Elizabeth Asch and River Valley Club
Improving Lives Through Fitness and Self-care
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The cornerstone of boxing is the one-two combo. Throughout the chess-match of each round, jabs set up the cross. Over and over. The eventual goal is to set up more complex and damaging combinations, such as a jab, cross then hook or uppercut. To the initiated, multi-punch combos are survivable. Strength, conditioning and defensive strategy makes this so. Eventually, endurance or that one perfect shot wins out. However, if anyone inexperienced in the sport steps in with a pro, they are likely going down on the first punch.
As we live our lives day-to-day, we get used to the usual jabs and crosses thrown into the mix of daily routine. Maybe we overslept or the car has a flat tire or there's a traffic jam on a Sunday morning... We survive these problems without breaking a sweat. In the grand scheme of things, they just aren't that important. But, sometimes, life hits us with the big one, and how we react defines who we become.
This month's cover story is about someone who, figuratively, experienced a multi-punch combo that would take down most. Her name is Elizabeth Asch, Owner and General Manager of River Valley Club (RVC).
In June of 2012, we featured RVC on our cover and learned the company's story through the words of Joe Asch, Elizabeth's husband, and RVC's CEO. Since that story, several sad events have occurred that changed the trajectory of RVC.
It began in October of 2018, when she lost her husband, Joe. Around the same time, several key team members resigned: CFO, General Manager and Fitness Director. Following this, in 2020, the COVID-19 Pandemic ensued, and RVC faced a four-month shutdown.
I shudder just writing these words. Take a moment to visualize what you would do in an ever-debilitating situation. Would you quit? Would you fight? Elizabeth chose to fight, and today, we share that story with you. I invite you to read on.
An Interview With Elizabeth Asch, Owner and General Manager of River Valley Club
Club Insider (C.I.) - Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Elizabeth Asch (EA) - I was born in Chicago and lived in the Midwest until two years after graduating from college. I lived in Omaha, Nebraska for three years during middle school, and I found that, in the Midwest, once you get outside of a big city like Chicago, to where it's a little more rural, there's much more of an emphasis on sports.
I went to college in Wisconsin, and it's something I've noticed since that time, even now that I live in New Hampshire where both my home and my business are in a smaller town setting. People have to get outside more and do more athletic things in order to stay healthy mentally, as well as physically. That's my philosophy. Granted, I grew up doing ballet and piano lessons when I lived in Chicago. In the family I came from, we didn't have a choice. It was, 'So, what kind of dance do you want to do, and what musical instrument do you want to play?' (laughing) So, that's what I did throughout my childhood.
Then, in college, I started running outdoors and have run for many decades. Not competitively, but I was always competing against myself. A faster time, a more challenging course, etc. Running is perfect for that, and I loved that.
When my late husband, Joe Asch, and I married, we ran together. We would travel and run... We ran in East Africa when we traveled there. We ran in New Zealand. We did hilly runs in Tuscany, Italy, where we went each year for about fifteen years. During our summers in Tuscany, we had many great runs through the steep vineyards and the backwoods. Those were our most challenging runs. And, of course, we ran in New Hampshire.
C.I. - Where did you go to college, and what did you study?
EA - I went to a small liberal arts college called Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin where I double majored in Comparative Religion and Studio Arts. Following college, when I was in my 20s and 30s, I actually earned a living as a studio artist. That was my first big experience being self-employed.
C.I. - Oh, wow. That's incredible. Definitely not something you hear every day, and I am sure not easy!
EA - To be honest, it's entrepreneurial, you know?
C.I. - Oh, I can imagine. You have to market yourself.
EA - You have to go out there and get your own thing going. So, in college, I started my own little poster silkscreen printing business. I made posters on campus, as well as t-shirts. So, I've always been kind of entrepreneurial in that way.
River Valley Club
C.I. - When and how did you and Joe become involved in the health and fitness club industry as well as River Valley Club (RVC)?
EA - After college, I moved out east; studio space was plentiful and affordable in New England. Joe and I met here at his alma mater, Dartmouth College, located in Hanover, New Hampshire, the town where our family home is and where Joe was a drill instructor at a summer language program, the Rassias Center. The two of us came across an offering from a fellow who had the great idea of building a fitness club. He was looking for investors. He set it up as a limited partnership, with about 40 community members investing $30,000 each. We became general partners with this guy. Our intention was just to be invisible, but as soon as we saw it, we knew it was going to be a big hit to have a high-end, state-of-the-art facility in the area. The River Valley Club opened in March of 1998, but oddly enough, about eight months leading up to opening day, this guy who we all invested with started asking Joe and me for a whole lot more money.
