Fitness Facility Facelift

Get a leg up on design, staffing and programming trends

By Elisa Kronish


If you remember when leg warmers and leotards were fashion statements at the health club, then you know how far fitness facilities—and their memberships—have come since then. "This industry is evolving so quickly that something that was a trend as little as a year ago isn't a trend anymore," says Rudy Fabiano, president of Fabiano Designs in Montclair, N.J. Despite the energetic evolution of many fitness facilities, some are still stuck in the pre-Spandex days and operating accordingly. You know who you are.

Granted, change is not always easy—or cheap—but it will put you ahead in this competitive market.

"When the club industry started, it was with a big, open design and a low budget," says Brian Dunkelberger, principal at Sasaki Associates in Boston. Now clubs need to differentiate themselves, create a brand that people recognize and, yes, sometimes spend more money. Your payback will be happier members and more of them.

First impressions

To achieve the best end result, the first impression your facility makes should be first on your list of priorities. With a shift in the trend from attracting fitness fanatics to attracting the out-of-shape public, this impression is even more important. And whether visitors to your facility realize it or not, the architecture and design of a club can mean the difference between a passer-by and a paying member. The challenge is to develop a facility not for the people who were going to come anyway but for the people who hesitate to even enter because they're intimidated.

"From the moment people see the building to walking into it, you want to reduce intimidation," Fabiano says.

Let's start with seeing the building. Fabiano stresses that from the exterior, the facility should look more like a public structure than an office warehouse.

"People see a public building as one they feel comfortable coming into," Fabiano says. Achieving that comfortable aura includes proper lighting to create an approachable look no matter what time of day it is.

"Buildings have split personalities—day and night," he explains. To help keep it cheery-looking even at night, try using uplighting, instead of glaring spotlights, he suggests. Also, consider updating your landscaping, while keeping safety and sightlines in mind.


Once inside, what do you see? Is it the old control-tower routine, where reception staff looks down on the lowly members?

This is "psychologically intimidating," says Michael Bourque, also a principal at Sasaki Associates in Boston. It's time to take things down to earth. "The reception desk is getting friendlier and more welcoming," Bourque says, which is a good thing for all members, and especially those who might not call the fitness club their second home—yet.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Fitness Center in Troy, N.Y.

Another unintentional scare tactic can stem from that big, thick, oh-so-tough row of cardio machines that often stares guests in the face upon entering.

"To the building owner, this looks great," Fabiano says. "To the person who's out of shape, walking in and seeing 50 people very intensely sweating, they may think, 'Is this what I have to do? No wonder I haven't done it.'"

How about taking your tough-guy routine to a different part of the facility or at least blocking it with a more welcoming zone. Some clubs, for example, have lobbies that look more like the lobby of a hotel.

The key is to ease members into the experience, Fabiano says, jokingly comparing the strategy to a little bit of foreplay: "You have to help people warm up to the event. Once they're there, that's when you energize them."

That pre-event planning is so important that Fabiano says new club managers and owners have noticeably increased their spending on the first 30 feet of their clubs.

These days giving people a genuine sense of security is also important. For example, plan your staff stations so that most of the facility floor is visible and so that from the floor most members can see the staff.

Divisions of duty

With so many activities going on in one facility, the floor needs to be broken down into the most efficient and aesthetically pleasing way possible.

"I like multiple workout areas, hard and soft, throughout the facility, offering different workout experiences—even different music," Fabiano says.

Group fitness room

Most facilities have a room that serves many purposes—that ubiquitous multipurpose room. For some facilities, that's all there is, and everything from Step to yoga are held in this room, creating some tricky transitions.

"Yoga wants the room warmer; aerobics wants it cooler," Dunkelberger says. "To make it work, mechanical systems need to be able to handle this multiuse."

Other elements to keep in mind for a multipurpose room are the flooring, storage space and lighting.

"Some want to be able to dim the lights, some want theatrical lighting, and a color tint makes people look more attractive," Bourque says.

All those attractive people working out can help attract more people if you allow for just the right amount of visibility.

"If I can see into a Body Pump class—something a man might not be into—and I see other guys in there working out, I might even try it," Bourque says. "If I can't see in, I might never try it."

Sasaki Associates often installs glass on a back corner of a room.

