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The Not-So-Happy Hour

by Lisa Mulcahy on Jan 18, 2018

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It’s becoming more popular to make alcohol available to clients post-workout. What are the legal ramifications for your facility?

Ahhh . . . sipping a delicious cocktail post-Pilates sounds pretty tempting, doesn’t it? More and more fitness studio owners and managers seem to think so—after all, the chance to wind down with drinks and conversation after a workout may seem like a great selling point when you’re seeking to sign up (and keep) clientele. Still, experts question the wisdom of serving booze at your establishment, especially owing to legal concerns.

“Depending on the state and locality where the business is located, a gym or fitness studio’s act of giving gifts of alcohol to clients after a paid-for fitness class is likely to be considered the sale of alcohol without a license, which is usually a crime and punishable by a fine, jail time or both,” says attorney Hannah Becker, an associate attorney with GrayRobinson’s Nationwide Alcohol & Food Law Department in Tampa, Florida.

Under what circumstances would serving liquor be considered safe—and when is it an absolute no-go? Read on for two differing perspectives from successful fitness professionals, plus essential legal information.

Mind Every Detail

If a gym or studio chooses to offer alcohol, it’s imperative that staff members never take their eyes off the ball when it comes to proper procedure and monitoring of client behavior. “We serve alcohol at our facilities,” says Cammie Mackey, general manager of the Little Rock Racquet Club in Little Rock, Arkansas. “We are happy for our members to be able to enjoy a beverage poolside or in the Overlook Grill dining area of the club.” Little Rock Racquet Club’s key approach is to make sure its personnel are informed and prepared to protect patrons’ welfare. “We require employees who sell and serve alcohol at our club to take an online course called ServSafe,” Mackey explains. “Within the course, employees are educated on all issues that can arise while serving.”

Every employee of a fitness establishment that serves alcohol must know the law regarding alcohol distribution—in fact, the regulations should be posted in writing where no staff member can miss them. Mackey enforces Arkansas state law to the letter at all times. “We are very careful to make sure the Alcoholic Beverage Control state rules are followed,” she emphasizes. “We have never had any problems—we watch carefully to make sure everyone is safely served and of legal drinking age.”

You also can’t be afraid to cut off clients who have imbibed a little too much or simply have a low tolerance for the effects of alcohol (and show it). “We always make sure that no one is overserved,” Mackey says. A one- or two-drink limit can be a good solution to help prevent overindulgence, which can, of course, lead to unsafe—and illegal—behavior like driving home under the influence. At the Little Rock Racquet Club, close vigilance has truly paid off. “I’ve managed the club for 12 years,” says Mackey. “Supervision is key to making sure members can enjoy alcohol. Thankfully, we’ve never had a negative experience from serving alcohol at our facility.”

Just Say No

On the other hand, some fitness professionals see no upside whatsoever.

“My philosophy regarding serving alcohol to clients on the premises of a gym or studio is, don’t do it!” says Donna Madonia-Forend, owner of the Dynamic Training Personal Training Studio and Wellness Center in Sagamore Beach, Massachusetts. “We, as health and wellness professionals, are supposed to be helping our clients reach their health and wellness goals, period. I’m sorry, but serving them alcohol does not help them—nor would serving pizza or bagels in our establishments.”

Madonia-Forend also worries that delegating too much personal responsibility to a client could backfire. “If something happens after a client leaves your facility—say they get into a car accident—then what? You lose your business!”

Madonia-Forend does understand the lure of offering cocktails. “Since I became a fitness professional and [business] owner 25 years ago, so much more competition [has developed],” she says. “Personal trainers, fitness instructors and health coaches are now a dime a dozen, and it’s becoming more and more difficult to get and keep clients. I do think everyone is trying to get as creative as they can to reach and intrigue new participants. Honestly, I get it, but you need to remember the reason why you became a health and wellness professional in the first place—to promote good health and wellness.”

Another consideration: how you specifically brand your establishment. Do you have a family-friendly gym where moms and dads can bring the kids? Maybe you even offer child care while parents hop on the treadmill? If yes, then serving beer in the same facility might seem jarring and inappropriate, not to mention giving your establishment a reputation for promoting two different lifestyles. Madonia-Forend sums up the views of many owners: Keep your marketing message as clear as possible. “If you need to sell alcohol, go be a bartender,” she says. “There is a time and a place for drinking responsibly. It’s just not in a fitness studio or gym.”

Understand the Law

In making your own decision about whether to serve alcohol in your studio, you need to know all applicable legal guidelines inside and out. For instance, location is key. “Generally, a gym establishment may sell and serve alcoholic beverages to its clients if it holds the necessary retail alcohol beverage license or licenses,” explains Becker. “However, it appears that the vast majority of gym establishments that offer ‘boozy’ fitness classes do not hold any sort of state and/or local alcohol beverage license. A fitness establishment in one state may be permitted to provide alcohol beverages to its clients in one circumstance, while a fitness establishment in another state would be outright prohibited from doing so. For example, New York, Georgia and Michigan prohibit unlicensed businesses from giving alcoholic beverages to their clients, no matter the circumstances. However, in most jurisdictions, unlicensed fitness businesses may hire a licensed caterer to lawfully provide and serve alcohol to the fitness studio or gym’s clientele as part of a class or an event, as long as the caterer is hired to serve only during definite periods of time for these specific events.”

Becker offers precise advice to any owner considering making alcohol available. “Consult state and local laws, regulations and ordinances to ensure that your business can lawfully provide alcoholic beverage products in conjunction with a paid-for fitness class,” she urges. “Also, consult a lawyer prior to serving alcohol. Consider local and state land use restrictions on the sale and service of alcohol at your particular location; obtain proper licenses or permits, when required by law; and note that, depending on the type of alcohol products (beer, wine and/or spirits) you want to serve, the fitness business may not qualify for the license needed.”

She adds, “Before permitting a licensed brewery, distillery or winery to serve samples of its alcohol beverages to clientele on your fitness studio’s premises, ensure that the business holds the necessary sampling privileges and is permitted to serve samples off its licensed premises, at an unlicensed location. Also, confirm state and local hours of sale and service of alcohol laws and ordinances, to ensure that your fitness business is offering free alcohol only during the relevant lawful days and times.”

Finally, and very importantly, understand the responsibilities of serving alcohol to the public. Becker stresses, “Consider posting ‘No alcohol beyond this point’ signs in order to protect clients from violating open-container laws. Train your employees to recognize altered driver’s licenses or other state- or military-issued identification cards. Ask your staff to continuously walk around your studio and monitor clients during the event, to prevent the possibility of being the source of alcohol that later becomes a cause of any injury or damage.”

Indeed, protecting your clients, your staff and yourself when serving alcohol is a big job. If you can’t do it perfectly, don’t do it at all.

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About the Author

Lisa Mulcahy

Lisa Mulcahy IDEA Author/Presenter