Feature Article - November 2004
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Forward-Thinking Fitness

Some innovative health clubs share their secrets to success

By Kyle Ryan

Small and focused

Comparisons to Curves are perhaps inevitable for Elements for Women. As Curves has become the world's largest health-club chain based on its simple, no frills, women-only circuit-training program, numerous imitators have popped up.

Elements, which opened for business last December, is also a women-only fitness chain that features a similar 30-minute circuit workout. Aside from those two similarities, Brand Strategist Chris Palumbo will tell you the parallels between Elements and Curves are few.

Although the clubs are designed on a scaleable model, most Elements locations are around 2,000 square feet. The key component is the 30-minute circuit workout on machines with workout-tracking software.

"It's really like having a personal-trainer workout," Palumbo says. "A lot of folks can tell you, 'Oh, Mary, you came in three times this month.' But [the software] can say, 'You came in 10 times this month. You got this percentage stronger. You've gotten in this much better cardio shape; your pulse is now this, where it was this before, so you're getting healthier.'"

Elements focuses on being a lifestyle center, not a health club, and even refers to its locations as "stores."

"We always refer to it as 'stores' because I just feel like it is a retail business," Palumbo says. "And I feel like when you tell someone it's a club, they start to think of it as a health club, and we really do a lot of things differently."

Women walk into a nonintimidating atmosphere, devoid of mirrors and cheesy club music. At Elements, they can see women of their fitness level working out and having fun. Many women who join Curves or Elements would never join a traditional health club.

"They perceive Curves to be a non-health club," Palumbo says. "So with Elements we did the same thing—to perceive it as a diet center, a fitness store, a lifestyle store, but not a gym."

To underscore the lifestyle approach of Elements, members can arrange to have a "lifestyle consultant" (staff member) actually accompany them to the grocery store to help pick healthier food.

The overall focus is on the basics: eating less, eating better, exercising more. In real life, there are no quick fixes, so Elements neither sells nor endorses any supplements.

"Instead of selling some of the diet pills that may be banned by the FDA next year, we're teaching them how to eat better," Palumbo says, "and that's something that's going to last years and years and years."

That attention to simplicity comes from years of experience; Elements' founders came from World Gym, Gold's Gym and Crunch Fitness. Palumbo owned a 20,000-square-foot World Gym.

"It would shock me because a Curves opened within in a mile of us, and they were actually competing with us," he says of his past gym. "This was a store that costs less to build than what I paid in marketing for one month." He laughs.

"They closed for lunch, and she had 500 members, members that I should have had," he says. "We always thought that if we had everything, then how could they say no? But that wasn't the case."

Opening a Curves franchise costs about $20,000, a microscopic amount compared to other health clubs. While Elements is pricier, Palumbo feels they'll recoup the cost in the long run.

"I don't have the actual numbers of how many [Curves] that have opened or closed," Palumbo says, "but I do know that, from my knowledge of the industry, you have to offer more of substance if you're going to retain members over time."