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
Listening to Marketing Director Linda Rackner delineate the seemingly endless amenities at the PRO Sports Club, you get the feeling the place falls just short of being a self-contained compound. Located just outside of Seattle in Bellevue, Wash., the club is a 255,000-square-foot leviathan.
Sure, there's the usual stuff like a cardio area, group-fitness studios, swimming pools and courts, but there's also an auto salon, dry-cleaning service, spa, restaurant, café and medical center. Just about anything the club's 30,000 members could want is there.
Places like the PRO Sports Club put the "multi" in multipurpose facilities—if the club built adjoining apartments, people would probably never leave. As today's club members ask for more and more, it's not easy to balance those requests with fiscal solvency. Here is a sampling of some facilities that have branched out without burning out.
| PRO SPORTS CLUB|
Originally called the SuperSonics Racquet Club when it opened in 1973, what later became the PRO Sports Club continually expanded over the years.
Started with a couple of tennis courts, the club eventually grew to have five pools, four basketball courts, seven group-fitness studios, nine squash courts, seven racquetball courts, six tennis courts, a giant free-weight center, women's gym, cardio theatre, 10,000-square-foot child-care facility, a 26-room spa, full-service hair salon, dry-cleaning service, restaurant, café, auto salon, golf-analysis center and medical center.
"Everything that you do here, you're going to walk away with a 'wow,'" Rackner says. "Every single inch of this club has been designed with a wow factor."
The PRO Sports Club isn't just designed to impress. The club is dedicated to total body health: Stress affects health, so reducing it helps foster health. Members won't stress about getting their oil changed and fitting in a workout when they can do both at the same time.
"A lot of members will suggest things they want," Rackner says. "The other thing is we just keeping thinking about what would make members' lives easier and adding those convenience factors."
To get ideas from members, the club surveys a percentage of them every quarter with mail-in surveys. The same percentage of members are surveyed every month, but not the same members. There are also 15 comment boxes located around the club.
"Keeping in touch with members' interests helps drive our programs and amenities, definitely," Rackner says. "But just because one member suggests something, we're not going to be quick to [say], 'Oh, we have to do this!'"
To avoid fads, PRO Sports Club's managers research everything before incorporating it at the club. They also ensure facilities and equipment are cross-functional so that one room isn't dedicated to only one thing.
"I don't think that we are responsible to fads," Rackner says. "I think we develop our own trends."
The club's most popular programs tend to follow popular fitness trends but add a twist. PRO Sports Club Owner Dr. Mark Dedomenico is a doctor who helped develop the coronary-bypass operation, and Rackner says he incorporated his medical background into all aspects of the facility.
His work with people suffering from weight problems and other disorders catalyzed the creation of the 20/20 Lifestyles program. Participants meet with a registered dietitian, work out with a personal trainer three times a week, attend a support group and get a weekly review of their progress. They can also buy specially prepared meals at the club's restaurant as part of the new Grab & Go food program.
With 450 people enrolled, the 20/20 Lifestyles program has been very successful. So has the Extreme Body Makeover class, which is essentially a 15-person group personal-training class with body-composition analysis and dietitian consultation. (It has a waiting list.) Other popular programs include Cardio Explosion (a high-intensity cardio workout), circuit training and sports-conditioning classes. Sports leagues for basketball and squash are also well attended, and kids' summer camps, which cover various sports and even cooking, have also filled quickly.
With such a large membership base, the club has to go above and beyond to make each individual feel important. Taking its cues from Disney, PRO Sports Club refers to its staff as "cast," the club is the "stage," and business hours are the "show." The club's motto is "exceptional people creating exceptional experiences" and includes a seven-point customer-service model called PRO BEST:
There are other guidelines as well. Cast never just point when a member has a question; they escort members to places. Every cast member is trained to be able to answer questions fully, and everyone wears the same uniform with the same name tag (no titles), so anyone can be a manager when needed. Like Disneyland employees, there are personal-appearance rules, such as no facial jewelry or visible tattoos, even going as far as nail-polish specifications. New hires spend two days in training before starting work on the club's floor, including one day with PRO Sports Club's president.
Not surprisingly, Rackner recommends other facilities devote a similar amount of energy to staff preparation and customer service.
"I think offering the best of the best with exceptional customer service keeps us competitive," she says.
| FRANCO'S ATHLETIC CLUB|
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."
| MICHIGAN ATHLETIC CLUB|
East Lansing, Mich.
The largest hospital-based health club in the country, the MAC opened in 1991 with a 170,000-square-foot facility. Just six years later it grew to 270,000 square feet with 16 tennis courts, four swimming pools (including a 200-foot water slide), 11 racquetball/handball courts, three squash courts, two gyms, an indoor running track, four locker rooms (including family locker rooms), 8,000 square feet of resistance equipment, and 5,000 square feet of cardiovascular equipment (including 100 with individual entertainment systems). There are also two golf simulators, exercise studios and a full-service restaurant.
The expansion the club undertook in 1997 with outdoor areas (specifically the water park) and the extra gym was part of a plan to increase the club's appeal to families.
"Even when we have demand for the main gym for families, we can go to the auxiliary gym and have a summer camp that we use for youth activities," says Carl Porter, executive director of the MAC. "We try never to do anything that unreasonably infringes on the membership."
The plan apparently worked, as the club has about 5,300 households for a membership base, with a total of 8,400 members. Franco's growth also comes from its position in the Sparrow Health System.
