Mixing old and new ideas to fulfill fresh niches
By Kyle Ryan
Perhaps no other business in the world is more endorsed than the fitness industry. Any company would love to have doctors, academics and public officials in its corner. No lucid person would advise people not to get in shape, which explains why those doctors, academics and public officials implore people to stay fit. That only can benefit the industry that facilitates health.
The numbers more or less reflect that. According to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), the health-club world has grown in 2005. IHRSA's most recent data (for the first quarter of 2005) shows a 5.3 percent in revenue (to $13.37 million) from the last quarter of 2004. The National Sporting Goods Association's (NSGA) data shows that 52.2 percent of Americans worked out with equipment last year, making it the fourth overall in terms of sports participation (behind exercise walking, camping and swimming). Also up: aerobic exercising (to 29.5 percent), weight lifting (to 26.2 percent) and yoga (to 6.7 percent).
Flipping those numbers around, though, the picture changes: Roughly 70 percent of those who responded don't get any type of aerobic exercise, which actually placed below billiards for sports participation. According to IHRSA, the nation's 26,830 health facilities have 41.3 million members—but of that 41 million, how many actively and consistently exercise? After all, working out at a club ranks below fishing and bowling on NSGA's list. These days, health facilities have to adjust their approach, and these clubs have mixed old and new ideas to fulfill fresh niches.
When the SHARE Foundation took over an old YWCA in El Dorado, Ark., and created the HealthWorks Fitness Center, it had to do a lot of work. The not-for-profit organization shared the community focus of the YWCA, but the building required significant renovation. Executive Director Mike Dupuis organized that in three phases, beginning with closing the 10-lane, 25-yard pool for six months.
"We had folks, when they heard we were shutting the pool down, you'd have thought I had a lynch mob outside my office," Dupuis says, laughing. "I mean, they were just ready to kill because they'd been swimming here for 17 years. They didn't want to mess with it, [saying] 'How can you do this?'"
Dupuis planned for that reaction, though, by placing all swimmers in land-based personal-training programs for no charge.
"Several of the more adamant swimmers I don't believe have stepped foot back in the pool," he says.
That's a surprise considering the pool's transformation. When the renovation finished, it created a multiple-zoned aquatics center with a lazy river, 120-foot water slide, water-walking channel, 60,000-gallon warm-water pool and competitive swim area, all of it indoors. The result? "Record numbers" for swim lessons (kids over age 8 can swim alone if they pass a test) and HealthWorks' most popular program, a warm-water arthritis class for seniors. The zero-depth entry helps make it easy to get them in, and a Jacuzzi bench helps keep them there. Dupuis says up to 50 seniors use the pool at the same time, a key design element for the pool.
"Most facilities undersize them," he says. "We took four lanes of that 10-lane pool and dedicated them for that. I can actually have about 10 or 15 of them doing water walking at the same time a class is going on for 45 to 50 of them. We've been real fortunate that it ended up designing out very well and also that our participation has been great."
The aquatics center renovation was just one phase of HealthWorks' rebirth. Dupuis also redid the locker rooms, creating six altogether: two family, two for kids up to 14 and two for adults. A new three-story building houses the group-exercise studios, a 12,000-square-foot fitness area on the second floor, and a café, conference room, mammography suite, pro shop, nursery and baby-sitting area on the first floor.
More facilities have implemented that "all under one roof" approach, and in HealthWorks' case, the results have been dramatic. According to Dupuis, the club went from 750 members when it took over the YWCA to 4,300 now. Not bad for a town with just 21,000 residents.
The club's programming—the usual mix of group exercise, aquatics and specialty classes—has a lot to do with that. One of its newest programs addresses a previously ignored age-group: kids ages 8 to 13.
"The notorious problem that fitness centers have is you take kids up to about the age of 8 in the nursery, which is what we do, but at 8 you kind of get rid of them," Dupuis says. "They come out of there because they're too big. We had to figure a way to develop a program for them to be safe and to be able to use cardiovascular equipment as well as use the pool, so we did that."
