By Jennifer Gabler
Women are making squash their business. Nancy Cushman (Meadow Mill, Baltimore, MD), Wendy Lawrence (Results Gym, Washington DC) and Demer Holleran (Fairmount Athletic Club, King of Prussia, PA) are all owners and managers of successful squash facilities.
Cushman launched Meadow Mill Athletic Club back in 1992. The club benefited from the explosion of interest in playing on international courts and now is the largest commercial squash facility in the U.S. (14 singles courts and two doubles courts).
Lawrence had worked for large commercial fitness organizations for many years and wanted to build a facility that was more flexible in its operating style and more responsive to community needs. She was part of an investment group that purchased the building from the District of Columbia and then leased it to an experienced independent gym operator, who financed a major renovation turning it into a state of the art facility. Results Gym (“Results”) has been a cornerstone of the Capitol Hill neighborhood since 2001 (with four singles courts) and has expanded to four locations.
After touring the world as a professional player and coaching some of the top collegiate players in the United States, Holleran has recently been pursuing perhaps the toughest challenge in her squash life: opening a large-scale commercial squash and fitness facility in the Philadelphia area. Fairmount Athletic Club opened in June 2007 with 12 singles and two doubles courts.
Positioning and Economics
Commercial squash facilities with actively managed squash programs have a unique position in the fitness market. Unlike fitness-only offerings such as Gold’s Gym, which focus on weights, cardio machines and exercise classes, commercial squash facilities are often positioned midway between fitness-only clubs and private country clubs: they bring squash to a larger audience of people but do not benefit from the retention aspect of private club membership policies. Cushman targets approximately 25-30% of the membership as squash members and the rest as fitness-only members. Fitness members generate more revenue per square foot, as the space requirements for cardio and weight machines, and for running fitness classes, are much less than squash courts. In most models, the fitness membership revenue “carries” the squash component of the club, but having a mixed facility provides a much richer offering that lends itself to “cross selling” opportunities and creating a family destination where everyone can participate. The key for Cushman is overseeing a delicate balance between the fitness and squash aspects of her club in order to provide services that cater best to her members.
Making a commercial squash club successful is no small task, especially in these days of economic uncertainty. Patience is needed to gain the membership levels necessary to create the unique squash and fitness balance that is desired. Meadow Mill is a 40,000 square foot facility with approximately 2,000 members. Results, in its Capitol Hill location, is 65,000 square feet with 4,700 members. The other three Results locations range from 12,000 to 20,000 square feet. The Fairmount Athletic Club has just under 1,000 members in its 46,000 square foot facility. Holleran estimates it will take two to four years of operation to get to profitability. In addition to profitability, however, these clubs are growing the game of squash in their local regions and seving as assets to their communities.
These facilities operate under the same revenue model as most commercial gyms, charging a monthly fee to access the facility and charging for additional programs or services. Clubs must constantly engage with members to keep them coming in regularly to use the facility or else membership will drop. When constructing new clubs, owners carefully analyze competitive offerings to ensure that the local area will be able to support the planned squash courts or fitness programming. Holleran knew Philadelphia lagged behind New York and DC with respect to the number of commercial squash facilities, but the demand for squash in Philadelphia was just as high or even higher. Like Cushman in Baltimore and Lawrence in DC, Holleran’s knowledge of the squash community, in combination with a keen business sense, has been critical to successfully opening her commercial squash club.
Motivation for Owning or Running a Squash Club
Cushman likes being the sole owner of Meadow Mill because of the independence the job provides. If she wants to buy new equipment or fix a problem, she just implements it and doesn’t have to get a buyoff from a board or other owners. Cushman has been a pioneer in squash programming at the club level. She loves filling up the facility with junior players and school teams, which gives the club energy and volume. She sees junior programming as beneficial both in the long and short term: Kids will be enjoying squash throughout their youth and, while building their love of the game, they will continue playing squash for their whole lifetimes.
