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Interview with Chris Tointon, CEO of Greater Midland Community Centers, Midland, MI

Interview with Chris Tointon, CEO of Greater Midland Community Centers, Midland, MI

<strong><em>This nonprofit organization with five facilities continues to grow its membership, serving 60 percent of its community by learning from customer-oriented businesses and through an accredited summer camp program that partners with the local school district.</em></strong>

Q: You serve about 60 percent of your community of about 85,000 residents. How have you made such inroads?

A: There's about 60,000 active participants, and those are people who are participating in an activity, not just coming to watch their kid play basketball—we don't count those folks. They're active, they're taking tennis classes, they're doing aerobics, they're coming to family nights. We have about 7,000 members, not memberships. We actually have a fairly small membership base, but it's growing at a really rapid pace, which is exciting for us.

Q: So a lot of people are doing day passes?

A: Yes, for so long we were really a program-only operation. We had memberships, but we really weren't focused on them. We were focused just on providing a basketball class or aerobics or things like that. When I got here, [I emphasized] what a committed member can do for your organization, so we put a big focus on memberships and what that meant to us as well as what that meant to the individual.

We know that once a member joins, they are more likely to do more activities, they're more likely to participate, and they're more likely to be active and healthy than they are if they just do one program at a time because it's really easy to just not sign up. But if you're a member and you're paying your dues, you are more likely to keep active.

Q: Your revenue increased 38 percent from 2006 to 2007. How did that happen?

A: Our membership growth was definitely a big part of it, plus our program growth. We raised our rates—this year is the first year we are at market value rates. We also had a great year for contributions. Our sponsorship dollars are way up, and we've had a couple of very successful funding opportunities. One site alone took on an extra 60 kids each day for child care. So program growth right there set us up for success.

Q: How is your revenue fairing with the economy in 2008? Are you seeing it increase like it did in 2007 or decrease?

A: We're definitely not feeling the growth that we saw last year. We're pretty well leveled off. We still have membership growth. I think one of the things that's going to help out quite a bit is that we are opening a new facility, so that should help out a little bit with revenues. Contributions are still really stable for us. We are seeing a little bit of downturn in programs for older kids.

From a fitness end, we are seeing a lot of success. Our community has really made it a focus to be a more fit community, so you see a lot of organizations coming together that normally wouldn't come together. Because of that, we are seeing all kinds of new entrants to the fitness market.

Q: What sort of renovating are you doing?

A: We've invested a lot of money this year. We started with the tennis center. We invested just about
$1 million into that facility. The tournament business there is phenomenal because we're so large and because we're so good at what we do. We host a lot of tournaments—the high school state tournaments, college tournaments. We are also home to a premiere women's pro tournament called The Dow Corning Tennis Classic. So because of that, we needed a new entrance, gathering place, a lounge, more bathrooms, so that's what we invested there.

We moved on to the community center site because the community center site is 50 years old. It needed a lot of work on the exterior, not the actual building itself. We had a pretty significant road between our facility's front doors and our parking lot, so you had to walk across a pretty busy street. We've removed that street. We've completely renovated our 12-acre site. We're providing all new parking. We've seen a huge need for additional handicapped parking and senior parking, so we've created specific parking there. [We added] wellness trails throughout the entire 12 acres. We put in a couple of outdoor basketball courts with a special sport court facility, [and we have] an amazing playground with a really cool tree house that's going up. We've added a sports field, a lot of landscaping, a lot of green space, places where you can sit and relax and have picnics. Basically, we created an entire campus around the community center.

On that same community center site, we relocated and built a brand new building, a brand new curling center, so a 14,000-square-foot facility with four curling sheets—very unique. There's only four curling-only facilities in Michigan, from what I understand, and we're one of them. And the curling members alone raised $400,000 for that facility on top of the $1 million that we got from local corporations, companies and foundations. So that building is paid for.

And then the last one we're doing is renovating a middle school to create what we are calling a family center that will provide fitness and a gym, a lot of child care, a teen center, recreation opportunities, sports after school, those sorts of things.