"So you can see the energy inside, but it discourages gawkers," Bourque explains. "You can see shapes and body movement from the outside, but from the inside you still have privacy."

And about that storage issue: Avoid the mistake of many facility owners, who tend to forget how many pieces of equipment and accessories are going to be needed in that room.

Biogen Fitness Center in Cambridge, Mass.

"Inevitably they don't plan for that," Fabiano says. His rule of thumb is to allot 10 percent of the room to storage. So if you have a 2,000-square-foot room, 200 square feet of that should be solely devoted to storage. Fabiano advises against creating a section of the room for storage because class attendees would squeeze into those areas between the equipment, making for a dangerous situation.

If you'd rather not try fitting everything into one room, get rid of your squash courts or racquetball courts or basketball courts or whatever space isn't giving you the best bang for your monthly-dues buck. The same square footage that's allowing two people on a squash court can bring in many more if you convert it into a group fitness space. Not enough space from one court? If you've got two, go ahead and break a wall down. Either way, pay attention to acoustics, Dunkelberger advises.

"Those rooms are typically plaster, so there's nothing to absorb the sound," he says. "Sometimes you have to put paneling on the walls or put carpet on the floor."

Stretching and atmosphere

One of the most in-demand-and-growing areas of a fitness facility these days is the stretching and abdominal-work area.

"It's the key to the puzzle," says Fabiano, who typically dedicates about 500 square feet to that kind of space. He also likes to lower the ceiling over the stretching area, making it feel more intimate. "It's all about comfort in an architectural space," he says. "If you're on the ground stretching, you're going to want to be in the tucked-away space."

Another trend is to create an all-sensory experience for guests. Architectural elements like fountains and fireplaces affect the atmosphere, as do things like the type of music playing or the scent of lavender. Fabiano's design firm has even been installing real trees in new clubs. If you've got a high ceiling and maybe some skylights for the trees to survive, it makes for a unique space, giving members the pleasant feeling of working out in a park.

"Adding visual, auditory or other sensory items changes preconceived notions of what they expect, making it more about the emotional and spiritual," Fabiano says.

Color palette

One of the most common visual elements that can have an impact on your club's success is color.

"Keep it updated and appropriate for the mood," Fabiano says. "A spinning room might be bright red, while a relaxing area could be cabernet red."

As facilities have increased in sophistication, they have learned that colors can help create a mood and even help retain members.

"We're finding more attention to matching the color scheme to the type of membership," Dunkelberger says. "We encourage clubs to do the research on what their membership is."

And once you've figured that out, you don't want to lose them. In other words, to attract a younger crowd, vibrant colors are popular. For an older demographic, softer, earthy tones are often good choices.

Dunkelberger cautions facility owners to plan ahead, though.

"Select areas where five years from now, you can change the color," he says. The two most expensive areas of color are tile work in the bathroom and carpeting. In both places, Dunkelberger recommends people choose neutral colors such as white bathroom tiles because they look clean.

Biogen Fitness Center's colorful locker room

"People will leave if a club doesn't look clean," he says. Besides that, neutral colors will outlast trendy or seasonal color changes. Go ahead and get crazy with the accent colors on shower curtains or paint that you can change when burgundy goes out of style.

"It's a lot easier to change your paint color than to change out tiles," Dunkelberger says.

In an older club, simply a fresh coat of paint can do wonders. One of the facilities that Sasaki Associates worked on had been doused in gray, teal and purple. They kept the purple, added yellow and got rid of as much tired teal as possible. The problem was, the facility had devoted a lot of money to teal pads on all their weight lifting machines. In this case, the solution is to phase out the old, slowly add the new.

"If you plan it right, you can stretch it out over five years, and at the end of that five years, you'll have a new club," Bourque says.

Despite the strength of a good red, yellow, green or blue, Fabiano urges against putting all your stock in paint.

"Gym owners, since they've been born, have thought that colors and new colors are going to save their facilities from ruin," he says, comparing colors to clothes. "An overweight guy isn't going to be all better in nice clothes." Fabiano recommends browsing through magazines for color ideas, while keeping in mind your price point. "If you're charging $100 a month, the aesthetics should feel like that." Just remember, though, "a great club can be painted all white and still be a great club," he says.

