Doug Steinly Doug Steinly oversaw the building of a club from the ground up and his beginnings as a fitness instructor helped steer him down this path. Steinly started his career with the Newtown Athletic Club in Newton, PA. In 1995, he was promoted to general manager. In June of 2000, he was chosen to design and develop HealthQuest in Flemington, NJ from its inception. Steinly spoke with Club Industry about HealthQuest, the process of getting a club off the ground, and its successful focus on family and community.
Ci: Can you tell us a little about your background?
I started out as a fitness instructor on a part-time basis during the summer at the Newtown Athletic Club. I spent most of my time taking people through the orientation process and initiating new members on programs. After the next school year I came back doing that, fitness evaluations and limited personal training. Through the course of events at that club I became the fitness director in only a few months. In that position I oversaw the fitness staff, developed different types of programming and other duties typical of the position. During that time I made sure to put the time in to learn different aspects of the club's operations and eventually became the general manager of that facility in 1995.
Ci: You seemed to benefit from a clear career path. Is that something HealthQuest is trying to foster today?
Absolutely. One thing that is going on in the world today is that there is a lot of job jumping. People seem to think they need to jump from one job to the next in order to grow. We try to provide the opportunities to grow within the company. Few people retire from a company after 50 years with a gold watch.
One thing we try to do is let the employees know that there are opportunities to grow above and beyond the currently held position. I see more of a career-oriented person coming into the industry than in the past. I think with the different kinds of clubs being built today — more than just a weight room and an aerobics studio — there are more opportunities for people to go beyond personal training and fitness instructor.
Ci: You opened HealthQuest in 2001, what was that early process like?
After the research and development phase, we came up with a conceptual plan that we felt the community would embrace. We modeled it a lot after our Newtown center: a family, fitness, fun and wellness center. We didn't want to concentrate on a pure fitness or health club environment. We really want to encompass the whole family in an active environment.
Ci: What kind of early marketing did HealthQuest do to attract that strong membership base?
In our initial phases of opening — during the construction phase — we created an infomercial. We shot an infomercial at our Newtown facility to give people a look at what we were going to be offering in action. This way, instead of just saying we were going to have martial arts, for instance, we were able to show them a full-blown martial arts studio. This gave them a chance to compare us with other facilities in town. We aired the infomercial on cable TV at random times of the evening to reach as many people as possible. We hadn't tried it before. We were just tossing around the idea because we thought about doing commercials and felt we couldn't really get the public aware of everything we had to offer in just a 30-second spot. Luckily, we had a cost-effective cable station here. Also, the cable station we would be running on was right in the middle of the channels so it had plenty of people just flipping by all the time.
It was a phenomenal success; the best advertising outlet we could have done just coming into a new area. After opening we re-shot the infomercial with our actual location and continued running it for six months. The one constant was that everything we did to market the club was aimed at families. We showed kids and parents being active on every promotional piece. We even got away from showing that we have a weight room and offer aerobics to let people know this was a family activity center and not just a typical fitness facility.
Ci: How was the Flemington, NJ location picked? And what is the competition like in the area?
There isn't much competition in town as of today. There is a Y down the road. There is a hospital wellness center and one storefront gym. It was an area in need of something. Right now, HealthQuest is the place to go for any kind of activity. A number of our investors are local and seeing the success of our Newtown area club we felt that the similarities in demographics, need and community would translate to similar success. We are extremely thrilled with the response of the community. The other thing that tells me things are working out well is the involvement in our organized activities. We have 900 in our gymnastics program and another 650 in martial arts and 500 in dance. Those are the types of things we are trying to promote.
Ci: What were some of the early struggles before the club opened?
There were times in the beginning that were real problems. One of the things we were constantly struggling with was the building. It was a large building so we were wondering whether we needed such a large space. There were questions such as do we need to dedicate a certain space to an activity? Should we have more flexible spaces? Can we cut down on the space and save money?
The big problem was that there was nothing in this area to compare it to, so we weren't sure if we had a good feeling on how the community would respond to it. Luckily, they have. In evaluating the building we were looking at how we were going to use it to maximize the use by families. I can't emphasize enough how focused we were on the family experience — whether that meant cutting down the size of the fitness area to have enough room for the gymnastics studio. Also, if this focus on family meant compromising the size of adult locker rooms to make more room for the family locker room, we were going to do it. We wanted to make sure we were appealing to the families without deterring individuals to becoming members.
Ci: How much programming is aimed at the family segment, particularly children?
A lot of our programming is geared toward children's activities. We have a gymnastics studio, a martial arts studio and a dance studio, all with programs aimed at children. We feel that if we can get the children's activities programmed and used by our members then the adult members will be more apt to get themselves involved in an exercise program.
If the children are active and safe then there is less stopping the parent or adult from coming in and getting active as well. We have tried to create the one-stop center for families. Instead of a parent having to drive from a dance studio to a gymnastics lesson we have created one spot for all of the activities. Now, the parent can use the time that would have been spent chauffeuring the kids to all their activities to actually get some quality activity time for them. We also do things like family fun nights — we had a carnival last month — to help bring the family in together for fun and fitness.
