The Conversation: Q&A With Hollie Arnold and Ali Helms

Breaking Down The Silos

“We are the hosts and hostesses, and you are coming here for a gathering, and we want to roll out the best for our guests.”

Hollie Arnold is the Membership Director, and Ali Helms is the Fitness Director, of the Jewish Community Alliance in Jacksonville, Fl. They spoke with us by phone on May 19. Interviewed by David Posner, Vice President, Mandel Center for Excellence, JCC Association

David: Earlier this year the benchmarking results came out and the sound heard across the continent was, there goes Jacksonville again, at the top of its peer group in many areas. How does it feel to be admired, envied, and detested all at the same time?

Hollie: (laughs) Humbling to be where we are with all these other fabulous JCCs. That’s how we all feel.

Ali: It’s a double-edged sword. I’ve done the work and get the acknowledgement. It’s also a challenge. When you’re at the top, where else do you go? How can you stay there? How can we help others be successful with our program? That would be the ultimate pride.

David: What do you do that propels you to have excellent results?

Hollie: Just like all JCCs, we are in the relationship business. That’s our primary goal, to establish relationships with all of our members and participants. We excel in service, programs and staffing. We strive to be the best we can be.

David: Do you do anything specific to give your staff that customer orientation and relationship building?

Ali: Our exec, Myron, has created a climate. We feel we are welcoming people into our home every day. We are the hosts and hostesses, and you are coming here for a gathering, and we want to roll out the best for our guests.

David: When I was down in the Jacksonville talking with the staff about your results, there was one point where I said that fitness staff seemed to be the most challenged in cross-selling. You had a scowl on your face. So first, knowing you, are they still alive? And second, what did you do you with the information?

Ali: (laughs) Expectations are extremely high to begin with. I have an expectation to always do what’s right and be that excellent person anyway. I like to lift that up to my staff and try to get the best out of them. When I heard there was a crack in the armor, I take that very seriously. We are at the top of our game and here was an area where we were not. What I am going to about that? I am going to give them their fifteen minutes of fame, applaud them; however, we still have work to do. We cannot rest on that accolade. How can we as the fitness department work with the other departments, school, theaters, after school? We have a long way to go.


David: I learned how closely the two of you work together. You use this to break down silos. Can you talk more about this?

Hollie: In 2007, we put on a new addition and we hired a consultant, Kurt Atherton. He reviewed many of our procedures. We tweaked things, and we are still following many of his suggestions. Particularly with Ali coming on, we have tweaked a lot more. When someone comes in off the street, there is a guest form that gives us places where we can connect with the member. We do the tour, bring them back into the office, our conversation rate really is what Benchmarking says. If we get someone in our doors, there is a 95% rate we will get them as members. Members give unsolicited testimonials when we are giving tours. Everyone who walks in is coming into our home. You get a warm and fuzzy feeling. They fill out a form. One of our perks for joining is four half-hour personal training sessions. We try to book them when they are here, which I feel is – they are making a commitment. After they joined, I will call them and we will book the first session. After that it goes to Ali.

“We want a turnaround of no more than 48 hours [to get them in for their first session].”

Ali: We created a spreadsheet that starts with membership. Hollie and Tracy fill it in with the name/contact info and which trainer they have assigned this person to. That spreadsheet goes back and forth between membership and fitness every day. First thing I do is pull up the spreadsheet in the morning. We want a turnaround of no more than 48 hours [to get them in for their first session]. They should come in right after they join. The communication has to be a well oiled machine. I know who joined. The trainer is assigned to them and the trainer knows. We keep that spreadsheet going back and forth. I can turn it back to Hollie if they are falling through the cracks. She has the relationship with them; she can pull them back in and ask what’s going on? Why aren’t you coming in? We can continue to keep that connection so we don’t lose them.

David: The first 30 days is usually thought of as the critical time period. Seems like yours is less.

Ali: They will do four trainings in the first few weeks. Hopefully the trainer will convince them to continue training and pay for it. The first time they come in, we give them a tour of tennis, swimming and the facilities. We find out what they enjoy and get them in it. I would say the first two weeks to get it all in.
Now they are making it a habit, they are coming twice a week. Even if they don’t buy personal training, they are already setting up the habit to come in and do something.

David: You were top in ancillary fitness income. Is that coming from personal training or do you also have income from group exercise classes?

Ali: All fitness classes are included in membership. There are 12 fulltime personal trainers on my staff. We have an equal amount of men and women trainers, 20 to late-50-year-old trainers, and everything in between. It’s not intimidating. We do have a couple of body builders. Trainers have different areas of expertise. In those four free sessions we get people to understand it’s not about looking a certain way. We do encompass the wellness protocol and quality of life.

David: Your members and participants are invested in saying great things about JCA. We see that in the net promoter scores. Is there anything you do get the right people to say the right things? Or is organic?

Hollie: Ali and I have another chart on each new member. It shows a followup list of phone calls. It’s a series of three phone calls in the first month. When the person joins, we ask what else are you interested in besides fitness. Theater? After school? I make sure those people are given to the department director and then follow up to see that they have connected.

David: Going back to members, if you could paraphrase what you think they are saying about JCA to their friends?

Hollie: It seems to be [about] the staff. When members leave, they often come back because they feel this is their second home. We are so nice when they leave. All of our staff has been trained. The staff has an innate feeling towards the people. I guess it’s the hiring. You have to hire the right people who care about people. We kiss and hug members too. It’s not just engaging them in conversation, it’s also a touchy-feely thing. When our members talk about us, they say they feel the staff cares. If you have questions or complaints, we immediately respond, we don’t let it sit. We do it or pass it on to the person who can answer it.

David: The staff’s impression of Myron and what his vision is for the JCC was again right on the top. I just wanted to speak to the type of message and model that he sets for the staff. What do you
think it is?

Ali: I have worked at a lot of different facilities. This is the first facility where I felt like I had a connection to the executive director, a personal connection. He cares what I think, empowers me to do my job, supports my vision, and I’m sure he does that with every department. That in itself is very gratifying for me as someone who has been in the field a long time. He brings us all together every week and we share. We are given the opportunity to share what each department is doing. It’s very open and honest. There is no wrong answer. Everyone is allowed to fail and make mistakes. I am going to be here till I retire.

Hollie: I feel Myron has high expectations because he wants to deliver the best he can. That philosophy, is the philosophy of all of us. He instills that in all of us. We want to strive to do the best we can. About Benchmarking, scoring high, we have to see how we can be better. We have accomplished this, and we have so much more to accomplish. He is very supportive, a wonderful mentor, and a wonderful individual to work for.

Ali: Myron had a vision coming here. I’m the newest kid on the block. I see he had the vision and found the right people. We read the book Good to Great. Myron has us read a lot of books. He has taught me so much about the business side of the JCA. The directors teach him about we do in our departments. In Good to Great, it talks about putting the right people on the bus. Myron is about putting the right people on the bus. You need to have everybody in the right seat too, with the best bus driver.

Hollie: We all work together as a team.

Ali: You can train someone to do the work. You can’t train someone to do what we are talking about. It is about who they are. The skill of being a trainer you can teach, you can’t teach that quality, you either have it or you don’t.

David: Can you put a name to it?

Ali: Innate ability to care, a giving heart from inside the person. It’s obvious when they have a good soul and a caring personality. All the staff, the receptionists, the maintenance. Everybody in this building would name the housekeeping lady as the number one person in this facility.

David: It doesn’t depend on the position, when it comes to who embodies the JCC, heart and soul?

Ali: When it goes all the way down that deep, you know you’ve got it right.