Meadow Mill was one of the first facilities to expose inner city kids to squash. The club is currently in its third year of hosting a program for the Kipp School, a Baltimore City Charter School, where over 100 kids are enrolled for eight-week sessions. Starting in the fall of 2008, Meadow Mill became the host facility for Baltimore SquashWise, one of the newest National Urban Squash Education Association (NUSEA) programs. In addition, Cushman’s latest endeavor is in the fitness industry, as she was recently awarded a grant to run a fitness academy, BMOREFIT, which will train high school age kids to enter the fitness industry as a profession. The program will give high school students access to employment opportunities in the fitness industry and promote a healthier lifestyle for high school students in general.
At Results, Wendy Lawrence enjoys the fact that hers is an independent business and not part of a larger, regimented organization. She wanted to serve the community by providing greater access to wide courts for adults and juniors (in 2001 there were only a few wide courts in all of Washington, DC). She enjoys the flexibility of being part of a passive management group, which allows her to have an ownership stake that yields a steady rental income stream and to pursue multiple interests. While she is proud of the work and planning it took to start Results Gym, she still sees herself primarily as a squash coach, not a businesswoman. Currently, she is one of the few women coaching a men’s varsity college team (George Washington), is involved in DC Squash Academy (one of the emerging NUSEA programs), as well as overseeing the squash program at Results Gym.
Holleran had similar motives to Cushman and Lawrence for starting her own squash club. She had previously been coaching at The University of Pennsylvania for nine years and felt a calling to use her business skills in the squash world to influence the neighborhood around her in a positive way. She wanted to start a fitness and squash club that would be a positive influence on the community while creating more opportunities for people to work in the squash world.
Challenges Faced by Women Owners and Managers
It took six years for Holleran to take her idea of opening a commercial squash facility from the business plan to opening the doors. Finding capital was not the hard part as she had several investors from the squash community and was able to secure bank loans. Instead, the initial challenge was securing the location and getting the zoning approvals. She ultimately chose a location in King of Prussia (on the outskirts of Philadelphia) because of the great demand for courts while not being an area that is densely packed with people like in the inner city. Not only has Fairmount grown to nearly 1,000 members, but it has also hosted many important national tournaments. The most difficult task has been building a reputation as a great fitness facility and drawing members outside of squash. Holleran has to constantly be focused on improving programming, such as the recent addition of line dancing, personal training and private Pilates sessions. She equated the tougher aspects of building a fitness club to being down 2-0 in a squash match, giving the advice: “If you can learn from your mistakes in the match, you can turn it around and still win.”
Cushman also concedes that the startup phase for any facility is difficult and that a lot of trial and error is needed to get the proper facilities, programming and staffing to meet demand. Cushman was lucky as she dipped her toe into ownership slowly by opening a small, latchkey facility and testing the public demand for squash slowly. She added on to Meadow Mill incrementally as space became available. One of the biggest challenges of owning and managing squash clubs, Cushman noted, is that you are in a customer-service business. “If you can’t handle being criticized then you won’t succeed in this business. You need to learn from it and can’t have an ego.” Perhaps Cushman’s greatest asset is her ability to communicate with others. She listens to and takes advice from her staff and does not hand down mandates. “It’s a dialogue,” she says.
Wendy Lawrence, Nancy Cushman and Demer Holleran are three examples of successful, like-minded women who share three common traits: a savy business sense, a love of their community, and a love of the game of squash. All three women experienced challenges, whether it was securing a good location for the club, dealing with the critical balance between fitness and squash, or merely managing personal priorities. However, Lawrence, Cushman, and Holleran have been able to overcome these challenges and establish successful fitness and squash clubs that will be important landmarks in the squash community for years to come. They are only three of many women who are making important strides in helping the game of squash grow in the United States and beyond.
U.S. Women’s Team Squash Championships (Howe Cup)
San Francisco Bay Area, CA
Oct. 16-18, 2009
New York, NY
Jan. 22-24, 2010
U.S. Masters Squash Championships
Mar. 14-16, 2010
U.S. SQUASH Championships (Skill Level)
4/16/10 – 4/18/10