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The Boston Globe

Working up a sweat

By Melanie Nayer, Globe Correspondent, 6/19/05

Chris Ward (left), assistant controller at the Langham Hotel in Boston and Binoy Somaia, an associate at Peabody tech firm Renka Corp., after a game of squash at the Sports Club/LA, where they are members.

Gone are the days of doing business over three-martini lunches, and the 18-hole golf game may also be more 'out' than 'in.' Today's young executives are combining their health with their wealth, using the gym as a place to meet and make business connections.

At gyms and sports clubs in Boston, networking has become part of the workout. Some local gyms are catering to their clients' contact lists with networking lunches, workout sessions, book clubs, and dinner events for members.

"For most busy executives, time is their most valued possession. Taking four to six hours on a golf course is not realistic," said Diane Danielson, CEO of the Downtown Women's Club, a networking group for women. "Really busy executives know they need to work out to keep up with demanding schedules and are less likely to give that up. They can use the gym membership year-round. Golf is only a summer game."

Going to the gym consistently shows dedication and devotion, according to Suzanne Bates, author of "Speak Like a CEO: Secrets for Commanding Attention and Getting Results," and president and CEO of Wellesley-based Bates Communication, a corporate communication consulting business.

"If you go to the gym on a regular basis, the perception is that you work hard and take care of yourself," she said. "It's natural to assume that person would provide the same work ethic and attention to detail in a business relationship."

Ed Berliner, anchor for CN8's weeknight sports talk show, "Sports Pulse," has recruited guests for his show from the Focus Fitness gym in South Boston, a club where Olympic athletes also train.

"These folks come on the show and talk about steroid issues and Olympic training," said Berliner. "Being at the gym gives me a chance to look out into the community for people I wouldn't normally find."

Peter Donohoe, owner of Focus Fitness and a member of the 2002 US Olympic bobsled team, said gym-goers who might not speak to one another in another environment form intimate and immediate relationships based on their shared goal of exercising.

"Business people are in here sharing their woes after work. The CEO of a company is in a different position when he's in a sweaty T-shirt and shorts," said Donohoe. "This environment opens the door for people to have conversations they might not have had in the office."

In an effort to introduce members to one another, trainers at Focus Fitness started core-strengthening and muscle-toning clinics once a week for three to five people at a time and recently sent out invitations to members to join a weekly networking lunch.

"These days, people are realizing that it is not necessary to shell out big bucks for exclusive country club memberships when they can network at the places they visit at the course of their daily lives - and the gym is a great place to develop new contacts," said Bates.

As executives continue to struggle with their increasingly hectic lifestyles, gyms are making it more convenient to conduct business while working out. The Sports Club/LA, located on the fourth floor of the Ritz-Carlton Towers on Avery Street in downtown Boston caters to corporate executives by offering meeting space, executive lounges and special corporate amenities like private locker rooms and free Internet access for members.

Kristin Miller McEachern, general manager at The Sports Club/LA where initiation fees range from $600 to $1900, and monthy fees range from $150 to $260, said members request networking events from the club so they can meet other members who make up the 6,000-person customer base.

"Business networking is a selling point of the club," said Rick Mughisuddin, corporate membership director at the Sports Club/LA. "Our members are mainly affluent, and have a flair for the finer things in life. They conduct business meetings at [the club's restaurant] Blu, during squash games, on the basketball courts or in the executive lounges," he said. "Instead of having a drink after work with people, they are coming to the gym. It's like a country-club for the city."

Along with general networking activities like book clubs, wine-tastings and cooking classes, McEachern said the club puts together running clubs, triathlon training clubs, and healthcare seminars.

"It's great because [clients] are getting a workout in while doing business," said McEachern.

Binoy Somaia, an associate at Peabody-based technology and research development company Renka Corp., has been a Sports Club/LA member for three years and said he locks in deals on the squash court.

"I've brought people in here for business meetings, and I've met people while playing squash," said Somaia, 34. "One of my squash partners, who is another [Sports Club/LA] member, is in the software business and said he had a friend in venture capital he wanted me to meet. The next day, my squash partner sent out an email introducing us."

Somaia said he brings potential clients to the gym for a game of squash or a run on the treadmill, and finds it is easier to make a deal happen there. "Over time, the gym has become a social time. It's not a boardroom environment," Somaia said. "People don't have four or five hours during the day anymore to play golf."

Even as more workout facilities in the area are catering to the networking demand of their members, some gym-goers are hesitant to meet-and-greet while working out.

"What I find is that when you're at the gym, you're there to de-stress and move away from the company," said Tara Frier, principal of public relations firm, The Goodwin Group in Sharon, who works out at Fitness Together in Sharon. However, Frier said she found a travel agent for her company by striking up a conversation with another gym member, and said gym staff and trainers are key players in initiating business deals.

"Trainers become [the clients'] sales force," said Frier. "They ask us about what we are doing and they are good source of referrals and keeping their eyes open."

At Fitcorp at One Beacon Street in Boston, which charges up to $100 for the initiation fee and monthly dues ranging from $50 to $80 per month, general manager Mark Chartier said he acts as a referral service for many of his customers.

The Fitcorp facilities, which are only located in office buildings or office parks, cater directly to corporate memberships and business clientele. "People talk shop while they are working out here," Chartier said. "They exchange business cards with each other, and members ask me about jobs. I have a client who is a recruiter, so I'll pass along resumes and make introductions."

For those who are dedicated to their workout, but a little shy about blind introductions, Danielson said recognizing other members with eye contact or a wave is the first step in making a successful business deal at the gym. Danielson suggests scheduling networking sessions at the gym with possible contacts. Since most gyms offer guest passes for the day, she said bringing a client along for a side-by-side treadmill chat can be beneficial to your business, and your health.

"It does help to pick a gym where other business types go. A gym in the suburbs might not have the power players that some of the downtown gyms do," Danielson said. "If you go to the gym early in the morning, lunch or in the evening, you're likely to meet other busy executives. While most people don't like to chit-chat during workouts, or while walking around in a towel, you do start to see the same faces if you go at a regular time, and it makes it easier to make an introduction in the elevator or in the locker room."

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