The naked truth

Besides a nice, clean feel in the bathrooms, locker rooms are getting more attention these days in general.

"This is one of the legitimate areas that people enjoy now, rather than just put up with," Fabiano says.

"We've started to pay close attention to the fact that men and women want different things," Bourque says. Women want things such as more changing stalls that don't feel cramped and a separate vanity area to put on makeup and blow-dry their hair, and for both men and women, single showers are practically a must. Lighting is also important, so women only notice their healthy complexion rather than the lovely lights.

"Wall sconces are good at playing up attractive qualities, rather than harsh overhead lighting," Bourque says, adding that you do have take into account certain energy codes.

"Members appreciate being treated with respect," Fabiano says. "And if there's ever a place to do that, it's when they're naked."

People power

Of course, to make all of this work, your staff must be able to satisfy the desires and needs of your members.

"You can buy all the best equipment in the world, but you'll throw away money if you don't hire people who know how to use the equipment; staffing is important," Bourque says.

Hiring staff to provide for an ever-changing programming schedule is also key. One of the trends this year that requires specialty trainers is sports conditioning.

"It's gaining every year in our survey," says Kathie Davis, director of IDEA Health and Fitness Association. Whether you're trying to keep up with the boys on the golf course or nail that serve in your tennis match, there's a trainer to help you do that by concentrating on strength and flexibility in the areas you need for that particular sport. If you decide that your facility is in a particular demographic or geographic area that would be interested in, say, golf conditioning, then look for someone who has experience in both golf and golf conditioning, Davis recommends.

"Another trend we're seeing two-fold is weight management," she says. Personal trainers have to be careful not to step over the line and out of their knowledge base. Some clubs now hire a registered dietitian on staff to offer nutritional counseling. Many clubs simply refer members to an outside source. Some personal trainers are now using computer programs that assist them with creating a meal plan for their clients.

"We always caution them that regardless of the computer program, whatever they do is within the guidelines of the Recommended Daily Allowance," she says.

Whether you're considering opening a new facility, or whether your existing facility needs a fast fix or a major overhaul, there are some trends in design, staffing and programming that will help you attain or maintain a competitive advantage.

"[You may have] done the basics well, but it's time to kick it up a notch," Fabiano says. These days, facilities are less about somewhere people can work out and more about somewhere they want to spend a lot of time and feel comfortable.

Add it to the Schedule

Each year, there's something new to squeeze into your bursting programming schedule. Kathie Davis, director of IDEA Health and Fitness Association gave us the scoop on what's on the agenda for this year.

The top member-getters are yoga, Pilates, core conditioning and combo classes.

Yoga. "There has just been this huge upswell in the interest of yoga in the past five years," Davis says. "I think that #1, there are more people teaching yoga now because the demand has been high, and I think that the bottom line here is people are looking for a mind-body activity, a softer and gentler workout."

She adds: "You don't even have to go to a yoga studio anymore. It's much more accessible to people who might have been scared to try it before."

It's so popular, in fact, that IDEA has added a two-day yoga pre-conference at its World Fitness conference in summer 2003. The following summer will highlight both yoga and Pilates.

Pilates. "Another instance of how people are leaning toward a mind-body format," Davis says. "The more stressful life gets, the more people are interested in ways to relax, and with 9/11 last year, I think it sent a lot of people to these classes."

One downside is that right now there's a shortage of instructors because the Pilates certification takes some time to achieve.

Core conditioning. "Basically, there have been a lot of media reports on this core functional training or stabilization," Davis says. "It's kind of kind of like a word-of-mouth thing in terms of how it spread."

New-fangled equipment to enhance the benefits include coreboards, which are gaining in popularity. Some coreboards look like half a stability ball—the top is a dome, but the bottom is slightly curved and unstable, so users always have to keep the apparatus balanced.

Combo classes. "Hybrid instructors try to get more into one class," Davis says. "You might have Step coupled with stretching and sculpting."

Other combos include Step or yoga in the pool or indoor cycling for half an hour and then yoga for the second half-hour.

"It keeps people interested and gives them more bang for their buck," Davis says. "It's also great for cross-training."

Another benefit is that members who have hesitated to try a new class can do so without investing a lot of time. They get to try a new activity for the first time without having to sign up for a whole other class.

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