Determination of what is “the best” in any area is often subjective, but that does not stop people from lining up to offer their opinions. And the subjectiveness does not make any winner less worthy.

This year’s winners of Club Industry’s Best of the Best competition have something special that stood out from the other entries, despite some stiff competition in each category. For some of the winners, it was their program’s innovation, and for others, it was the number of lives they touched or the way they continue to follow participants even after the program ends.

The Best of the Best awards recognize the best programming at fitness facilities in the United States and provide concrete examples of programs that have proven, successful results. The entries were rated by a group of judges from within the fitness industry. This year’s panel included Karen Woodard-Chavez, president, Premium Performance Training; Laurie Cingle, owner, Laurie Cingle Consulting and Coaching; Sandy Coffman, president, Programming for Profit; Eddie Tock, owner, Eddie Tock Consulting; Paula Neubert, general manager, Greenwood Athletic and Tennis Club; Casey Conrad, owner, Communication Consultants; Kelli Calabrese, owner, Calabrese Consulting; Greg Maurer, associate partner, New Paradigm Partners; Joe Cirulli, owner, Gainesville Health & Fitness Centers; Blair McHaney, chief executive officer, Confluence Fitness Partners Inc.; and Thomas Kulp, chief motivational officer, Universal Athletic Club.

The judges ranked each program based on its goals, goal attainment, innovation, budgeting, member or nonmember participation, marketing, program effectiveness, and the club’s follow-up efforts.

Follow the links below to read about each of the winning programs for 2011. (You can read about previous years’ winners online too.)

Best Children’s Program
Sparrow Michigan Athletic Club, East Lansing, MI

Best Behavior Modification Program
Lindenhurst Health & Wellness Center of Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital, Lindenhurst, IL

Best Community-Based Program
Sparrow Michigan Athletic Club, East Lansing, MI

Best New Member Integration Program
BodyPlex Fitness Adventure, Chestnut Mountain, GA

Best Nonmember Program
LifeStart Wellness Network, Chicago

CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE

2011 BEST CHILDREN’S PROGRAM
Sparrow Michigan Athletic Club, East Lansing, MI

The freedom of summer and the fun of camp can quickly turn sour for kids after a few weeks of sitting around or participating in dull camp activities, but that is not the case at Sparrow Michigan Athletic Club’s MAC Summer Camp, where variety is a key element. Each week has a different theme, field trip, crafts, and sports and fitness activities.

The most popular themes this summer were the Olympic games, outer space and sports, says Kelli Russell, youth and special events coordinator at the East Lansing, MI, facility. At the end of the week, campers go on a field trip to a location that matches the week’s theme. The trips are often a highlight for campers, Russell says.

The different themes and activities keep kids entertained and let parents know that their children will have fun while learning healthy habits that can last well beyond the end of summer.

“We’re obviously active all day long so they get a lot of their physical fitness in the summer here, but we have a variety of activities,” Russell says. “We’re making crafts, we’re making snacks, we get to go on field trips. We put all that together in one camp. Also this year, parents have really liked how we have done the positive reinforcement with the bead program.”

This summer, the camp staff used a bead system to reward good behavior. Every day, children were given a positive character trait to think about. Depending on how fully they embraced the word of the day and demonstrated good behavior, campers received beads, which came in different levels, colors and styles to signify how well they behaved and reflected the week’s theme. Although the children at the camp never had a lot of behavioral problems, the counselors saw a considerable improvement in all campers’ behavior after the program was introduced, says Lindsey Bachman, lead counselor.

“Campers know what’s expected of them, and they get excited about earning something for doing a good job,” Russell says. “We’re pretty good at recognizing their accomplishments and outstanding behaviors, not just attitudes. We’re recognizing and rewarding them for their strengths and not just for being good.”

CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE

Sparrow focused most of its marketing efforts for the camp on its club members, but the camp coordinator also promoted the camp on local radio talk shows. Although Russell estimates that about 90 percent of the campers were from the membership, the other 10 percent were largely from nonmember families who had sent their children to the camp year after year. Seventy percent of campers from last year returned this year, a testament to the camp’s popularity among children and parents.

