Our Meet Your Merchant series goes behind the scenes of the Island businesses that keep our rock running. From our hard-working shopkeepers to our friendly tradesmen and service providers, we celebrate all the people our Island depends on.
Connie McHugh, owner of Airport Fitness loves what she does. The gym owner and tennis pro has over 30 years of teaching experience and has operated Airport Fitness for the gym’s entire 20-year history. She has been certified by the U.S. Professional Tennis Association since 1986, and coached the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) girls tennis team from 2011 to 2015, where she consistently led the team to postseason play. She took some time to speak with us as she prepared to cook dinner for a house full of guests.
Where are you from?
Wisconsin, but I came to Massachusetts to go to school at Northeastern University. My father was from Boston, so we’d go visit our family there and I loved it. I remember driving through New Hampshire in my uncle’s white Volkswagon bus as a kid, standing because there were no seatbelts, and thinking, “Remember where you are, you must come back here.”
How long have you been on the Island and how did you end up here?
I came here on vacation 30 years ago and met my husband. It was the Friday after July 4th and I had just come down from a conference in Boston. I was in Aquinnah (when it was still Gay Head) with my twin sister, and we bumped into some friends that were planning to go see a reggae show at the Hot Tin Roof. We showed up at the bar later and couldn’t find our friends, but I met my husband that night. I was living in Philadelphia and we started dating long distance between here and there. I would often fly into the airport and be the only one getting off the plane on the Island. The pilot would get up, open the door and let me off and my husband would be standing there.
What were you doing before Airport Fitness? Have you always worked in the health and fitness industry?
I’ve always been in the industry. Before I moved to the Island I was in Philadelphia working in community development for the United States Tennis Association (USTA). I would work with areas that had little to no tennis offerings in their town or schools and I would help create more opportunities for people to engage in the sport.
What helped draw me to it as a profession was Northeastern’s co-op program. You could get actual work experience in whatever you were studying or whatever you were thinking about studying. I did six or seven co-ops while I was there. Everything from physical education, to disability services, recreation, camps. It was a great experience to help me narrow down what I wanted to do, and what I definitely didn’t.
I first started coaching the summer before college. My first job after graduating was coaching the women’s tennis team at Salem State University. I then went on to work for the USTA Middle States as the first director of children’s tournaments and programming. The first and only female president of the United States Professional Tennis Association (USPTA), Kathy Woods, was my mentor and I later served on the New England Board of the USPTA.
Airport Fitness is celebrating it’s 20th year. How did it come to be what it is today?
When I came to Martha’s Vineyard there was no indoor tennis facility. My job in Philadelphia had me bringing tennis to communities, and I wanted to figure out how to do it here. Before I opened the center, I was at a community meeting about building a bubble over a pair of new tennis courts on Lake Street. It didn’t happen but I met Ken Martin there, my business partner for the first 12 years, and we decided we would open the first indoor tennis facility. We very pointedly decided to make it a center and not a club; it’s never been private. You can be a member and get a discount, but you don’t have to be. We wanted to build a facility that everyone could use.
When we first built it, it was just a two-court tennis club called Vineyard Tennis Center. Then we renovated and added the first fitness area, and renamed it Vineyard Tennis Center and Fitness Club. It’s been expanded and renovated another three times. We renamed it again to The Workout in 2003 and then most recently to Airport Fitness & Tennis. It’s been through a few changes but it’s stayed true to the concept of fitness and tennis the whole time.
Most of my staff has been with me through the majority of our years. I really need to acknowledge my staff. I have employees that have been with me 18, 15, and 13 of my 20 years. We all meet once a month and strategize together. I’d rather get eight brains on something than two. We’re constantly attending conferences and educating ourselves on what’s new and what we can be doing better.
They’re my “professional team;” they’re just incredible professionals. They’re certified class instructors and trainers. Some could have been physicians, they’re that intelligent and that dedicated. You don’t see loyalty and tenure in professions like you used to.
What programs and activities does Airport Fitness offer?
We offer a wide range of fitness classes and programs for all ages, training, and tennis instruction, matchmaking and contracts. Tennis is a happening thing on the Island; it’s a big deal. The MVRHS girls tennis team just won a state championship. I coached them for four years, I should have stuck around an extra year (chuckles).
We have tennis players that have been in weekly evening games for 20 years, and a lot of new people. We offer contracts for residents where we reserve standing court time for them; it’s a big part of our program. I’m also the matchmaker and facilitate people finding the right practice partner or group.
