wellness and aquatics programming, Tim says that he and Liz are most proud of the development of their team.

“People are what makes the difference,” he says. “I think we could take the people in our club and move them into any facility and they’d do great because of their level of engagement.”

Regardless of where the Rhodes are in another 15 years (Tim jokes that it will be on a beach someplace warm), he wants the focus to remain on wellness.

“We’re passionate about the industry,” he says. “We are doing it for more than just to run a business for a profit. Gaining results is what we are all about. That is why we founded the company, to make sure every customer that came to us would get healthier.”