We thought, 'Uh oh...' You see, we had invested more than twenty times what anyone else had invested; there was a lot at stake for us. So, we started to get more involved, and my husband, who was a serious entrepreneur, just started asking questions. To make a long story short, we ended up taking the company through bankruptcy. We actually declared bankruptcy on 9/11.
The original partner had been dishonest, so we parted ways with him. Then, we had to get out from under the poor judgment mistakes that he had made. Joe and I looked at each other and thought, 'Well, how hard can it be?' Then, we found out how hard it really was (laughing). Joe's other successful company was a manufacturing company, which I also now own and run, but that's another story. Joe wasn't in direct customer service with that company, so customer service is where we had a huge learning curve.
C.I. - This is actually our second cover story on RVC, with the first being over a decade now. I'm sure a lot has changed! Please tell us all about RVC today (property area, square footage, amenities, services, etc.).
EA - We have been very lucky. The building is beautiful, and we have more than doubled the size of what we were. In terms of square feet, we're probably close to triple, and we've got a lot more land.
The club is now close to 100,000 square feet. We have a 10,000 square-foot fitness floor for individual and personal training, featuring stretching stations, free weights, circuit training machines and a large assortment of treadmills, ellipticals, bikes and other low-impact cardio machines. Styku 3D scans and other biometric analytics are available, so clients and trainers have accurate data to track and analyze the transformations their hard work makes to their bodies.
We have three group exercise studios, each with its own design and mood. The expansive Yoga Studio has large windows, hardwood floors, dimmable lights and hidden stereo speakers. Studio One is a higher energy space, with a stage for the instructors, headset, microphone and mirrors so participants can monitor their technique. It has steps, mats and weights for high intensity interval training, ballet barres, hardwood floors and windows. It's a beautiful space to dance. The Spin Studio has three tiers of bikes with colored LED lights on the floor. When the music is bumping and people are pedaling hard, the Spin Studio becomes its own world.
The Member Services Department greets clients as they check in and are available to answer any questions community members have. The RVC Café serves grab and go offerings, including special smoothies that change every month. RVC's FITshop is a retail space that stocks premium brands like Lululemon and Wilson, providing everyone with the clothing, accessories and equipment they need to engage with the club's programs.
We also have a Spa and Salon, offering 18 types of massage and dozens of aesthetic treatments. There is a large, well-equipped Personal Training Studio for clients who value their privacy, and a KidsClub classroom, where guardians can drop off their children for up to two hours while they're on campus for their fitness and wellness needs. There's a Pilates Studio, which has Cadillacs, ladder barrels and chairs, as well as eight Reformers, all while having the feel of a dance studio.
The Racquet Sports Facilities include four indoor Deco-Turf Tennis courts, which double as eight indoor Pickleball courts, as well as four Tennis / eight Pickleball outdoor courts with lights for early morning and evening play and a long view into the hills of Vermont.
Our CrossFit Box is the size of a basketball gymnasium and supports a thriving community of trainers and athletes who are competitive at the national level. We're proud to train firefighters and other first responders from five surrounding towns in our area. On one wall of the CrossFit Box, there's a 30' simulated New Hampshire granite climbing wall, with routes ranging from 5.5 to 5.11+.
The men's and women's locker rooms have saunas, steam rooms, jacuzzies and showers, along with access to Aquatics. RVC's Aquatics features six pools: an outdoor resort style pool, an indoor saltwater therapy pool, three custom programmable infinity pools and a cold plunge.
Next door, in a separate building, our FitKids Childcare Center is a 15-classroom facility that provides Upper Valley families with childcare for infants through pre-Kindergarten. The program is licensed to serve 248 children. A new Afterschool program for ages 5 - 10 was launched in December and is co-taught by childcare professionals from FitKids and trainers from RVC, with racquet sports, rock climbing and swimming all part of the curriculum.
Distributed among its multiple departments, the River Valley Club and FitKids employs close to 160 people.
C.I. - That is an incredible offering! You recently completed a large renovation project. Please tell us about that.
EA - We added the four outdoor Tennis / eight Pickleball courts, resurfaced the four indoor Tennis / eight Pickleball courts and added four new FitKids Classrooms. Our renovated Aquatics center is on schedule to open April 1, 2024.
And, let me add a bit about FitKids' history. The minimum age of membership at RVC is 14 (that age can come in with a parent), but a member has to be 16 to come in on their own. That's pretty much been the case since the beginning. From our opening day in 1998, we offered drop-in babysitting for children, and I brought my infants there. This drop-in room is what grew into a childcare center. Originally, it helped maintain employee longevity. Our employee parents loved the ability to keep their children on campus while they worked. Then, we had members starting to make that request. We're in a business park, so as the companies grew around us, there was an increased need for childcare.
