That Feminine Mystique

Solving the mystery of successfully marketing to women

By Stacy St. Clair

Jane Fonda got women into aerobics, and Olivia Newton-John made it cool to get physical.

But that was more than two decades ago.

Times have changed dramatically since then and so has the philosophy surrounding women's fitness. Basic aerobics and step classes just don't cut it anymore.

Women today want to workout like Teri Hatcher, not Barbarella. They want to get into the zone with Brittney, not Sandra Dee. And they don't want to just tone their bodies—they want to rejuvenate their spirit.

In the past 20 years, we have witnessed the Oprah-fication of America. Women now believe they only can be truly healthy when they are physically, mentally and emotionally fit.

Recreation professionals who embrace this philosophy have tapped into an underserved market. They recognize that successful women's fitness programs do more than just make people sweat. They celebrate femininity with classes that engage female patrons physically while indulging their imagination and sense of self.

Mamma mia

There is no greater celebration of womanhood than pregnancy, yet the recreation industry overall has been slow to realize this programming opportunity.

With the introduction of prenatal aerobics and yoga, many facilities feel they are meeting the needs of expectant mothers. Stacy Denney, owner of California-based Barefoot & Pregnant, knows otherwise.

She came up with the idea of opening a facility for pregnant women when her sisters and best girlfriends began having babies a few years ago. She loved listening to their pregnancy stories and hearing what things made those nine months easier and harder.

She was surprised to hear, however, how alone many of them felt during the process. She began wondering why there wasn't a resource for them, somewhere they could gather and bounce ideas off each other.

She knew many fitness centers had prenatal water aerobics and yoga. Yet the women she talked to shied away from those classes after their first trimester because they didn't want to be seen at a health club.

"A lot of my customers weren't comfortable working out around a bunch of skinny, younger women in Spandex," she says. "A majority of our clients leave the gym once they are pregnant, and then two months postpartum, they go back to the gym."

Recognizing this unexplored niche, Denney paired with an experienced obstetrics nurse and other health professionals to open Barefoot & Pregnant in Larkspur, Calif. The unique facility offers exercise classes, a full-service spa and childbirth classes.

Industry experts believe it's the first facility of its kind nationwide—a fact that astonished Denney when she began researching the market.

"How can there be a new idea for a business in 2003?" she says. "I thought everyone had thought of everything."

Denney quickly solidified her position in the recreation industry. The facility has evolved, she says, based on customer suggestions and needs. She delved even deeper into her patrons' psyche when she became pregnant with her first child shortly after opening the business.

Barefoot & Pregnant's popularity receives a boost from the fact that more women are having babies later in life. Though women in their 20s are still the majority, the percentage of women having children between the ages of 30 and 44 has doubled since 1981, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This means more women are giving birth at a time when they're more financially secure, studies show. They generally have more disposable income than their twentysomething counterparts and can better recognize their physical and emotional needs.

It also helps that expectant mothers are considered chic these days.

"Right now, pregnancy is in," Denney says. "Celebrities are doing it. Everyone is talking about it. Of course, it has always been there, but now it's more celebrated."

And Barefoot & Pregnant, above all else, is a celebration of pending motherhood. Denney says she has two types of customers: her loyal clients and her spa users.

The loyal customers enjoy regular exercise classes, including prenatal cardio, body sculpting and yoga. There are postpartum fitness sessions, as well as workshops on infant massage and sign-language classes to help mother and baby communicate.

The 3,000-square-foot facility's design fosters a soothing, supportive environment. Soft-filtered light brushes against the maple floors as patrons hear the subtle trickling sounds of a wall-hung fountain. Stunning photos of pregnant women hang throughout the building in a celebration of motherhood and birth.

The intimate decoration encourages the women to share their experiences, concerns and questions in group forums. With help from Barefoot & Pregnant experts and other moms, clients form their own philosophies on issues such as breastfeeding, co-sleeping and discipline.

"I have been able to create this community where women can get together and talk," Denney says. "They talk about their shared experiences, feelings, changes, everything."

The educational workshops also provide women with an opportunity to expand their awareness of relevant topics. The classes offer moms advice on everything from infant CPR and baby bathing to colic and cuddling. The facility also teaches hypnosis for birthing, in which women learn techniques to change attitudes at their subconscious source.

In the end, the workshops and exercise classes encourage expectant moms to stop and think of themselves. They're constantly encouraged to nurture the nurturer.

"As women, we spend much of our time nurturing our husbands and our kids," Denney says. "This is one of the most important times in life, and you really need to take care of yourself."

