Dressed to Impress

Fundamental Considerations in Locker Room Design and Maintenance

By Joseph Ryan

estled on six sun-drenched acres between San Francisco and the Silicon Valley, Prime Time Athletic Club has a lot to offer its upper-crust customer base: 120,000 square feet of amenities, including two heated pools, four lighted tennis courts and nearly 400 pieces of top-of-the-line equipment. The list is inviting. But CEO John Michael says it is actually Prime Time's locker rooms that keep 2,000 customers a day paying top dollar.

"Everyone is going to use that area twice, when they come in and before they leave," Michael said. "This is the first and last impression you get. It is real important."

So, Michael has invested in top-dollar locker rooms—six of them, each bigger than most homes. The largest locker rooms are 5,000 square feet. The smallest, which are being upgraded this year, are about 1,600 square feet split on two floors.

Solid wood lockers, granite countertops on multiple vanities, indirect lighting, pristine tile, three-head private showers, 42-inch plasma TVs, lounge areas with couches, saunas, whirlpools and limestone accents beckon customers to stay for the day.

"With the growth of these chain clubs, we really have to set ourselves apart," Michael reasoned.

Why are locker rooms important?

Of course, not every facility can afford to go that upscale. But Prime Time underscores the importance of locker rooms in setting the bar for the entire facility, and it highlights just how critical that space is for patrons.

Super-luxury locker rooms like Prime Time's can cost big. Michael said he has spent as much as $1,000 per square foot in his locker rooms, compared to $10 to $15 per square foot for gyms or racquetball courts.

"The locker room is the most expensive space you are going to build," said Keith Hayes, a principal with Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture in Denver. "And the challenge is always in making it more luxurious."

Yet, while most facilities don't have the budget for solid wood lockers or giant flat-screen TVs, designers and managers agree there are a number of cheaper amenities every facility can consider using to give customers a better experience and keep them coming back.

"You are always working with a budget, and it has been our experience that if you are going to skimp in any area, don't do it in the locker room," said Jim Thomas, director of Fitness Management Consulting in Coppell, Texas, which works with independent operators. "They get a lot of wear and tear, and in a couple years that locker room will look very old. Spend as much as you can."

Even if prospective customers occasionally overlook the locker room as they decide whether to sign on to a recreation facility—at that time they may be more focused on equipment—the patron will soon find it to be a chief concern after regular use.

When they don't believe the showers are clean or private, when their belongings are stolen or when they constantly bump into people changing clothes, then patrons may start to gaze at greener pastures elsewhere.

"I think the locker room is the single most important thing in getting them to keep coming," Thomas added. "When they use it they will notice if inferior products are used in that locker room, and that will have a big effect."

Of course, not all locker rooms need to have top-shelf amenities, but competition in the recreation industry is ever-increasing. At the very least, a clean, well-appointed locker room can give an edge.

"If you have a really abusive clientele, then the nicer finishes with the club environment will just get beat up, and you won't realize the benefit," Hayes said. "But if you want to compete with pricey private clubs, that might be a good thing to look at, or if you are looking at a big fee increase, will people pay that premium?"

The basics

Many locker rooms just need some retooling to add that extra pizzazz, while others need a complete overhaul, but all facility managers need to make sure the basics are accomplished before looking at how to upgrade.

Most designers and facility managers agree that a locker room's size is the single most important factor. A clear lack of space will quickly turn off potential customers and make it difficult to get the most out of even the more pricey upgrades.

"A small space doesn't give you a sense of luxury or upscale, even if it is really nicely done," said Joel Cantor, principal of Cantor AIA Architect in San Francisco, Calif.

Industry guidelines suggest that recreation facilities should provide 10 to 20 square feet of space per individual in the locker room, taking into account the rush-hour periods throughout the day. In all, designers like to have the locker rooms take up about 30 percent of the facility's total indoor space.

Certainly, not all facilities can provide this much space, but experts suggest that it at least be a clear priority to do as much as possible to reach those guidelines. After all, your customer base may depend on it.

When space is tight, using it wisely is important. Locker areas should get as much space as possible, experts say.

"When people are using those lockers and they have elbows in their face, that is not good," said Thomas of Fitness Management Consulting. "You want enough room were people can sit there and get up and down and stuff without bumping into each other."

When it comes to choosing the style of lockers—your patrons' own private space—it seems these days metal is out, even though it can often be the cheapest material for one of the most expensive elements in the room.

"I would be hard pressed to find metal lockers in any good health club these days," Cantor said.

Designers say some public facilities can still get away with metal lockers, especially schools and colleges where abuse is expected. But for health clubs and other recreation facilities, wood, laminate or plastic lockers are the recommended way to go. To choose among the three, consider who will be using them.

Plastic may be the best material for a pool environment, where high humidity, chemicals and soggy clothes can take a quick toll on wood and laminate. If you are going high-class, and expect to charge your customers a mint, then solid wood is preferred.

In updating a locker room, you may want to consider switching out old metal for new laminate, which is cheaper than solid wood, but better-looking than some plastics or metal.

Cantor suggested that replacing old lockers can have the single biggest impact on the appearance of the room and will be easier and more cost-effective than some other changes.

