Change for the Better

A thoughtful reader recently sent me a copy of Club Industry from 1985 (thanks, Bret!). He attached a note pointing out how much things have changed. As I paged through the 16-year-old issue, I saw his point.

First off, if you want to see exercisers wearing leg warmers nowadays, you need to rent “Perfect” (not John Travolta's finest moment, but still, it makes “Battlefield Earth” look like “Citizen Kane”). Not so in 1985. Judging from the photos in the issue, I concluded that leg warmers were mandatory apparel for all female exercisers in the '80s (apparently, headbands were optional). Guys didn't fare much better, with most of the gentlemen sporting short pants. Disturbingly short pants.

Fashion sense wasn't the only thing that struck me. I pored over the ads, categorizing products and their place in the evolution of fitness equipment. I saw old brands that paved the way for other companies (does the name Eagle ring a bell?). I also saw alien equipment destined for extinction. One strength product, looking like a leftover set piece from “The Matrix,” used water instead of plates to provide resistance. I guess the concept never caught on.

Not all of the ads seemed foreign. Promotions for tanning products were plentiful unnaturally so by today's standards. An 80-page magazine, the 1985 issue featured nearly 20 tanning ads. I suppose clubs were hotbeds for tanning in the mid-'80s. (Hotbeds? Tanning? Get it? Nevermind.) You just don't see that many tanning ads anymore, even though many clubs still offer tanning services often tucking their beds in some back room.

After leafing through the pictures and examining the ads, I skimmed the news stories. I read horror tales of shady sales practices and clubs closing suddenly tales that would hurt the industry for years to come. I read of tennis clubs that added strength equipment, bikes and “aerobics” classes, signaling changes that would sweep the industry.

I then flipped to the main features. And déjà vu set in.

An article on designing a successful pro shop contained tips that club operators could implement today. Another feature on hiring fitness (i.e., “aerobics”) instructors offered familiar suggestions: Look for charismatic experts who can establish rapport with members. The cover story concentrated on retention, a continuing concern in modern clubs.

While the features frequently mentioned tennis and racquetball clubs, the dilemmas that they raised and the ideas that they presented are as relevant now as they were 16 years ago. Club operators are still looking for new profit centers. They want to keep members involved and happy. They seek the best employees.

In a sense, then, it may seem as if the industry hasn't changed much at all. True, the worries that plague today's club operators are similar to the worries that operators faced in 1985. Still, change has come. Subtle, evolutionary change. Manufacturers fine-tuned fitness products. Tennis-only clubs became fitness clubs. Fitness clubs, in turn, rethought their business practices and adapted.

Keep in mind that evolution occurs slowly. With continued age, our maturing industry will learn how to deal with old problems. Smart operators will discover new ways to turn profits, please members and build staff. Their businesses will evolve, survive.

Looking at the 1985 issue reminded me of the progress our industry has made. And made me grateful that leg warmers went out of style.

Best regards,

Jerry Janda