The spa, not surprisingly, does wonders for someone looking for a little pampering.

The full-service facility offers traditional treatments such as massage, waxing and facials. It also offers special prenatal services such as the belly "facial" to soothe growing stomachs and help minimize stretch marks. They also offer postnatal massages such as "Mama's Little Helper," which concentrates on the areas that most tax new mothers: the neck, shoulders, wrists and back of arms.

Most spas offer prenatal services—a fact Denney actually uses to her advantage. Many masseuses might offer a pregnancy massage, she says, but how often do they perform them? Once a week? Once a month? Never?

Denney stresses that's all her employees do. They cater to pregnant women all day, every day.

"Every spa offers a prenatal service or two," she says, "but not from experts in the field who cater specifically and only to pregnant people."

The spa also distinguishes itself from other facilities because it allows children. Denney finds it puzzling when facilities offer pre- and postnatal services but don't allow babies in their sanctuary.

"That rule totally defeats the purpose," she says. "Children have been and always will be welcome at Barefoot & Pregnant."

In addition to offering a unique service, Denney has found creative ways to bolster the business end. She partners with a local bed and breakfast to offer getaway packages. The move has expanded her clientele because it offers people from all over the country a way to use her facility.

She promotes the idea of a "Babymoon," a getaway trip that helps expectant parents relax and rejuvenate before their child's birth. The packages—which include fatherhood classes and other workshops—help dads enjoy the joys of pregnancy, too.

The facility also has a pro shop of sorts. Billed as "retail therapy," Barefoot & Pregnant sells must-have items such as diaper bags, breast pumps and carriers. It also offers a large reading selection, including Denney's first book, Spa Mama, which teaches pregnant women how to pamper themselves at home. (To help on that end, the facility sells a signature line of skin-care products, including Stretch Away, a stretch-mark cream.)

Denney recently launched an e-commerce site that makes the products available to anyone with an Internet connection. Her next plan of attack is a national rollout of the Barefoot & Pregnant philosophy, which includes opening new facilities across the country.

"The dream for me," Denney says, "has always been the concept itself so that there are as many Barefoot & Pregnants around the country for all the women who need them."

Mothers in Laws

No matter how creative your women's programming, it can fall flat if your facility doesn't meet the basic needs of female patrons.

This means installing lockers big enough to store a purse, gym bag and a diaper bag. It means offering changing stations, day care and family bathrooms.

And, as some facilities have learned the hard way, it means having a free and open attitude toward public breastfeeding.

In regards to the latter, insensitivity toward nursing mothers can lead not only to angry patrons but bad publicity as well.

In 2004, a suburban Chicago mom was asked to leave the nursery at her local fitness club after she was seen breastfeeding her infant daughter there.

The club employee suggested Kasey Madden go behind a partial wall to nurse, but her older child, a toddler, couldn't accompany her there. The other, even more impractical option was a stone bench in a small room half-way across the club.

Madden said she was covered up and had not drawn any attention before she was asked to leave.

"Adult biases should never trump a baby's right and access to nutrition," Madden says. "Yet we interfere with parenting that is medically recommended, that benefits a child, all because it involves a breast."

Corporate officials at the nationally known health club agreed and clarified its policies to prevent it from happening again. The company—which says it had always allowed breastfeeding—alerted managers and directors verbally and in writing how to properly handle the situation.

Madden, however, was not done. She began lobbying local newspapers and politicians for a law to protect nursing mothers. In August 2004, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed legislation that gave women the right to nurse in public.

In joining 25 other states with laws protecting breastfeeding, Illinois provided additional support to the 68 percent of women who nurse their newborns and the additional 30 percent who continue to breastfeed after six months. The act, among other things, gives women the right to sue establishments that deny women the right to nurse.

Madden's story created such a media stir, several local towns passed similar laws and Illinois First Lady Patti Blagojevich spoke out against discrimination toward nursing mothers.

"Breastfeeding is the best form of nourishment for young children," the first lady says. "We need to do everything we can to help women feel less hesitant about breastfeeding."

And the national fitness center—which had endured reams of bad press for its earlier actions—received some positive publicity in the end. On the day Madden's law was passed, a chain spokeswoman praised her efforts and called the law "the right thing to do."

Go for a stroll

After giving birth, new moms have special needs. In addition to physical considerations, there are also practical ones. It simply becomes harder for women to carve out time to exercise.

