Hampshire Hills’ pristine club ready for business

MILFORD – It’s deceiving from the outside and at a first glance, just how sizable the Hampshire Hills Athletic Club, located at 50 Emerson Road in Milford is.

With amenities that rival any five star hotel or resort, Hampshire Hills has made adjustments, some minor, some major, in light of the ongoing pandemic.

Owner Rick Holder said there was nothing that revealed to any of the staff at Hampshire Hills what was in store for the club.

“At the end of January, we started to hear a little about what was happening,” he said. “In February, we were watching, and then in March, it was like, ‘Oh-oh, something big is about to happen.’ Then the governor closed us and every other club down around the March 15 and at that time, we were going to open April 3.”

Holder told his staff to hunker down for two weeks and that they would figure things out.

April 3 rolled around, and it was now going to be another four weeks.

“That was a big problem,” he said. “For a company like us, we have 250 employees and you’ve got to take care of them. We were just trying to figure out everything that we could and also tell your members that you’re not going to charge them. And suddenly you’re working with no revenue stream.”

General manager McKinley Curro Sbordone stated that Hampshire Hills was fortunate enough to be able to take care of the staff during the time that the club was closed to members.

“I don’t think that if we had stopped one day when we were shut down, that we would have been ready for our June 1 opening,” she said. “We were smart as to how we worked. We had our grounds crew socially distancing outside and we got many jobs done by the essential people who could work.”

Sbordone recollected a call that Hampshire Hills was on with other clubs throughout New England, and one of the things discussed was that even through such scary and unpredictable times, just how essential clubs are to people for fighting immune systems and maintaining good mental health.

“We were torn because we still wanted to provide services to our members that they enjoyed so much,” she said. “So, we got creative, providing virtual workouts and having our staff do virtual personal training.”

The renown Hampshire Hills restaurant, The Hills, was also shut down on March 15, another revenue flow cut off at the knees until it was able to reopen during Governor Sununu’s first phase of allowing limited outdoor dining on May 18.

“We were running at about the half the numbers of what we were able to allow,” Holder said. “But it still took most of our staff to be able to do that. I’d say we were getting 100 percent occupancy at the 50-percent level. And being as big as we are with the outdoor dining space that we have, we can space people much more than six feet apart.”

With such a large footprint, Sbordone pointed out that being able establish and maintain social distancing in the club, between machines, between swimmers in one of their pools and for cyclists in a spinning class, for three examples, was not problematic.

“Fortunately, we have 77 acres outside so we can accommodate some pretty big events here,” Holder said. “We actually had the biggest event in the history of New Hampshire, when President Obama was running against Hillary Clinton in 2008 and it was a winter event, the Saturday before the primary. Both of them had come in from Iowa and were up half the night. We had everybody here and we served 3800 people for a sit down meal. It was a huge event.

Looking at the book of lists, Holder noted, Hampshire Hills is double the space of the next largest venue for dining seating.

Utilizing that space to their advantage, Sbordone said where many gyms have to shut down many of their machines in order to follow safety protocols, Hampshire Hills physically moved some of their equipment onto tennis courts.

“So, we tripled out workout space,” she said. “We have ample space for social distancing. With our spinning class, Rick came out with defender shields, large Plexiglass shields to protect members.

“That’s copyrighted,” Holder said with a laugh.

People can still see the instructor through the Plexiglass and know that things such as perspiration won’t be an issue from member to member. And the fact that Hampshire Hills teaches fitness classes was a benefit to them as to when they were allowed to open on June 1.

“That definitely allowed us to phase into our reopening,” Sbordone said. “We’ve got seven businesses in one, so we first opened our salon, then we opened our restaurant, then we were allowed to do classes, and then we were able to open the pools and the gym. So, for us, although it was tough to not be able to accommodate the members all at once, we were able to figure out what worked and what didn’t.”

“We did it right,” Holder interjected. “McKinley and her team were able to put together a communication mode where our members were constantly updated on what we were doing, what we were doing protect them and keep them safe, and what we were doing to ensure that we could handle the numbers, according to what the state was allowing.”

That communication, along with their online classes, helped members by keeping them informed on club updates and safety protocols. Some members erred on caution; others were less cautious but still gingerly proceeded.

“Some people were so ready to get back in,” Holder said. “But then there are a lot of people who were initially still on the fence. They waited a week or two to see how things were unfolding. And then there are some people who really shouldn’t come back because of their age and vulnerability.”

Holder said that people in their ’70s, ’80s and ’90s were being more careful.

“It’s a highly individual decision,” he said. “And we make it clear that there is no guarantee. We’ve done more than any other club that I know of in New England. And yet, we have to say there is no guarantee.”

“And we want every member coming through the door feeling ready to return and to feel safe,” Sbordone added. “We understand that there is still that unknown and there are risks to anything we do. We don’t want to put any pressure to have somebody come back if they’re not ready.”

The club has made accommodations, allowing members to enter from outside directly to the tennis courts, for example, if they didn’t want to walk through the facility.

“We found that people were just hungry for an activity,” Sbordone said. “We did virtual training the whole time through. That was great. People soaked it up. But they were missing the interaction and as soon as we started doing workouts outdoors, they were getting a different kind of workout that they weren’t getting at home because it’s a different kind of feeling and you get that different energy.”

Holder and Sbordone said that once people started to go back to the club, they told their friends and the result was a bit of a domino effect.

“Some people did decide to take a break, and they asked us if they could,” Holder said. “We just said that we would put them on hold and there wouldn’t be any fee for that, and that we would keep them informed as to how we’re adapting and while they were watching the rest of the world and watching how New Hampshire was doing as a state. And when that member feels ready, we would be ready for them.”

Hampshire Hills Athletic Club also features such amenities as a restaurant and a café, the latter which opened on Jun. 24. Their event center can accommodate weddings, corporate events and other large groups. There is a nursery onsite, to assist members during their training or workouts. The club has two indoor pools, one outdoor pool and an outdoor kiddie pool; there our indoor and outdoor tennis courts and basketball courts; racquetball and squash courts; an indoor whirlpool; fitness center and weight room; a bocce court; a croquet lawn; five group fitness studios with over 75 weekly classes; a junior activities room; three playgrounds; Elliot Hospital onsite physical therapy department; a massage center; an indoor track and climbing wall; a putting green; shuffleboard; and men’s/women’s spas with private steam and sauna rooms.

Their summer camp, Camp Ponemah is under way with certain restrictions. For more information, call 603-673-7123 or visit Hampshirehills.com.