Feature Article - October 2004
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These days, people want more and more from their rec centers and sports clubs. But how do multipurpose facilities expand without spreading themselves too thin?

By Kyle Ryan

 East Lansing, Mich.

The largest hospital-based health club in the country, the MAC opened in 1991 with a 170,000-square-foot facility. Just six years later it grew to 270,000 square feet with 16 tennis courts, four swimming pools (including a 200-foot water slide), 11 racquetball/handball courts, three squash courts, two gyms, an indoor running track, four locker rooms (including family locker rooms), 8,000 square feet of resistance equipment, and 5,000 square feet of cardiovascular equipment (including 100 with individual entertainment systems). There are also two golf simulators, exercise studios and a full-service restaurant.

The expansion the club undertook in 1997 with outdoor areas (specifically the water park) and the extra gym was part of a plan to increase the club's appeal to families.

"Even when we have demand for the main gym for families, we can go to the auxiliary gym and have a summer camp that we use for youth activities," says Carl Porter, executive director of the MAC. "We try never to do anything that unreasonably infringes on the membership."

The plan apparently worked, as the club has about 5,300 households for a membership base, with a total of 8,400 members. Franco's growth also comes from its position in the Sparrow Health System.

"A lot of the deconditioned population that are afraid of clubs that portray themselves as hard bodies in spandex are more comfortable that we really are part of the dominant health-care system in mid-Michigan," Porter says. "That really helps us in terms of appeal."

The MAC's slogan of "sports, health, fitness and fun" also conveys the club's outlook.

"We really believe that success in this business is based on the marriage of the health-fitness aspect with the recreation/competitive aspect," Porter says. "Having one or the other can be successful, but if somebody really wants to hit a grand-slam home run, they need to balance those two facets."

Some of the club's most popular programs incorporate that competitive appeal. The MAC's Triple Threat Basketball Camp, offered in conjunction with basketball legend Magic Johnson, has been one of the club's most successful youth programs.

Another is the winter golf instructional program. Using video analysis that puts participants side-by-side with pros, golf coaches can compare swings frame-by-frame and show golfers how pro techniques can improve their game. The program has been so popular that the MAC expanded it in a sister club.

Some programs aren't as financially rewarding for the MAC, and Porter says those tend to fall somewhere between basic services and fee-based extras. With Spinning, for example, the $2 nominal fee members pay per class barely covers instructor fees.

"We feel that's a membership-based support service," Porter says. "The reason we have the nominal charge is that the demand would be so great if we had no charge that we would have to add a lot of classes, and then it would become a huge expense. So the nominal charge of $2 kind of controls the demand to people who are really serious about it."

It took some time for the MAC even to offer Spinning. Ever skeptical of possible fads, the club never buys equipment or invests in programs when they first hit the market.

"Our feeling is we dominate our market," Porter says. "We're kind of the big fish in the pond, and we don't feel like we have to desperately grab at any potential innovation. We can wait two years if necessary or three years and then see if it's something solid."

The MAC takes such a conservative approach to ensure a standard of quality and to create two types of experiences for members: rich (that is, fun, motivating, energizing) and rewarding (producing results). Porter refers to it as "the magic of the MAC," the customer-service rallying cry for the Michigan Athletic Club.

Each time members come into the club, Porter explains, they will have five or six impressions of the MAC. Every encounter with the staff or equipment is a "moment of truth" that creates those impressions.

Each opportunity for an impression can have one of three results: meet their expectations (neutral/positive), fall short of their expectations (a "moment of misery") or exceed their expectations (the moment of magic).

"We're constantly trying to create moments of magic for our members," Porter says. "We just try to drill the moments of magic and rich, rewarding experiences into the minds of all of our staff, and [we] let them know fundamentally you're empowered to do what you need to do to support those ideas and those goals."

It's the old axiom of giving members a warm welcome and a fond farewell—and hiring the right people for the task.

"No matter how good our facilities are, the environment has to be warm and inviting," Porter says. "When you say 'customer service,' it just isn't the same thing as giving members a warm, welcome feeling. It's making them feel like this is their club, and they're an important cog in the club."