The program, which began after the final phase of expansion, first takes children through a fitness assessment using a body-composition unit. After that, they receive a 30- to 45-minute orientation with the cardiovascular equipment. Once a staff member signs off on them, children can use the cardio equipment in the fitness area as long as a parent is in the room.
"We've dramatically improved our utilization," he says. "It's very convenient. If you have children, you understand it's hard to do anything and not have them do it with you. It's worked out real well. We've got plenty of equipment; we've got plenty of space. It's all an open environment, so everybody can see everybody. It's been win-win for us."
Beyond that, HealthWorks also offers sports-specific training clinics for kids, and Dupuis hopes to begin nutrition classes soon. With the third phase of expansion now complete, Dupuis has no plans for further expansion in the short term.
"We're sitting tight right now," he says. "I've got the ability to build out of both other ends of the building, and you know, if the demand warrants it, our foundation is very, very successful and very supportive of community wellness. So if we came up with another need or something like that, I've got the abilities to expand."
One of the newer clubs in Chicago, Fitplex South Loop opened in May just south of downtown. The area has experienced a resurgence over the past couple of years, according to Scott Lewandowski, director of health and fitness for Fitness Formula, the company that owns Fitplex.
"If you drive down Michigan Avenue, and you look to the south, you'll count at least eight cranes," he says, adding that members from one of the company's other downtown clubs had begun moving to the area. "It was highly underserved," he says.
As designers planned the new club, Fitplex wanted to take some of the best elements from its five other clubs and incorporate them into the South Loop facility, from yoga rooms with individual temperature controls to amenities like a spa, juice bar and tanning salon. Those last few may seem extraneous, but Lewandowski considers them integral.
"Fitness has many different definitions," he says. "There's people that are looking to maybe increase performance—maybe they're an athlete. There are some people that are looking to lose weight. There are some people that are looking to tone. There are some people that are looking just to feel better, and there are those people that are looking to relax. So you want to create a one-stop shop. Everything that gives you that sense of feeling better, you want to have that in your club, because, if you don't, members are paying for it elsewhere."
Fitness Formula uses the new South Loop club as a sort of testing ground for new equipment, such as cardio machines with built-in TVs. If they work well, the company may use them in other facilities. Also unique to the South Loop club is the Spinning studio's large, interactive screen that sits behind the instructor. It has a cable connection, so the club plans to use the studio as a multipurpose room for hosting events like Super Bowl parties.
As every club manager knows, top-notch equipment and amenities only help retain members to a certain extent; programming can be the most critical part of a club's business. Fitplex South Loop has a relatively extensive programming schedule: cardio kickboxing, Spinning, yoga, Pilates, abs classes and more. Its marathon-training and boot camp programs tend to be the most popular. When members join the Fitplex South Loop, they also automatically enter a program that uses customized, preprinted workouts to guide them through exercise routines.
"It's customized because we take your strengths, your abilities, your goals and use our equipment to plug into a Web-based program that then prints out workouts every time you come in," Lewandowski says. "This is free, so they can have as many workouts as they [want] completed in a week as long as they throw one out and get another. It's great."
The program works on both health and business levels. First, it helps integrate new members into using equipment that could otherwise be intimidating. Second, it feeds them into other, more advanced programs like personal training and Pilates—that, obviously, creates more business revenue.
Fitplex also has found some success by specializing programming for age groups, particularly Baby Boomers and children. For the Boomers, there's Club Gold, which tailors wellness-focused exercise routines for people in their mid-40s or older. There are also popular kids' programs run by a company called CAMPUS (Celebrating Artistry Musicality Physicality United Successfully) that go beyond physical health to cultivate kids' creativity and individuality. Another popular one has been the club's 12-week Ultimate Fitness and Nutrition Program, which is designed to foster behavioral and lifestyle changes through nutritional education. The company mostly sticks to tried-and-true programming, which Lewandowski says accounts for part of their success.
