Club Insider Feature
Lessons from the Field of Amenity Management
This article was originally published in Club Insider.
BY JUSTIN CATES
During my time studying the art of management at the University of Georgia's Terry College of Business, one of my favorite thought exercises was to be assigned two companies that seemingly had nothing to do with each other and use one to develop ideas that could help the other. At first sight, we are blinded by the traditional product or service a company might offer. This is tunnel vision, and the remedy is to develop a wider view. Like zooming out on the microscopic cells of the human body or the stars of the cosmos, a much bigger picture is revealed. From there, connections once unseen can be made.
Over the past 50 years, the health and fitness club industry has evolved immensely. However, that evolution has not occurred in a vacuum. The world around our industry has evolved, as well. This has spawned further change in our industry, and so forth and so on. Today, the health and fitness club industry has become a mix of many disciplines, and to that end, to learn and further develop ourselves, we cannot just look within for the next great idea.
This month's cover story hopes to assist in providing a snapshot of that wider view. Jeremy Brutus and Amy Blitz are previous veterans of the health and fitness club industry. Today, their company is URBN Playground, and it is a young and innovative one in the amenity management space for residential and corporate developments. Once not even on the radar because the differences were so vast, today, the applicability of lessons from within the amenity management space are becoming more apparent.
To lead you through what some of those are and what some of them could be in the future, I welcome you to read on as we interview Jeremy Brutus and Amy Blitz, Co-Founders of URBN Playground.
An Interview With Jeremy Brutus and Amy Blitz, Co-Founders of URBN Playground
Club Insider (C.I.) - Where are you both from, and where did you grow up?
Jeremy Brutus (JB) - I grew up in New York City and am a lifelong resident.
Amy Blitz (AB) - I was born in Brooklyn and grew up in New Jersey.
C.I. - Where and what did you both study?
JB - I went to Queens College and studied Political Science/Law.
AB - I went to Trenton State College, now called The College of New Jersey, and I studied Communications.
C.I. - Did either of you play sports? If so, what lessons did they teach that you apply today?
JB - I played football. It taught me perseverance and passion to a cause. In my third year, I hurt my knee so I really felt terrible being out of the mix and not part of the team because I wasn't able to play. So, I joined the swim team, and low and behold, I just fell in love with the water. I was really good at swimming, and then, I became a lifeguard. I got a job at a big hotel and that's how I got into fitness, really. I was a product of circumstance to some extent.
AB - I was a theater nerd. For me, if you can get on stage in front of a lot of people, sing a song or act a scene, it always made me feel a lot stronger as a person. Though I loved to do it, I always had that little feeling of stage fright, and it was nerve-racking. So, to get up there and get it done is empowering.
C.I. - I'm sure now, being in leadership, having that experience helps when you have a team looking at you for answers.
AB - It sure does. I feel very comfortable speaking in front of people and off the cuff. I also use a lot of those skills in how I deal with people because when you study acting, you learn how to really listen to someone and interpret physical and verbal cues. I really use that a lot in my daily life in how I relate to people.
C.I. - Please tell us about how you became involved in the health and fitness club industry, and specifically, please tell us about your time together at American Leisure. And, who were your mentors along the way?
JB - As I mentioned, I got into swimming and got a lifeguard job. Then, I worked at the Peninsula Hotel, which is a world class hotel. They are intense brand fanatics. Even now, 20 years later, they only have nine or ten hotels because they are really focused on the super high-end luxury customer. There, I was working with Annbeth Eschbach, and we were at the pool one day, just talking about life. At the time, I was studying political science, and I wanted to go to law school. We were talking about how I loved being with people and talking to people. She said, 'If you love what you are doing, don't worry about the money or anything else. Just do what you love and be happy with your life and career.' She gave me this sage advice, and I actually ditched law school and stayed in this business at that point. It was 20 years ago, so I don't know if she remembers it, but because of that advice, she impacted my life and changed the course of it. Another mentor of mine is Rick Caro.
