Why Third Place is the New First

Most days begin with my 15-month-old son taking down a 6oz bottle on my lap as I watch the morning news.  One morning, back in late February, I recognized a home being featured on the local news broadcast as firefighters battled a serious blaze.  The fire began in a second floor bedroom which was once the childhood room of a long-time CSP client.  The athlete I speak of happens to be the same Sahil I mentioned in my Key-Man Risk blog a few weeks back. 

Sahil is no longer a regular here in Massachusetts, as he has long-since transitioned from high school to college, and eventually from college to the “real world”.  He now lives and works in California, which is exactly where he was when he woke up to a text from me asking if his parents were safe and healthy.  He soon connected with his family and was informed that their home was no longer viable.  Thankfully, while material items were lost, everyone involved was safe and sound.

Upon learning this sad news, Sahil’s employer booked him for a first-class seat on a red eye from San Francisco to Boston with the instructions not to return to California until he was done comforting his parents.  That, my friends, is how you properly demonstrate empathy as an employer.  However, it is not the point of my story…

When Sahil finally made it across the country and arrived in MA the following morning, his first stop was for breakfast with his heartbroken parents.  I’d imagine they hugged, they cried, they reminisced, and they ate some therapeutic pancakes.  After the meal, he sent his parents back to an unfamiliar hotel room where he hoped they’d get some sleep after a difficult couple of days. 

Where did he go next?  He showed up at Cressey Sports Performance and sat in my office for hours.  Other than getting some details on the fire, I honestly don’t remember a whole lot of our conversation.  What I do remember, was Sahil’s response when I asked him what the hell he was doing at CSP during a time like this:

This place is now about as close as I can come to feeling at home while here on the east coast. Where else would I go?

Those of you who are familiar with the Cressey Sports Performance brand have likely been exposed to the concept of the “CSP-Family”.  Whether it be in an electronic format on a social networking platform, or in-person here at our facility, we are very serious about projecting a family atmosphere as a primary component of our service model.  As we work to cultivate this environment, it is our intention to deliver an experience that will ultimately result in CSP becoming your “Third Place”.

Embrace the concept of a “Third Place”

My initial introduction to the concept of a “Third Place” was in Ray Oldenburg’s book, The Great Good Place.  In it, he explains that third places are an extremely important part of society because they not only serve as a meeting ground for the community, but they also allow for truly creative interaction.   The first and second “places” in this concept would be your home and work.  There is simply no avoiding these two facets of your life, so the Third Place is of unique importance in maintaining one’s sanity!  If you’re struggling to envision what I’m speaking of, imagine Central Perk in the show Friends, or maybe the diner in Seinfeld.  Third places are all around you, and you likely already have one.

It is my contention that all fitness facilities should aspire to be their clients’ Third Place, as the end result is a unique culture and increased profitability. 

According to Oldenburg, here is what you need to know about crafting a true Third Place:

  • You need regulars.  Nobody creates the personality of a business quite like its regulars.
  • The environment needs to be comfortable and welcoming to all.  While Planet Fitness commercials implying that all gyms are packed with meat heads picking things up and putting them down are annoying, it is worth noting that they’ve mastered the art of playing to people’s need for a “safe and comfortable” environment.
  • You need a certain level of commonality among the people in attendance.  In our case, this is typically a background in baseball, but a simple appreciation for exercise and/or healthy living can be all it takes to make this happen in a fitness business setting.
  • The space needs to be accommodating to ensure that your regulars aren’t inconvenienced if they do choose to spend their free time lingering.  Here at CSP, we have an on-site cafeteria and an athlete’s lounge with a couch, TV and ping-pong table.

Why is client loitering a good thing?

There are a number of reasons why we not only facilitate loitering, but also encourage it.  The first, and possibly most important reason, is that we have come to realize how influential our clients have been in creating the personality of our brand.  As much as we’d like to pretend that our culture is the product of strategic planning, the reality is that we’ve become familiar with the ins and outs of baseball clubhouse culture simply by exposing ourselves to it.  For close to eight years now, our facility has served as an off-season clubhouse for baseball players from all 30 MLB organizations.  Without these gentlemen spending endless hours on-site here at CSP, I’m not sure we would have ever been as effective as we have in communicating with potential baseball clients and engaging them on multiple different social networking platforms. 

The first time anyone ever “hash-tagged” the term #CSPfamily was actually when a pro baseball player posted a tweet from our athlete’s lounge explaining who he’d be spending his day with.  That athlete, Oliver Drake, is now making CSP-family references on the internet from MLB clubhouses as he travels the country playing for the Baltimore Orioles.  If I hadn’t tolerated these guys overstaying their welcome a little bit, would I still have big leaguers creating CSP brand awareness for their thousands of followers?   I think not.

While I can generate leads and create plenty of business as the product of MLB athletes discussing our facility as their Third Place, I am also able to monetize the concept among our general fitness clientele.  One of the factors Oldenburg highlighted in his book was the importance that there be little or no social status associated with participation as a regular.  By this, I mean that big leaguers often sit alongside college athletes and every day Joe’s here in the CSP athlete’s lounge.  There is no barrier to entry in our group of regulars other than the need to have a good sense of humor.

Regardless of a client’s athletic or professional background, they’re still putting in multiple hours each day in our space.  The more hours they hang around, the more dollars they seem to spend.  Supplements are purchased, manual therapy treatments are paid for, tee shirt designs are conceived and later purchased, nutrition consultations are scheduled, and more.  Just because a client isn’t on the training floor hitting the weights, it doesn’t mean that they are tying up resources in an unprofitable manner.

Once there, don’t rest on your laurels

The needs, attitudes and interests of our clientele are changing every day.  With this in mind, we are not able to simply “set and forget” the unique clubhouse culture which is the foundation of our Third Place status in many athlete’s minds.  It is a true compliment to your business when people voluntarily spend their limited “in-between time” with you.  Don’t mess it up by failing to adapt.  Eric, Tony and I would be reckless to assume that we could forever be current in the minds of our ballplayers, so we continue to add staff members like Greg and Tony B. because of their youth and baseball backgrounds.

I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve managed to blend the second and third places in the minds of our professional athlete population.  It is rare to create a setting which doubles as a workplace and play environment, but our baseball players seem to have embraced our facility as just that.  These guys are on the job each and every time they step on to the training floor, as their ability to extend what is typically a brief career depends on our unique services.  We are thrilled to have the opportunity to blur the lines between their off-season work and pleasure endeavors. 

If you own a fitness facility, I’d encourage you to expand your mindset beyond the idea of simply monetizing training.  Your operation can be more than just a business in the eyes of your best clients.  It can be a home away from home.  It can be their Third Place.