Club Insider

In Touch With Brent Darden, IHRSA's Interim President and CEO

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In the very beginning, nearly 40 years ago, IHRSA was launched without the "H" for Health in the name, making the acronym: IRSA. The Association was and has continued to be a labor of love for my good friend, Rick Caro, and me. IRSA was Rick's idea, and we are all very fortunate that Rick dreamed up this special Association.

At that time, in 1981, Rick was actually serving as a Board Member on two national Associations: the National Tennis Association (NTA) and the National Court Club Association (NCCA). So, via a phone call with me one night, Rick suggested the great idea of merging the two associations. I thought it was truly a genius idea, and I told him so immediately. There we were! Founders of what is known today, worldwide, as the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA).

Our other five IRSA Founders, in addition to Rick and me, were the late Dale Dibble; the late Curt Beusman; Todd Pulis, NTA Board Member; Peter Donahue, NCCA Board Member; and Jennifer Michell, NCCA Board Member. Rick and I continue to stay in touch with, and we always try to help IHRSA anyway we can through Rick's always great work as our industry's #1 club consultant, and for almost 28 years now, my work on Club Insider with my son and partner, Justin Cates.

Importantly, Rick knew of John McCarthy as the Executive Director of the New England Racquet Sports Association (NERSA). We hired John immediately to be our first IRSA Executive Director, and he served in his IRSA/IHRSA Executive Director role for 25 years before retiring where he's continued to work with Augie and Lynne Nieto with their Augie's Quest organization to help raise money to fight, and hopefully, someday, to defeat Lou Gehrig's Disease, a/k/a ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis). As we formed IRSA, Chuck Leve, Executive Director of NCCA, was going to be without a job. So, I dreamed one up for him: Director of Associate Members. Both John McCarthy and Chuck Leve did fabulous jobs in their important roles for many years (25 and 27 respectively). After John McCarthy retired 14 years ago, IHRSA was blessed to have Joe Moore replace him. Joe served IHRSA for 14 years until leaving the Association last month. And, Tom Hunt, the young man who replaced Chuck Leve, has done a fine job, along with Lynne Devaney.

During these unique and tough times, I have stayed close to the recent developments in our industry worldwide, including the most recent happenings at IHRSA. The following is an in-depth interview with Brent Darden, IHRSA's Interim President and CEO.

An Interview With Brent Darden

Brent DardenBrent Darden

Club Insider (C.I.) - Brent, there was an announcement that Jason Reinhardt resigned as Chairman of the Board and has stepped down from the Board. I think this is a first. Does IHRSA have any plans to fill that vacancy and to have a proper election for a new Chairperson?
Brent Darden (BD) - The IHRSA Board of Directors Nominations Committee is discussing options to fill the position of the Chairman on a permanent basis. And, at the right time, they will make a recommendation to the full Board. Until that decision is made, IHRSA Vice Chair, Carrie Kepple, Owner and CEO of Styles Studio Fitness in Illinois, has assumed the role. And, I have to say she's doing a spectacular job. Really, the IHRSA Board of Directors has been doing yeoman's work over the past several months. They've been sacrificing countless hours and energy for the good of our industry. Going forward, I hate to say it, but I expect even more from this dedicated group. I plan to leverage their individual expertise and maximize their opportunities to contribute, beyond probably what's transpired before. In addition to that, I really hope to actively enlist the aid of some of the other leaders in our industry. There's a lot of really intelligent people out there who have been graciously volunteering to offer assistance. I want and feel we need to allow them the opportunity to help chart the course for a re-imagined future for the industry and for IHRSA. We would be doing ourselves a disservice not to take advantage of the expertise that is so readily available.

C.I. - Joe Moore left IHRSA as President and CEO after 14 years. You were appointed Interim President and CEO. You have had a rich history in the health and fitness club industry and a deep relationship with IHRSA. What is it like to assume this role? What are the first things you are going to focus on?
BD - Truly, and I mean this as sincerely as I can possibly say it. It's just humbling knowing the legacy that began with John McCarthy and was continued by Joe Moore. It's a very short CEO list. And, even though it's an Interim position, I just couldn't be more pleased that people think I can do the job at hand. I'm overwhelmed with the support I've received from so many colleagues, both club operators and suppliers. I want everyone to know, and I've said this from the beginning, I really didn't raise my hand for this responsibility. I wasn't clamoring to get this role or pursuing it in any way. Frankly, I really was enjoying a pretty good life with the perfect balance of rewarding work and purposeful relaxation. So, I made it really clear, that yes, I feel called to serve. I feel a responsibility to serve. And, that's why I'm here. But, it's only on an interim basis until we can identify the right person to take us forward.

