Feature Article - November 2003
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Special Mega Section:
Recreation Management’s Complete Guide to Designing and Outfitting Fitness Centers

By Margaret Ahrweiler



ONE VENDOR OR MANY?


One of the biggest decisions to make is whether to stock your facility with equipment from just one vendor or buy from several different manufacturers. Again, the choice depends on personal preferences and priorities. For some centers, convenience weighs heavily.

"We decided to go all with one vendor mainly because we like the product and even better, we had a relationship that was now established," Diorka says. "I can pick up the phone and know who I'm talking to, and know I'll be taken care of."

Diorka also based his picks on the performance of the equipment at Penn's old center.

"The units that held up the most are the units we now have," he says.

Finally, the Penn team chose a manufacturer based on its problem-solving abilities and accommodation.

"We gave everybody a chance: We said, 'Here is the layout of the room, now tell me what we could do with it,'" Diorka says. "We had one group that would've had so much equipment packed into the space we couldn't move. But the guy we went with came back and told us what we wanted. He also told us why we wanted this, why we didn't want this, and what we needed to do to keep the room functioning smoothly."

John Harper, athletic director of Bridgewater State College in Bridgewater, Mass., decided to work with a mix of different manufacturers, based on preferences and the opinions of his consultant.

"It's a trade-off," he says. "We toured one college where they contracted with one manufacturer who came in and filled the room for them. The good news for that college was they got a tremendous cut in cost, but the bad news was that their center was basically a showroom."

While the temptation to do the same was strong—Bridgewater is "just down the road" from a major fitness manufacturer, Harper notes—he decided to work with a consultant who could help him determine the best mix of equipment.

Geography can sometimes come into play as well. The Downers Grove Park District fitness center ended up purchasing most of its equipment from one manufacturer, in part because its headquarters and plant were located in the Chicago area, making it easy to test equipment and cutting response and delivery time.

And while manufacturers all claim that their equipment suits a full range of body types, they each have their own strengths, and some work better for certain body types and exercise profiles than others, says Romano, who helped Bridgewater select its mix of equipment. As a result, the 9,000-square-foot facility ended up with using seven or eight manufacturers for its 132 pieces of cardio and selectorized equipment, along with plate-loaded machines and free-weight benches and racks.

Working with a number of brands can satisfy different segments and provide more diversity to beat boredom, but buyers should expect to pay close to list price if they're only buying one or two pieces from a company, Connors says.


UP THE WALL

What began as a way for hard-core climbers to get additional training and as a marketing tool/testing area for outdoor stores has morphed into a beyond-trendy, must-have element for fitness centers if budget and design allow.

Climbing walls are a great way to add visual interest to a facility and can serve as both a focal point and gathering place, such as the 35-foot wall at the UC Irvine Center, according to Bob Keeler, senior associate partner with Langdon Wilson Architects. The Apex Center in Arvada, Colo., also sited its cardio and weight area around its 30-foot, multilevel climbing wall, again for visual interest.

From a fitness perspective, walls provide a whole-body workout experience that emphasizes balance. Youth-oriented fitness pros like it because it gives kids who are not necessarily good at team sports an outlet to excel athletically. Climbing walls can promote problem-solving and team-building, as youth groups help a climber figure out the best way to the top. This youth focus is big: Even budget-conscious elementary schools such as Lowell Elementary School in Wheaton, Ill., are installing walls, especially "horizontal" walls, which can be used safely by younger kids.

From a business standpoint, walls make a good marketing tool to position a fitness center as contemporary and adventurous. They also can help attract group outings and youth parties.

What to look for in a wall? Flexibility is key, with holds and anchors that can be moved easily to create a wide variety of climbs, so the wall never gets routine. Manufacturers range from the huge to the boutique. Walls now come in prefab, portable and horizontal to fit into almost any space.