Never Underestimate the Power of Trade Shows and Conferences—Just Ask Norm Cates

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the American racquetball craze was dying. Once-thriving clubs were struggling to attract and retain members, ultimately crushing their owners’ financial bottom lines.

Many racquetball clubs of the day simply closed, their owners moving on to other pursuits. However, CourtSouth partner Norm Cates was not so willing to wave a white flag.

The CourtSouth clubs, founded in the Atlanta area in 1976, were the first major facilities of their kind in the American Southeast. Cates and his partners capitalized on the national racquetball craze, eventually expanding and for several years enjoying moderate success. Cates and his partners went their separate ways in May 1981, leaving each partner with one CourtSouth Club. But Cates decided to do what his former partners and many other racquetball club owners across the country were beginning to do, which was to convert racquetball court space to workout areas and group exercise rooms. 

“The demise of the racquetball craze meant we had a lot of space to work with,” Cates told me in an interview for a forthcoming Club Industry profile of him. “At one of my clubs, Lenox Square, we had 16 courts. I ended up hiring a crew, and we got in there and tore down 12 racquetball courts with me personally swinging the sledge hammer every day for two weeks and with my team of workers hauling the busted cinder block walls out piece by piece in buckets. Three weeks later, we were converting those 12 former racquetball courts into aerobics studios, an expanded Nautilus space and free weight rooms. I also put in 30 Lifecycles and 30 more Lifecycles in my Downtown Athletic Club. 

When Cates—the recipient of Club Industry's 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award—reflects on this moment in his career, he does so with great modesty. Yet the concept of a multi-use facility was hardly ubiquitous at the turn of the 1980s. While interviewing Cates, I pressed him about this strategic pivot. I wanted to know where this idea came from, how it was born.

The fledgling fitness industry did not have the major events and associations like it does today. However, Cates did have the National Court Clubs Association (NCCA), of which he was president. He also had ties to the National Tennis Association (NTA), of which his friend Rick Caro was president. (Caro was a member of the NCCA board as well.) It was in regularly coming together with his colleagues from these associations that Cates learned just how valuable in-person discourse can be. It was in these board meetings that club operators shared their trials and triumphs. Strategies were fleshed out. The best ideas floated, the weakest sank.

Such gatherings were not only the birthplace of the multi-use concept, but more importantly, they also served as the spiritual predecessor for the International Racquet Sportsclub Association (IRSA), which Cates and Caro co-founded along with five others in 1981. (IRSA later became the International Health Racquet and Sportsclub Association, or IHRSA.)

Try to imagine a modern fitness industry without those kinds of formalized gatherings, without the conferences and trade shows we sometimes take for granted today. Fortunately, Caro, Cates and other industry pioneers saw the value in such practices and ensured no club operator or product vendor would have to exist on an island ever again.

“I don’t think the industry would be anywhere as great as it is today without growing IHRSA and other groups,” Cates said. “It’s kind of like we planted a seed, watered it, made sure it’s getting some sunlight, looked after it, and look what it has turned into.”

As the Club Industry staff prepares for this year’s show, we do so with renewed focus, thanks to Cates’ story. You never know what will happen when smart and ambitious entrepreneurs put their heads together.

The Club Industry Show is Oct. 4-6 at the Hilton Chicago. Cates will be given the Lifetime Achievement award at 8:45 a.m. on Oct. 5 prior to the keynote address by Nick Sarillo of Nick's Pizza and Pub