Losing big in Utah

Published: Monday, March 18 2013 12:20 a.m. MDT

Reservations manager Nancy Molitor remembers that the website crashed from so much demand when Fitness Ridge Resort in Ivins began its affiliation with The Biggest Loser TV show in 2009.

Lee Benson, deseret news, Lee Benson

IVINS, Washington County — In the redrock country outside St. George, just up the road from the Tuacahn Amphitheatre and just down the road from the Shivwits Indian Reservation, crowds of people flock from all corners of America to be a part of something that doesn't have anything to do with Broadway shows or Native American culture — or the redrock, for that matter.

They come to lose weight.

Every Sunday, they walk in the lobby of The Biggest Loser Resort at Fitness Ridge, say goodbye to their last Big Mac, and register of their own free will for a daily regimen of pain, sweat, six hours of exercise, a 21/2 hour hike every morning (through the redrock), chef-cooked meals that will not exceed 1,500 calories — all three of them — and nightly lectures, the whole package costing anywhere from $300 to $400 a day, based on single- or double-occupancy.

Sometime later — the average stay is 21/2 weeks — they walk out, their frames, if all goes well, as light as their wallets.

And by the way, the title of the facility is not a cheap ripoff of the hit NBC TV show by the same name. They are in fact one and the same, joined at the hip as it were. Three and a half years ago, NBC singled out the Utah workout spa in the shadow of the red hills to be its official weight-loss farm, the only resort on Earth that could legally call itself The Biggest Loser.

It all came about because Cameron and Michelle Kelsch were watching TV one night in their St. George home and happened to click their remote to the broadcast of "The Biggest Loser," where they watched fitness fiends put overweight people through boot camp exercises that made them — the exercisers — first weep and then later, after they stepped on the scale, rejoice.

"Hey," they said in unison, "We've been doing that for years."

The Kelsches had started in the workout business in 2002, a good two years before "The Biggest Loser" made its TV debut, when they teamed with Tami Clark, formerly with Red Mountain Resort & Spa, and opened The Body Shop, which they operated out of a leased space at the Crystal Inn by the freeway in St. George.

Business was good, and in 2007 they moved around the corner to rural Ivins, where they bought 10 acres of farmland, called it Fitness Ridge, and started their own kind of farm, complete with luxurious accommodations where clients could stay while they wasted away to mere vestiges of their former selves.

After seeing the TV show, Tami, Cameron and Michelle made the decision to advertise Fitness Ridge on "The Biggest Loser." Their thinking was that a lot of the people watching that show wanted to do the same thing the contestants were doing.

The advertising worked in ways they couldn't have imagined. Not only did it result in more clientele, but a short while later, when NBC decided it wanted to partner with a facility where it could refer those who either didn't make it onto the show or didn't want to be on the show, guess which place was at the top of its list?

That was in October 2009 and no sooner did NBC anoint Fitness Ridge with The Biggest Loser as its new first name than it became more popular than Jillian Michaels.

"We couldn't answer the phone fast enough," recalls Nancy Molitor, the resort's reservations manager. "All that publicity from TV and the name change. It crashed the website. The floodgates opened."

Fitness Ridge had a waiting list that ranged from four months to 10 months until NBC finally opened additional The Biggest Loser Resorts, first in Malibu and then at Niagara Falls in New York. A fourth is scheduled to open this summer in Chicago.

Now, there's no waiting list in Ivins but occupancy remains high, with many weeks still sold out.

The notoriety is the initial draw, but Jeff Roberts, the resort's marketing coordinator, insists that the key behind the enduring success is because the regimen works.

He became a believer last summer when he was hired and his first assignment as a member of the staff was to sign up for a workout week along with the guests.

At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Jeff, 28, was hardly overweight, but he did as he was told and at the end of the week had indeed lost weight: exactly one pound.

"But I lost six pounds of fat," he says, "and gained five pounds of muscle.

"It changed me. After the week, I looked at food differently; there's food and food-like substances. Most of what we eat are food-like substances. I changed my diet and it turned me into more of a regular exerciser instead of just doing it recreationally. I ended up doing more exercise in one week than the previous couple of years combined. You can do so much more than you tell yourself you can do."

So goes the beat in a place where more is less and less is more and it's all trademarked. A place where the routine involves, as Jeff puts it, "Lots of crying at the start, lots of confidence at the end." Just like that show on TV.

EMAIL: benson@deseretnews.com

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