"To upgrade the tile—it is a big cost," Cantor said. "To change out the lockers—that is a lot simpler."

The size of the individual lockers is also important. Customers will want enough space to be able to hang a suit coat or dress shirt without wrinkling it.

Designers and managers generally agree that every facility needs showers, whether you have a pool or not, and these days that means private showers. One sure way to attract more customers with your locker rooms, especially those of younger generations, is to convert your communal showers to private stalls. This can be a relatively cost-effective procedure, depending on your current shower setup.

"The idea of a private shower is absolutely the way to go," Thomas said. "The gang shower has gone by the wayside."

At best, converting may mean simply installing partitions between the individual shower heads, adding a door to each stall and setting up a bench area for changing. If your communal shower is big enough, the remodel can be rather painless, Cantor said.

"It really depends on how it is laid out to start with," he explained. "Sometimes it is easy to do, and sometimes it is not."

However, if the showers are not already spaced far enough apart, it could require ripping out the plumbing behind the wall, which can cost big bucks. Also, local health codes may require the installation of additional drains and runoff gutters—big bucks again, Cantor warned.

Finally, when significant changes are made to locker rooms, or they are being built from scratch, be aware you will have to stay in line with requirements outlined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). To keep facilities open and accessible to those with disabilities, federal and local laws regulate numerous aspects of public locker rooms and restrooms. Among the mandates are widths and heights of benches, heights of sinks, space of restroom stalls and shower accessibility. Be sure to consult with local health officials and federal ADA codes for the specifics that may apply to certain facilities.

Big-Ticket Items

Saunas, steam rooms and whirlpools—these amenities distinguish high-end recreation facilities from the rest of the pack. But unless you have the financial wherewithal to ensure the proper maintenance of such equipment, don't think about taking such a plunge, experts say.

"They are very high-maintenance, and there are always health issues," said Joel Cantor, principal of Cantor AIA Architect in San Francisco, Calif. "I have heard so many arguments from owners against them."

If you are compelled by your customer base, or if you have a desire to attract a higher-paying clientele, you should start with the sauna. Most experts agree that of the three, the sauna requires the least amount of maintenance, space and money of the bunch.

"A steam room can cost three times as much as a sauna, at least," Cantor said.

Steam rooms are becoming very rare because of the upfront cost required, the space needed and the damage the steam can cause to the rest of the locker room.

If you want a whirlpool, consider putting it in an area accessible to both genders so you don't need to buy two or more.

Luxury on the cheap

With the basics in line, facility managers and owners can begin to look at ways to improve their locker rooms while staying in budget. And experts agree that most facility owners should strive to make the locker room as luxurious and amenity-rich as the budget will allow to stay competitive in today's market.

"It is pretty important nowadays," Cantor said. "The people that join clubs want to have an upscale locker room with amenities. They don't just want a place to hang their clothes."

The style of a locker room can go a long way toward creating a sense of luxury for a small price, experts say. Inexpensive framed paintings and switching out bleaching florescent light for indirect lighting can go a long way toward making the space more inviting and homey to users.

To create better style, paint should be the first consideration when upgrading or building new. The color should be calming, but also able to hide the occasional scratch or abrasion.

"You can just repaint a space and make a pretty big difference," Hayes said.

After making sure the paint is up-to-date, take a look at the carpet. Replacing carpet can be a cost-effective upgrade to the room's overall style.

"Even the kind of carpet can make a big difference," Cantor explained.

Beyond the appearance of the locker room, the utility of it can get patrons accustomed to enjoying the facility on a daily basis. Prospective customers even can be lured in after they see quality, unexpected amenities following a tour that highlights the more expected perks of membership.

For example, consider expanding the toiletry products offered. Shampoo and soap should be standard, so look into adding mouthwash, conditioner or shaving cream for an extra touch. Adding these items can even cut down on the proliferation of garbage and grime in the locker room.

"That gives you more control, and that helps on the cleaning side, too," Hayes said.

Experts suggest a small business of selling travel-size toiletries at the front desk could be appreciated by customers, as well as add a few dollars to the bottom line.

Also, how much more would it really cost to add a few hair dryers, magnifying mirrors, an iron or a suit steamer? All of these amenities can really attract the higher-end clientele that is looking to get ready for work or a night meeting after using the facility. And the products don't have to be top-of-the-line, experts say, just clean, operating and useful.

If the facility has the space, a small lounge area can really give the locker room a "club" feel for just the cost of a few couches, chairs and a decent-size TV. Plus, setting up a coffee pot and water stand really just adds a few dimes and nickels a day to the budget, but makes patrons feel important.

"A lot of times (customers) want a lounge they can hang out in with friends or to watch TV while they are changing," Cantor said.

Even upgrading your showers might not cost as much as one would think. In addition to adding the aforementioned partitions, Michael of Prime Time explained that it costs just a few dollars to add a handheld shower head.

"That portion of the shower isn't that much," he said. "And it adds a lot of value for customers."