C.I. - It's wise and it goes back to that old saying: If you enjoy what you're doing, you'll never work a day in your life. And, I'm sure you feel the same way.
JB - Yes, I do. That's definitely relevant today, but back 20 years ago, when I was young and in school, it wasn't the common thing. You had to do what your parents told you to do. It was a different mindset. Then, Amy and I met at American Leisure - Stuyvesant Town. I was the Executive Director, and Amy was the General Manager. We had a very successful partnership there driving ancillaries and membership in a traditional commercial club setting.
AB - I was working for a nonprofit theater and needed extra income. Since I loved exercise, especially running, in my spare time, I decided to go to personal training school to earn extra income.
I found my way to being a trainer, and subsequently, a manager for American Leisure. The rest is history. Jeremy was a very helpful mentor to me when I was starting out since I was brand new to the amenity management arena.
C.I. - When and how did you reconnect to create URBN Playground?
JB - I was working as the National Director of Development for a consulting firm, and Amy was running a boutique fitness training business. It became evident to us that we wanted more. We wanted to control the product in order to bring superior version to the market. Hence, URBN Playground was born.
C.I. - Please take us through a general synopsis of URBN Playground.
JB - Our original idea for URBN Playground was to change what the amenity management industry was doing. We were both working for staffing companies, and the industry had pretty much just become about staffing. We felt we could provide much better value. We could provide highly trained staff who know how to interact with people. We could deliver on the client's goals by having people be part of a team instead of having a random person show up or not show up, thus potentially not making the schedule requirements on a day-to-day basis. We knew we could do it better.
Importantly, we were able to think about amenities in a different way and really run it like a club business. Some of our amenities charge $3,000 a year for membership in a residential building. In large communities, some are paying a few hundred dollars a year. The whole membership model that has happened in the health and fitness club industry has moved right into residential.
C.I. - That's very important for health and fitness clubs when they consider who their competitors truly are now because that was not always the case.
JB - I think there is something to be said for residential. The convenience factor is so important for people that they are even willing to pay membership fees in their own buildings for a club, which was never the case ten years ago. Gyms were free where people lived; gyms were free in hotels, but you have to pay at many places now. So, the power of customer service and the power of understanding your customer lifecycle is so important.
More about our background, we have a specifically-defined Vision, Mission and Ethos:
Vision - To make a difference in the life of every resident or customer in the communities we serve.
Mission - To create unforgettable experiences through amenity and lifestyle design, focusing on creating connections and meaningful rituals within buildings, neighborhoods and cities.
Ethos - We take you seriously, and ourselves less seriously. We believe in the business of fun, and we believe in a strategic approach to Amenities that drives business and ensures utilization. We get excited thinking of ways to enhance your community, and to create connections between seemingly disparate people and spaces. We wear our hearts on our sleeves and believe in what we do. We are truly grateful for the people, communities and companies who have chosen us. We feel lucky to be given the chance to meet and work with brilliant people on their projects, on their dreams, and in their homes. We are proud of how hard we work to bring smiles to our customers. Happy faces are what matters most to us and keeps us going!
C.I. - How many properties does URBN Playground now manage?
JB - We have 35 properties currently being managed with eight more in the pipeline later this year.
C.I. - What are the legal arrangements with developers/ownership groups?
JB - There's really two key parts that we do for developers:
We do the design of amenities. It's really a program design; it's not an interior design or architectural design. We design programs that people want. For example, we helped a developer design the most dog-friendly building on planet Earth. We had an idea, built plans around it and basically sold the idea to the developer who is building a building around that idea in one of the urban corners of the United States. So, that's one part of it.