"[It's] what has stood the test of time," he says. "Definitely a yoga studio, a spin studio, as many studios that [you] could have for additional classes and personal training. [It's] making sure that you establish all of these services that have been around for years and have made clubs successful, then [figuring out] what is underserved."
Quick circuit workouts existed before Curves, but the women's storefront fitness chain undoubtedly revolutionized them. Now the number-one franchise in the United States (according to Entrepreneur magazine), Curves inspired a whole line of copycats, all employing variations of its quick, no-stress, no-intimidation formula.
But Greg Thurman, 21 Minute Convenience Fitness founder, says the parallels between his new company and Curves stop after their similarly brief workouts, low franchise-startup costs and target market (people who wouldn't normally join a health club). For example, members work out in their street clothes, which is possible because they only do sweat-free slow lifting and minimal cardio. Thurman calls it "Fatigue Intensity Training," a.k.a. the FIT Method. It's based on the work of Arthur Jones, who created the slow, controlled method of strength training 50 years ago and inspired several exercise programs, such as including SuperSlow, Power Of 10 and Slow Burn. The method works particularly well for older people.
"Baby Boomers are now transitioning into senior years and finding it more and more difficult to kind of maintain strength, if you will," Thurman says. "They need to kind of move slightly away from what we could call an 'aerobics-based' workout—a lot of this was damaging joints and connective tissues."
Until 21 Minute Convenience Fitness, no one had really incorporated those techniques into the storefront formula. For Thurman, that convenience aspect is essential. People need to be able to pop in, work out and leave without any hassle. Consequently, 21 Minute lacks everything but the basic equipment.
Members make appointments to exercise, mostly because they have to work out with a coach. The coaches use wireless tablets to access 21 Minute's software to see each person's training routine. The software charts members' progress against their goals, then sends assessments to them via e-mail. Each coach gets trained to use the software and the FIT Method through a Web-based program that takes a few days to finish.
One seemingly glaring hole in 21 Minute's exercise routine is cardio. Any type of exercise that doesn't cause people to sweat can't be elevating their heart rates enough for any benefit, right? Thurman says no. At the beginning, middle and end of the 21-minute workout, members mount a recumbent stationary bike and pedal as hard as they can for 30 seconds against medium resistance.
"When you do this, it raises the ambient level of your heart rate throughout the rest of the workout to about 65 percent of your target cardio rate," Thurman says. "So it's very, very effective."
That amounts to a whopping three minutes of cardio a week, which seems laughably small. But a study that appeared in the June 2005 issue of Journal Of Applied Physiology stated that six minutes of intense exercise every week can be as beneficial as three hour-long runs. The article did note, however, that it's not effective for losing weight.
For now, 21 Minute Convenience Fitness only has one location, but Thurman plans to open franchises around the country shortly.
Thurman's 21 Minute Convenience Fitness follows a simple piece of advice that Lewandowski has for other clubs: Find a hole and fill it.
"It essentially comes down to what is your vision, your niche, and can you survive," he says. "You want to see what the other clubs in your neighborhood are offering and kind of get a sense on what may be underserved, what is very popular. But you want to keep in mind what your goal is on revenue per square foot."
Before one of Fitplex's other locations opened, designers planned to build a racquetball court in it. But the sport's long decline in popularity has made racquetball courts wasted space in many clubs. A lot of them have renovated the courts for other purposes, and Fitplex's designers nixed the court at the last minute.
"That got changed right at the end to a women's fitness studio," Lewandowski says, "just because we saw that two people per hour on a racquetball court, where there may be five to six women working out on equipment."
Eventually, that became part of the Pilates studio.
"Things may evolve, and it really depends upon, again, what's very popular, because you need to keep an eye on usage," Lewandowski says. "You want people to use the club. If they're not going to use it, they're not going to see value. They're not going to continue to be a member."
Ideas like changing a racquetball court to a women's fitness studio come from knowledgeable staff. For Mike Dupuis, it all comes down to the people he hires.
"If you've got some dynamite, caring individuals that will give to the program, I have found nine times out of 10 you're going to be very successful," he says. "Spend your money wisely on people, and good things will follow."
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