Robert Thomas is a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy who’d never been to the Olympics, never been to Asia and certainly hadn’t eaten Korean food. But because he absolutely crushed his first two months as general manager of a 24 Hour Fitness club in Solana Beach, Calif., last year, he’s on a free six-day trip to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
“This is a huge out-of-my-bubble experience, and it’s been a lot of fun so far,” he said Saturday, on the way back from a side trip to the DMZ, the highlight of his second day. The night before, he’d attended the opening ceremony.
Thomas was one of 11 internal contest winners treated to the vacation by the longtime U.S. Olympic Committee sponsor, which uses its sponsorship to reward high-performing staff, supplies Team USA training centers stateside, and staffs and supplies temporary training centers at the Summer Olympics. CEO Chris Roussos and his wife Karen were also on the trip.
The Olympics program is part of an incentive-heavy system the gym chain uses to compensate local managers and encourage retention, Roussos said.
“What we find is culturally, when you put these incentive trips out there, it creates a lot of momentum and excitement in the organization,” Roussos said. “It keeps people fired up and continuing to stretch and reach. First things first, you’re never going to win unless your club is running really, really well.”
The hospitality program stands out among Olympic sponsors because it’s not about C-suite clients or would-be investors. The local managers are usually in their 20s or 30s, and get a rare chance to spend full days with both Roussos and elite peers.
For Korea, 24 Hour’s trip was based at the Millennium Seoul Hilton, a central location where they could take in cultural sites and have a two-to-three-hour bus ride to the Olympic events.
They all landed at Incheon International Airport on Thursday. Then on Friday, two-time 2002 speedskating medalist Derek Parra addressed the group in the morning before they traveled to Pyeongchang. There, they visited USA House, where they had a chance encounter with U.S. bobsled pilot Elana Meyers Taylor and her husband Nic Taylor, an Olympic alternate, before taking in the opening ceremony.
After the DMZ trip on Saturday, the crew had a Seoul tourism day planned on Sunday, followed by Olympic events and a meeting with USOC CMO Lisa Baird and Chief of Sports Performance Alan Ashley on Monday, before heading home Tuesday.
24 Hour Fitness organizes and executes the trip in-house, said Victoria Hoe, the director of member marketing who oversees the Olympic relationship.
Thomas said he’s a big Olympics fan but was glad to see other parts of Korea, too.
“There’s a lot more culture than I realized we were going to experience,” he said. “But it was awesome. Going to the DMZ today was incredibly interesting. It made the world seem a little bit smaller.”
24 Hour Fitness has been a sponsor of the USOC since 2004 and extended its deal last year through the Tokyo 2020 Games. In Tokyo, like at all Summer Games, the 24 Hour contingent will be much larger because it brings staffers to work at the USOC training centers. The winter team does not establish permanent training centers in the host city.