The other part of it is staffing. Nowadays, developers really want to focus on the leasing and sales of their buildings. They don't want to and sometimes don't have the capacity to focus on the relationships between customers and staff at a property. So, they are hiring specialty people to do that. And, this is a lesson for the health and fitness club industry. We've seen that having really great relationships with customers is paramount. And, we've talked about it in the industry for so long, right? But, understanding what they really need and want is a whole different thing than saying 'Hello' and 'Goodbye.' It's a different level of relationship. What we have been able to do is find fun ways to build those bridges to get that information from customers. Some of it is just saving time; that's a real luxury for them. For example, if we can create swim lessons at their home, or at the pool in their building or even a nearby commercial club during a slow time. That will bring a big value to a member, and that's ultimately what we do. Another example is that we've always wondered why services like dry cleaning doesn't happen in some of the commercial clubs. They don't have to do the dry cleaning. Find a partner vendor who does it and provides a cut as an ancillary revenue. In the morning, people are leaving the clubs in suits anyway to go to work.
C.I. - What makes URBN Playground unique among others in the amenity management space?
JB - Our business evolves around the entire lifecycle of the business. For us, it begins at conception and continues with end user satisfaction and then begins again with new properties being built and designed. We really do everything from design to staffing and technology on the site. Then, when we get into each of those components, we really do a lot within. When it comes to technology, we manage their outbound technology to customers via an app. We do their inbound technology in terms of ringing up sessions, etc. Our software is similar to Mindbody, and it's all focused inwardly to the customers at each property. We have taken a really broad approach to do that. Other providers may just do fitness, whereas we have a full spectrum approach to solving the problems the real estate industry has today.
AB - I believe our brand is really geared towards the fun of it. Whenever I am explaining what we do to anyone who is not New York City-based, I just kind of say, 'Well, it's sort of like property management, except we are the fun part of the building.' We really try to keep that mindset in our approach to how we operate, as well as our marketing and branding. That's not to say we don't have an eye on luxury and customer service/hospitality. But, at the end of the day, these are the pleasurable things in life, and they should be fun and light. We try to bring that approach, and it sets us apart.
Ideas and Lessons for the Health and Fitness Club Industry
C.I. - As I conducted research for this story, I noticed a few programs you have developed for your properties that health and fitness club industry facilities might be able to learn from. Please tell us about each of the following and what you feel can be learned from the things you are doing.
JB - As part of our ever-increasing value proposition to stakeholders, developers and users, we created a thoughtful approach to customer engagement. Some of those programs include:
URBN BURN - This is a digital workout that was created to bring customers into our fitness training department. There is no denying the impact of digital programs, and it was paramount to enter the space. In September, this program launches nationally for us. Much like commercial fitness, just having equipment, staffing and space is not enough. The same goes for our end of the fitness business. Gym members want to change their lives, and at URBN, we have an obligation to help them regardless of training revenues. So, URBN BURN is a branded program that offers trusted advice to our users. The internet is amazing, but it's also the source of a lot of misinformation. Our customers, and to every extent, a commercial gym customer trust advice. So, why not help create programs for people to achieve their goals? Via the internet, 20-minute work outs will be available in the facility's group fitness room, on the mirror, and the staff will be trained on what each period's workouts consists of.
URBN SPLASH - Many facilities have pools. URBN SPLASH is a swim program for kids. We find the demand for swim lessons for kids as big as personal training. Is there a way to bring your members' families to your pools? At URBN, we've found a way to make it happen, and it's booming.
URBN SPA - There's been a change in the industry. People don't want massage rooms at the clubs anymore; they want to do it in their homes. We have been able to adapt and do that for people, and I don't see why a club couldn't send a massage therapist to someone's home. Club owners have the skillset to integrate this vertical into their business, as well as having a recovery program and incorporating things like Massage and even Hydro Massage onsite to bring potential customers into the club setting.
URBN CONCIERGE - We developed our own app to deliver personalized services on property to residents and members. Everything from dog walking to buying personal training to custom requests. Again, concierge services for your members may or may not work, but if you think about your clients, let's say in a city like Dallas, there may be a way to partner with a dry cleaning provider and your club could benefit from members having their dry cleaning done by a vendor and delivered to your club. Plus, your members may visit more often, allowing your staff to have a stronger relationship, and your club saved the member time so they don't have to make another stop. At URBN, we always say time is the real luxury.
