Attracting and Retaining Quality Staff in a Competitive Market

As we all make our way out of the pandemic fog that has overwhelmed us this past year and a half, an unexpected challenge has emerged: u to provide the services our clubs promise to our members. Our industry has been notoriously on the lower end of the pay scale for virtually all but upper management positions for decades, and we got by because it has mostly been an employer’s market, with more people needing service jobs than available jobs. The carrot of gaining free membership seemed to be enough to nudge those not thrilled with low wages to accept the lower wages.

Times have changed. With numerous states raising their minimum wage up to $15 over the past year and other states likely to follow suit soon, many of the nation’s largest employers have decided to raise wages across the board nationally. This has forced local employers to increase salaries and wages to compete with the big box stores and national powerhouses for local talent. It was only a matter of time before those choosing to work in the health club industry would begin paying attention to the fact that they were underpaid in comparison to those working at the nearby Target, Starbucks, McDonald’s, etc.  Why work for $9 or $10 per hour when you can earn $2 to as much as $5 per hour more working at a fast food joint?

So how do we compete? I have a different perspective, having managed clubs for the past 45 years in a variety of markets at different price points and with different types of clubs. The themes I share below have worked in each of my clubs during times of low or high unemployment. In other words, these themes have proven, at least to me, to be timeless and have little to do with market conditions. Here are 10 steps to attracting and retaining employees who will make you proud:

  1. Dignity and respect. This is non-negotiable if you are to become an employer of choice. There should never be an instance when an employee feels they have been spoken to or treated in an undignified or disrespectful matter — no matter what. It does not matter what level the person is at in the organization. Treating everyone in a respectful manner at all times costs nothing and is the single most important factor in how people feel about their overall work experience.
  2. Competitive and fair wages. I am not saying you must pay at the top of the range for various levels of responsibility. I am saying that you must pay competitively with those clubs and other retail establishments that compete for the same local workers as you do in order to get anyone’s attention in the first place. Fair refers to comparative compensation within the four walls of your club. Do the front desk staff, housekeepers, café workers, childcare workers, etc., make wages that transparently make sense to all parties concerned? One more key point: If you think you are saving money by paying the lowest wage, you’re not. You are paying far more in lost productivity, recruiting, re-training and missed opportunities every time you lose an employee.
  3. Know their names. The most important word in the world to most human beings is their name. If this is true for our members, it only makes sense that it is also true for our employees. We must learn and use their names in every interaction if we hope to capture their hearts, spirits and best efforts.
  4. Know and care about their interests. During onboarding or during the interview process, find out what brings out each employee’s passion outside of work. Is it their family, their education, their pet, their hobby? Listen and learn what really drives each employee’s imagination and speak to their favorite subject every time you talk with them. It’s magic.
  5. Clearly articulate the company’s why. Why does our club or company exist? What is our “why” for being in this business? Hopefully it is more than just maximizing profits. Everyone wants to be part of a cause bigger than just getting a paycheck. Just remember that employees will easily be able to tell if the stated “why” matches up with the real “why” after just a week or two on the job. If the two are not in alignment, many employees will quickly opt out.
  6. Clearly articulate what we want to be famous for. Every great company is famous for one or two obvious attributes. Wal-Mart means low prices. Apple means innovative technology and cool design. Disney means happiness and family fun. Every employee at these companies knows what the company wants to be famous for, and they all then contribute to strengthening this perception through all of the daily moments of truth with customers.
  7. Develop, communicate and protect company values. Company values or what matters most to the company is pretty clear to those who work for the company. Does the company value profit over member service? Does the company value employee relations over strict policy enforcement? Does the company value cleanliness and maintenance of facilities? Does the company value how people at all levels of the organization are treated?
  8. Discover your current employees’ hidden talents. Every employee has hidden talent that even they might not be aware of. If leaders in your club are on the lookout for and tuned into discovering hidden talent, you and they will find it in many of your current employees. It has never failed to amaze me when a low-level employee (in terms of responsibility and pay) suddenly blossoms into a super star simply by giving them a chance in an alternative role where they are able to fully utilize their talents. I have too many examples to share here, but suffice it to say that I believe this is a universal truth in all of our clubs.
  9. Provide flexible work schedules. Our post-COVID world has been changed forever, especially in terms of worker expectations. Millions of people are either changing jobs or thinking of changing because of a perceived lack of flexibility in their current job and how this negatively impacts their personal life. The astute club manager will face up to the brutal reality that times have changed, and we must provide much greater flexibility in working from home, what the normal work week is today, whether employees need to work full time or part time.
  10. Show them the love and appreciation. I saved the most important part of the “secret sauce” for last. Your club culture must instill in all of its leaders the importance of continuously finding people doing things right and complimenting them for the specific actions. This is such a rare trait in most organizations that your employees will hesitate to leave for fear of losing this continuous show of appreciation.

There you have it. Make these 10 recommendations common practice in your club among your leadership team and watch your employee retention rate rise and the flow of great external candidates dramatically increase over time.


Herb Lipsman is a 45-year veteran of health club, country club and luxury resort management. He has managed such premier properties as The Houstonian Hotel, Club and Spa; Golf Club of Houston; The Clubs at Houston Oaks; VillaSport Athletic Club and Spa and currently The Riverbend Club and The Reserve Resort at Lake Travis in Austin, Texas. Lipsman recently published a book entitled Caring (The Sequel): Valuable Insights into Effective Club and Hospitality Management available on Amazon.