Niche Clubs Offer Members a Unique Alternative

In an industry where big-name companies own hundreds of clubs across the country, generate millions of dollars in revenue and offer low-cost memberships, some small health club owners have discovered offering something different may be the best way to thrive.

“To try and compete with the 24 Hour Fitnesses and the RetroFitnesses is just ridiculous,” says Missi Wolf, founder and instructor of BLAST900 Studio in Atlanta. Her facility differentiates itself by offering 60 sessions of the studio’s eponymous class per week. The class is composed of a mixture of different cardio and strength training intervals that can burn up to 900 calories per hour.

BLAST900 combines two of the fitness industry’s biggest trends. The class uses the same concept of muscle confusion and intense calorie burning that P90X popularized but puts it in a class setting. Participation in fitness classes has increased by 20 percent in the last three years, according to a recent report from the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association and the Association of Fitness Industry Retailers and Manufacturers.

“If you’re in this industry, you know that group fitness is the way of the future,” says Wolf, who adds that her classes appeal to people because they offer a fast, effective workout in a short period of time for a fraction of the cost of meeting with a personal trainer. And the benefits are not just for the classes’ participants.

“My overhead is much less than a traditional gym’s,” Wolf says. “I don’t have the equipment costs. My trainers are all group fitness instructors, so they’re used to getting paid per class.”

Classes at BLAST900 can be purchased individually or in a package.

Wolf’s concept seems to be working. During peak business hours, classes always reach their 24-person limit and usually have a waiting list, she says. Wolf adds that the studio has been so successful that she plans to open 200 to 250 more studios throughout the Southeast in the next five years.

Adam Boesel, the founder of The Green Microgym, Portland, OR, also found success by basing his facility on a popular idea—sustainability. When he started thinking about ways to market the health club that he had always wanted to own, his entrepreneurial goals and typically Northwest-based appreciation for the environment led him to build one of the first electricity-generating gyms in the world.

The facility boasts energy-producing and energy-efficient cardio equipment, and Boesel says the energy-saving culture at the club helps the Green Microgym keep energy costs low. In addition to generating 35 percent of its own electricity through solar panels and members working out on equipment inside the facility, Boesel and his staff encourage members to control the lights, TVs and radios so they are not being used unless someone needs to use them.


The Green Microgym also rewards members for generating electricity by giving gift certificates and discounts to local businesses through its Burn and Earn program. Daniel Caplan, owner of the franchised location in Belmont, OR, says the incentives were introduced as a way to help members connect with the community.

One hour on a piece of cardio equipment tied to the power grid earns members a $1 reward. After five or 10 hours, they can pick up a certificate. The incentive program is just one of several reasons Boesel says his clubs appeal to people.

“There’s the green human power aspect, the neighborhood feel and that we’re the opposite of the big box gyms,” he says. “We’re the Prius, and the big box gym is a Hummer.”

Gym-Pact, a Boston-based company, offers a different incentive for members to work out: If they don’t, they get hit with a fee. When members sign up at one of the more than 70 fitness centers in five states that currently partners with Gym-Pact, they can create a workout schedule and choose an amount of money they will pay for each session they miss, which must be at least $10. Trials that the company ran last year showed that clients doubled their attendance when they knew they would be charged for missing a session.

The idea for Gym-Pact was sparked by something co-founder Yifan Zhang learned in a Harvard University behavioral economics class: People are more motivated by consequences in the present than potential rewards in the future.

The company tracks attendance by putting electronic tokens with passwords that change every minute in its partner health clubs. Clients pick up a token as they enter the facility and text the password to a number to check in.

Commitments can be made for one or six months, and the longer commitment comes with four days off. Gym-Pact encourages members to go back to the gym even if they missed a few sessions by giving 10 percent of the fee collected for missed workouts back for each day they exercise the next week. Quitting the program costs $75, but if a client gets sick and cannot exercise, their commitment can be canceled temporarily.

Woodwinds Hospital’s Ways to Wellness, Woodbury, MN, deviates from the standard club membership model by offering fee-based personal training, weight-loss programs, nutrition classes and group classes by appointment only, instead of as add-ons.

Brenda Navin, director of Ways to Wellness, says clients appreciate the studio’s small, intimate atmosphere and enjoy the staff. They also value the level of privacy that an appointments-only facility offers. However, Navin says they are considering introducing memberships to their current model to accommodate clients who are looking to fit in quick workouts on their own.

“A lot of people need that personal touch,” Navin says of why her facility offers a la carte classes and programs. “For people who are struggling to make lifestyle changes, it really is different from one person to the next. They need that coach that’s there to help them achieve their goals and to promote that self-efficacy so they can do things on their own.”

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