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."

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."

Personal Training Plus

Steve Percy's Paragon Club in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., is only about 1,600 square feet, but big things definitely come in this small package. The Paragon Club is not a traditional gym; it's a mixture of sports medicine, private personal training and physical therapy.

Percy, a former athletic trainer, opened the facility in 1995 after working for the Australian America's Cup team.

"The one thing I've realized over the years is that quality of your life is determined by the quality of your movement," Percy says. "And so that's kind of what we revolve everything around: exercise that strengthens and elongates and creates the balance."

Percy says today's way of life, which involves so much sitting, creates imbalances among muscle groups. So when people exercise at Paragon, he focuses on their movement.

"Motion is lotion," he says. "If you don't use it, you lose it."

For example, if he has someone doing a lat pull-down, Percy considers the nearly 50 variations on the lat pull-down that would, as a by-product, help increase the person's functional extension in addition to building muscle.

"So you see you're getting this sports-medicine knowledge base as you're going through the normal run-of-the-mill personal-trainer knowledge of how to get stronger and how to get faster," Percy says.

The result, he adds, goes beyond merely working out with a trainer. For his mostly Baby Boomer clients, the scientific approach helps them get stronger and work through previous problems they may have had.

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."

Fitness is only part of it

Associate Executive Director Jeannie Thé makes it clear that her YMCA's function goes beyond helping people get in shape. The three branches of the YMCA of Central Kentucky have extensive children's programs and classes taught at local jails, not to mention the more than $300,000 given so needy families can participate in Y programs.

Such a setup is quite a change for Thé, who ran a large health club in the area and had her own cable fitness show for many years before joining the Y.

"If someone came to our club and said, 'Gee, this is the most awesome place…but I can't afford it,' we'd have to say, 'Sorry,'" Thé says. That's not the case at her YMCA, where people can apply for financial assistance scholarships.

Despite its wide focus, the 4-year-old Beaumont Family YMCA has enough features to compete against anyone: three pools (outdoor, indoor six-lane 25-yard and warm-water therapy); indoor track; free weights; weight machines; group-exercise studio; 100 free classes every week; martial-arts studio; large Spirit, Mind, Body Studio (for yoga, Pilates, etc.); steam room, sauna and whirlpool; and youth center.

The Y recently added 10,000 square feet to the facility, including expanding the Spirit, Mind, Body Studio along with a martial arts and gymnastics room, an expanded wellness room and children's area, and more restrooms. The Y's board viewed expansion as part of the YMCA's overall mission.

"This is a Spirit, Mind, Body program that's helping the whole person," Thé says, "and the mission of the YMCA is to put Christian principles into practice through programs that really help the spirit, mind and body for all, so that's why we were able to get this initiative."

It also helped that the $25,000 spent on equipment could be recouped in six months.

The YMCA's budget can be limiting, but it can also act as a sort of safeguard against ephemeral, potentially destructive trends. Thé's two decades of experience in the fitness industry help as well. Ever conservative, Thé held off on buying any step-aerobics equipment in 1989 because of her skepticism.

But her YMCA has cutting-edge programs to stay current. One of the most popular is free body-age assessment people receive when they join. The TriFit computerized fitness assessment figures out the "real" age of your body and gives specific directions for areas that need work. The club's large warm-water pool has proven popular as well.

"The warm-water pool is what so many people need," Thé says. "We have people over 90, and it's great to see that the YMCA can be for all."

That's part of the YMCA's mission, an especially important one considering Kentucky continually ranks near the top nationwide for obesity and other health concerns, according to Thé.

"We just try to serve our members and our population with what their needs are," Thé says. "We know 82 percent of the population is not exercising, so we need to entice them to get physically fit."

Having a strong staff helps entice people and keep them around. It also helps compensate for the Y's limitations—like equipment that can't be fixed right away if money is tight.

"A lot of it is about service and dealing with people," Thé says. "People like to go where they feel like somebody cares about them, so we try to have the Cheers atmosphere. Everybody likes to go where they know their name. So you can make up for sometimes not having the best equipment if you have the right people, so that's what we feel—get the right people on the bus, and you'll get to where you need to go."

High-End Fitness

At David Silva Fitness Training Center in Miami, everything is taken care of for members. At the private training center, Silva personally creates workout programs for clients before they begin work with the small staff of trainers.

Silva's clients, who often include celebrities and business leaders, have their own personal code to enter the 4,700-square-foot facility. It's completely private—and intense.

"What we do here is we have hour workouts where you don't waste time," Silva says. "You walk in, there's no wasted time checking in. You come straight to the machine. Everybody has a trainer."

All workouts are scheduled, though members can come in to do their cardio work whenever they want. If members need to do workouts outside the club, they can even be scheduled somewhere else. Silva takes care of everything so people don't have to spend a lot of time planning.

Of course, such individualized attention comes at a price. Although Silva says the cost varies, members buy fitness packages based on their needs. Even if it's costly, Silva says private facilities like his have become more common.

"People in fitness that I knew 10 years ago say, 'David, when you opened that, we thought you were crazy,'" Silva says, laughing. But now, he adds, high-end gyms are everywhere.

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