After just a few days on the job, I'm admittedly in the research and discovery phase. I'm trying to learn everything I can as quickly as I can. I'm immersed in the operations and listening to, not only the Board, but the IHRSA Team here internally, the European Council, the Global Federations, the ILC and all the IHRSA Members. So, I've been drinking from the fire hose, as they say, over the last several days for sure. As a consultant, I remember, over the years, one of the things I attempted to do when working with clients was to uncover the really important but sometimes unaddressed or ignored issues that lurked under the table or were hidden in the closet, if you will. One of my jobs as a consultant, I thought, was to bring those issues out into the open and get them on the table so they could be dealt with courageously and proactively. As Jim Collins would say, 'Face the brutal facts of reality.' I, along with the IHRSA Team and the Board's assistance, really are going to be revisiting virtually everything we do and how we do it going forward. While the circumstances at hand dictate a real sense of urgency, that calls for action and decisiveness, I hope that I can balance those with a thoughtful, intentional, purposeful and long-term approach, so that as we come out of this crazy pandemic better positioned for everything that lies ahead.

I'd also like to point out that I really appreciate that relationships, both personally and organizationally, are built on TRUST. And, this has to be one of our guiding, non-negotiable values. I firmly believe that's one of the reasons the Board tapped me on the shoulder. There's not many people that would say, 'That Brent... he's the brightest Crayon in the box.' But, what they will say is, 'You can count on Brent; he is who he is. He's genuine, and he's going to show up.'

Immediate Challenges

C.I. - What are some of IHRSA's immediate challenges?
BD - Much like clubs and suppliers, the first order of business is getting through the pandemic and crisis. IHRSA is suffering, much like all of our constituents and members through the shutdown. I know our industry is hurting, and IHRSA is trying to make sure that we come out of this as strongly as we can. That's really the first order of business. Analyzing our financial position, as well as contextually all the programs and offerings, and how we want to incorporate these going forward. Another is to continue maximizing the resources that we're providing to the industry to help them survive and prepare for the revival, not only right now when some of them are just beginning to reopen, but after opening.

C.I. - IHRSA has been challenged worldwide with the industry being closed for a period of time. Most of it is re-opening but often with governmental constraints. What are some of the ways IHRSA can help the industry in these current moments? Also, internationally?
BD - Honestly, that's everything that we do, from public affairs to advocacy and having the lobbyists at work trying to get positive attention and respect for our industry, to all the webinars and educational resources, this answer is truly what IHRSA is all about. During a crisis, especially one that's as prolonged as the pandemic, there is a tendency to adopt what I would call a, 'Scarcity Mindset,' and perhaps, justifiably so. However, we have to maintain an outlook and attitude, I think, of abundance... at all costs if we hope to unify the industry across all boundaries, including internationally. To affect the changes we want in public perception, we have to not only collaborate but cooperate like never before.

C.I. - Brent, there has been a lot of negative PR about the industry and its unsafe environment during this pandemic. What is IHRSA planning to do to help the industry going forward?
BD - Just last week, the team here launched a series of articles with doctors speaking well about health clubs and why they are essential. And, the team is working overtime with Blair McHaney of MXM (Member Experience Management) to get the word out about how safe health clubs actually are. You'll see the article, National Study Confirms It's Safe to Work Out at the Gym, just about everywhere (See Page #22).

Publisher's Note: Please view and examine the graphics on This Page! Print them out, and provide them to your Staff Members so they have the facts and can provide them to prospective and current club members.