The club also attracted considerably more campers this year than management had anticipated. The goal was to have an average of 28 children per day, but the camp attracted a daily average of 35 campers—and in some weeks almost 50.

The higher number of happy campers helped the program surpass its revenue estimate of $47,000 by $26,000, achieving 155 percent of its goal. It also came in under its budgeted expenses of $26,345 by almost $3,000, which Russell says was due to careful shopping for supplies and reusing materials when possible.

There was no scrimping on fun or on the investment the staff makes in providing a positive experience for the kids, though.

“We’re trying to make a really well-rounded camp,” Russell says. “It’s not necessarily as big as a Y or some of the other camps, but we put a lot of energy into each child and try to bring out their strengths.” −Kelsey Cipolla

CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE

2011 BEST BEHAVIOR MODIFICATION PROGRAM
Lindenhurst Health & Wellness Center of Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital, Lindenhurst, IL

When staff at Lindenhurst Health & Wellness Center of Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital, Lindenhurst, IL, determined that their Lose to Win program was past its peak, they were tempted to do away with the program. Instead, they chose to reinvent the team-based challenge program, which was a 2009 Club Industry Best of the Best winner. That was a profitable decision—after its reinvention, the program had its most successful year since it was introduced in 2008.

The 215 participants in the program were divided into teams led by two trainers. During each week of the 10-week program, participants could earn up to 10 points for keeping a food diary, getting exercise, checking in with a trainer about their progress and completing a weekly challenge. Those who received the full 10 points in a week were entered in a drawing for $100. At the end of the 10 weeks, participants who earned at least 90 points during the course of the program were entered to win a $1,000 grand prize.

Measurable goals were set, but part of the reinvention of the program was that the goals were not related solely to weight loss. This year’s goals ranged from losing weight or building more muscle to running a 5K or being able to keep up with their kids. Expanding the goals meant that even those members who did not have a lot of weight to lose could participate in a fun fitness experience.

“In the past, when we got to the end of the 10 or 12 weeks, there was basically one or two, maybe three people who had a chance to win,” says Dave Dean, fitness director at Lindenhurst. “This year, we had 71 people who were actually eligible for the grand prize. More people were more involved for longer.”

Each week had a challenge. In the early weeks, participants were challenged to count calories or to eat more fruits and vegetables, but later weeks focused on serving the community by participating in coat and food drives and doing volunteer work. Community outreach is one of the goals of the facility, says Eric Nelson, general manager.

CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE

Group workouts were offered at a variety of times each week, but they were not traditional group classes. Instead, participants moved tractor tires, threw ropes and did other nontraditional exercises, such as carrying 8-foot PVC pipes filled with water, Dean says. He adds that participants were excited to try some of the workouts that they had seen participants do on TV shows such as “The Biggest Loser,” rather than traditional strength training and cardio classes.

“It makes them feel like they’re doing something right, number one, and it probably takes away the boredom of just coming and getting on a piece of equipment,” Dean says.

The facility drummed up interest in the program with in-house fliers and banners, and an appearance by a motivational speaker who shared the secrets to making successful life changes.

Past participants also turned out to be a great marketing tool—more than 100 endorsed the program by choosing to join in again. This year’s participants requested a follow-up for the first time, prompting the club to offer the six-week-long Lose to Win 2.0 competition.

The program was a financial success. The net revenue from both Lose to Win and Lose to Win 2.0 was more than $30,000, but just as significant was the enthusiasm it generated, even among members who were not participating, Nelson says.

“They commented to me that they couldn’t believe the energy in the building, and they would make a point to come earlier or stay later because they wanted to be in the building to feel it and talk to other members,” Nelson says. “The energy and the buzz was wall to wall.”

In fact, a little of that buzz reached even beyond the club walls. Although Lindenhurst elected to offer the Lose to Win program to members only as a way to increase the value of membership, Dean says that five new members joined the facility just so they could participate. −Kelsey Cipolla

CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE

BEST COMMUNITY-BASED PROGRAM
Sparrow Michigan Athletic Club, East Lansing, MI

Childhood obesity is a problem in every state, but Michigan has one of the highest rates in the nation, which prompted administrators at the Sparrow Michigan Athletic Club to think about how they could help get kids active. That thought led to the facility’s health and wellness department’s Feelin’ Good Mileage Club (FGMC), a free program that rewards children for walking or running and encourages them to enter the Sparrow-sponsored Michigan Mile, a one-mile event held at Cooley Law School Stadium (home of the Lansing Lugnuts minor-league baseball team).

