Feature Article - March 2002
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Stay-Fresh Fitness Centers

Ideas to keep your facility from getting stale

By Margaret Ahrweiler

Get out the branding iron
Fitcorp, a corporate-targeted fitness facility
in Boston, does not shy away from bold colors
for its interiors.

Giving members the sense that they matter by listening to their needs helps keep a fitness center fresh and competitive, says Sasaki's Dunkelberger. And beyond that, giving them a sense that they belong to a unique facility keeps them coming back as well.

Sasaki has been promoting the idea of "branding," creating a unified image that sets a facility apart from its competition, to attract and maintain membership. This can apply to small clubs or nonprofit facilities as well as large chains, he says, noting that it doesn't take a national ad campaign to create an identity.

Branding starts at the front door, he says. Sasaki advises clients to create a strong, high-design entry and front desk, to make a compelling first impression. The Fitcorp Center at Technology Square in Boston illustrates just that and shows how to overcome a few common design challenges—such as basement space—as well. The 10,000-square-foot facility, which opened in September 2000, was in the basement of an older office complex. A floor-to-ceiling bright blue-and-orange sign, highlighted by strong lighting, sits behind a stylish but inexpensive metal grid staircase leading to the basement. There, the front desk catches the eye. It is dominated by a neon yellow grid-patterned square that appears skewed and sunk into the ground. This custom design did not cost any more than a standard desk but makes a much greater statement and mirrors the tastes of the younger technology professionals the fitness center serves.

What's more, careful attention to the look of the front desk should extend to the person who sits there, Dunkelberger adds.

"You spend a lot of time identifying your culture, and if your person at the front desk doesn't reflect it, you've shot yourself in the foot," he says.

This doesn't necessarily mean bowing to the Twentysomething Hardbody stereotype, he notes. A family-oriented community center might employ a parent working part time or a senior, but it shouldn't be someone unprofessional-looking with an ever-present doughnut in front of them.

Show them what you've got
The indoor aquatic playground at the Apex
Center in Arvada, Colo., a community
center run by the North Jeffco Park and
Recreation District

Once your members are drawn in the door, fitness clubs need to show what they've got to make them want to stay. Design trends are moving away from compartmentalized areas toward an open plan that makes all the fitness options visible and accessible.

The Apex Center in Arvada, Colo., for example, accomplishes this with a central atrium and open corridors so visitors can see the full scope of activity before they pay, helping them to decide which activities to pursue, says North Jeffco's Gregor.

"Our goal was to let people get a glimpse of what's happening around them," she says. The running track, illuminated by large windows, travels around its three gyms, and the fitness area overlooks the climbing wall. As an added bonus, this provides fitness-center users with more interesting visuals, she says, to prevent potential exercise monotony.

At the 100,000-square-foot student fitness center of Loyola College in Baltimore, Md., designed by Sasaki Associates, a central "spine" flanked by glass walls on both sides showcases every aspect of the building so users can see everything going on. In addition to letting visitors know what's available, it adds to the energy levels of a facility, Bourque says.

Fitness-center directors need not embark on a major renovation or expansion to accomplish this, he adds. Sometimes, all it takes is reconfiguring the location of equipment to increase visibility and improve the traffic at underused areas. This holds especially true with free-weight areas, Bourque says. Many facilities are abandoning the concept of separate weight rooms in favor of all-in-one free weight, resistance training and cardio areas, especially as weight training gains popularity with women.

"By opening up weight areas and putting them off of stretching areas with the smaller weights nearby, you can make it less intimidating to your female clientele," he advises.

The Hockomock Area YMCA made this switch from a separate free-weight room to an open area with great success, according to Hurley. Free-weight use increased dramatically among women, seniors and preteens, which was the intended effect.

The cardiovascular area at the Apex Center
in Arvada, Colo.
Create a destination

Finally, fitness-center operators can keep their facilities fresh by thinking of them as destination spots, not just exercise centers.

"Since we went into business, the concept has evolved from a large, four-wall fitness center to a lifestyle-oriented place," says Life Time's Gunderson. "People are working out to live, instead of the other way around. You want to make fitness an experience that's additive, as opposed to a 'Well, I've got to do this' event."

Even with a nonprofit facility where making money is not the main goal, facility planners should try and maximize usage, Bourque adds.

"If you're going to build or renovate a facility, you want to get the most bang for the buck," he says. "Make it a destination place."

At the Loyola College fitness center, college officials noted a 90-percent participation rate by students, he says.

And while you can't please everybody, you can certainly try, theorizes Wheaton Sport Center's Yone.

"Face it, this is a hospitality industry," she says. "You want to keep them coming back."