Feature Article - November 2004
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Forward-Thinking Fitness

Some innovative health clubs share their secrets to success

By Kyle Ryan

Is your face getting enough exercise? You probably know about the importance of core strength, and everyone wants strong arms and legs. Don't forget good-looking abs. But face exercises? An instructor pitched such an idea to Bill Abramson, general manager of the fitness center at New York's Chelsea Piers.

"The description [was] 'it's kind of funny because you make funny faces and look in the mirror,'" Abramson says, laughing. "But we didn't feel that that was going to be a big hit over here at the Pier."

There's a fine line separating innovation from misappropriation, and every day health clubs around the world tread it with shaky knees. Maybe a face-exercise class sounds laughable, but what about a group-exercise class where participants just step on and off an object repeatedly? That idea proved to be one of the most successful aerobics regimens in history.

Innovative fitness clubs tend to be both bold and calculating. No matter the size of the facility, there are ways to innovate. Here are some places that are doing it successfully.

Not too big, not too small

Chicago's Cheetah Gym, a three-facility chain (a fourth facility will open at the end of 2005), doesn't live or die by its hip classes. It focuses on covering the basics but also offering unexpected amenities.

Cheetah's Bucktown/Wicker Park location has all the usual cardio and strength-training equipment, classes (Pilates, boxing, triathlon training) and amenities like a juice bar, big-screen TVs, billiards, Internet access and a Japanese-style spa.

"There's Jean-Paul Gaultier, and then there's Armani," says David Wilshire, president. "We try to be more Armani. You know, when you buy an Armani suit, pretty much it's timeless…It's always going to stay in fashion. We don't do the bellydance aerobics. We don't do drag-queen classes."

Wilshire is referring, in part, to the flagship location of Crunch Fitness, located 1.3 miles due east on the same street as Cheetah's Wicker Park club.

"What they do, we want to do the opposite," Wilshire says, laughing. "So actually they help us a lot."

Not surprisingly, having his clubs being perceived as "hip" is of little importance.

"[That] can work for you and against you," he says. "I think [it] can scare people off, but on the other hand, people do like places that are cool. But I think you have to be very, very careful. But to be like a hip body place will work against what we're trying to accomplish."

Wilshire likes to keep things simple for the most part, though, and innovation can come from simplicity.

"I think that there's a call for simplicity," Wilshire says. "People just want to go and do the basics…however, health clubs still remain a very social place."

Addressing both aspects of that dichotomy entails efficient use of space, which is a high priority at Cheetah. So is state-of-the-art equipment.

"We constantly reinvest in it," he says, adding Cheetah focuses on free motion, cable-based equipment and core training—the latter being one of the biggest trends in fitness today. Core-training focuses more on total-body strength; while the eternal quest for flat abs can be part of core training, Wilshire says he's seeing a shift from vanity-driven exercise.

"People are kind of really pushing themselves athletically, as opposed to being super-concerned about 'OK, I'm going to get great big muscles,'" he says.

That shifting perspective is reflected in Cheetah's programming, particularly its Tri-Train class. The class uses a machine that simulates swimming, then combines it with a high-incline treadmill and Spinning bikes. Not just for triathletes, the class provides good overall cross-training.

Cheetah also has the only kids' gym in the city, complete with child-size treadmills and bikes. The club also is pursuing parent-child classes, such as yoga.

Programming helps Cheetah stay ahead of the game, but Wilshire says everything really boils down to strong customer service. For example, in the wake of some recent economic downturns, when people lost their jobs, Cheetah Gym allowed members to continue using their facilities until they found another job. Luckily, Chicago doesn't depend on one industry, so people found jobs relatively quickly.

"But you know it really builds loyalty," Wilshire says. "I've worked at places where we didn't care…there's no relationship. So I think it's really important to establish that bond."