Feature Article - October 2004
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These days, people want more and more from their rec centers and sports clubs. But how do multipurpose facilities expand without spreading themselves too thin?

By Kyle Ryan

 Mandeville, La.

Franco's Athletic Club was founded when owners Ron and Sandy Franco purchased the failing Bon Temps Club, a 28,000-square-foot racquetball club that also had a small weight room, pool and tennis courts.

Now 125,000 square feet with 15,000 members, the club has four pools (two kids' pools with two-story water slides), 11 tennis courts and the usual fitness equipment. The club just opened new executive locker rooms, which have finished teak wood lockers, a giant plasma flat-screen TV, whirlpool, cold plunge, sauna and steam room. Franco's amenities include a full-service Starbucks, restaurant, travel agency, hair salon and physical-therapy clinic. A spa and juice/smoothie bar are in the works.

General Manager Benny Hardouin sees such things not only as perks for members but generators of extra revenue.

"When the members come in, they're going to take swim lessons, they're going to eat at the grill, they're going to drink coffee at the Starbucks," he says. "They're going to pay for more. We make money on other ancillary services as well as the flat membership dues."

The idea, he adds, is to create an environment where everyone can work out.

"We have members as young as 6 weeks old and seniors as old as 90, 95 years old," he says. "There's programming and something for everybody in between."

One of Franco's most successful programs is the Puzzle Challenge. Designed to break people out of their usual fitness routines, the program gives participants a puzzle-piece-shaped card. As they make their way to different activities, instructors stamp the card with a puzzle-piece-shaped stamp, which eventually forms an entire puzzle.

To cater to athletes, Franco's started the Sports Performance Academy, a 2,000-square-foot area of the club where athletes can do specialized training for their respective sports.

On the technological side, one of Franco's most popular gizmos has been the BioPhotonic Scanner. Basically, users put their hands on the scanner, and a blue laser measures carotenoid antioxidant levels in the body. In seconds, the machine shows the effectiveness of any supplements users have taken.

"That's been a huge hit," Hardouin says.

Not as big of a hit has been the club's small outdoor skate park. Although it gets used, especially during Franco's summer camps, Hardouin admits the club has been used less than expected.

"It's a difficult venue to market and to attract people to because it's such a niche group," he says. "We get a lot more return on our investment to purchase like an exercise bike that has a video game included in it or a rock-climbing wall or something like that, because the variety of people that use that is much greater than use the skate park."

Hardouin concedes part of the problem has been personnel. Finding people with a skateboarding and marketing background has proven difficult. Franco's is in the process of rebranding the park, which Hardouin hopes will help increase its usage.

For the most part, though, Franco's strategy of anticipating customer needs has paid off, like with its in-house Starbucks.

"We've had nobody come to us and say, 'Hey, you need to put a coffee shop in here,'" Hardouin says. "We offered coffee, but it was run-of-the-mill gas station type of coffee. So we were able to hook into a program that Starbucks has and get a presence here, so the members have been tremendously pleased and wowed by that."

That's the same "wow factor" employed by PRO Sports Club, but what's flashy isn't always good.

"The industry changes so much and is so trendy and faddy that I think people see things on TV, or a friend of theirs who works out in California does something, and they want that," Hardouin says. "We try to cater to all that as much as we can, but you know it has to fit within our demographic. We are a family-oriented facility, so if it's something that's not going to fit into that demographic, then we probably won't get it."

Franco's relationship with equipment vendors has given the club a low-risk way to experiment.

"They're very apt to send us pieces of equipment to test them," Hardouin says. "We get a lot of that without committing financially to it. That's one of the things that's worked out really well for us."

Another thing that has worked well: listening to members. Hardouin attributes Franco's high member-retention rate to people trusting the club's responsiveness.

"Members feel a sense of ownership and empowerment," he says. "While that can be negative at times, it's definitely a positive for this club because if somebody believes and feels like they belong, they're going to stick with it."

And the negative? Well, people occasionally feel so comfortable they make unfeasible requests: One member wanted the channel on the plasma TVs in the executive locker rooms changed to his show every time he came to the club.

"We can't do that for everybody," Hardouin says, "but at the same time, we're happy he feels so comfortable, and he feels a sense of ownership to make that request."