Feature Article - November 2004
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Forward-Thinking Fitness

Some innovative health clubs share their secrets to success

By Kyle Ryan

Large and in charge

The sports center at Chelsea Piers is only one part of the massive complex in lower Manhattan. The four piers used by the facility were originally built in 1910 but didn't become what they are today until renovations began in 1994.

Impressive is what they are today: Pier 62 features a skate park and roller rinks; the Sky Rink on Pier 61 has two ice rinks for skating and ice hockey; Pier 59, the golf club, features 52 heated, weather-protected hitting stalls, a 200-yard artificial turf fairway, two golf simulators and a 2,000-square-foot golf school.

Pier 60 houses the fitness center. The 6,000-square-foot cardio area has more than 100 pieces of cardio equipment with a cardio theatre and nutrition and physiology lab for consultation. There's a pool, large climbing-wall facility, cafe, boxing area, track and basketball courts.

Chelsea Piers could easily rely on its facilities to keep customers happy, but it also has nearly 140 classes every week.

The facility's setup allows instructors to have classes that wouldn't be possible elsewhere. For example, the Quicksand class uses the indoor sand volleyball courts for plyometric exercises and speed drills.

In New York, competition for edgy classes is fierce. During the Republican National Convention, competitors New York Sports Club offered convention-themed exercise classes. Attention-grabbing Crunch Fitness routinely has unconventional classes like Cardio Strip Tease.

That's not to say the sports center is conservative. When the Oxygen Network started airing episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess, Chelsea Piers teamed up with the network to offer a temporary class called "Xena: Fight Like a Woman." The three classes drew about 200 people each, which led to the creation of a regular women's fighting class that used moves from the Xena class.

Each month, Chelsea Piers offers two to four new classes. If one works well, it will be offered again the following month. If its success continues, it's added to the regular schedule.

If class attendance slips to a certain level, management notifies the instructor that the class is in danger of being canceled. Often that rejuvenates instructors to try something new or change the routine. They also may try moving the class to a different day or time.

Inevitably, some classes get canceled, which irks members. But they have a wide variety of others to take its place. Chelsea Piers' market position means that people come to them to try new ideas (face exercising), usually with little inherent risk to the club. That was the case with the Trixster Bike, which is essentially a Spinning bike modeled after a mountain bike that allows for a greater range of motion. The club is trying the bikes out for a few months to see if they're worth adding permanently.

Staying current isn't enough in New York; you need to be ahead of the trends, and being hip in that regard could be the difference between success and failure.

"Given our market, I think it's very important," Abramson says of being perceived as hip. "I think it's important that the perception is there, but I think it's also important is that you deliver a quality product, and the customer service is impeccable and that the place is impeccably clean."

That hipness also can work against Chelsea Piers, in that it could be intimidating for out-of-shape or older people. While Abramson concedes most of his members are in really good shape, no one should feel awkward if they're not.

"You have to really make sure you cater to the individual, so once again it goes back to customer service," he says. "But if you have some beautiful model who's standing right next to you, and you're out of shape, you could get intimidated. But that's why you joined the gym. Hopefully it works as a motivating factor, not as a negative."