The fitness industry is composed of small clubs (less than 35,000 square feet) and big clubs (greater than 35,000 square feet). Although this dividing line is arbitrary, the size of the club is meaningful to those who specialize in planning expansions and renovations of active facilities. A 34,000-square-foot club is a good-size building, a substantial financial risk and could benefit from many of the following insights. Unlike small dogs who think and act like they are big dogs, if you think and act like you are a big club, then you probably are.
Many clubs that are big today began as small clubs that expanded through years of incremental additions and conversions. As a result, they may be burdened by a building organization far different than that of large clubs built from scratch as a single-phase, multi-million-dollar development. These older big clubs often find themselves competing against new large facilities with optimized designs. As owners of large clubs contemplate improvement plans as a way of holding onto or gaining market share, they should focus on these large club challenges:
• Way finding. People should be able to find their way around your club and through it in a manner that will ease and enrich your members’ experience as they circulate from point “A” to point “B.” Unfortunately, large clubs with sprawling floor plans can create confusing circulation patterns. When new attractions are added to clubs, intuitively comprehensible and generously defined pathways, including open, user-friendly stairways, must be created. If your club needs directional signage, then you have a problem.
• Diverse user populations. Big clubs cannot afford to cater to a single user population. The owners of successful big clubs have built their prosperity on satisfying member constituencies as diverse as families and singles, seniors and young adults, men and women, serious athletes and weekend warriors, tennis players and swimmers, etc. Often, a club improvement that gives something new to one user group takes away something from another group, such as when a racquetball court is converted to a group cycle studio. It inevitably falls upon the designer to manage this give-and-take so that each group feels like a winner.
• Wow factor. One way to soften the blow for a member group that will lose ground in a big club improvement project is to include a common area “wow factor” upgrade that raises the bar for all members, such as a new member lounge, a café upgrade, more convenient parking or an impressive new club lobby. Big clubs can benefit more from a “wow factor” investment than small clubs.
• Biting the bullet. Members are an adaptable species and can become blind to serious flaws in a big club layout, such as inconvenient parking, narrow hallways, aging HVAC equipment, low ceilings, or poor food and beverage location—that is, until another player in the market comes along with a shiny new facility that has none of those negatives. These long-postponed course corrections for past errors of design judgment are different for every club. Many older large clubs have been enjoying “grandfathered” immunity to modern codes and regulations, including ADA accessibility, fire prevention and life safety requirements. Such immunity comes with risk and increased insurance premiums. Most owners and operators are aware of their weaknesses and know that these weaknesses will need to be addressed, which means funds diverted from more visible and popular improvement options.
• Phasing and logistics. Construction work on an active, functioning club building is like major surgery on a living, breathing patient; it is complicated. Planning for intelligent phasing and cost-effective logistics is the construction equivalent of surgical anesthesia. Big clubs have more options for the temporary relocations needed to execute improvement programs. The key is to involve the entire project team (designer, operator and contractor) so that the inconvenience is minimized.
Big club survival is a high-stakes game of strategic differentiation. The whole club can be greater than the sum of its parts when the big picture is understood and priority is given to creating venues for cultivation of social connectivity. It is a beautiful thing when a “fitness center” makes the leap to “athletic club.”
Hervey Lavoie is president of Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative, an architecture, aquatic design and interior design firm. With 35 years of design experience, Lavoie has completed club design assignments in 42 states and six countries.