Some women have trouble finding babysitters or can't afford the nursery fees at local health clubs. Others still don't feel comfortable being separated from their infants.

A new fitness program strives to resolve those problems. StrollerFit gives moms a fun, healthy way to get in shape while pushing their children's strollers. The workouts—which can be held indoors and out—lengthen, strengthen and sculpts bodies with exercises that compliment the stroller's movement, resistance and stability.

The classes, which are taught by certified instructors, concentrate on rebuilding "Mommy Muscles," the areas women use most during pregnancy and labor. The 50-minute workout also gives mothers a chance to connect with other moms.

Mike Grimsley, director of wellness programs at Provena St. Mary's Hospital in Bourbonnais, Ill., learned about StrollerFit while surfing the Internet several months ago. He embraced the program not only for its physical benefits but also because it reaches out to women at a time in their lives when they may stray away from exercise.

Grimsley then worked with two local park districts to help bring classes to their area. The partnership enabled the hospital and districts to reach out to a broader audience and offer the class at a variety of locations.

In Bourbonnais, StrollerFit is held at the town's waterpark. They hold the classes there before the park opens. When it finishes, the mothers have the rest of the day to spend relaxing and swimming with their children at the aquatic center.

The system benefits both the waterpark and the exercise program. The class increases the number of pool patrons during the summer, while waterpark visitors are exposed to a new workout option.

The hospital also has rented space at the local shopping mall to hold StrollerFit classes. The location offers an invaluable marketing opportunity for the program and the hospital. St. Mary's takes advantage of the increased visibility to offer wellness screenings and other health-related activities in conjunction with the class.

The hospital has partnered with "Spirit of Women," a national organization that champions female health issues, to increase awareness about the classes. It even has tied StrollerFit in with its birthing program. Information about the classes is included in the "new mom" packet mothers receive upon being discharged from the hospital.

The aggressive marketing plan has benefited the various groups connected with the program, Grimsley says.

"This has been a win-win situation for everyone involved—the hospital, the local park districts, the community, and most importantly, mom and baby," he says.

In fact, babies may be the ones who benefit most. Infants and toddlers respond to the audio, video and physical stimulation the class provides. Instructors—all of whom are moms trained to keep fussy babies entertained—build in lots of interaction with the children including bubble blowing and games.

The class also introduces babies to exercise at an early age—an invaluable gift they can enjoy for the rest of their lives.

"It's fitness and bonding between parents and kids," Grimsley says. "Everyone sings songs together, nursery rhymes and other childhood songs. Everyone is part of the program and having fun."

StrollerFit is not a moms-only club. Dads, nannies and anyone else with a stroller also are welcome. Their participation, in fact, is encouraged.

Grimsley fondly recalls one of the hospital's first StrollerFit classes in which a mother with twins came with her own mom. The new mother pushed one stroller while grandma worked out with the other.

"The neatest thing I've seen," he says. "This truly was a family experience."

Pole position

Fitness programs can, however, celebrate womanhood without specializing in expectant and new mothers.

Some of the most creative classes these days tap into women's sexuality and get them in touch with their bodies. At Flashdance Studios in Broomfield, Colo., instructors teach traditional dance styles, including jazz, tap and ballet. The facility, however, has gained popularity in the Denver area for its other, more inspired offerings.

The studio has nearly a dozen classes that celebrate femininity and indulge imaginations. It offers showgirl workouts, belly dancing and go-go lessons. There's a class called "Fishnets and Fosse" and a burlesque workshop that taught two sexy dance routines: the first to "Hey, Big Spender" and the second to "Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair."

If those seem too tame, there are also hula hoop and Latin Goddess workouts.

"It's a magical experience when women discover and learn to use their hips," says Tonja Van Helden, studio manager.

Flashdance's most popular class, however, is the stripper workout. For several years now, it has been embraced by celebrities such as Teri Hatcher, Natalie Portman and Pam Anderson.

Once Oprah did a segment on it, however, it became a national trend.

Flashdance Studios began teaching the stripper workout about two years ago and has seen no evidence of the movement dying. The facility offers beginner classes and advanced exercise called Pole-ates.

"You get the fantasy of being a stripper without all the negatives and the drawbacks," Van Helden says.

The Flashdance classes, which are open to anyone 17 years or older, lure patrons of all shapes, sizes and ages. The studio used to offer an over-40 class but it didn't go over well.

"People don't like being labeled," Van Helden says. "They like to be with everyone else."

The classes have given the studio an unexpected revenue source. The stripper workout has become so trendy, many women now throw bachelorette parties at Flashdance.