Landing big-ticket services may also be a lot less expensive than you imagine. Consider partnering up with a local masseuse, barber or dry cleaners for your customers. If you provide a drop-off and pick-up spot for the dry cleaners and a room for the masseuse or barber, the service could actually be paid in full by the customer and the businesses may be happy to get the exclusive sales.

Theft Prevention

Many facility owners don't want to talk about it, but theft from lockers is a problem just about everywhere. Discussing ways to curb thefts and protect your customers is essential, experts say.

"I don't think there is a health club across the country that hasn't had a locker broken into at one time or another," said Jim Thomas, director of of Fitness Management Consulting, which works with independent operators.

The first line of defense is the locks on the lockers, of course. One of the biggest problems in many facilities is that customers fail to lock away their valuables.

"I was giving a tour one day (of a facility), and I go to open the locker to show the guests, and here was some family's stuff in there and they didn't even put a lock on it," recalled Keith Hayes, a principal with Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture.

To combat this kind of apathy, experts suggest signage reminding patrons that the facility is not responsible for stolen items and to use a lock. Also, a small service at the front desk to provide locks for a fee can help the more forgetful customers.

To keep an eye out for thieves, the staff should be encouraged to watch for suspicious activity during their regular walkthroughs, which should come at least once an hour per employee.

In addition to petty theft, there have been accounts of organized crime targeting locker rooms as easy pickings.

In late 2003, the FBI put out a report warning about a gang of Yugoslavian, Albanian, Croatian and Serbian criminals using day passes to pillage credit cards from health club locker rooms, and then using the cards at casinos to take out thousands of dollars.

The trend began in the early 1990s, according to the FBI report written by agent Richard Ballezza. In many cases, a group of four to six thieves would sign up for day passes at the clubs or target clubs with free trial memberships. Once inside, they would shimmy lockers open and steal credit cards without leaving signs of a break-in.

Once they had about 15 to 20 cards, they would head to the casino and reap tens of thousands of dollars before the victims even realized the cards were gone. The FBI report recommends clubs require photo identification for all guests and provide a small valuables safe at the front desk for guests wanting extra protection.

"The presence of the small valuables lockers, located immediately behind or next to the front desk, for the storage of a wallet and keys can reduce the chance of any credit card theft," the report suggests.

Keep it clean

Even the best amenities, design, space and layout will not take attention off sanitation issues in the locker room.

"You are never going to use a locker room that is dirtier than your own bathroom," said Hayes of Barker Rinker Seacat.

Towels on the floor, spilled lotions at the sink, toilet paper scattered about and all those inherent effects of a busy locker room can hint to customers of a more serious sanitation problem—one that gets them thinking of athlete's foot—or worse.

Facility owners and managers can attack this inevitable problem two ways: through better daily maintenance and also some forethought with design.

As a general rule of thumb, experts say each staff member should be trained to walk through the locker rooms at least every hour to pick up items, wipe down counters and ensure all the toiletries are well stocked. Some even suggest making staff use the bathrooms in the locker rooms to ensure they conduct the check.

"Don't underestimate the effect of walking through," advised Thomas of Fitness Management Consulting.

A checklist routine that provides for mopping, vacuuming and garbage takeout on a continual basis throughout the day is also a must.

"Keep it clean," Thomas added. "At the end of the day, if nothing else is done you will be ahead of a lot of folks."

A growing sanitation trend these days is to provide separate disposal units in bathrooms for biohazard material, like syringes for diabetics and used bandages, Hayes said. Keeping those items out of regular garbage cans where other guests can see them or come in contact with them is important both for the perception of cleanliness and for the actual protection of customers.

On the design end, Hayes suggests ensuring there are no dark, hidden areas or corners that can easily go unnoticed by a passing employee or the daily clean-up crew.

Also, you can pick out easy-to-clean materials. Thomas said that in this case, the choice of tile is critical.

"The biggest mistake we see is when folks go with white tiles and white grout," he said. "It looks great when it first goes in, but it gets dirty real quick.

"You want a product in there that you can keep clean and has the appearance of being clean," Thomas added. Tile should be avoided on countertops because residue from lotions and plain water can make the area difficult to keep clean. Experts suggest granite, if affordable, or laminated plastic tops. Both are easy for a passing employee to wipe down.

Beyond regularly washing the tile, Michael of Prime Time noted that it should be re-grouted often to prevent the buildup of mildew and maintain a fresh appearance.

The location of bathroom facilities is also important. Pool areas should have direct access to bathroom units to prevent patrons from tracking water through a locker room or other facility section.

Finally, experts say a good ventilation system is key. This goes especially for locker rooms that have doors opening to pools and steam rooms where humidity or airborne chemicals can become an issue. Separate ventilation for the locker room should be considered, as should effective dehumidifiers.

"There is so much focus in the press these days on mold and mildew health concerns," Hayes said. "And if you have a humid environment, gosh knows what you have growing."

Keeping customers coming

With the basics in line, a few cost-effective upgrades and a clean, crisp look, a locker room can be the most customer-drawing aspect of a recreational facility, even though it is not the main attraction.

"Competition is fierce," Michael said. "You know we all basically have the same treadmills, so why is someone going to pick one over the other? (The locker rooms) really make that difference."

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