"A lot of the deconditioned population that are afraid of clubs that portray themselves as hard bodies in spandex are more comfortable that we really are part of the dominant health-care system in mid-Michigan," Porter says. "That really helps us in terms of appeal."
The MAC's slogan of "sports, health, fitness and fun" also conveys the club's outlook.
"We really believe that success in this business is based on the marriage of the health-fitness aspect with the recreation/competitive aspect," Porter says. "Having one or the other can be successful, but if somebody really wants to hit a grand-slam home run, they need to balance those two facets."
Some of the club's most popular programs incorporate that competitive appeal. The MAC's Triple Threat Basketball Camp, offered in conjunction with basketball legend Magic Johnson, has been one of the club's most successful youth programs.
Another is the winter golf instructional program. Using video analysis that puts participants side-by-side with pros, golf coaches can compare swings frame-by-frame and show golfers how pro techniques can improve their game. The program has been so popular that the MAC expanded it in a sister club.
Some programs aren't as financially rewarding for the MAC, and Porter says those tend to fall somewhere between basic services and fee-based extras. With Spinning, for example, the $2 nominal fee members pay per class barely covers instructor fees.
"We feel that's a membership-based support service," Porter says. "The reason we have the nominal charge is that the demand would be so great if we had no charge that we would have to add a lot of classes, and then it would become a huge expense. So the nominal charge of $2 kind of controls the demand to people who are really serious about it."
It took some time for the MAC even to offer Spinning. Ever skeptical of possible fads, the club never buys equipment or invests in programs when they first hit the market.
"Our feeling is we dominate our market," Porter says. "We're kind of the big fish in the pond, and we don't feel like we have to desperately grab at any potential innovation. We can wait two years if necessary or three years and then see if it's something solid."
The MAC takes such a conservative approach to ensure a standard of quality and to create two types of experiences for members: rich (that is, fun, motivating, energizing) and rewarding (producing results). Porter refers to it as "the magic of the MAC," the customer-service rallying cry for the Michigan Athletic Club.
Each time members come into the club, Porter explains, they will have five or six impressions of the MAC. Every encounter with the staff or equipment is a "moment of truth" that creates those impressions.
Each opportunity for an impression can have one of three results: meet their expectations (neutral/positive), fall short of their expectations (a "moment of misery") or exceed their expectations (the moment of magic).
"We're constantly trying to create moments of magic for our members," Porter says. "We just try to drill the moments of magic and rich, rewarding experiences into the minds of all of our staff, and [we] let them know fundamentally you're empowered to do what you need to do to support those ideas and those goals."
It's the old axiom of giving members a warm welcome and a fond farewell—and hiring the right people for the task.
"No matter how good our facilities are, the environment has to be warm and inviting," Porter says. "When you say 'customer service,' it just isn't the same thing as giving members a warm, welcome feeling. It's making them feel like this is their club, and they're an important cog in the club."
| NEW CITY YMCA|
Located near Chicago's infamous Cabrini Green urban housing projects (which inspired the TV show Good Times), New City YMCA is the largest branch of the Y in Chicago. With Cabrini Green being slowly dismantled, and condominiums popping up in its place, New City finds itself in the middle of a radical neighborhood transformation.
Inside the club, though, it's mostly business as usual for the Y's 4,800 members. About one-third of the New City's 54,000 square feet is devoted to exercise and wellness. The facility, which opened in 1980, also has an indoor pool, group-fitness rooms and newly renovated locker rooms.
New City's a far cry from the sprawling clubs mentioned above, but the YMCA is a nonprofit organization that holds its family-centered values above all else. For a nonprofit or municipality, staying current in such a trendy, competitive field is especially difficult. (Crunch Fitness opened a flagship club this year down the road from New City.) That's why proper staffing is critical, according to Executive Director Phillip Baaske.
"We've got a great staff, and we're part of the Chicago Metro Y, and now we have 30 wellness directors that meet and train together and keep current," Baaske says. "Then members tell you what they want."
Despite New City's limited resources, Baaske says the club makes enhancements about every six months. Nearly two years ago, the club invested in a personalized training system that provides workout instructions at each equipment station based on the person's goals and history. Users can also track their progress online. Not surprisingly, such a system comes with a hefty price tag.
"We just bit the bullet because we knew it would pay back in retention," Baaske says. "For those that use it, retention is much higher; it's almost 80 percent."
Another big project that happened around the same time was the addition of Cubs Care Park, a ball field designed to be a miniature Wrigley Field. The Y built it through a grant from the McCormick Tribune Foundation. During the day, the Cabrini Green Little League and other youth organizations use it. At night, adults play in coed 16-inch softball leagues, which fund the field so kids can play there for free.
The eye-catching field has also opened up another revenue stream for the New City Y through corporate events and neighborhood festivals.
"It brings all the people to the Y, which hopefully helps our membership, and makes it a fun, family place," Baaske says.
The Y has also had success through its masters swimming, Pilates and marathon-training programs. Although limiting in one regard, its small budget serves as a sort of protection from short-lived fads.
"I wish we were that trendy that we were hitting it then getting off when it's not working anymore," Baaske says, laughing.
Kidding aside, Baaske believes the Y's facility is impressive enough and its customer service strong enough to keep members from going somewhere else.
"We have a lot of staff, so we try to know people on a first-name basis and try to make them feel like a family," Baaske says.
In the near future, Baaske hopes to add another ball diamond and improve the facility's soccer field. But what about all the condos slowly boxing in the facility?
"Those are potential members," Baaske says.
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