Q: Many for-profits say that non-profits have an unfair advantage due to the tax breaks that they get. How do you perceive that issue?

A: Well, I can definitely understand their feelings. Taxes can make up a big part of whether you can be profitable or not. I look at it a little bit differently. I look at it as a market segment difference. You choose to be a for-profit. You choose to be a nonprofit. When you choose to be a nonprofit like we are, we serve a much different demographic and purpose than for-profits. At one of our sites alone, 50 percent of our participants are receiving a scholarship. That's not a market that the typical heavy-lifter facility wants to go after. They can't afford to have those kinds of folks.

We've also been around since 1917, so we pre-date every fitness center in the area. And we've been doing fitness since we opened. It's definitely been a push and a drive that everybody have the opportunity to have these programs and services.

It's a little bit different being a nonprofit. There are some challenges for-profits don't have. We have to answer to many more constituents about our business practices. We have a lot more people and funders, such as the United Way, driving our business practices than for-profit owners. So, is that a good trade-off? Taxes for the scrutiny? That's something a for-profit person is probably going to answer for themselves. There's an opportunity, if you really want to serve that nonprofit market and you want to be mission driven. You can do that. You probably can't do that being a for-profit company.

Q: I heard that you take some field trips to other facilities. Why do you do that?

A: About every nine months, we take the entire management team on a field trip. We started with the local communities. We branched out and we hit bigger cities like Grand Rapids and Detroit and places in Ohio and Chicago. We look at everything that's service related. We look at the YMCAs and the for-profit fitness centers, but we also look at hotels. Why is a four- or five-star hotel four- or five-star? What are they doing to provide that high quality, and can we learn any lessons from that?

We've seen some really bad facilities, and we said, “Are we doing that?” We've corrected some things from that. We've designed some buildings. We've renovated our locker rooms. We ask a lot of questions.

People in the fitness business are happy when people want to be like them. We all share resources. As long as you're not my competitor down the street, most people don't mind. The only problems we've had is with chains. Sometimes chains can be difficult.

Q: Talk about the children's programs you offer in the summer. What kinds of camps are you doing?

A: Five years ago, we saw a really scary downward trend in our summer camp numbers. At a strategy session, we learned that we were providing the same service everybody else in town was—what we called glorified babysitting. We all said that's not what we're about. So we made the decision that we were going to provide programs that really enhanced kids' creative thought process.

[Since then], we've had specialty camps like the Tour De Midland, where kids ride all over town on their bikes. We've had Survivor camp, where the kids just do some fun and really creative things and learn about new cultures. This is a big chemical science community. Therefore, we have a lot of kids interested in the science, so we've done some science camps. We do a ton of arts and dance, and we also do basketball, hockey, football, all those sports camps as well.

A lot of these kids have to go the whole summer, and others can just go for a week at a time, so we've created some tracks. So if you have to go the whole summer, you can do a really unique track, like I am really artsy and not into sports, so I'm going to do a dance camp one week and I'm going to do a theater camp the next week.

Step two was to make sure that we had the highest standards of anybody, so we sought American Camp Association (ACA) accreditation. Right now, we have over 100 camp opportunities throughout the summer.

We have a partnership with the local school districts. The Title IX schools have summer school, and they were having trouble getting kids to show up to summer school because after summer school, these kids had no place to go because their parents were at work, so they didn't send them to summer school. We created a summer school/camp, so these kids go to summer school in the morning, eat lunch at summer school and then come to summer camp in the afternoon. We take care of them. The schools bus them in the morning, the parents pick them up in the afternoon and we provide all the transitioning staff. We provide all the facilities. Because we are providing the facilities and not the schools, they can combine the grades for all three schools. So instead of one school having five fifth-graders and one school having three fifth-graders, now they can pool all those fifth-graders together. So they went from about 40 kids in summer school to about 150 kids in one year because we've done this. Over 100 of those kids come to summer camp every day.

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