C.I. - What are some of the major focal points for IHRSA in the next 3 - 4 months?
BD - As I've said from the very beginning, when I was first asked after accepting the position, we HAVE to re-imagine ourselves! IHRSA's done a lot of great things. Now, we have to re-imagine ourselves going forward so that we stay relevant and continue to galvanize the global community of fitness. In concert with the Board, we're looking at virtually everything that IHRSA does to chart the course, not just for recovery, but for an epic comeback. This includes our presence on the global stage, extending our partnerships with like-minded organizations, enhancing our engagement with members, reevaluating our strategy with the ILC and everything else that we're doing. Of course, on a fairly urgent basis... we're also preparing now for the Virtual Innovation Summit coming up on September 17. We're excited about that, and we think this will be a real opportunity for people to get some great education and inspiration virtually. Shortly thereafter, we'll make a decision on the Virtual European Congress that is set for this Fall. And, very soon, we need to make a final decision on the IHRSA 2021 Convention and Trade Show. We expect to have a decision made on that no later than October.

C.I. - Brent, that's a significant series of timeframes you've got to deal with very soon, especially that very important one in Las Vegas in March of 2021. Reflecting back, that's where, in 1981, Rick Caro, Big John McCarthy and I launched what we then called IRSA, back before the "H" for Health. Truthfully, it's hard to believe that was almost 40 years ago now! I wish you the best as you and your Teams on the IHRSA Board and the Staff make these very crucial decisions for our Association that we all love. Were I to have one, my vote would be to find out some way, come hell or high water, to HAVE the IHRSA Convention and Trade Show in Las Vegas in March, 2021 (or later in 2021)... but don't let this one be cancelled like what happened to the 2020 event. But, as you know I don't have a vote anymore, so all I can do is to use the power of this keyboard, to try to influence this crucially important decision.

C.I. - Brent, you've already answered most of the following question. There is real concern that, without a readily available vaccine and COVID treatments, the 2021 IHRSA Convention and Trade Show may have to be cancelled. Obviously, that would be an awful situation to have it cancelled two years in a row. Any idea when you think such a decision has to be made? Any early thinking of postponing it to later in 2021?
BD - We're currently evaluating all the options for IHRSA's 40th Anniversary Celebration in 2021. As I mentioned before, we'll be announcing details soon, once plans have been finalized. It's really interesting, I think, that it's the 40th Anniversary Celebration in 2021. Not only will everyone be excited just to get back together, after all the isolation and separation and the cancellation of last year's event, but there's even more cause for celebration because it's celebrating something really significant in our industry and that was the birth of our beloved IHRSA, some 40 years ago. We're certainly looking forward to that.

Advocacy, Alliances and Public Relations

C.I. - IHRSA has been trying to help the industry deal with governmental legislation. What is it focusing on now?
BD - While nothing is certain in Washington, D.C. these days, we're operating under the assumption that Congress passes a 4th COVID Relief Bill in September. The Advocacy Team working with the D.C. Lobbyists are doing all they can to ensure the industry is well positioned in that event. At this time, the focus is really on four things:

  1. 1. A continued push for public relations and media coverage in Washington, D.C., as well as the media markets of key Senate members.
  2. 2. Direct lobbying to influential Congressional and Senate Committee members, such as the Senate and House Small Business Committees, the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee.
  3. 3. Boosting support for the Re-Start Loan Act by actively recruiting co-sponsors and promoting inclusion of the measure in the next relief bill.
  4. 4. Getting industry specific relief legislation introduced. Those are really our focus right now as far as advocacy is concerned.

C.I. - There are a lot of state Alliances that have been formed. How can IHRSA serve the 100 - 200 clubs in each? Even after they re-open?
BD - It goes without saying that IHRSA wants to support and is happy to work with all these new alliances, with hopes that they continue to be active after this crisis has passed. They're getting a lot of support from fitness providers in their State because people are wanting to Affect change within the State, especially related to reopening and all the guidelines that are being passed or 'handed-down' if you will. Right now, IHRSA is supporting the alliances by providing templates, examples of communication pieces, being a repository of information and just introducing them to each other so that they can learn from each other. There's a lot of work to do at the State level as we all appreciate now. Really, more than ever before. A lot of the decisions that are affecting the clubs through the crisis are really occurring at the State level. So, kudos to the alliances that have been formed because it's in their back yard. Hopefully, they'll continue to be very strong once the crisis has passed because we'll need strong alliances to work with to impact state level legislation. And, as an outcome of this, too, we hope that going forward support of the ILC and Advocacy becomes a heightened awareness for everybody because we need to keep it going as we come out of the pandemic.

