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Bob Hilborn | Business Owner | Scarborough East Tennis Club

Scarborough East Tennis Club business owner: Robert HilbornGive us a summary of your business in 200 words or less.
We are in the private recreation business. We are not exclusively tennis but we’re primarily tennis. We have pickleball, a fitness center, and we’ve been in business since 1974. We cater to pretty much any age group from age four to age eighty five.

How did the idea for your business come about?
Well, I’ve been here since 1980 so the business was already well underway when I got into it myself. The majority of clubs that are out there right now, they were all kind of constructed back during the tennis boom in the early ‘70s. There weren’t enough tennis courts outside and there wasn’t enough instruction going on. There was a huge demand for tennis at the time so many indoor facilities were built at that time and they were just built on the demand for tennis alone. Tennis itself is a great recreational sport, it’s an anaerobic activity. You can burn as many calories in an hour playing singles in tennis as you can riding a stationary bike. So it’s a great way to exercise and still have fun. It’s a lifetime sport and there are studies that say it increases your life expectancy by 10 years. There are studies that say it reduces your chance of heart disease by 56%. So we’re in it for many reasons. The social aspect is very strong and the exercise portion is very strong. We’re highly committed to creating a fun atmosphere where people can kind of get away from the normal stresses and routines of life. Take an hour or two to relax and get away from that as well as give themselves a chance to refuel and get back on with life.

What was the turning point for your business? Was there a moment you knew you had something special?
For us, tennis has been a very steady sport. Since the early ‘80s when the tennis boom kind of stopped, tennis has been a very stable business. It’s one that generations of people participate in so if mom or dad played in it, they want their children to play in it. It self perpetuates itself from that standpoint. I mean, during that time we’ve had many activities pop up like aerobics. Aerobics popped up during this period of time, soccer became very popular, lacrosse more recently has become popular. Throughout that whole period of time where there have been activities that have kind of taken hold of people’s daily lives, tennis has stayed very stable through then.

Training on the outdoor courtsWhat does it mean to you to be an entrepreneur and business owner?
Everybody’s got to have a reason that they’re enjoying the business that they’re in; hopefully they are enjoying the business they’re in. It’s got to have some meaning to you and for me, tennis is a great way to relieve stress, it’s is a great way to exercise and improve the quality of your life. Those things mean a lot to me. I mean if I can help one person feel better about themselves throughout the week after they have left our club, that’s very important to me. I would say that, hopefully, it’s our ability to help people improve their quality of life, that’s what we’re looking to do.

What does the city of Columbus mean to your business?
Well obviously, demographically, the city of Columbus is a growing city. It’s up at the top in terms of growth so if the city of Columbus is growing, that means the potential for my business is growing. I can’t imagine having put a business in a better place than the city of Columbus.

Are you from Columbus? If not, please explain what brought you here and ultimately what made you stay.
Originally I’m from Mansfield. The first twenty years of my life I was in Mansfield. I’ve been in Columbus for the last forty-five years. I mainly stayed because of the business. Like I say, Columbus now versus 1980, I mean the growth has been dramatic, I like having a growing situation as opposed to one that’s contracting. So that’s always been appealing to me to be in a situation where there is growth and the city of Columbus is very exciting that way. I mean there’s all kinds of opportunities for entertainment, education,  and I just think it’s the best place you could possibly live in the United States. You’ve got all four seasons that you can enjoy, you can’t get that in every place that you live. There’s just so many great benefits and advantages of living in Columbus.

What’s the number one piece of advice you’d give to anyone wanting to start a business?
You’ve got to have a passion for what you’re doing because you have to put a lot of time into it. As a business owner and one who is actually running the business, you have to put a lot of time in, more so than you would in a job where you’re working for somebody else. Forty hour week is not necessarily what you should expect if you’re going to run your own business. You do what you have to do. If it takes forty hours, great. If it takes sixty hours, you’re going to put sixty in if you’re going to be successful. So you have to be ready to put the work in as an owner for sure. Passion is really key.

What do you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before starting your business?
Well, for me it’s a little difficult because I managed this club from 1980 to 2010. So I had a really good grasp of what our business was about. I knew what I was getting into when I decided to take over ownership of the club in 2010. I guess, to me, what is most important is you have to do your homework. You have to understand your community and you have to understand the dynamics of the business, the dynamics of each business are different. Like I said, you have to be prepared to put in a lot more time then you would if you were working for somebody else.

