For Mike Alpert, CEO of the Claremont Club in Claremont, CA, there are easier and more profitable ways to make money than operating a Project Walk franchise. The club, which sits on 18 acres in the college community just northeast of Los Angeles, offers a multitude of revenue-generating amenities, including a spa, summer camps, a yoga and Pilates studio, and tennis and swim lessons. But few of these may be as satisfying as Project Walk.
“The Project Walk studio was never built to make a lot of money,” Alpert says. “It was done to change lives and help people who need it desperately.”
Project Walk is a not-for-profit organization that uses the Darzinski Method to help improve the mobility of people with spinal cord injuries. The Darzinski Method attempts to get the neurons and the nerves in the brain to reconnect with the muscular system below the level of injury through constant movement and weight-bearing activity-based exercises.
In February, the Claremont Club opened the first Project Walk franchise, which it operates inside its club for the Be Perfect Foundation, the nonprofit group that is the Project Walk franchisee.
The program, which takes up 3,000 square feet of the club, had 18 clients in February but now serves 30 clients with seven more on the waiting list. Clients usually come twice per week for two-hour sessions in which they work with a Project Walk specialist (the trainer) and at least one aid to help transfer the client.
The rehabilitation sessions at Project Walk cost $85 per hour, Alpert says, compared to $75 per hour for the club’s typical personal training session. The Be Perfect Foundation, which handles the billing, pays a 9 percent royalty fee to Project Walk corporate, then pays the club $77.35 per hour. Out of that money, the Claremont Club pays the specialist, the aid and part of the manager’s salary. The rest of the money goes to cover administrative costs, supplies, and maintenance and repair, Alpert says.
Even with those costs, the Claremont Club manages to make between $5,000 and $10,000 per month off the program with its current client base, Alpert says, which means the club, which spent $125,000 on the build-out (minus the cost of equipment, which was donated by the Be Perfect Foundation) will get a return on investment in less than two years.
Project Walk is expanding through franchising, and Alpert encourages other club operators to consider becoming a franchisee. The one-time franchisee fee was around $60,000 for the Be Perfect Foundation, Alpert says. The total investment for most franchisees, including the franchisee fee, training for specialists and build-out costs, could run between $100,000 and $180,000, he estimates.
The rewards of offering this program also include goodwill with members and the community.
“Not too many days go by that a member of the club doesn’t catch me in the club or outside and tell me how proud they are of what we are doing and how proud they are to be able to support an organization that’s doing these kinds of things,” Alpert says. “That happens all the time.”
The Claremont Club has a history with the Be Perfect Foundation that stems from the nonprofit’s founder, Hal Hargrave Jr. In July 2007 at the age of 18, Hargrave, a friend of Alpert’s daughter and a member of the Claremont Club, was paralyzed in a truck accident, cutting short his dream of going to Long Beach State to play baseball. As Hargrave was rehabilitating at Casa Colina Center for Rehabilitation in Pomona, CA, Alpert suggested to Hargrave and his parents, who also were members of the Claremont Club, that the club could offer Hargrave a familiar setting to continue his rehabilitation once he was done at Casa Colina.
Alpert then set about converting a racquetball court into a rehab room. As that renovation was being completed, Hargrave began rehabilitation at Project Walk’s Carlsbad, CA, location about 90 miles south of Claremont. Alpert sent two of his trainers to Project Walk to learn how to work with Hargrave’s condition. Then, in March 2008, the conversion and the training were complete, allowing Hargrave to begin rehabilitation at the Claremont Club.
During his time in Carlsbad, Hargrave founded the Be Perfect Foundation after witnessing the financial difficulties many of the other patients experienced paying for rehabilitation and other services, such as retrofitting vans and houses to accommodate their new situation.
People with spinal cord injuries can spend more than $2.5 million over their lifetime on treatments, according to the Be Perfect Foundation. Because of their paralysis, most individuals with spinal cord injuries lose their jobs, making paying these expenses difficult, especially since insurance typically picks up little after the initial rehabilitation period.
As Hargrave continued his workouts at Claremont, word got out about his progress through this program.
“I went back to Mike and said, ‘Maybe this isn’t something that could just service me. Maybe we could service people in the surrounding area,’” Hargrave says. “We went from there.”
The program added more clients until it reached what Hargrave and Alpert determined was maximum capacity at 20 full-time clients. The two knew they needed to move into a larger space. That is when Hargrave and his parents decided to become Project Walk franchisees and worked with Alpert to move the program to the 3,000 square feet within the club that a hospital group was vacating.
The Claremont Club and Be Perfect are looking to expand. Alpert is considering building a 30,000-square-foot satellite club that would include another Project Walk program that could help even more people.
“People believe in it, and we are doing some great things,” Hargrave says.
Clients who use Project Walk are not coming just to regain their ability to walk, Hargrave says.
“So many people see the name of this facility as Project Walk, and they think the end-all-be-all to all this is walking,” Hargrave says. “For me personally, it’s so many of the little gains that I see on a day-to-day basis of this in becoming independent around the house again that are probably the biggest feats of all. Being able to feed myself, brush my teeth and just do things around the house—it makes all the difference in the world in becoming myself again, becoming confident and becoming prideful again. It has transitioned out into the real world when I’m out in the public and I’m able to reach my hand out and shake someone’s hand and just do the little things that everyone takes for granted. A facility like this has put all of that into perspective for me in realizing that this is much bigger than walking. It’s all the little victories along the way that you were told you would never do again. You have to cherish every little victory, and you have to keep taking one step forward and keep taking baby steps and work toward that main goal.”
Expanding the Mission
This summer, Project Walk Claremont took on a new challenge. One of the specialists began working with Augie Nieto, founder of Life Fitness and chairman of Octane Fitness. Nieto was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 2005 and has been unable to breathe on his own or move anything but his toes for several years.
“We had never taken a person who was struggling with ALS, and we weren’t supposed to, according to Project Walk corporate, but I convinced them to let me try to help Augie,” Alpert says. Nieto’s situation was a different challenge than that faced with spinal cord injured clients because of his inability to communicate except with his eyes when not in his computerized chair, meaning he could not communicate any discomfort.
Nieto had already been exercising using specialized equipment developed by some of his friends in the industry, plus he was taking new experimental medication. However, within the first six sessions at Project Walk, Nieto’s progress has exceeded his expectations, he wrote in an email to Club Industry earlier this month. During that time, Nieto has been able to stand for the first time in five years and move his arms for the first time in six years, he wrote. According to Alpert, Nieto now has hip and wrist flexion and extension. He is able to do a bicep curl, and he is sitting up with good posture for the first time in almost five years.
Nieto also has gained increased control over his facial muscles, according to John McCarthy, chairman of Augie’s Bash, a fundraiser put on by Augie’s Quest, a group that raises funds for ALS.
Prior to the Project Walk program, Nieto had been stretching to maintain his flexibility, but now he is working on regaining rather than regressing the effects of ALS. He also has a goal in mind: walking his youngest daughter down the aisle when she gets married next summer, he wrote.
Alpert says that if Nieto’s progress proves out, it could show that this treatment helps those with ALS, and perhaps it could be expanded to people with multiple sclerosis or dementia.
“My belief and prayer was if we could help someone with ALS, who else could we help?” Alpert says. In time, Alpert and company just may find out.
Editor’s Note: Project Walk and the Be Perfect Foundation will be the recipients of sponsorship money and donations collected as part of the run/walk Club Industry is doing at 6 a.m. on Oct. 25 as part of the Club Industry conference in Chicago. You can register for the run/walk when you register online for the conference or onsite at the trade show. Register for the show and the run/walk here.