Feature Article - May 2015
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Make New Friends, Keep the Old

Trends in Strategic Fitness Facility Design

By Chris Gelbach


This drive to provide more specialty offerings is, in turn, driving up club size in these facilities. Fabiano is seeing fewer middle-sized, 20,000-square-foot facilities. Instead, there's a bifurcation between the boutiques at less than 15,000 square feet and the larger facilities averaging closer to 40,000 square feet. Carter is likewise seeing most of his work on club renovations is in facilities 50,000 square feet or larger.

The lowest-priced clubs still focus on generating as much dues revenue as possible. A 2014 NPR Planet Money podcast segment estimated that the average Planet Fitness has 6,500 members but can only hold about 300 people at a time. But other clubs are increasingly reliant on specialty programming's role in generating non-dues revenue from avid gym-goers.

"The non-dues revenue historically ran from 10 to 15 percent, but now they're trying to get their non-dues-based revenue up in the area of 35 to 50 percent," Carter said. "And it tends to be that people who do the non-dues programming tend to keep their membership longer because they're more involved in the club. They're getting better results. And there's more socialization involved than the member who just comes into the club, never talks to anybody, and leaves."

Creating Space for Small-Group Training

This socialization is part of the reason boutique clubs are doing so well, and part of the reason that small-group personal training is becoming more popular. According to Plaza, small-group training provides a sense of community and competitiveness, while also being affordable to more people than one-on-one training. Club designs are continuing to include more areas to capitalize on this ongoing trend, sometimes as a dedicated space but sometimes within a larger room.

"A lot of times they're putting it out in the middle of the floor and having a TRX class and it kind of intrigues and excites other people," Plaza said. "It's sometimes a little disruptive to other club members, but it sometimes becomes a positive thing for the club."

The potential revenue from small group and personal training is also helping drive the growing trend toward more open floor space and functional training areas. "People are more likely to pay a trainer to show them some core body or functional training movements than to count reps for them while they sit on a machine," Carter said.

For this reason, and due to the popularity of CrossFit, boot camps and other similar offerings, in some cases clubs are starting to pull some machines out to make room for more functional training space—with an emphasis on space. "There's always a fair amount of open space," Plaza said. "I'd say 80 percent open space to 20 percent equipment." Vertical space in the form of sufficient ceiling height is also important to accommodate functional training stations that people can hang off of and do pull-ups on.

The trend toward heavier, higher-intensity training is driving a greater move toward versatile free weight racks. "People are lifting heavier weights than they used to," Plaza said. "They're using platforms so they can drop weights and it's not just the big meathead guys—it's ladies and seniors, too."

As clubs add more areas with fee potential, like these functional training areas, they're also looking at renovations that remove space-consuming offerings that can't serve many patrons, like tennis and racquetball courts. "You don't see many new indoor tennis courts being built," Carter said. "It's just too much real estate for four people using it, and how much can you charge? If you replace it with a spa, yoga and all this other stuff, you probably end up making 10 or 20 times the revenue per square foot."

Getting Social

To accompany increasingly specialized programming that appeals to different demographics and personality types, clubs also are trying to create community by creating more social areas throughout their facilities. "They're definitely creating social areas and often in different pockets of spaces," Plaza said. "It's not all one big cafeteria-type space. They're almost Starbucks-like. They're smaller, more intimate—a better setting for smaller groups to get to know each other."

Visani is also seeing some clubs get Starbucks-like in a more literal way through the inclusion of restaurant, bar and coffee-shop amenities as another way to generate revenue and extend the image of the club as a place for social bonding. In rec centers and university facilities, Fabiano is also seeing social and revenue opportunities being created through the inclusion of meeting and event rooms that can be used for catered events.

And, as clubs expand beyond their traditional parameters, they're also offering more in the way of general health and wellness advice that extends outside the club using fitness trackers and other tools.

"It's really looking at the individual to say, you're a person who needs this for your health. We're going to provide you some tools, we're going to give you motivation, we're going to give you feedback," Visani said. "You can work out some parts at home, you can work out at the office, you're walking, and you can take that all into account in your whole health analysis of yourself."

By doing these things, clubs can move beyond being the places that many people pay dues for but can never quite get to with any regularity. They can position themselves both for greater revenue potential and to become more successful partners in transforming people's lives.