Small Town Heart


Sometimes I long for summer nights in small-town America. Sitting on the front porch swing at my grandparents' house, chasing fireflies in the front yard, playing croquet with my cousins by the light of the moon (and a flashlight), competing in seed-spitting contests as I enjoyed watermelon with my uncles.

A simpler place, a simpler time. Or so it seemed. Those of you who live in rural America probably have plenty of other pleasant memories of your town, and they are part of what you cherish about the place you call home. However, you also know that running a business, particularly a fitness club, in a small town can be full of challenges. I got this impression with each of the people I spoke with recently for the “Shaping Up Rural America” story in this issue.

Few rural club owners strike it rich, but from the comments I received from these club owners, making large profits really wasn't at the top of their list when they decided to open a club. They just loved fitness, and they understood the importance of fitness to those surrounding them.

I witnessed that dedication a few months ago when I drove by a health club and personal training studio in a small town in Missouri. Unfortunately, it was a Sunday so the facility was closed, but I peered through the window of the club, curious to see what equipment was inside. Not much, it turned out. But what struck me most was the handwritten note taped to the front desk. The note implied that the club owner was a doctor. While the exact phrasing escapes me now, it said something to this effect: “If I miss your appointment, I apologize. I try to make every appointment, but sometimes I have to be late or reschedule. I hope you understand that my patients come first. I will reschedule any missed appointments.”

I had visions of this club owner not only being the only fitness professional in town, but also the only doctor. Not only does this man have a unique way to get doctor referrals to his club, but he's holding down two demanding jobs that I suspect leave him with little leisure time.

Unfortunately, many rural club owners must hold down a second job to make ends meet. That leaves them little time to dedicate to their own growth by attending industry trade shows and seminars, which can open a whole new world to a club owner. They not only offer new business ideas, equipment and technology, but they offer a networking opportunity, something many small-town club owners may lack. Developing a network of other rural club owners as well as club owners in larger cities can prove invaluable. Yes, there is an expense to attend these conferences, and for a club owner who can't get a loan for new equipment or who can't afford to pay staff enough to retain them, that money may seem better spent on other things, but I would suggest otherwise. Creating a network and increasing your knowledge about business practices and industry trends can help re-energize you and pull you through in your toughest hours. And that's perhaps the most important benefit. Otherwise, who else will serve your neighbors?

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