Snowed-In Northeast Fitness Facilities Experience Budget Hits, Lower Usage in Winter 2015

The Longfellow Clubs near Boston have been hit hard by snow this winter along with other clubs in the region blowing through its snow removal budget by the end of February Photo courtesy of Longfellow Clubs
<p>The Longfellow Clubs near Boston have been hit hard by snow this winter, along with other clubs in the region, blowing through its snow removal budget by the end of February. <em>Photo courtesy of Longfellow Clubs. </em></p>

Winter has delivered a wallop to the Boston, MA, and greater New England area in 2015, and that has wreaked havoc on the budgets of fitness facilities there. As of March 6, about 110 inches of snow had fallen this winter at Boston's Logan Airport. To dig out from under the heavy snow, some Boston-area health club operators blew their annual snow removal budgets by the end of February. (For images of the snow accumulation at two health clubs in the Northeast, check out the photo gallery.)

"This year's inches of snow have broken all records," says Laury Hammel, owner of seven clubs in four towns near Boston. Snow removal as of March 5 at his flagship club, The Longfellow Club in Wayland, MA, has run $95,000 compared with $60,000 for the entire winter last year.

"This has been the most brutal winter ever," Hammel says, "And last year was the previously most painful, snow-filled and cold winter in memory."

During the snowfalls this winter, many health club operators were either forced to shut their doors or reduce operating hours.

"We normally close as little as possible due to weather, but this has been a monster of a winter," says Zoe Veasey, co-owner of Cedardale Health and Fitness in Haverhill, MA, about 40 miles north of Boston. Cedardale was closed the day of the first blizzard because the governor declared a state of emergency to keep off the roads. The club also abbreviated its hours three days and had four other days with lower attendance than corresponding days last year.

Before the first blizzard, club staff lowered two bubbles over the tennis courts and one over the aquatics area to prevent them from collapsing from the weight of the forecasted snow and wind. One of the tennis bubbles sustained some damage, requiring several days to resolve the issue.

Cedardale's 2015 snow removal budget went $25,000 over last year.

"A lot of the shoveling on the roof was done by our staff, and we want to commend our facility manager and maintenance staff for their amazing accomplishment of keeping us in business as much as possible because it was an unbelievably difficult period for them," Veasey says.

Although Veasey tried to keep the club open as much as possible during the storms, the facility's daily usage rate averaged about 100 fewer attendees than a year ago, she says.

"We had three days around 250 to 300, which were comparable to an average of over 1,000 a year ago, and four more days well down from 1,000," Veasey says.

Membership sales were down 9 percent in February, but the club had a good January, so the total sales to date is about the same as last year, Veasey says. Ancillary sales results are a mixed bag with food and beverage sales up, but pro shop sales are down 10 percent, tennis revenue is down 3 percent and the Amazement Center sales are down 15 percent.

Although it's too early in March to predict how the month will go, Zeasey says that so far, the prospects are higher, and the activity is high.

"People are ready to get out of the house," Zeasey says.

Hammel says he has not had to close The Longfellow Club in Wayland completely during the winter, but for three days the club had low usage rates and little business of any type. Also, he had to close it early two days, open it late one day and close for three hours one day because of a gas leak.

A neighboring club was closed for 10 days because of gas leaks underground, while another club was closed for two weeks because its emergency generators didn't come on, and their three air structures came down, Hammel says.

"Fortunately, our air structures stayed up," he says.

New membership sales at The Longfellow Club in Wayland totaled 68 in January compared with 58 in January last year. For February, the total was 35, compared with 42 in February 2014. Despite these drops, revenue is up $75,000 at this club, Hammel says, due to early connection for summer memberships and program growth. He says things are looking better in March than in January and February.

"We're going to continue to provide the best possible customer service and outstanding programs," Hammel says. "That's pretty much all we can do."

John Grossi, owner of five Latitude Sports Clubs on the north side of Boston and its suburbs, said in mid-February that the record snowfall hurt his January numbers.

"It is down," Grossi says, "and it's particularly tough because our biggest month is January, and historically our best time period is the last week of January."

A bit further south, Lisa Carlson, director of marketing for fitness facility HealthQuest of Hunterdon (New Jersey), said big storms—particularly those that are forecast well in advance—can actually be a short-term boon to fitness clubs. The morning that Winter Storm Juno was forecast to hit the greater New York Metropolitan Area was a busy one at her club, Carlson said.

"We're closing today at 3 because of all the snow that is supposed to hit, but here at 1 pm we are super busy," Carlson said on that late January day. "People got the day off from work, so it became a good day to work out. Maybe they are also preparing for being snowed in."

Winter Storm Juno ended up sparing Hunterdon and most of New York, but nailed Boston with nearly two feet of snow. Fitness facility The Clubs at Charles River Park in Boston didn't take the meteorological hit lying down, though. On January 26, the club posted a blog from a physical therapist suggesting exercises to help prevent back injuries from heavy snow shoveling, and on January 27 Charles River Park Advanced Trainer Mike Bento posted a blog titled "The Blizzard of 2015 Bodyweight Workout" – a blog that offered fitness advice and a picture of a snowman lifting weights.

The winter storms have had a significant effect on activity at the Beacon Fitness Center at the University of Boston.

"We had six snow days in late January and early February," says Chris Fitzgerald, director of intramural and recreational programs at UMass Boston. "Typically, that is our busiest time. We had a huge drop in numbers."

Historically, the center has about 6,500 visits in February; this year, it had 3,500, Fitzgerald says.

In addition to actual snow days, the center saw lower usage numbers even when the campus was open.

"We are a 100 percent commuter school," Fitzgerald says. "Students were struggling to get to campus. All our parking is outdoors, so there wasn't enough parking. Even when they could get here, it was so difficult that they weren't coming to work out."

Because the university's semester didn't begin until Jan. 26, the center was already behind in persuading those with New Year's resolutions to step up their fitness regimen, Fitzgerald says, and the snow hampered efforts even more.

"We missed a lot of the people who were new to exercise," he says. "It just wasn't a top priority for them."

The program is staging fitness contests and other outreach efforts to try to draw attention to the fitness facilities and boost visits, but Fitzgerald says it's unlikely the numbers for the semester will get back to normal. The drop in usage doesn't affect revenue because the programs are funded by student fees.

"We may have actually saved a little money because we didn't have to staff the fitness center on the days we closed," Fitzgerald says. "We may have lost a little revenue from faculty and staff usage, but that was negligible."


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