Hiring Club Superstars


As Yogi Berra might have said, “You gotta be careful about who you interview because you might hire them.”

That's the problem faced by club managers across the country as they look for trainers, sales people and support staff members who will contribute to the revenue line without destroying the bottom line of the club's income statement. It's not an easy process. Finding candidates, interviewing them and making the hiring decision each present hard-to-solve problems.

“The most important thing is the personality and their demeanor,” says Brett Shaw, assistant general manager of Lynmar Racquet & Health Club in Colorado Springs, CO. “Their experience matters as well, but you can have all the experience in the world, and, if you don't have a personality, you're not going to last.”

Hiring Procedures Evolve

As the fitness industry consolidates, hiring practices are changing. Chris Lechner, regional director of human resources for Wellbridge Fitness in Minneapolis, MN, says that in the past, each Wellbridge club did its own hiring, but people would leave within two to three months so the company moved much of the hiring responsibility to the corporate level.

“We decided that we needed to invest more in the recruiting process, so we would get more qualified people who would stay and decrease our turnover,” Lechner says.

Today, Michelle Kerr, regional recruiter for Wellbridge, handles much of the hiring process for management, sales and trainer positions. Many of the applications come from online job sites or local newspapers' Web sites. Kerr interviews possible candidates over the phone asking qualified candidates to do a second interview in person and then forwarding the best candidates to one of the clubs. Applicants for hourly positions often apply directly with the club manager.

One set of eyeballs on a job candidate isn't enough, according to Lynmar's Shaw.

“We do several interviews,” he reports. “One will be with that area's manager, one will be with the club's owner, and, if need be, we'll do a third.”

Wellbridge also tests massage therapists and personal trainers and requires group fitness applicants to audition, says Lechner.

Julie Webber, health club manager at the Landmark Racquet & Health Club in Peoria, IL, says her club has just started using a new evaluation tool: psychological testing. The 50-question test takes 15 to 20 minutes and is digitally graded within a couple of days. The questions assess the applicant's dependability, honesty and ability to handle stressful situations and make sound decisions.

Eliminating the Hit or Miss Factor

Personnel decisions may be the most important decisions that club managers make, so it pays to take extra care in evaluating candidates, even for lower paid employees such as those at the hospitality desk, says Kerr.

“They're the ones who have the most contact with the members, and they're the ones who can make or break the members' experience with the club,” she says.

Lechner agrees that taking extra time and paying extra attention is important. “If they're just hiring warm bodies, they will not be successful,” she says. “It comes back to bite them in the end.”

Hiring isn't getting any easier, though, because the quality of the workforce seems to be declining.

“I've been in this business a long time,” Lechner says, “and I'd say the work ethic is worse (now than in the past). We have pockets of people who will come in and shine and do a great job, but a high percentage of people just come in to collect a paycheck.”

Shaw agrees, “We're having more people, especially of the younger generation, who aren't willing to put in the hours. Work is more of a have-to than a want-to.”

Finding Qualified Candidates

Help-wanted ads, according to many club managers, are seldom the best place to find candidates for anything other than an entry-level position. At Landmark, the sales employees are usually promoted from within — often from the front desk — because they must have an intimate knowledge of the club to sell memberships, says Webber.

She points out another preferred source of employees — club members.

“We've hired many members who were qualified,” Webber says. “Our current fitness director was a member first, then an instructor and eventually moved up.”

When it comes to finding good trainers, more creative approaches often are needed. Wellbridge sends out mailings, advertises on industry-specific Web sites and in industry periodicals, and works with schools that have programs for personal trainers, says Kerr.

Picking the Best

When it comes to finding the best candidate for the busy front desk, Webber looks for someone who is enthusiastic and wants to work, she says. Front desk positions require a lot of energy and contact with members, so Webber looks for energetic people who are dressed professionally and are groomed neatly.

When Shaw hires personal trainers, he asks about their philosophy.

“Eight-five percent of our members are forty-five or older,” he says, “So, they're looking more to get into shape, tone up. They're not the ‘no-pain-no-gain’ crowd. That takes a different kind of mentality in a trainer.”

Lechner points out that trainers must be able to sell themselves to members, but most trainers don't learn to do this in school, so Wellbridge offers them training in this area.

For sales positions, Kerr says a sales background is great, but she values communications skills more than anything else. Candidates with a strong communications background can often be a good fit for a club sales position.

Regardless of the position being filled, Webber recommends patience.

“Be patient in your hiring process,” she says. “You don't have to hire the first person that walks in. I look for quality over quantity.”

Dave Donelson is the author of Creative Selling (Entrepreneur Press) and speaks frequently about marketing and management.

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