We now have about 4,100 memberships in a little over a year — we opened in April 2001.
Ci: Are those organized activities part of the membership package or are they a separate profit center?
Those are part of a membership package. We try to bundle everything. We questioned unbundling some of the packages in the face of the economy. I'm not sure if it is because we are still new, or the good buzz about us, but the bundling seems to work well for us. If you try to sell a membership to HealthQuest and the person has a child taking a gymnastics class at one school and a martial arts class at another you take those costs and roll them into a family membership and keep the whole family active and happy. For others, we have individual, senior and junior memberships that help our flexibility and appeal to other memberships that aren't family.
Ci: Besides gymnastics, dance and martial arts, do you have any fitness-based activities for children?
We have a program called Member in Training. It is for our members between 10 and 13 years old that are a little too young to work out on their own, but a little too old for our childcare facility. It is an eight — week session where we put the children in groups and they partake in structured activities throughout our facility. They would be doing a group exercise class that is led by an instructor but is geared toward them or some other fitness activity. The parents view the club as trying to accommodate the child and the child looks at it as a chance to try some of the things in the club.
Ci: What is the biggest challenge for a new or young club?
The biggest challenge has been staffing. Right now we have 325 staff members between summer camps, swim instructors and personal trainers. Finding and keeping quality staff is a tough business. We recruit through job fairs, local and national advertising, referral programs — it's a constant process. It's not like you get a full staff and then go ‘whew, that's over.’ It is a constant struggle to find the best people out there to work for and represent your business. We are still in the infancy stage of the industry, where it is just starting to be seen as a worthwhile profession.
Ci: Staffing with children in mind must add to the stress.
We have a certified staff that has a focus on children. Even if they are teaching adult classes they all have that special gift of dealing with children. It does put stress on the staffing be it daycare or transporting children between activities. It is a concern and it does put a stress on payroll expense because you have to maintain a safe ratio. Parents aren't going to feel comfortable with their children in situations that they don't feel they are safe and being effectively taught.
Ci: Does the high number of children cause any problems for the adult membership population?
While we are focused on families and everyone here loves children, we realize that sometimes people just want to do their thing by themselves as well — that's all part of being healthy. So in the design of our facility we have the children's area down one side of the club, down one corridor. There is also a family locker room there that is large enough to accommodate all of the activities, swim lessons, etc. Sixty-five percent of our memberships are family memberships, so that is still our primary concentration.
Ci: Does attracting families as members insulate your club from traditional health club competition that may look at your region?
I don't think it insulates us. One thing it does do is give us a good hold on our members. We have their children involved in our activities. They are learning and having fun while staying active, learning skills and making friends. They are comfortable with this environment and as they grow we expect them to stay on as members. So we are building tomorrow's membership base today. Does that mean we are ignoring potential competition coming to the area? No. We are aware of it, but it is not our focus. We are focused on doing our business a best we can.
Ci: What impact has being involved in the start of a club from the ground up had on you professionally?
From the start it transformed me a little bit because it was a huge process. Going from design to hiring to interacting with construction was all a growing period for me as a fitness professional. It was a completely different job than taking over an existing facility and managing it. I was trying to put into place things that I had previously only overseen and seeing them grow into full-fledged programs. It was extremely fun. The biggest stress was the timing issues — things that needed to get done. I'd leave the sales trailer at five in the afternoon and have a list of 50 things that still needed to be done to get the club open and running on time.
Ci: Is it something you plan on doing again — are there plans to grow?
We do have plans to continue to grow. We have people looking for sites that have similar needs and demographics. We are looking for communities where we can go in and have the kind of success we have enjoyed here. It has been so well received by this community and we feel we have a good product to offer to other communities as well.
Ci: How will that project be financed?
This facility was privately funded. We feel that following the success of this club our investors would be excited to see us grow and to grow along with us. The economy has slowed, but we have fared well and our investors can see that.
Ci: Has the economy had a significant impact on your business?
I was surprised that after Sept. 11 we didn't see a slowdown, in fact we saw a slight increase. I think that people want to get back to a community feeling and we provide a place for that. People are traveling less, not spending money on extravagances and looking to be with their family all helps to support our business model.
Ci: What is the most important aspect of your business success?
Community is instrumental in our success. Our mindset is that we provide a place for the families to come together and be healthy together. If we didn't fit with and integrate with the community we would be swimming upstream.
Ci: To continue growth do you see HealthQuest expanding the demographic makeup of membership?
That's one thing we are going to be focusing on. We feel that we have a good hold on the family population. So we are looking at what other populations we can attract and serve. For us, we think that would primarily be the older population. I think when a lot of people hear health club they think of traditional gyms. That is the image that we are not trying to present. We have programs for everyone from two to 102. There are opportunities here to attract the non-traditional health club population. We are able to accommodate different types of activities due to the size and design of the club that doesn't just drop them into the middle of the fitness floor. In the long run that is good for the industry.