IHRSA's first Legislative Summit, a lobbying effort held last week in Washington, D.C., intended to teach fitness folks to bend lawmakers' ears on critical health and fitness issues, was as one attendee put it, "a complete home run that totally exceeded my expectations."
"The enthusiasm level was unbelievable, and attendees were surprised at how much fun lobbying is," said Helen Durkin, director of public policy for the non-profit health club organization that has 5,600 members worldwide. "People were really excited to do something about health promotion and to help others understand the value of exercise as a solution to our country's healthcare issues."
Despite initial trepidation about talking to legislators, about 120 club owners/operators, including representatives from Bally Total Fitness, 24 Hour Fitness, Gold's Gym, the YMCAs and JCCs as well as industry suppliers such as Matrix Fitness attended the event, learned how to lobby, practiced the messages to deliver, then swept through the Hill's halls and offices. Also in the trenches was Tom Cove, vice president of government relations for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA), which held its lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill a couple of weeks earlier (see SNEWS story May 2).
Several attendees told SNEWS that their greatest takeaway from this first event of its kind by IHRSA was that lawmakers indeed want to hear from them, are genuinely concerned about health and fitness, and are surprisingly accessible and easy to talk to.
All told, attendees conducted about 100 meetings with members of Congress, including the leaders of the recently formed bipartisan fitness caucus, Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), and Mark Udall (D-Colo.). According to Durkin, 70 meetings were originally scheduled, but once summit participants got going, they eagerly stopped by congressional offices and even snagged some in the hallways to tout their message.
"Club owners felt that they had the right cause on their sideâ€”that's the kind of excitement level we had," Durkin told SNEWS.
Talks centered around garnering support for the Worksite Health Improvement Program (WHIP), or HR 1818, which would allow employers to deduct the cost of health club memberships for their employees and ensure that this benefit would not be classified as additional income to employees. Introduced into Congress on April 11 this year by U.S. Representative Pat Toomey (R-Penn.), this amendment to the current tax code ultimately could encourage small businesses to offer their employees subsidized health club membership benefits without having to attribute this as taxable employee income.
"The viability of this proposal is great -- it's easy to ask for something that has value and does no harm," said Julie Main, general manager of the Santa Barbara Athletic Club and an IHRSA board member. "Everyone we talked toâ€”whether Democrats, Republicans, representatives or senatorsâ€”said that they were behind this, and now we have them thinking about it."
As a result of the summit, WHIP has earned to date at least four more sponsors in the House of Representatives and is generating interest in the Senate. Ken Lucas, president of Matrix Fitness Systems and the only attendee from New Mexico, won over both of his senators.
"I was in Heather Wilson's (R-NM) office this morning following up," Lucas told SNEWS a few days after the conference. "Although I've never done this type of lobbying on a national level, IHRSA did a fabulous job preparing us."
Part of the preparation included a presentation by Kenneth Cooper, president and CEO of the Cooper Fitness Center in Dallas. Cooper re-emphasized compelling evidence about the reality of our country's healthcare crisis and the significant role that fitness can play in this battle.
Most of the attendees had never lobbied before and admitted that it took some early handholding to build their confidence. "Club people are great at networking and talking about fitness, but there was a bit of nervousness and reluctance to turn this into the political arena," Durkin said. "Some of them were looking at this like a trip to the dentist."
"IHRSA gave us so much information and organized all the appointments that the intimidation factor just disappeared," said Main, who, along with several other club representatives, stimulated Sen. Barbara Boxer's (D-Calif.) interest in sponsoring WHIP.
To maintain the momentum, IHRSA says it already has contacted its members who did not attend, and consequently has spurred 250 e-mails asking congresspeople to support WHIP. To participate, go to www.ihrsa.org.
Encouraged by the important ground gained, IHRSA is hopeful that WHIP will pass next year, despite significant budget cuts and the difficulty in assessing what its ultimate cost will be.
"We've started discussions and things are happening," said Durkin. "Our attendees will be our best ambassadors going forward."
The next Legislative Summit will be in May 2004.
SNEWS View: We got excited just listening to attendees bubble over with enthusiasm about how valuable this event was. This is the third lobbying effort on the Hill in the last month by one of several groups we cover at SNEWS and, despite war and economic issues, legislators all around seemed willing to listen â€“ and attendees learned it never hurts to talk to them. While SNEWS would have liked to see even more industry representatives on the Hill â€“ especially from the manufacturers side -- it appears that the path indeed has been paved for future lobbying on related issues for the fitness industry. Tapping into other issues beyond one club-specific one could prompt others to attend. Hopefully this year's attendees will share their excitement with colleagues and show them how easy it is to talk to the powers-that-be on the Hill. Our industries play an integral role in helping preserve our nation's health and control healthcare costs, and we must come together to have our collective voice heard. Clubs, retailers and manufacturers should be proud to do their duty by tapping out a few e-mails and making some phone calls. Every little bit helps.