Go The Extra Mile

By Andrew Fine

Those who are lucky enough to work at a municipal fitness center are part of a small, interesting, and exciting niche of the parks and recreation industry. Depending on the location, the center is probably competing with large, multi-national gyms for customers. So what are some of the best ways to stay competitive in this ever-changing field? The following are some suggestions.

With budget cuts still an issue for many agencies, be ready to continually do “more with less” when it comes to staff. Competent staff members who are aware of the important tenets of safety, customer service, cleanliness, and membership sales are mandatory. The usual employees will probably be high school and college-age kids (part-time recreation leaders or the equivalent), so the ability to develop and motivate them will be necessary for success. Most private-sector gyms have a sales staff, front-desk staff, and cleaning crew taking care of equipment, restrooms, etc. Since parks and recreation departments likely use part-time staff for all of these functions, maximizing their performance will take some creativity. Private-sector gyms can offer their team sales commission, bonuses, etc. A public agency probably won’t be able to do that, so make sure the staff knows that the members are appreciated. This is incredibly important. As UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, “The carrot is mightier than the stick.” Saying “thank you” for a job well done will always be appreciated. An occasional pizza party doesn’t hurt either!

Be A Role Model
Remember when Charles Barkley famously questioned in an advertisement, “I am not a role model?” He was criticized for this because people felt that as an NBA player, he was a role model whether he liked it or not. He couldn’t opt out of it. Guess what—the same applies to you! The experiences young staff members have will stay with them for the rest of their lives, whether those experiences are good or bad. Do you remember your first boss? Keep that person in mind when a staff member asks for a Saturday night off so he or she can go to the prom, or a similar function. Do you really want to be the person who says, “No”? The staff member will never forget that incident, and will tell many people about the bad experience working for you. If there are positive stories to tell, it will benefit you, other employees, and the organization. Remember, word travels fast among young people, so if you have a reputation in the community as someone who helps develop staff and is good to work for, you will quickly have a larger pool of applicants to choose from, which will make it easier to hire the top local talent.

Lead By Example
If someone spills coffee on the floor, or equipment is especially dirty, you as the manager can easily delegate these cleaning tasks to the employees (and frequently you should). However, if there is a particularly dirty job to be done (as there often will be at any fitness center), wouldn’t it benefit your reputation with the staff to roll up your sleeves and do it yourself? Do you think word would spread among the staff how you cleaned the lint from behind the dryer, took care of the mess in the bathroom, or cleaned the outdoor patio furniture? Word definitely will, so these are great opportunities to show you are a team player, and no job is beneath you. Best of all, staff members will be more likely to take the initiative if they know that you have also taken the initiative, regardless of how menial the task.

Go The Extra Mile For Seniors
Most of the clients you serve will probably live within a 5- to 10-mile radius of the facility. (Most people won’t drive farther than that to go to a gym.) Know the demographics of the local residents and program the facility accordingly. If there are plenty of seniors in the area, offer some Silver and Fit or “Active Adult” classes, yoga, aqua aerobics, etc. The facility will need to be more “family friendly” than most private gyms, and more “senior friendly” as well. Many insurance companies are now offering subsidies for gym memberships to people over the age of 55, so this demographic will definitely be growing in the future.

Seniors will expect some extra assistance with operating fitness equipment, electronics, etc. If they go to a large private-sector gym, they will likely not get this assistance from front-line staff, and instead be told to “schedule an appointment with a trainer” (for an extra fee, of course.) This lack of customer service can work in your favor, as extra service will keep the Baby Boomer generation coming back to your facility for years. Make sure staff understands the importance of “going the extra mile” when it comes to customer service. The 55+ age demographic is also more likely to vote, and probably will show up at a meeting to rally support for programs. Make sure that seniors always have a great experience at the facility.

Stay On Top Of Trends
Since there are fitness trends and fads, be prepared to make changes and take the facility in a new direction if needed. Don’t get caught up in doing certain things because “that’s the way they’ve always been done.” The majority of clients will “vote with their feet,” keeping their membership as long as they are happy with the services provided and the fees charged. They probably won’t provide any advance notice or feedback if they start going to the new gym on the other side of town. Keep accurate records of class attendance, and pay attention to the popularity of different types of equipment. Recognize which direction the usage trends are going and respond accordingly. Maximize space and resources at all times.

Buddy Up With Other Organizations
At a municipal facility, there will be numerous opportunities to work with community organizations, non-profits, school districts, sports teams, etc. Use these networking and partnership relationships to advance the department’s mission. For example, offer discounts to local Boy Scout troops to use the pool for their merit-badge tests. Often, this approach brings families into the facility that might not have otherwise come. Once they see what you have to offer and that a membership is reasonably priced, many of them will join. These partnerships benefit everyone involved, so keep an open mind and be creative! Have a “kid’s night” with games or a concert or special event to open the facility to a completely new clientele.

The great motivational speaker Zig Ziglar said, “You can have everything in life you want, if you just help enough other people get what they want.” Keep that in mind when various community groups, clubs, or service organizations want to partner with you. One thing is for sure in this business—you will have no shortage of people letting you know what they want! Listen to them, and try to learn as much as possible about the residents every day. The more you partner with nearby groups and try to serve their needs, the more your programs and facilities will be woven into the fabric and culture of the community.

Andrew Fine is the Community Services Supervisor for the city of Mission Viejo, Calif. Reach him at afine@cityofmissionviejo.org.