The party packages include, among other things, a stripper class with keepsake pictures shot by a professional photographer.

The studio also has marketed its classes to Denver's gay and lesbian community. Its advertising materials stress that the facility is open to everyone.

The receptive atmosphere makes it possible for patrons to step outside themselves and try something new, Van Helden says. And, in addition to milking imaginations, it offers clients a fun way to get healthy.

"Women have been taught not to trust their own bodies," Van Helden says. "We're trying to create an environment where everything is accepted."

Scouts' honor

Tapping into a woman's imagination sometimes means revisiting her girlhood dreams. Such programs can bring female patrons back to a time when they were fearless, willing to face challenges and try new things.

Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas understood this when she began working on her book, You Can Do It! As a former Girl Scout, she was familiar with merit badges and remembered the sense of accomplishment she felt when she earned one.

She wanted to provide that same experience and feeling to adult women. Grandcolas, who was devoted to fitness and outdoor adventures, particularly hoped to offer an outlet to her close-knit group of friends, women who always talked about wanting to try new things but lamented they didn't have the time.

"She envisioned You Can Do It! as something that would encourage women to get out there and try all aspects of life," says her younger sister, Vaughn Catuzzi Lohec.

Unfortunately, Grandcolas never saw her dream become a reality. She was among the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed into a Pennsylvania field after being hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001.

Her sisters, Lohec and Dara Catuzzi Near, decided to finish the book in her memory. The result is handbook that aims to start a national movement and could be a boon to recreation programs everywhere.

The book contains 60 different badges, or chapters. It's organized into seven sections: dare, create, learn, play, deal, connect and dream. The badges run the gamut from cooking to travel to photography—topics taught at park districts throughout the country.

Recreation professionals also will be happy to see the book encourages a large number of fitness programs and outdoor activities. It spurs women to try yoga, dance, surfing and horseback riding.

And Grandcolas, who enjoyed hiking, kayaking and inline skating, would have loved the idea of women exploring these pursuits, her sister says.

"Lauren was a can-do spirit who dedicated herself to tackling and mastering new skills," Lohec says.

Each badge guides women through the learning process from beginning to end. The book includes personal stories and advice from female experts.

At the end of each chapter, there's a round sticker, a fun reward reminiscent of Grandcolas' beloved Girl Scout badges.

There's also an impressive online community for devotees. The book's Web site offers newsletters, resources and message boards to help women achieve their goals.

This is where park districts and other recreation facilities can step in. The book gives women the inspiration and the idea, but someone needs to provide opportunity.

Park districts, especially, may want to consider pairing with a local book store to form a You Can Do It! support group. They also could reach out to local mom's groups, women's organizations and social clubs.

By introducing the book in yoga classes or enrichment courses, recreation professionals will be encouraging women to try new classes and building patronage at the same time.

And, most importantly, it will help make Grandcolas' dream of empowering women a reality.

Just for Females

Women's fitness has boomed recently thanks to programs that understand what women want. For example, the circuit workout craze recognizes that many women crave a supportive, environment. It also acknowledges another important fact—in today's busy world, many women are pressed for time.

In most cases, the women are encouraged to socialize and offer moral support while exercising. The room design allows them talk and laugh as they rotate through a quick 30-minute circuit.

In fact, the trend has become so successful, similar men-only facilities are opening up. Here's a look at the three of the most successful female circuits:

Curves: Arguably the most famous of the women's workout facilities, the chain offers hydraulic fitness machines that allow clients to gain strength without having to change heavy weights—or be intimidated by the muscleheads in the free-weight section. The chain, which has more than 9,000 locations around the world, offers specialized meal plans to help clients meet weight-loss goals.

Butterfly Life: Butterfly Life operates under the belief that weight loss is only one facet of a healthy lifestyle. The chain takes what is describes as a "360-degree approach to addressing women's health and fitness." It integrates fitness and nutrition with psychology, beauty and fashion to inspire its female patrons. Each Butterfly Life franchise boasts "Life Vision" system, a mammoth-sized television screen on which members can watch 30-minute workout classes and 15-minute inspirational seminars. There are also live classes and 10 pieces of custom-designed strength equipment to help build muscle and boost metabolism.

Elements for Women: Part weight-loss center and part hydraulic workout facility, Elements strives to offer women a one-stop lifestyle shop. In addition to offering health and beauty tips, the chain's nutritional experts also help women understand and customize some of the most popular diet plans, including Atkins, The Zone and the South Beach Diet.

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