FGMC is offered to elementary schools in Sparrow’s eight-county service district. Each school that registers has a program coordinator who is trained by Sparrow staff and is responsible for setting up the courses on which children can walk during their recess periods, keeping the principal informed, motivating children and logging the students’ miles.

On certain days, the coordinator sets up a course for children and punches their cards for every quarter mile they walk. For every five miles they log, the students receive a “toe token,” a small, brightly colored foot charm to fasten on their sneakers. When they reach 20 miles, they receive a branded water bottle.

“The teachers and principals really like it,” says Shawn Rottiers, Sparrow’s health and wellness supervisor. “It helps the kids burn off excess energy during the lunch hour and recess. They feel that it also builds self-esteem. They’re seeing that first-hand with their students. It just kind of gets them more motivated to exercise during that downtime.”

The kids’ parents also say the program has a positive impact. In a survey of those parents, 74.3 percent of the respondents said their child’s activity level increased as a result of the program.

CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE

FGMC started around 15 years ago and originally was offered in only a few schools in a single county, Rottiers says. The program developed over the years with its 2011 participation levels showing a significant growth spurt of about 18 percent. In all, 93 schools in eight counties took part.

That increase was likely the result of a big marketing push, which included information packs distributed at schools, signs in the Sparrow facility, direct mailings to past and current participants, promotion on social networking sites, and ads in the Lansing State Journal and on all local TV stations.

Sparrow is able to pay for the advertising, offer the program free of cost to schools and cover most of the costs of the Michigan Mile race thanks to an annual donation from Kohl’s Cares for Kids, the department store chain’s program to support community health and education initiatives for children. Each year, Kohl’s gives FGMC $75,000 of the proceeds from sales of designated plush toys and books in its three Lansing-area stores.

Rottiers says Sparrow was thrilled with this year’s participation levels and that she hopes even more schools will offer their students the chance to experience the program in the coming years. −Kelsey Cipolla

CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE

2011 BEST NEW MEMBER INTEGRATION PROGRAM
BodyPlex Fitness Adventure, Chestnut Mountain, GA

Most club owners have seen the industry research that shows a higher retention rate for members who visit their club often in the first few months of their memberships. Cleveland Long, founder of BodyPlex Fitness Adventure, a chain of 20 franchised locations in Georgia, Florida and Puerto Rico, certainly had, and like many club owners, Long realized he was not doing enough to truly engage new members.

“I saw a gap between what new, unconditioned and intimidated members need and what they were getting from the typical health club, including mine, historically,” Long says. “The big thing clubs do is they give new members a free session with a trainer and then turn them loose. That’s just not enough to catapult somebody into making fitness a habit.”

With this is mind, Long set out to create a program that would encourage members to visit their club and interact with staff regularly in the first few months.

The premise of the BodyPlex New Member Challenge, introduced in January 2011, is simple: Participants are challenged to log 20 workouts in their first 60 days of membership. Reception staff keeps a card for each of the program’s enrollees at the front desk, and when the members check in, the receptionist notes the date and signs the card.

CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE

There is no strict definition of what counts as a workout. Long says that he likes his staff to encourage program participants to try out group fitness classes because those offer several things that can be especially valuable for new members—guidance from instructors, accountability and the chance to build camaraderie with other members—but he recognizes that the format does not appeal to everyone. Some new members opt to complete some or all of their 20 sessions working with a personal trainer. But those who do not want to do either group exercise or one-on-one training still do not go it alone: Floor staff members always are on hand to interact with participants and show them how to use the equipment, but they do not monitor their every move or require them to complete a set workout plan.

