The following is an interview conducted by and for Midtown Magazine with Midtown CEO, Steven Schwartz.
MIDTOWN: What is your first memory of Midtown Athletic Club?
STEVEN SCHWARZ: You have to understand that the original project, Midtown Tennis Club, consumed our family 24/7/365 for a couple of years. My dad worked all the time, so it was very typical on the weekend to have people over for meetings, artistic design brochures, logos, all kinds of things. I vividly remember those people around our dining table. When it opened, my dad let my brother Andrew and me be the first people on the courts. We were in a race and we got angry and started throwing rackets at each other. Boy, did we get in trouble. We had to take timeouts in the hallway between courts nine and five.
MIDTOWN: What have been the biggest changes to Midtown’s neighborhood over the years?
SS: It’s been a dramatic conversion. I think back to my early days as a kid and then when I was working here. It was industrial and the houses were occupied by lots of families. It was a nitty gritty working neighborhood with no stores. Fast forward to the new millennium and Bucktown just exploded. That’s when all the renovation started to happen.
MIDTOWN: Are there leaders you look to for innovation?
SS: When I was at Hyatt, there was a regional vice president named Don Deporter who managed the Midwest region. He was a magnificent marketer and promoter and someone who encouraged you to take steps out of your comfort zone. He would ride you pretty hard, half expecting you to fall on your face, challenging you to get up. We became friends and he had a dramatic influence on me. Plus, he threw great parties!
MIDTOWN: Do you collaborate with other leaders in the health club industry?
SS: About 15 years ago, I joined a roundtable group of health club CEOs. We don’t compete with each other and they’re from all over the world. For the meetings, we go to each other’s hometowns or cities where they do business. We have met in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, New York, Toronto, Philadelphia, São Paulo, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Lisbon, Berlin, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Singapore, Sydney, Auckland and Chicago. It’s really opened my eyes to what health clubs can be, as well as what the boutique fitness business is and what is cutting edge. Talking with them two or three times a year in depth challenged me to think in different ways about Midtown.
MIDTOWN: What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken?
SS: Building the new Midtown Chicago—by far! The scale of the project and the cost of the building relative to the size of our company was a big bet. Fortunately, the concept fits well with the neighborhoods around us. It’s been the pride and joy of my business life to be able to actually do this and see it.
MIDTOWN: What elements of hospitality make Midtown a luxury fitness resort?
SS: Adding the hotel and having Chromium as an upscale restaurant in the heart of the Club really change the feel and perception of the Club. For most health clubs, the biggest business cost is the real estate, meaning the space you have to work with. As a result, every inch is utilized as much as you can, so hallways are minimized and fitness equipment is wall to wall. We intentionally developed wide walkways and a series of staircases so you have to walk through the building. As a result, you see people and it’s a more social environment. We also tried to build an energy into the space that comes from natural light, tall ceilings, and natural materials. We focused on acoustics, so you don’t hear noise, but you feel a sense of sounds around you.
MIDTOWN: What has changed since Midtown was founded 50 years ago?
SS: Well, I’ll tell you what hasn’t changed in 50 years: our emphasis on programming. When my dad started the business in the 1970s, tennis became popular and all you had to do was open up. People would come and play, and you could charge by the hour. My dad had a completely different take. He wanted to create tennis players, partially because it’s good business to be self-generating and partially because it’s his mission in life to promote the game of tennis.
MIDTOWN: What are the biggest challenges facing the fitness industry today?
SS: Lots of fitness is faddish, going in and out of style. What we have to do is be able to adapt to those changes, so we can bring new trends to our members and keep things fresh, fun and relevant. The hardest thing is sunsetting a program that people still like but is not really popular anymore.
SPIRIT: What are your thoughts on at-home workouts?
SS: In the time I’ve been here, we’ve seen the percentage of people in the United States who joined health clubs go from 8% to 20%. And we’ve seen the concept of a health club go from a fad to a staple. Young people today join health clubs as part of what they do. What people have learned and science has told us is that exercise is one of the best things you can do for almost anything that ails you as well as preventing future health issues. As that becomes more and more understood the need for movement becomes greater, so you’ll do some of it at home. And that’s terrific. We’ve developed a place that promotes healthy habits, and is a place you want to be. Midtown is a lifestyle.
MIDTOWN: Midtown is a family business. When you first started you worked with your dad and now you work with your son. How has that experience been and what do you think it will be like in the future?
SS: I’m thrilled Alex has joined the company. If it was up to my dad, he’d get rid of me tomorrow and put Alex in charge. He’s brought a new dimension that neither my dad nor I brought because of his background in marketing as well as his creativity. He has great energy and he’s a very smart kid with a great future. That gives me confidence that our company will be in good hands for a long time.