In 2016, we renovated RVC, moving the five classrooms of children from the club to the separate, 12-classroom facility we designed, dedicated and built for childcare. This past year, we added more classrooms, which opened on December 1, so we now have 15 classrooms of New Hampshire licensed and certified childcare. Two classrooms have been combined to launch our new Afterschool program.
C.I. - Boiling so much down, what do you consider your key market differentiators? Above all, why do members choose RVC over others?
EA - RVC prides itself on several key market differentiators: Our commitment to providing a holistic wellness experience, including fitness, nutrition and mental wellbeing, sets us apart. Personalized training programs, cutting-edge fitness equipment and a diverse range of classes catering to individual needs. Additionally, our strong sense of community and social engagement distinguishes RVC, making it more than just a gym; it's a lifestyle choice. Members choose RVC for the comprehensive wellness approach and our supportive community.
C.I. - Taking all of this into account, what are the membership options/price points you offer?
EA - RVC has a $395 Initiation Fee when a new member joins with a 12-month contract. The Initiation Fee includes a Welcome Packet with $1,500 worth of certificates to introduce new members to the many opportunities available. The packet includes a Tennis or Pickleball lesson, a Pilates Reformer class, a discount on a Spa and Salon treatment, an hour of personal training, guest passes for friends and family and much more.
Our Standard Monthly Dues are $135 and include access to all the amenities and the expertise of the RVC staff. Monthly dues for students, seniors over 70, active military and veterans, and emergency services workers are $102. All contract members receive discounts on specialty classes, clinics and court time.
We also have a Racquet Sports Only Membership, which limits one's use of the club to Tennis and Pickleball. The annual fee is $250 for adults and $125 for juniors. Racquet Sports Only Memberships pay higher rates for classes and clinics.
C.I. - How many membership accounts do you have, and how many members does this equate to?
EA - We have 1,700 RVC Members with expectations of growth when the renovation is complete and Aquatics has reopened on April 1, 2024. And, we have 160 FitKids Pupils with expectations of growth as the new classrooms are filled and the Afterschool Program gets discovered.
C.I. - Please tell us about your Mission.
EA - Over 15 years ago, we had a General Manager (still in the industry but who moved on from us in 2019) who wanted to create a Mission Statement. It took more than a year to complete, but our employees wrote it with the GM. Our Mission is to improve lives through fitness and self-care. It's very, very simple. If you're a member here, we want your time at the club to be the best part of your day. That's our philosophy, and that has not changed through all the growth, all the changes and all the things we've done over our 26 years in business.
C.I. - Please tell us about local area competition. What does that landscape look like?
EA - The Upper Valley of the Connecticut River Valley has a number of private golf and tennis clubs, though the geography spreads the population into distinct communities. RVC benefits from its central location, near the intersection of highways 89 and 91, making it accessible to all. Dartmouth College and the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center hospital are the two largest anchor businesses in the region, and RVC is very close to them both.
The two closest competitors are nonprofit athletic centers, who benefit from municipal support and waivers on taxes. This allows them to make low-cost memberships available, and they are well-attended community resources. There are also a couple of privately held smaller studios and clubs, including a national franchise. Because RVC is committed to providing premium experiences in every way, it occupies its own space in the market.
I asked Adam Dutille, our Fitness Director, to also comment: 'The local fitness and wellness landscape is competitive, with several gyms and health clubs in the area. However, RVC stands out due to its comprehensive approach to health, offering a wide range of fitness classes, state-of-the-art facilities, personalized training programs and a focus on holistic wellbeing. We continuously monitor the local market to stay updated on trends and ensure our offerings remain innovative and attractive to our members.'
The Passing of Joe Asch
The Late Joe Asch
C.I. - Please tell us about the passing of your husband, Joe, and the incredible story of what happened next.
EA - Joe, who was our CEO, passed in October of 2018. He never had an office in the club but was a close manager via phone and email, even when we traveled. When in New Hampshire, we would invite employees and others over for lunch or dinner. I would cook. We had our kids at home, so we conducted a lot of business at the kitchen table. I was there for the important conversations, and we were very close with our General Manager and Fitness Director, a married couple. Within three months of Joe's passing, the CFO, General Manager and Fitness Director all resigned. Those resignations came in 2019, and of course, a year later, COVID hit.
C.I. - That is unbelievably brutal.
EA - Yes. When Joe died, I had to jump on a moving plane. But, when COVID happened, it gave me an opportunity to really get to know the business well from the ground up, since we reopened after a four-month closure. We reopened very, very slowly. So, that was an opportunity for me to make it on my own. I became the General Manager of the club, which I still am today.