Meredith PopplerMeredith Poppler

C.I. - Brent, this is a perfect place in your interview to mention the terrific new IHRSA Weekly News Bulletin that IHRSA's Meredith Poppler, Vice President of Communication and Leadership Engagement, launched last week. We received the first edition, and I found it to be very informative. So, my hat's off to IHRSA and Meredith, and the rest of Team IHRSA who were involved in this new idea development and launch. Meredith told me that her weekly news eblast, From the IHRSA News Desk, may be received by all IHRSA Members, or not, by emailing pr@IHRSA.org and sending her your email address. Let me add: JOIN IHRSA today if you're not already a member!

The Future

C.I. - If we were to fast forward to early 2021, what would be your hope for the future of the industry at that point?
BD - I wish I had some really lofty adjectives to use to describe the future of the industry. But, I think the reality is that, at this point, it boils down to just a few things. The first one is that most health and fitness businesses have survived the shutdowns and the pandemic. We know that a lot of businesses are not coming back outside of our industry. And, within the industry, we know there's going to be many that don't reopen. For those that do reopen, I hope they can reclaim the energy and sense of community they had with all their members before the shutdown happened. Also, I hope that there's a collective resurgence with a renewed focus on the concept that Exercise is Medicine, something that we've been promoting for years. And, I hope it is realized that we are all an integral part of the solution to reverse the trend of obesity, physical inactivity and unfulfilled wellbeing. The pandemic has laid open the reality that we haven't been effective in positioning ourselves in this way with public perception. We simply have to change this.

C.I. - There was a mention of a search process for the permanent IHRSA CEO position. Can you elaborate?
BD - I've been asked that quite a bit. Especially since I've re-enforced that I only intend to be the Interim CEO. Before we actually begin the search in earnest, collectively, the Board and Staff agree that we really need to address some of the urgent issues at hand. Then, in short order, begin the search for that person to lead IHRSA for the future. We're not prolonging it or postponing it unnecessarily, but we just need to get a handle on where the Association is, take the necessary steps to secure its financial future and also make sure that we're continuing to provide all of our constituents the support they need. Then, we can wrap our arms around how to begin the search. Obviously, that's going to be an extremely important decision, given the history of IHRSA with both John and Joe. It's a critical position and one that deserves the utmost care in selecting the right person for the job, because hopefully, they will be in it for quite a while.

C.I. - As you mentioned, IHRSA has created many webinars and is working on several large Online Summits. Any idea of what its future educational programs will be like?
BD - IHRSA's been doing webinars for years. These are free to IHRSA Members. They are very popular, and we have no plans to discontinue those. In fact, we just partnered with Club Solutions and REX Executive Roundtables on a weekly webinar, now on its 22nd edition, that I'll continue to moderate. People have really responded to it quite positively. New this year is the IHRSA Innovation Summit on September 17th. That's coming up very shortly. There are a lot of great speakers, information and I think it will be very inspirational. One thing I believe that we've all learned, and we can expect, is that these future events will become hybrid events... with in-person experiences combined with virtual experiences so that those who may not be able to travel or are more comfortable not traveling or are just unable for physical or other reasons to travel, they can still participate. But, that's NOT going to replace getting to see your colleagues in person. We had small team staff meetings here in the IHRSA office this week, and that's the first time many of them have seen each other since the office was shut down in March. It was just really encouraging and uplifting to have everyone in the same room, with proper physical distancing of course, and feel a sense of togetherness.

C.I. - What are some of IHRSA's products and services that are continuing during this period (CBI, research studies, webinars, legislative support, etc.)?
BD - At this point, IHRSA's continuing all the programs and services members have come to expect. With that said, we are, as I've mentioned, evaluating all of the offerings and the value they contribute to the IHRSA platform overall. CBI Magazine, research projects, webinars, legislative support, sponsoring state bills, the advocacy, the international components and all of the services we provide.

