Stay-Fresh Fitness Centers

Ideas to keep your facility from getting stale

By Margaret Ahrweiler


For many fitness club members, their membership expiration dates seem akin to food freshness labels, with a year or less the average length of membership. In a culture driven by a compulsion for change and a search for new experiences, how can fitness centers stay fresh enough to maintain and expand their membership base? From humble park and rec centers to industry giants with national exposure, fitness center operators are finding new ways to extend their sell-by dates.

Those methods range from the simple cosmetic touches to large-scale additions, from sharper service and staffing to more meticulous maintenance. And smart professionals can learn as well by adapting the latest trends in new construction to their facilities.

A little dab'll do ya

For centers large or small, relatively inexpensive cosmetic and maintenance changes can make a big difference in keeping members from club hopping. A fresh coat of paint works wonders in adding appeal, suggest Michael Bourque and Brian Dunkelberger of Sasaki and Associates, a Watertown, Mass.-based architecture firm that specializes in fitness centers. Lose the pastels, advises Bourque, a principal in the firm and fellow of the International Interior Design Association. He likes what he terms "energy colors, with a vibrating sense to them." For two recent projects for Fitcorp, a Boston-area, corporate-targeted fitness-facility firm, he selected bright blues, yellow and orange.

Life Time Fitness, on the other hand, favors strong earth tones to project a healthy image and bring the outdoors inside. The trend-setting national fitness-center company, based in Eden Prairie, Minn., also uses stone such as granite and limestone, along with other materials, to give clubs a holistic, natural look, says Life Time's Glen Gunderson, vice president of business development.

"We made the decision to stay neutral when we opened our first facility 10 years ago, in part so we could adjust the décor more easily," he says.

Unlike clubs that favored exposed block interiors, Life Time also chose from the outset to cover all walls in sheetrock or slate, enabling them to paint or change wallpaper more painlessly, Gunderson says. While it added to initial construction costs, it reduced maintenance and renovation costs later in the clubs' life.

Life Time Fitness facilities often feature
a healthy dose of natural lighting.

Regardless of the color choice, clubs should paint every couple years at most, Bourque advises, to keep your facility up to date and prevent that battered look.

Beyond paint, Sasaki's Bourque also cautions clients to pay attention to what hangs on the walls. He advises clients to abandon the trite, overused inspirational posters in favor of art and graphics that convey the fitness center's image. For example, at their Fitcorp projects, Sasaki's graphic designers selected a variety of fitness images, zoomed in on them and created a slight distortion. The results included a giant image of runners' feet on the pavement and a bunch of bodies in an aerobic setting.

"They have a Nike feel, to encourage activity," Dunkelberger says.

Along with paint, Sasaki promotes diligent maintenance as a way to keep fitness centers fresh and suggests materials that help ease that never-ending chore.

"If someone whacks a wall with a free weight, get in there and fix it right away," Dunkelberger urges. And to prevent accidents like that from happening, he suggests protective products like Kydex, a plastic sheet good that covers drywall on the walls of weight areas and other clunk-prone spots.

Other fitness centers try to evoke a sense of history and locale. The Apex Center in Arvada, Colo., a 168,500-square-foot showpiece of a community center, used a "Colorado palette," in the fitness area and the rest of the building, says Faith Gregor, marketing director for the North Jeffco Park and Recreation District, with a mining and mountain theme to appeal to the city's historically minded residents.

The Ins and Outs of Fitness Centers
Group fitnessAerobics (it's all semantics…)
Outdoor activitiesHigh-impact basics
Free weights for womenSeparate weight rooms filled with muscle heads
Working toward a goal
(i.e. triathlon training programs)
Mundane exercise
Earth tonesNeon
Adding more programsEliminating old programs
Family-oriented fitnessBeautiful People

Refreshing service

In addition to cosmetics, dedication to member service keeps fitness centers fresh. And service means knowing what your members want and how to deliver it.

At the Apex Center, for example, service translates into flexibility.

Earth tones and natural materials are also interior
design staples of Life Time Fitness facilities.

"When we were planning this, we didn't want to compete with area centers so much as supplement them," Gregor says. That meant offering daily passes and flexible hours for the heavy drop-in traffic, who often work out at the 3,400-square-foot cardio and weight area while other family members use the center's ice rinks, pools or vast indoor playground. Flexibility also meant offering a wide range of classes for different ages and abilities: Two of the most popular programs include Silver Sneakers, a senior fitness program, and an aerobics class parents can take with their toddlers.

Service also translates into attention to details that may cost extra initially but pay off in member retention.

At the Wheaton Sport Center, an upscale private facility in suburban Wheaton, Ill., the club decided to create a full-fledged spa with hair, nail and skin care, along with massages, to streamline busy members' lives.

"Many of our members were going elsewhere for these services and appreciate that they can now eliminate one or two stops; they can work out and save time," explains Lori Yone, Wheaton Sport Center membership director. She added the spa services, especially the hair salon, have become a good revenue source.

Fitness centers also can improve service by recognizing that members' wants and needs extend beyond the walls of their club. According to Gunderson, Life Time Fitness has begun adding off-site programming—scheduling mountain biking, hiking or kayaking events, offering reduced-rate greens fees at local golf courses, and participating in area cycling and running clubs.

The family-oriented Hockomock Area YMCA
in North Attleboro, Mass., recently underwent
a major renovation and expansion.

"We're realizing the fitness focus is shifting away from just the club and becoming more and more about community-based participation," he says. "We want to facilitate that experience for our members."

Extra attention to service may also include identifying a class of members whose needs aren't being fully met. The renovation and expansion of the family-oriented Hockomock Area YMCA in North Attleboro, Mass., was driven by the realization that the facility needed to offer more to preteens and teens, says Ed Hurley, the facility's president.

"We did not have any dedicated space to this group, which was important since our focus is on kids and families," he explains.

The expansion, completed by the Hodess Building Co., almost doubled the YMCA's size, from 25,000 to 45,000 square feet. It included a number of spaces targeted to teens, including a computer room, a club room to provide meeting space for youth groups, a large community room, two multipurpose rooms and a half gym.

With an eye toward increasing preteen and teen use, Hurley says, the Hockomock YMCA also expanded its fitness area from 3,500 to 5,000 square feet and added $135,000 worth of new equipment. Now, children as young as 10 years old can use the fitness and weight equipment after taking a training class. As a result, younger users are a common sight, often working out alongside their parents.

Of course, responding to member needs is impossible unless fitness centers find out what members really want. This should transcend the standard polls and surveys.

At the Wheaton Sport Center, which recently completed a $2-million renovation and expansion, employees work out there regularly, making themselves available to give-and-take from members.

"We use the club and so do our owners, so if they're on the treadmill or in the hot tub, people come up to them and say, 'Do this or do that,'" Yone says. "And then we listen."

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."

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.

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