“At the end of that 60 days, they’re celebrated—it’s literally a party in our lobby,” Long says, explaining that the staff members gather around to congratulate the successful participant, present them with a branded T-shirt and gym bag, and take their photo to post in the club’s lobby and on the club’s Facebook page.

In addition to promoting new members’ engagement, Long wanted to use the program as a way to encourage sales staff to think beyond closing the deal. Membership salespeople are responsible for the success of each challenge participant they enroll and are expected to call for an update at one week, two weeks, 30 days and 60 days, and to interact with the members in the club. As an incentive, Long changed the entire commissions structure, reducing the amount paid for selling a membership but increasing the salesperson’s total financial reward whenever an enrollee completes the challenge.

“I put my money where my mouth is to reinforce that we’re really a service-oriented business,” Long says, adding that health clubs have a bad reputation because too many care only about selling memberships. “If people aren’t using the club, I see that as failure on our part.”

Since launching the program, Long says BodyPlex has seen a “drastic reduction” in the number of 30-day cancellations due to lack of use. It is too early to compare retention rates for new members who take the challenge (about 60 percent do) compared to those who do not, but the difference in their engagement is clear, he says.

“We definitely see more of them than their counterparts,” Long says. “And when they come in, they socialize more. You’ll see them before or after a workout, talking to staff or other members in the lobby, and they go on Facebook and post comments about how much they love the club. By the time they finish the challenge, we’ve already had at least 20 chances to touch them. It just creates a really cool dynamic.” −Lara Hale

CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE

2011 BEST NONMEMBER PROGRAM
LifeStart Wellness Network, Chicago

For many people, the most challenging part of making lifestyle changes is getting started. With that idea in mind, LifeStart Wellness Network, a facility management and corporate wellness company based in Chicago, developed PT55, a program that uses training tailored to the ability level of sedentary adults to introduce them to a fitness facility and, ultimately, to healthier habits.

PT55, which stands for physical training in 55 minutes, is comprised of two 25-minute, small group training sessions per week. Each week, the participants also have either a five-minute consultation with a dietician who reviews participants’ water consumption and eating and sleeping habits, or a consultation with a personal trainer, depending on the client’s specific needs.

LifeStart kept the program simple and unintimidating but educational for people who were new to exercise in hopes that it would motivate them to continue going to the gym, says Ashley Ralph, general manager.

“I think it was so successful because we introduced the people to the center in such a way that they became comfortable with it over the eight weeks,” Ralph says. “So, by the end of the program, they knew how the facility worked, where the equipment was and how to use all of it.”

All of that helped nonmembers be more comfortable with joining the center and coming into the facility on their own, she says.

CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE

Joining a fitness center can be especially difficult for those with demanding jobs that allow for little free time. PT55 was designed to appeal to those people, who often are at high risk for health problems due to their sedentary lifestyles and who often do not take advantage of their company’s fitness center.

“That’s the basis of our company,” says LifeStart’s president, Michael Flanagan. “We really feel like corporate clientele—especially when you’re talking middle class or upper middle class—it seems like they are forgotten as far as a group, and there’s not a lot of programs that are focused on them as a group and take their time constraints into consideration and the level of inactivity that they have or the lack of motivation. We try to work within the structure of getting companies to support it and try to get them to see that a healthy employee is a better employee.”

The PT55 program was open to both members and nonmembers with the goal of making nonmembers feel more comfortable using the club and then converting them to members.

“We felt like we had to go to them to get them to see it and not just market [the program] in a club,” Flanagan says. “Obviously, those people aren’t going to be active anyway. We took it to the companies and started getting them to post it in their break rooms, we dropped off fliers, and we sat in the lobbies and did some promotion.”

Of the program’s more than 350 participants, 60 percent were nonmembers.

For eight weeks, PT55 participants attended two brief strength training sessions each week. The workouts, which featured exercises using free weights and body weight, were designed to slowly challenge participants without overwhelming them. That small amount of time produced significant results—on average, participants lost 6 1/2 pounds and 4.3 percent of their body weight.

At the end of the eight weeks, clients could become members at a discounted rate, and they were informed about group training programs and rates. Of the nonmembers who participated, around 60 percent had joined the facility by the end of the program. −Kelsey Cipolla