C.I. - This cover story is very much one of learning from another industry. For our health and club industry audience, please take us through some of the key points related to URBN Playground that you feel are applicable to health and fitness club owners and managers.
JB - The key points for us are as follows:
Understand the lifecycle of your business and your customer - We take a technology perspective with our customers and look at the end user and his experience throughout an entire amenity and even away from the amenity. Our relationship goes beyond the amenity walls. It goes into their homes. We've found ways of taking our brand, our level of service and the feel of luxury into their homes. I know a club won't do these things, but we clean their apartments, we walk their dogs and do other things for them that truly creates a strong bond in the relationship.
Have the mindset to offer an ever-increasing value proposition - You can't just stop where you are at. You have to continue to evolve. We've tried things in the last two and a half years that have been total flops. We failed at them. So, you then have to pull your team together, refocus, come up with new ideas and try something different. Or, we get help from outside. We use the slogan, 'No one of us is as smart as all of us.' If we can put our heads together, we can come up with great ideas. And, if we are truly focused at making a difference in people's lives, it's becomes really easy.
Do the right thing and be known for finishing and executing at any cost - We have committed to our clients. Sometimes that means following through even if you have to eat the agreement, so to speak. Even if you have to lose money, you do the right thing. I'll give you an example. When we started, we picked up a few clients really quickly. One of them we took for almost no profit because we wanted to break into the market. We had one club, and we wanted to get a second club. We undersold it. But, we did that agreement to the T for three years, and we just got a renewal on it with an increase. It's a substantial increase, and coming from a condominium, nonetheless, where budgets are restricted. We did the right thing for the entire three years. We didn't get it, then after a year say, 'we don't have enough money to do this' or 'we aren't making enough money.' We hunkered down, did the right thing and did right by our client. We made an agreement, kept our word and executed the service. In the long run, if you do the right thing and follow through, you will be rewarded by the marketplace.
C.I. - The key to that is that you just can't put a price on reputation. Then, eventually, that pays off, and it's well worth it.
JB - Exactly.
C.I. - You are currently developing a wellness program for 13,000 employees of J.P. Morgan. Please tell us how this deal came about and take us through the key components of what you will need to deliver.
JB - Relationships and reputation. We have someone on our team named Jay Shafran, and he's kind of a design legend. He designed the in-house Goldman Sachs fitness centers and other things like that, and when this project started, they didn't call the company he was at before and they didn't call us; they called Jay directly. Jay happened to be working for us, and that's how it happened. So, relationships and reputation brought that business to us, which is a great project for a startup like us.
The project scope is large and long-term. They are tearing down a skyscraper here in the city and building a new, super-tall skyscraper in its place for their world headquarters. If you look up JP Morgan 270 Park, you'll find plenty of information about it. The mandate from the firm is to develop a plan and program that not only anticipates what wellness is in 2021, when the project is slated to be done, but also in 2030, as the firm services and recruits new employees. It's about seeing what we see and not only designing for change but also for the changes that follow. From a scope perspective, we are working on fitness, a health center, a recharge/recovery zone, childcare, lactation, learning and other wellness areas. We are also anticipating additional functions as the project continues to develop.
C.I. - What have you already learned through the process, and what is left to complete the project?
JB - It is ongoing, and we are learning things every day. This is a multi-year project just in its infancy, and we are little more than past space allocation now. We must continue to develop architectural programs, and then, once first plans start coming out, review those. Other tasks down the road will revolve around branding/marketing, budgeting, vendor interface and procurement, discussions around operations and program development, etc.
C.I. - From your experience with the J.P. Morgan project so far, and applied to some of the previous questions in the scope of health and fitness clubs, especially those that provide corporate wellness services, what lessons can you share?