What’s the most challenging part of your business (i.e, what keeps you up at night)?
We work with adults and juniors. Juniors are probably a third of our business and every junior is going to turn into an adult. Once they do, you have to replace that junior. In any business you’re going to have some turnover. Retention is key to the success of a business and for us, we’re constantly having to go out and recruit. Much like you would for athletics in college, you lose your players every four, three, two years. We’re gonna lose our juniors every eight or nine years. We have them a little bit longer but they’re going off to college then they start a career and sometimes, if they’re still in Columbus, they come back to us in their late twenties and early thirties. Constantly replacing your junior membership is always a challenge for us. We have to stay on our toes, you can never really just sit back and say “Okay, we’re good to go”. We’re constantly having to be at our best so that it’s easy for people to come here and say “Yeah this is the place I want to be”. We’re constantly trying to exceed our members expectations, that’s kind of our motto, to exceed the members expectations. If we do that, then our chances of success are great. That’s not always easy to do but that’s our goal.

Bob & HarperWhy do you think most business owners fail? What has made you different?
Most of the time I think it goes back to doing your homework. Knowing your business, knowing the demographics in the area of which you’re trying to put your business. Demographics are key, you gotta know if you have enough people within a fifteen minute radius of your business to sustain your business for one. Two, you have to know whether your business is attractive to the people in your area. Just as an example, tennis attracts a different clientele than football does. If we’re in an area that’s really strong in football, it would be hard for us to build our program based on the competition that we would face with football. So you’ve got to know who your competition is in order to be successful. Again, being here as long as I’ve been here, all the educating I need to do, all the studies I needed to do, most of them are from the school of hard knocks. I know our community like the back of my hand, I know the demographics, and I think that’s why we’ve been successful and we’re confident that we are going to be successful. Everybody thinks they’ve got a great idea and that idea may be great in one area and in another area, it doesn’t work at all. I guess it all comes back to your demographics, you’ve got to know your clientele.

What was your biggest mistake and what did it cost you?
I don’t want to say that I’ve regretted a lot actually. I guess early on maybe we should have looked further down the road on our physical plant. Our outdoor courts are difficult to maintain because you’ve got freeze and thaw in the winter which is really hard on the courts. You have to keep up with the roof on your building. Numerous things along those lines. Your air conditioning units and those kinds of things. I think early on we were a little lax there and it would’ve been easier for us to be in a position we’re in now if we had looked to the future sooner early on. Everything is good but I think it’s still difficult for us to be where we’re at now being that we didn’t maybe do that earlier on in the business cycle.

What tool has helped you the most for your business (invoicing, accounting, shipping, plugin for website, etc.)?
To me, it’s staff. Staff is everything to us, service is everything to us. If our service is bad, it’s going to affect our business. So I need to have staff that has energy, I need to have staff that’s reliable, I need to have staff that’s professional and I think I need to have staff that isn’t turning over every three and four years. My people want to come in and see the same faces, they want to establish a relationship and then they look forward to that relationship each time that they come into the club. So I would say staffing is really number one for us.

What is something that you did that was a game changer for your business?
Lighting has been revolutionary over the last 10 years. Going from incandescent lighting to LED lighting has made a dramatic difference in our electricity. On top of that, we were an all electric business so we heated our building with electricity up until around the year 2010. We didn’t really have a choice because gas wasn’t really available in our area until close to that time. So we retrofitted it in 2010 and went to gas. We put in LED lights and our electric bill probably dropped at least fifty percent and that was dramatic for us because we use a lot of energy. We need a lot of lights to sustain this business and 56,000 square feet is a lot to heat also. Utility costs were always very high for us and now they are very manageable.

What was an idea that you spent a lot of time on or thought would make a big difference in your business that didn’t pan out.
One thing that hasn’t panned out as well as I thought would be the idea of cardio tennis. Cardio tennis is a lot like tennis and aerobics combined together. That’s the concept of it. You’re taking your heart rate during the class, you’re constantly in movement, you’re throwing ladders into the mix, you’re using low compression balls to extend the length of the rallies. I’ve always thought that was going to be our way into a different part of our community and we’ve yet to make that work. An aerobic instructor has a different energy than a tennis instructor. Again, I think it comes down to finding the right person to make that happen. So we’re still in the process of trying to make that idea become bigger. We just haven’t quite got there yet and I think we just have to find the right person because I think in all aerobic activities, it comes down to the person doing the class. It doesn’t really come down to what you’re doing in the class, it’s how it’s presented in the class and the energy levels that the instructor can bring to the class.