I personally teach groups and individuals, and I also make a point to run a special program for our tennis players in the winter to try something new. We brought pickleball to the Island. One year we brought in a talking ball machine that analyzed your serve. Then we run a couple of classic tournaments: the Turkey Open and Love at First Set, which raise money for charity. I mostly like to run mixed doubles; it’s a social fun thing to do.
We offer Friday night team tennis then serve refreshments up in the lounge. We do a lot more programming in the winter because people have time. We’ve done spa parties for the women and have brought in guest instructors for special classes. In September we’re bringing in another guest teacher from Boston, and will be adding a new class that isn’t available on the Island yet.
We also offered local high school students a free gym membership for a year through this past June. Hundreds of kids took us up on it, and now we’ve offered them discounted rates to stay for another year. I figured the worse thing that could happen is that the building gets a little beat up, and the best thing is that the kids get exposed to a new, healthy environment. So we went for it.
Why is tennis so popular on Martha’s Vineyard?
I think in general we are an active community, because of the natural beauty outside we like being active. We’ve had good experiences with people introducing the sport here to different groups, like Vineyard Youth Tennis, which helps families get into it. My husband and I have a saying: “go air the children.” It means take them outside, it’s amazing what can happen outside. As we talk I’m at the Tisbury School playground watching a woman do her own parkour and a family chase each other on the playground.
What sets Airport Fitness apart from other fitness centers?
Before our big renovation we traveled to 20 other health clubs to see what they had and how they operated. Some were open concept, others had separate rooms for everything. We did a lot of research before deciding on the floor plan. We have 10 different rooms for cardio, strength training, weight lifting, dynamic training, yoga, and cycling. Each room has a different tone and it keeps it fresh. We have saunas and steam rooms in both locker rooms, and we have a physical therapist and offer massage. We’re the largest fitness center on the Island; we have more square feet than anybody.
I tell my staff all we sell is good air. People come in here with discretionary income and they want to have fun; all we sell is good times. In the summer many of our guests visit only once. We want to provide the single highest quality experience in one visit.
What have been some of your most rewarding and challenging experiences at Airport Fitness?
I really like teaching. When people come to me and say that they want to learn, and they want to be there, it’s such a cool thing to be able to take their desire and my enthusiasm and make it happen. I really like getting people as far as they can go so they can learn quickly and easily. They’re coming here for enjoyment, and I’ve figured out how best to educate them while maximizing their fun. Teaching really creates a wonderful balance for me, it almost balances my whole life. I also take fitness classes regularly, for my own training but also so I can know exactly what my customers are experiencing.
As far as challenges, I have a very large facility and the economics are always challenging. We only have two courts but we do everything for those two courts, and they require the same resources of a much bigger facility.
We have dynamics here where you can do fitness for free at the library or the hospital, which is great. My father was an economics professor and he always said there’s no such thing as a free lunch, someone pays for it somewhere. Fitness is big and happening all over and that’s a good thing, but it presents it’s own unique challenges for us.
How do you stay current with fitness trends and relevant as a business after 20 years?
We always have to be bringing in the latest and greatest. When P90x became popular a couple years ago we created dynamic training, with kettlebells.
We recently brought in $50,000 in new equipment. Our staff wanted to try all different brands so we all went shopping off-Island — it was a process and an adventure. We’re always making significant investments.
We’re planning to do solar panels on the roof; I’ve been trying for the last eight years and I’m hoping to actually get started before the end of the month. It’s important to do those kinds of things as a business owner, especially of such a big facility. I put in new tennis court lights two years ago and it reduced our energy consumption by 40 percent. I’m looking at putting LED lights in the building by this fall; I’m always running around doing things like that, looking out for ways to conserve and be sustainable. I always say the first step is to use less and then to use what you got.
What makes owning a business on Martha’s Vineyard unique?
It’s so interesting to own your own business, especially on Martha’s Vineyard. The longer I own my own business the more credit I give to other business owners. It’s very different when you have to be constantly responsible, but this particular business suits me very well. I don’t mind living here either.
What goals do you have for the future of the gym?
I have a long-term goal, but I can’t tell you what it is because I want to do it first. I’m working on a big project in the next two to three years. You have to come up with a niche that is not being fulfilled right now. We built our club in stages and as we saw what worked, we added on. We were smart financially. It’s all about being strategic and having the right approach.
Airport Fitness, 24 Airport Road, West Tisbury. For additional information visit airportfitnessmv.com or call 508-696-8000.