JB - There are a few:
We aren't delivering what we were in the past. We aren't trying to design fitness centers that mimic what commercial models do anymore. Instead, we are trying to design around corporate goals and corporate culture.
As an industry, technology is starting to make a difference beyond just entertainment. Wearables are a stepping stone to AI interface with the client.
As a company, we have never designed for the middle, for vanilla. We take the Baskin-Robbins approach to try to reach multiple populations.
C.I. - Across all your services, please tell us about the use of technology. Applied to the health and fitness club industry, how can clubs use technology to enhance current members' experiences and lives? Is your technology available to clubs in any capacity to help with this?
JB - As just mentioned, AI is the specter on the horizon. Based on wearables like the Apple Watch and anticipated changes to the AirPod, among other technologies, there is a democratization of health going on. The A-Fib function on the Watch not only saves a trip to the doctor but will send warnings and data to you and him. At some point, your watch, Airpods and keyboard will tell you if you have a cold coming on, adjust your workouts and prescribe rest and fluids.
Additionally, we think that it's really important to understand this is a direct impact marketing business. It's really about people helping people. Finding ways that don't impact that relationship but are additive and not disruptive is the big lesson related to our approach to technology. When it comes to our app, people can select the services they want if and when they want them. It's never intrusive but always supportive. Now, we are experimenting with lightmapping and sensors but with the goal to be more human than digital... How many wellness and technology companies answer their phones with a live person 24 hours a day? We do, that I am sure of.
C.I. - You have been a loyal member of IHRSA. Please tell us about the benefits you have experienced professionally and personally from membership?
JB - I used to go to IHRSA all the time, every year. The past few years, it has been Amy going. Going to the annual event, though, is super inspiring. It really gets you motivated. Amy hasn't gone as long as I have, but she has gone the past few years, so I think she can speak to it as well.
AB - Yes, Jeremy is right, and I feel the same way about Club Industry. It's always very inspiring to be around people who are really achieving and are really excited about what they are doing and where the industry is going. It's always a good refresher to be in the mix with people like that because we are all in our own bubbles, but it's always great to get out of that bubble and see what is going on. It's very inspiring, and it's just fun. I enjoy going and seeing all the new technology, equipment, who's developing what, and it's something I can take to clients when it's time to revamp their fitness spaces. I think they appreciate that insight as well.
C.I. - I completely agree with you both. Being the son of an IHRSA Co-Founder, I grew up around the Association, and every year, I just come out of there completely pumped. One of my favorite things is that you will see competitors, laughing, joking and talking, and they share things with each other.
Maybe not everything, not all the secret sauce, but you will see people you might not expect working together because it's for the betterment of their members. That's a beautiful thing.
JB - It is. We really appreciate everything IHRSA does. We have a lot of old friends, and we've made a lot of new friends as well.
C.I. - Jeremy, you have also participated in the CEO Summit in Chicago. What are the benefits and takeaways for you and your company?
JB - It was interesting to hear about how the latest technology is going beyond making processes simpler but really trying to get to know the user's habits in the club setting and using that information to enhance their experience.
C.I. - What does the future hold for URBN Playground?
JB - Currently we are expanding nationally, leading with our technology. As mentioned, we have several very exciting ideas for fitness-based classes using technology, light mapping and the latest sensor and AI advances and look forward to releasing them! At the end of the day, it's all about service, and we feel we were born to service our customers and our industry.
C.I. - To close this interview, can each of you please share your top three general business lessons?
JB/AB - We've combined our lessons:
1. Reputation - Always do the right thing.
2. None of us is as smart as all of us - Listen to every team member and incorporate their feedback.
3. Innovate - Find new ways to provide value, even if they fail, keep going forward.
• • •
Thank you very much to URBN Playground Co-Founders, Jeremy Brutus and Amy Blitz for their time interviewing for this month's cover story. We sincerely appreciate them sharing their story and cross-industry lessons to you, our readers. And, thank you for reading!