CHICAGO -- Last week, more than 6,000 professionals attended Club Industry 2008 in Chicago. Highlights of the show included the keynote and presentation of Club Industry’s Fitness Business Pro’s Lifetime Achievement Award to Dr. Kenneth Cooper, along with a panel session about weathering the economy, featuring comments from some of the biggest names in the health club industry.

Cooper, founder of the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas and the “father of aerobics,” graciously accepted the award to a standing ovation on the second day of the show. He then gave a 45-minute presentation about exercise and how it has changed over the years, going from an aerobics and jogging boom in the 1980s to a drop in exercise levels and a startling rise in obesity levels today.

Cooper also addressed the childhood obesity epidemic. With the help of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who signed the Fitnessgram bill in 2007, Cooper was able to pursuade the Texas legislature to mandate that Texas schools test students to gauge their fitness levels. Cooper is passionate about helping America’s next generation to be healthier.

In fact, with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Cooper stressed the importance of healthy, fit troops and how important it is to start getting them fit as children.

“The security of our country is at stake because of what we’re doing in our schools,” Cooper told the standing-room-only crowd.

The show also featured the panel session “Fitness Business at a Crossroad: How to Hold on in Today’s Economy and Prosper for the Future.” Moderated by former Lifetime Achievement Award winner Rick Caro, the session addressed issues affecting club owners today in a weak economy. The panel consisted of Carl Liebert, CEO of 24 Hour Fitness; Jeff Klinger, CEO of Anytime Fitness; Gale Landers, CEO of Fitness Formula; and Scott Chovanec, president of Scott Chovanec and Associates.

Caro began the session by asking the panel to describe how their clubs were affected by the weakening economy and what they were doing to counteract it. Liebert started things off by saying that it was actually refreshing to hear people admit that the country was in a recession and that his more than 400 24 Hour Fitness locations were hoping to take advantage of the situation by focusing on member needs.

“Get out and talk to the people who are paying your bills,” Liebert advised the crowd. “Talk to your members.”

Chovanec said that he was focused on retention as well, noting that it’s five to seven times more expensive to attract new members than it is to keep current ones. Klinger said that because Anytime Fitness has smaller franchise clubs that it hadn’t felt the economy slowing dramatically, but that he was focused on all Anytime Fitness locations improving their club culture. He also said that he hoped the federal government’s bailout on Wall Street would help shore up the ability to expand business. Landers said that attrition at Fitness Formula was up slightly but that the club company created a new member program to help increase retention.

Focusing on retention and maintaining good, quality service was a theme heard repeatedly during the session, which later was open to questions from the audience. The panelists also discussed the importance of having quality staff and programming, particularly for new members who are deconditioned and may be intimidated by the club. In addition, group exercise was said to be a solid retention tool that creates invaluable member-to-member relationships.

“Can you give them an instant experience?” Landers said. “As an industry, we have failed sometimes in giving a high-quality experience. We must use our current members to grow our current business through word of mouth.”

For more about the show, read the Club Industry 2008 blog or read a full post-show report in the upcoming November issue. Next year’s show will be held Oct. 14-17, 2009, in Chicago.