What is something that your business spends a lot of money on that’s worth it?
In 2016, I spent some time researching this. The world is becoming more technologically savvy and we’re relying more and more on our phones and PCs and all that. So at that point and time, I wanted to try and bring that into our business because as we try to bring kids into the club, kids are very tech savvy and it’s a big part of their lives. So we wanted to bring that to Scarborough. We decided to purchase a system from a company called PlaySight that’s called SmartCourt. We put 6 cameras on each one of our courts and we have 8 indoor courts so we’ve got 48 cameras spread out around our courts in particular spots so that they can measure speed of forehand, speed of backhand, speed of serve. It can measure your unforced errors in a match, it will tell you how many wins you had in a match, how much spin you’re putting on the ball, how many revolutions a minute your ball is spinning. It’s filming each and every one of our students who are on the court and each court has a kiosk which the players can go up and replay previous moments in their match. Or, it will be sent out on the cloud after their session and they can pick it up on their mobile devices or their PCs at home and watch what they’ve done or they can look at their analytics it produces. It will give them slow motion of their activities, it has so many awesome capabilities and we’ve found this to probably be one of our best selling tools for the club because we have the largest indoor PlaySight facility in the world. There are facilities all throughout the United States as well as the world. The USTA training site in Lake Nona, Florida has 32 of these outdoors. You’ll find these at the French Open, Wimbledon has them, they had them at the US Open and many more sites across the world. They’re also using it in basketball to create analytics, some of the NBA teams have this technology in their training centers. It’s very popular, there’s probably only about five facilities in Ohio that have it and we happen to be one of them. It’s been very popular for us, our clientele has been very excited about it. The best thing is, most places don’t do it as we do it because they usually charge per time that you use it and it’s free usage if you’re a member of our club.

What is something you’re working on now that you’re very excited about?
Right now, tennis is experiencing a bit of a boom. Unfortunately the pandemic occurred but tennis has been found to be one of the safest sports you can play. There’s been a dramatic increase in play recently. It’s challenging for us because we only have eight courts and you can only put a certain number of people on a court at a time. Moving forward, we’re trying to develop more group type lessons. More people, more fun. We’re finding it to work pretty well. I’m bringing on new staff that has great energy and hopefully will take us through the next decade.

Scarborough Indoor Tennis FacilityWhat form of marketing is the most valuable for you?
Well of course we relied heavily on The Media Captain to generate traffic for us and within that, we’ve come across Groupon which The Media Captain had suggested early on when Groupon was taking off. We’ve probably been doing Groupon for ten years now and have found that it’s great for us to generate traffic, get people to try tennis and once they try it most of the time they want to stay with it. I would say in general, The Media Captain taking care of all our social media, that’s been a big boost. The biggest thing they’ve done for us is identify Groupon early on as a great way to generate consistent traffic coming through the door.

Where do you see your business in the next 10 years?
I’m very excited about the next 10 years. As an industry, we have been pretty stable but recently there’s been a big upturn. We’re looking forward to continuing to improve our physical plant and making it more attractive to the people who are coming in to use it. Our staff has been very reliable and since we are growing, I’m able to add new staff coming in. I’m trying to bring in some young energy and actually, we brought in a couple people recently that we are very excited about. I think that it’s really gonna help us continue to grow through the next 10 years. I don’t think we’re on the downside of our life cycle, I think we still have more growing to do.

What’s one component of entrepreneurship that’s much different than what most people think?
We have to work at what we do to be successful. I think there’s a perception that only rich people play tennis and that’s absolutely not true. We strive to make this an affordable sport for everyone and I think that there’s a perception that if you have a tennis club, you’re going to be highly successful and make lots and lots of money because you supposedly have a lot of people who are very well to do playing at your club. That’s not necessarily true because you’ve got markups and margins to work with. As I had mentioned earlier, electricity can be very expensive. I mean when you have 56,000 square foot facility indoors and you have four outdoor tennis courts and 6 outdoor pickleball courts, there’s a lot of upkeep and maintenance involved in this whole process. If you’re going out looking to make money in a business, it isn’t always best to look where you think the affluent are going to be, it always goes back to where your passion is at. It will lead you to success. If the passion is not there and you just think you have a great idea, maybe you’ll luck out but I’d rather not rely on luck. Passion will lead you to success.

If you had to tell a visitor one thing to do/see/eat in Columbus, what would it be?
I think this is way undersold at this point in time but Ohio State, obviously, is a big part of Columbus. We think about Ohio State, we think about football because we are one of the dominant programs in the country. We also have a dominant tennis team. We’ve finished top five virtually every year for the last ten years. Ty Tucker, the coach for Ohio State, has been hugely successful. They just opened up a brand new facility that is just awesome. They play indoor matches late January, all of February, and early March and it’s great entertainment. It’s high level tennis, it costs very little to go watch Ohio State perform. I would highly recommend seeing a tennis match at Ohio State.