GreatLIFE marks first decade of changing Sioux Falls’ golf, fitness landscape with focused vision for the future

He’d gone to GreatLIFE Performance Center to fit in a workout and help out when a member he hadn’t seen for a while stopped him.

“She told me she was glad she saw me, and after asking how things were going at GreatLIFE, she mentioned she recently stopped in some other gyms around town,” Ovenden said. “She price-shopped and started weighing her options.”

But then, in the woman’s words, she realized there was no comparison.

“She said: ‘I’m a GreatLIFE junkie. I just love it, and my friends are here. My support system is here. And you’re all over, so no matter where I’m at, I don’t have an excuse why I can’t go work out or golf,’” Ovenden said.

“That’s exactly why we put this business plan together. Time and money are barriers to being active, and we wanted to break those down and make it convenient and accessible.”

This month, GreatLIFE marks 10 years since bringing its game-changing model of unlimited golf and fitness to Sioux Falls. It has grown to nearly 40,000 members able to take advantage of fitness, including group classes, at about 20 locations and golf at six GreatLIFE courses and 10 affiliate ones.

There’s also unlimited bowling, services like personal training and massage therapy, and savings on everything from specialty fitness and retail to food and beverages and entertainment.

“Our priority is making sure we’re meeting the needs of the Sioux Falls community and the surrounding area, that our facilities are equipped with the right equipment and most importantly the right people,” Ovenden said. “To do this business model right is not easy. It takes a lot of skilled people in each area. You can’t just throw things up and expect it to work.”

Building a business model

Ovenden first met with GreatLIFE founder Tom Walsh Sr. while home over Christmas in 2013. At the time, he was working for Life Time Fitness in the Twin Cities and didn’t see himself relocating.

“Tom painted a picture of this vision, and I said it sounded too good to be true,” Ovenden said. “I said I’d join, even from Minneapolis, because it was worth it, but I didn’t see myself moving back.”

Then, Walsh and future GreatLIFE president Donn Hill visited the Twin Cities.

“I showed them five facilities, and Tom decided he thought there was a lot more potential in fitness and wanted to make it a bigger part of the business model,” Ovenden said. “He asked what it would look like to get me to move back. I loved the idea of being able to impact a lot of people on a bigger platform, and I moved back. They announced GreatLIFE a week after I’d met with them.”

He joined as director of fitness and nutrition, then became president in 2019.

The first years of GreatLIFE were a whirlwind of adding both members and facilities. Walsh had become owner of the former Woodlake Athletic Club, which “was the place to go in the 1970s and ’80s, and he thought it could be the place to go again if we gave it some love,” Ovenden said. “It took a lot of love, but we got it back to more than 40,000 visits a month prior to the pandemic.”

The whole idea, though, was to spread out the crowds, offering fitness centers near where people live and work.

“We specifically put them in different pockets of Sioux Falls that would lend themselves to different areas and hopefully allow people to find a place that’s comfortable and convenient for them,” Ovenden said.

“Fitness is such a personal thing. Some people like a smaller feel with lower ceilings. Some people like open space and high ceilings and hundreds of people. So we wanted to make sure we were addressing those different preferences.”

When GreatLIFE launched, the talk in the golf industry was about whether there were enough new golfers to sustain the sport.

Today, “we’re always looking for ways to position ourselves better to handle more capacity at the golf courses,” Ovenden said. “I don’t know that you could have foreseen this type of growth, but it’s been really good for people to get introduced and reintroduced to the game of golf.”

The pandemic did its part. So did the increased number of people working from home with more flexibility. But GreatLIFE’s unlimited approach to rounds is a huge differentiator.

“I’ll take an hour over lunch and play,” Ovenden said. “If I make it seven holes, I leave. If I make it 11, I leave. That wasn’t the case before. You were always stuck at nine or 18, like it or not. And now when people come back and give golf another shot, they realize how fun it can be, and our goal is to make it a great experience that fits your schedule and your budget.”

Team meets culture

If the first years of GreatLIFE’s history were spent building the organization’s footprint in the Sioux Falls area, the latter years of the inaugural decade were dedicated to developing the team.

“The last four years have been an opportunities to step back, refine processes and make sure we’re not missing things and are setting ourselves up for success,” Ovenden said. “We’ve focused on developing our people. They’re the ones that provide the experience. They’re the ones creating the relationships and the support system that define our members’ experience.”

Recently, vice president of fitness Randall Hill asked his team to describe GreatLIFE’s culture in a few adjectives.

The most frequent were the words “empowering,” “supportive” and “positive.”

“We know we’re doing something right,” Ovenden said. “That’s exactly what I would have hoped people would have said.”

This time of year, there are about 350 GreatLIFE team members. That surges to more than 500 during the golf season. Walsh remains board chairman and is “very involved with the GreatLIFE Cares Foundation and the overall vision of where he wants to see GreatLIFE continue to be,” Ovenden said.

“And Tom Walsh Jr. is equally involved on the business side as CEO, and it’s been great to be able to take his approach to business and finance, and put more processes in place to make us more successful.”

Future focus

Conceivably, GreatLIFE serves everyone from a child as young as 8 weeks old in its child care program to a growing member base of seniors – and everyone in between.

“We’re committed to expanding our program to meet the needs of all those individuals, whether it’s those wanting to connect with our popular Golf Academy, parents looking to work with our Performance team for their young athletes or kids wanting to work out with parents,” Ovenden said.

“We now allow 10-year-olds to work out with direct supervision, and it’s been awesome to see them working out next to their parents. My 8-year-old already has a countdown going until she’s 10 and can come in and go on the treadmill with me.”

GreatLIFE also continually addresses its facilities. It recently discontinued use of the downtown YMCA as its relationship with the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Sioux Empire transitioned more to in-school programming through the PLAY Everything program. The Performance Center just received all-new treadmills, and other locations are slated for improvements in the year ahead, including a large expansion coming soon at the location in Harrisburg.

“Ten years ago, I would have said we’d be all over the country,” Ovenden said. “Right now, it’s making sure we’re in a place where we’re taking care of the communities we’re in and our team members’ gifts. If that means we can expand in other ways without losing our culture, I’m all for it. But we’re fortunate to be in a great spot where we don’t have to make moves, but we can make moves if the right opportunity presents itself.”

Every GreatLIFE team member has one common responsibility daily: Go out and make sure to have a quality conversation with at least one person.

Ovenden recently had his with a 24-year-old member in Harrisburg.

“I asked him how long he’d been a member, and he said 10 years. He remembered because it’s what he’d asked for for his 14th birthday,” Ovenden said.

“He started at Willow and used it all through high school with his parents and his friends. Then, he did college remote and bounced around various locations in the area. And now at 24, he’s a young professional who lives and works in Harrisburg and is making new friends at that location and has even done business with people he’s met through the gym.”

It was a powerful reminder that, a decade later, it’s hard to quantify the impact GreatLIFE has had in any way other than one story at a time.

“It’s about creating and building strong relationships,” Ovenden said. “That’s what we were all about when we started and what we continue to be all about today.”

Are you considering becoming part of the GreatLIFE family? Click here to get started, or stop in any GreatLIFE location.

GreatLIFE marks first decade of changing Sioux Falls’ golf, fitness landscape with focused vision for the future

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