Tennis Industry magazine

 

Promotions that work

These two racquet sports facilities may be taking different paths, but both are leading to increased profits.

By Martin Rinehart

What makes some racquet sports facilities busier than beehives? That’s the question I put to some folks in the industry.

“You’ve got to talk to Beth Beck at Club Fit,” said Denise Jordan, executive director of the USTA Eastern Section.

“You’ve got to talk to Richard Millman at Westchester Squash,” said Simon Haysom, a national-level amateur squash player.

Well, they were both right. I found out that Beth Beck and Richard Millman may have different ways of doing business, but both are amazingly successful. You, too, can learn some valuable lessons from what Beck and Millman are doing at their facilities.

The Multidirectional Approach

There are two Club Fits in upscale Westchester County, a northern suburb of New York City. I headed for the one in Briarcliff, N.Y. (the other facility is in Jefferson Valley). The place is immense, with acres of parking, and on the Thursday morning I stopped by, the lot was nearly full.

I met co-owner and President Beth Beck in the lobby, which was buzzing with activity. “We’re having a party tonight to celebrate our 30th birthday, so it’s a bit more hectic than usual,” she said. “We’re expecting over 800 people.” That, I later learned, was only 10 percent of the membership!

Beck took me on a tour, starting at the nursery where a dozen or so little kids were noisily playing. We got a welcoming wave from the room’s supervisor, who kept right on playing with the kids. (The secret: Hire someone who loves playing with kids and still has 360-degree vision.) Next door is the playroom for the older kids, which was empty since all the kids were in school. But the room looked like heaven for 10-year-olds: dozens of things to climb, balls to throw, games to play — and no hard edges.

We visited the two indoor hard tennis courts that are the survivors of the original six. Later we stopped by the seven new, bubbled Har-Tru outdoor courts. Quick count: two empty, two playing singles, five with pros teaching lessons. Not bad for midday, mid-week.

Next, it was on to the gym facilities that have taken over from four of the original courts. That would be about 24,000 square feet and, like the parking lot, it was nearly full. After that, we went out to the new pool area.

“We used to have just one pool,” Beck said, as I looked at the three-pool facility. “Some people wanted to swim laps, some were there for water therapy, and the kids wanted to play. It just didn’t work.” When I visited, there were lap swimmers in the lap pool and a seniors class in the therapy pool. The kids’ pool will fill up after school.

I met Patty Irwin, the aquatics director, who explained the different temperatures they keep their pools: cooler for the lap swimmers, warmer for therapy. I’m beginning to see a pattern: attention to every detail.

When we visited the seven bubbled courts, I realized that they were turned 90 degrees from the summer layout shown on the website. By switching from a north-south layout in summer to an east-west layout, Club Fit gained one extra court space under the bubble. Again, they don’t miss a single detail.

The six racquetball courts were upstairs, and they were empty. “Look …” Beck said, with a note of real pain in her voice, “they’ll be full tonight with the leagues, but still …” She takes the empty space personally.

The club was built by a group of doctors during the 1970s tennis boom. Beck was asked to run a failing facility while the doctors decided what they would do with it. Eventually, Beck and a partner bought it.

“We turned the corner when we stopped selling court time and started selling monthly EFT [electronic funds transfer] memberships,” she said. “That took a bit of courage, but it’s really the key to the club because you don’t get into the renewal process.” With EFT, dues are automatically deducted at the beginning of every month from a member’s checking or credit-card account. That was in 1982 when EFT was a novel idea. Today, Club Fit in Jefferson Valley is undergoing a $10 million renovation. “You’ve got to keep investing; you can’t stand still,” said Beck.

In return for that investment, you can ask your customers to pay. “We raise rates about 4 percent every year, whatever the economy’s doing,” she said. Today’s customers pay $120 a month for a 12-month, EFT commitment.