Most importantly, in the frightening years of 2019 and 2020, I had several super formative discussions with Eddie Tock, who had always been very supportive with REX Roundtables. I never would have made it through that time period --losing my husband, losing all the managers here and then going through COVID-- were it not for Eddie and the folks he introduced me to. Eddie and the people at REX generously shared their knowledge and experience, and I am ever grateful to them for seeing me through. Now, we're just rocking and rolling here. Things are really great.
When Joe passed, and the other top managers left, people were like, 'Oh, it'll never be the same.' Well, in some ways, it never has been the same, but in other ways, it's exactly the same because it's about the Mission. It's not about the individuals of RVC. Don't get me wrong, we have some really tremendous, fantastic people who we're so lucky to have and who have changed so many lives. But, if and when they move on, which sometimes they do, it's okay because it's about the Mission. As long as we keep that in our heads, we're going to be here for a long time.
C.I. - That's well said. Beautiful. And, from your voice, I can tell how much you care and the passion that you have. Anyone who has those things will never let anything stop them. Guaranteed.
A New Year and Beyond
C.I. - Please tell us about some of your New Year's initiatives to attract new members, and of course, retain them.
EA - This January, we are running a "Get Paid to Work Out at the River Valley Club" campaign. People who sign up for a new membership in January, and who check in eight times before the 31st, will get their $395 Initiation Fee paid back to celebrate their efforts. The campaign engages new members right off the bat and incentivizes their involvement in the programs that will bring them back, while also making the price point more accessible.
C.I. - Along similar lines, what do you do to get out in/give back to your community?
EA - RVC's philanthropy supports all ages in our community, with gifts going to early education, high schools and senior centers. Seniors over the age of 90 do not pay any monthly dues. You heard that right; membership over 90 is free at my club. RVC also donates to regional athletics at the youth, high school and semi-professional levels. A highlight community event this fall was sponsoring a showcase for 3,000 people on the Lebanon Town Green. In addition, RVC donates to PBS and supports the Arts through in-kind and cash donations to a number of theater companies.
We also try to lead by example, making direct donations to certain organizations. During Christmas, we had large boxes in the lobby where members contributed by collecting toys and winter coats for a local family shelter. And, of course, we give any time one of our local organizations has an auction, donating memberships, gift certificates, all that kind of stuff. I also do some significant volunteer activities myself, advocating for children in New Hampshire and in Washington, as well as serving on the Human Rights Commission for the State of New Hampshire. I try to set the tone.
Our company supports paid community work time. As long as it is a verified 501(c)(3) company, employees can spend 16 hours a year of paid time working for the charity of their choice. For 160 employees, that's over 2,500 hours a year of community service.
During COVID, we gave free memberships to health workers. People from New York Presbyterian Hospital joined as members of the club because we had a digital virtual group exercise program of our own design. We didn't geographically limit the free membership. That thought never occurred to us.
From the very beginning, from the first time Joe and I decided to put a single dollar into this company, we knew we were going to be a cornerstone of the community. We always had that in mind, and I believe we've achieved it.
C.I. - That's a great slate of activities to hear about. Great job! Looking 3 - 5 years out, what does the future look like for RVC?
EA - With the college, hospital and commerce in the Upper Valley, in the next 3 - 5 years, RVC hopes to become more fully integrated into regional corporate wellness plans. As more and more data is released that supports the financial, physical and psychological benefits companies receive when they provide their employees with club memberships, RVC can be the best solution in our region. We are happy to organize private Pickleball socials, team building events on the climbing wall, or yoga classes to dedicated audiences, all of which benefit the companies and employees.
I asked Adam Dutille, our Fitness Director, to also comment: 'We emphasize the importance of making wellness a priority in daily life. Whether through exercise, nutrition or mental health practices, taking small steps consistently can lead to significant improvements. Members need to surround themselves with a supportive community, like the one at RVC, and embrace a holistic approach to wellbeing. Remember, health is a lifelong journey, and every positive choice contributes to a better quality of life.'
C.I. - Closing this very informative, not to mention inspirational interview, I welcome any closing comments you'd like to make.
EA - Over the last few years, our culture has experienced a cycle of loss and growth, loss and growth. These hardships have built resiliency and inner strength in all of us, my children and me included. We are all stronger because we have learned firsthand how important community is. I'm incredibly grateful to the entire River Valley Club community --our members, clients, families, staff and partners-- for their contributions to the success and positive atmosphere at RVC. We are dedicated to evolving with the needs of our community and continuing to be a beacon of health and wellness.
• • •
Thank you to Elizabeth Asch for her time sharing this story with our readers. Thank you also to Adam Dutille for his comments and Adam Blue for assistance with photos and graphics.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or a crisis, please reach out immediately to the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988. These services are free and confidential.