Feature Article - March 2002
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Stay-Fresh Fitness Centers

Ideas to keep your facility from getting stale

By Margaret Ahrweiler

Tough Club Competition:
The Tale of One Town

If you live in Wheaton, Ill., a family-oriented Chicago suburb of 54,000, your fitness choices abound, including the privately owned Wheaton Sport Center, a recently expanded park-district facility and two recently opened Life Time Fitness centers in neighboring Warrenville and Bloomingdale, Ill. So, like many areas of the country, if you operate a fitness center here, you'd better stay fresh to compete.

The Life Time Fitness centers were hard to ignore. Open 24 hours a day, each offer about 115,000 square feet of cutting-edge fitness experience. The Warrenville site includes, among other things:

  • An 18,000-square-foot climbing wall
  • Two indoor pools and one outdoor pool
  • 180 pieces of cardio equipment
  • 6,500-square-foot free-weight area
  • Two NCAA-regulation basketball courts
  • 7,000-square-foot child care center

The facility was an instant hit, with membership topping off at about 11,000 people. Monthly membership fees at Life Time range from about $59 for individual members to $109 for families, with initiation costs varying; for example, the enrollment fee begins at $310 for singles.

Meanwhile, the Wheaton Sport Center, an independently owned private club, is the city's oldest facility (opened in 1980), yet has survived and thrived despite the competition. It also is the largest and most expensive, with 172,000 square feet of space spread over 10 acres and 4,500 members, mostly Wheaton residents. Its three-tiered membership program ranges from an individual health-club membership with a standard $430 enrollment fee and $70 monthly fee to a family Country Club program with a $900 enrollment fee and $179 monthly charge.

In response to member needs and an eye to the encroaching competition, Wheaton Sport Center embarked on a $2-million, 12,000-square-foot renovation and expansion, completed in October, that added a warm-water therapy pool with a slide, enlarged the day spa to offer hair and skin services as well as massage and nail care, and expanded the child care area, which had been operating with a waiting list.

"Our goal was to expand our member base and retain existing members," says Lori Yone, membership director. "Our average membership length is 12 years, compared to the industry average of a year or less. We like to keep our members happy."

Since the expansion, Yone says the club's monthly new member numbers are up 30 percent from the previous year.

What makes Wheaton Sport Center stand out from the pack? First, it is one of the few Chicago-area clubs still emphasizing tennis, with 14 courts and nationally acclaimed tennis pros. Next, it boasts superior child care. Unlike its competition, its child facility is accredited by Illinois' Department of Child and Family Services and offers education programs, activities and crafts rather than mere drop-off services. (A certain Recreation Management writer repeatedly has endured a child begging they join WSC after visiting with a member friend.) Finally, it offers a high level of services, including its day spa and personal attention from a staff of 250. Among its other amenities:

  • Two gymnasiums
  • Three running tracks, two indoor and one outdoor
  • Separate spinning and aerobics rooms
  • Luxury-finish locker rooms
  • Four cardio and resistance training rooms
  • Separate free-weight room
  • Member lounge with coffee bar

Beyond Wheaton Sport Center, residents can exercise at the 10-year-old Parks Plus Fitness Center in the city's community center, which offers cardio equipment, free weights, resistance training, whirlpools, personal trainers and a three-lane, 1/12-mile indoor running track. It also expanded its facilities from 6,000 to 7,500 square feet last year, adding more cardio equipment, free weights, a stretching area, new décor, and improved lighting and windows to brighten its basement location. Annual fees for district residents range from $321 for single adults and $241 for seniors to $723 for families.

Just across Wheaton's southern border is the Central Park Athletic Club in Lisle, Ill., a 40,000-square-foot center located in an office building in a busy office corridor. It counts the corporate set among the majority of its members and also draws Wheaton residents. With a member base of about 1,700, it sets itself apart by providing one-on-one service and a high-quality staff, says membership coordinator Melisa Wells.

Interestingly, every Wheaton area club says they survived the Life Time onslaught intact. Parks Plus director Laura Thomas says she initially lost only a few dozen members, and most of those came back after a brief flirtation with Life Time.

Which just proves, a little competition is not always such a bad thing, especially if you are a Wheaton resident.