Finally, I asked about marketing. “We do a little of everything: mail, newspapers, clubfit.com. Our biggest advertising is cable television during the US Open,” Beck said. “But basically it’s all word-of-mouth. We offer $50 to anyone who brings in a new member.” She added that members prefer the money rather than getting, say, a free month. “They really like to get that check.”

Over the years the Club Fits have become models of a modern racquet sports and fitness facility. Tennis alone doesn’t work for them; tennis and a good variety of other fitness activities work. Trying to sell court time doesn’t work; electronically paid memberships work. Having one swimming pool doesn’t work for them; creating three pools, while not realistic in most demographic areas, suits Club Fit members best.

It’s all about what the members want and need.

A Singular Focus

Pat and Richard Millman, both squash pros, created Westchester Squash in Mamaroneck, N.Y., in 1998. It’s a four-court facility in a converted warehouse in an industrial bit of southern Westchester County. It’s not visible from any road likely to be driven by a potential customer. On the other hand, if you know where you’re going, it’s convenient by highway and train.

Westchester Squash is nothing but squash. You can play squash, get squash lessons, buy a squash racquet, or have yours restrung, but that’s all. If you want to lift a weight or swim a lap, you’ll have to go elsewhere.

Despite not having other activities to draw in members, Westchester Squash was a success from day one. Richard Millman says it took three years for the word-of-mouth to make it the place to play squash. Today it’s a Mecca for squash enthusiasts — the facility hosts international-level tournaments. Millman began to expand as other owners of squash facilities (usually near-empty facilities) sought out the Millman magic. Westchester Squash now manages three four-court locations, keeping a dozen professionals busy.

“There are three things you need to run a successful squash program,” Millman told me. “First, you have to have a clean facility. I’ve seen private clubs where they wash their walls once a year. I used to teach at a place where they washed the walls every other day and you could tell that the second day wasn’t as good as the first.” Millman’s walls are washed every morning.

“Second, you have to have good ‘program managers,’” he said. “Some people call them teaching pros. Here, we have program managers. They have to be good with squash, they have to be good with people, and they have to organize and manage the squash businesses.

“Third, you have to have multiple profit centers,” he continued. “We have initiation fees and our EFT memberships.” It’s the same revenue model as the Club Fits. But memberships are only a start.

“Then we have leagues. Lessons are a major profit center. Our junior programs are another. We have school programs where we give away court time but charge for the coaching. We have tournaments here. We have coaches available to go with players to tournaments such as the nationals.” Millman, himself an internationally-ranked player, has coached many of America’s top squash players.

Listen to Millman for even a short time and you can add a fourth item to his list: a love of squash that is contagious.

He even entertains pure sales thoughts. “Parents know that their kids have a better chance of getting into an Ivy League school if they’re good squash players,” Millman said. This sort of thinking works well in an area like Westchester County.

Millman is just as excited about programs that bring squash to inner-city kids. Today, Westchester Squash is a partner in programs that bring squash into urban areas in New York and three other cities. He wants to make squash a sport for everyone.

Like Beth Beck, Millman says word-of-mouth is his big seller. There’s even a conductor on the commuter rail line who announces, “Mamaroneck Station, where the world-class squash players play.” Millman advertises in a squash magazine, at WestchesterSquash.com and in the Yellow Pages. Also, he credits the tournaments they host as promotional opportunities.

For Millman, it’s all about providing the best squash experience possible.

The Common Thread

Look closely and you can see that what Beck and Millman have in common is a passion for what they are doing. And that translates into an attention to details that make the Club Fits and Westchester Squash facilities some of the best in the business. Each of Beck’s pools is at the right temperature. Millman’s walls are washed every morning.

But also, their passion is contagious. It shows in the way Patty Irwin takes care of the pools. It’s reflected in the way Millman’s program managers work. And you can bet that all the members of Club Fit and Westchester Squash feel that passion, too.

That’s why they keep coming back, and bringing their friends.

 

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