C.I. - What message would you give to current IHRSA members regarding their continued loyalty to the Association?
BD - First, I would just like to remind them that IHRSA is a Member Trade Association. From the conversations I've had with colleagues and supporters around the industry, I think that, sometimes, we unfortunately just forget that. IHRSA is not a 'for-profit' trade show company that does trade shows in a lot of different venues and industries. We are an Association of members, and therefore, are only as strong as the membership that supports it. Unequivocally, we would not even be in existence without them, nor can we continue without their support. I sincerely also want to ask, if I could, for the members' patience, understanding and grace as we continue to work through this crisis and all that it entails. The pandemic is hopefully a once in a lifetime catastrophe. We are intimately aware that our industry is hurting, not only from the shutdowns, layoff of employees, cancellation of members, reduced purchases of equipment, change in consumer behaviors and all the financial implications associated with the crisis, but perhaps even more so, from the negative public portrayal of clubs as non-essential and irrelevant. That pains me deeply, and I know it does all of us in the industry when we're lumped in with bars, entertainment and other things when we so badly want to scream from the rooftops... We're part of the solution! We can help! We need to be open! So, together, we need to cross that threshold to where we want to be. Like so many of our constituents, we're taking this opportunity to reset and set the stage for collective growth going forward.

C.I. - Brent, what would be key reasons for a non-member of IHRSA to join now?
BD - It's a 'no-brainer!' Clubs and suppliers need help NOW more than ever before, and we're here to assist them in any way that we can! IHRSA's been a savior to hundreds of member clubs struggling to make it through the pandemic and help position themselves for a successful future. There's so many genuine and heartfelt stories of members that are thankful for all that IHRSA has done to help them. If there was ever a time to be a part of IHRSA, NOW is the time! Also, the Association really needs them to help us be successful going forward.

C.I. - Let's close out this excellent and very illuminating interview with a couple of items. First Brent, what can IHRSA Members and Non-Members do to HELP IHRSA NOW?
BD - Well, to the non-members, I would say: Please really consider joining your industry's trade Association. There have been discussions about the effectiveness of the public affairs and advocacy of our Association. And, with respect to that, one of the truly limiting factors when you compare us to the automakers or the hospitality industry, the retail industry or the restaurant industry... those trade associations are really built on the backs of their members, which are in the hundreds of thousands. At IHRSA, we really need to reach out and get more members across the different spectrums of the health and fitness industry. So, that's what I would say to non-members.

Then, to our Members, how can they help us NOW? I would say quite directly: Continue to be members! If you are members, continue supporting us. As your membership comes up for renewal, whenever that might be, please re-enlist with us, just like you want your club members to re-enlist with you. Then, beyond that, as I've said before, we're going to be listening to the customer voice, which is not only our club members but our suppliers in a more intense and purposeful way than ever before. Don't be afraid to share your thoughts and your feedback. We want nothing more than to be recognized as the greatest resource for health and fitness businesses, literally in the world.

C.I. - Brent, to close this world-class interview with you, let me ask you to answer this one last question: What can Justin and I do at Club Insider to help IHRSA and YOU?
BD - Well, Norm, you're already doing it... right now. You're reaching out to help tell the story, and you're going to share some of the things that are going on. That's a big piece, I think... To garner the support and the trust of customers, you have to make sure you're communicating with them. Your vehicle has a reach and an audience that has always been tremendously supportive of IHRSA, and we appreciate you helping us reach out to those individuals to share our story.

• • •

Folks, I want you all to know this. To close this very informative interview with Brent, I want to provide the following information to you all now. Brent is totally swamped with emails right now, and he is trying to respond as quickly as he possibly can. So, IF you have comments, questions or feedback for Brent after reading this, please forward them to me at Norm@clubinsideronline.com. I'll make sure Brent receives them when there's a little bit less on his plate. But, importantly, if you want your comments to Brent or about IHRSA to appear in our October 2020 Edition of Club Insider, please indicate that desire in your email to me.

Thank you to Brent Darden for his time sharing this important information about IHRSA, as well as for his service to this industry, now as IHRSA's Interim President and CEO. We wish him, the IHRSA Staff and the IHRSA Board all the best as they work through these times! And, thank you for reading, folks!

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