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Cheap Thrills

Ask anyone her idea of a fun time, and most likely panting through an aerobics class or lifting weights won't be on her Top 10 list. Yet, many of your members stick to their workouts. Obviously, this is because they don't need a lot of stimulation while they're exercising; the joy of getting in shape is enough to sustain them through the sore muscles and sweat.

Yeah, right.

Your dedicated members undoubtedly recognize the benefits of exercise, but most people sometimes need a little entertainment to assist them through a workout. New members, particularly the deconditioned, may even need entertainment to help them take that initial step toward a healthier lifestyle. After all, if you've spent the past 10 years planting roots as a couch potato, sinking yourself into a fitness routine is going to take quite a bit of determination. Maybe even a little distraction at times.

"So it's a good thing for people to disassociate the pain from the workout and just watch an episode of Friends or something," says Stephen S. Roma, chief operations manager for WOW! Work Out World's Brick, N.J., location. "Technology is going to play more of a role in the exercise experience.... I think people are going to embrace it."

Entertaining Options
Indeed, many operators have already embraced it. Go into any health club nowadays and you'll most likely see members watching televisions or perhaps surfing the 'Net as they exercise.

Any gym with the financial capabilities can purchase high-tech entertainment systems. But what else can clubs do to draw members who want to mix fun with fitness?

The answer is "get original." Niche clubs and national chains alike realize the benefits of creative programming and entertainment. It's inexpensive, it's interactive and, best of all, members will keep coming back for more.

"I don't think the most critical thing is how much money you spend. The most critical thing is how creative you can be with the resources you have," says Roger Harvey, chief of operations at Crunch, a fitness chain known in the industry for its original, hip programming. From hip hop aerobics with a live rapper, to classes led by instructors ranging from drag queens to dancers, Crunch has dished up some very creative ways to work up a sweat.

Not that all their ideas have been instant successes. In fact, some of them haven't worked at all. "Don't ask me to list them because I don't have that much time," Harvey laughs. "But that doesn't mean you should give up. You need to look at those ideas and try to figure out [why they didn't work]."

Indeed, it's better to experiment with different ideas than to assume members will settle for a room full of machines. Anybody can buy equipment; the best clubs emphasize an entertaining, community atmosphere.

"It used to be just about the equipment, but people demand a lot more these days," says Groove Fitness Project Manager Brian Zola.

Groove is a Hollywood-based club that has been garnering attention for its DJ culture-infused atmosphere. Specifically, underground electronic artists and rave DJs come to ply their trade at the club, playing high-energy music in a building designed to look like an urban playground - complete with graffiti on the walls, metal textures and chain link fences.

Gettin' Their Groove on
The music is very much in the foreground at the club, and, in exchange for their services, the DJs receive free gym memberships. While this is a win-win situation for both the artists and Groove Fitness, Zola admits, "it might not work in the middle of Iowa."

In fact, this type of niche programming even has its risks in the glitter and glam of Hollywood. "It's really high-energy dance music," Zola explains. "It's not for everyone, that's for sure.

"At any gym, music is controversial," he continues. "We've certainly gone through periods of time where we've had conflict with the music."

Over the years people have left because of the music, Zola admits, but, on the flip side, a strong client base has been developed because of it. And to make that base even stronger, Groove plans to cater to its members more. The facility is undergoing extensive renovations to "revamp" its urban feel into an "artistic industrial look," and Groove will place the DJs in a more central location within the club.

Zola, who also produces electronic music himself, says the club may even sell the DJs' mixed tapes. There are also plans to broadcast the club's music through appropriate Web sites and to create cross-promotions with electronica clubs and record labels-to tap into the club's audience even more.

While these promotional and entertainment efforts wouldn't work for all clubs, they do show what an operator can do to differentiate his business. "It's no secret. Any independent club owner is going to have to think about [niche programming]," says Zola. "I mean, the big club chains...they do what they do very well. In order to compete with that you're going to have to come up with an edge in some way."

Groove Fitness isn't the only club hoping to plug into music culture. Music has been used to motivate and energize for thousands of years. When the first caveman hit two sticks on a rock, the idea of using music to move the spirit was born. Club owners are hoping it will move the body as well.

Sounds Good
Lori Lowell, the owner of Gold's Gym of Lake Ridge in Woodbridge, Va., says she invites local musicians to play in the club's juice bar. At other times, a live percussionist will play during the club's mat training and yoga-based classes. "Usually you can get those people to play for very little money because they love to get the exposure," Lowell says.

While the artists get exposure, their music gives the members another reason to come to the gym. "So the club is not only a place to go and get a workout, but a place to actually go and be entertained," Lowell says.

And although music can be used to provide this entertainment, Zola points out that a club shouldn't stop with audio. "I really think in this day and age you have to look at your multimedia presentation [i.e., Internet, satellite feeds, TVs, etc.] in the club," he says. "People don't necessarily have to work out in a gym nowadays. If you want to keep them inside a gym, you have to keep them interested."

Not everyone agrees, however. "I don't think anyone says, `I'm not joining because you don't have a TV,'" maintains Gayle Winegar, the founder of Minnesota's boutique-style SweatShop Health Club.

"We have no TVs, no radio. People actually communicate with one another," she says. "So that's about as low-tech as you get, I guess."

And yet, Winegar's club is very successful in its market, an important lesson for many a health club, both large and small. This is because the club fosters a sense of community and fellowship. People can watch television at home, but they can't mingle with other club members.

"People don't come to the club to be alone," Lowell notes. "They come for the community."

Winegar agrees. Her female-only SweatShop emphasizes a culture of healthy lifestyle and community. That's why equipment is arranged in circular patterns. "We've learned that women do much better when they're not in a line," she explains. "We have them in circles so they can make eye contact and talk to each other."

This arrangement even lends itself to creative programming. For example, the club has put its exercise bikes in a circle and "had a `Conversational Spanish Work-Out,'" says Winegar. Muy buen!

Lowell and Winegar both believe that you don't need a lot of "stuff" to entertain. Entertainment can be as simple as playing soft new age music in the locker rooms or as interactive as a karaoke Spinning class, a popular program at Crunch.

Remember the reason people come to clubs: to exercise. Therefore, the exercise itself - and by association, the trainer - should be fun. "Group exercise is a show, group exercise is entertainment!" says Lowell. "It's the core of your club."

Different fitness trends and entertainment options may come and go, but the key to retaining your members is your club's personality. Otherwise members will fade away from the gym floor like yesteryear's legwarmers.

"The overall atmosphere is important," says Jim Bishop, owner/operator/president of Cornerstone Health and Fitness in Doylestown, Pa. "I'm not an advocate of high technology [in clubs]. As soon as we start doing that, then we become a product industry. Then the competition between clubs becomes who has the best technology and not who has the highest-quality service."

Creative, Cheap and Totally Fun

Fitness chains and niche clubs alike share some of their favorite ways to entertain.

1. Aromatherapy in the locker room or during soft, mindful classes. Lori Lowell, Gold's Gym: "I put aromatherapy oil drops into their hands and they place it on their face and throughout the class there's this constant, incredible smell."

2. A Wurlitzer jukebox on the workout floor that plays free selections. Jim Bishop, Cornerstone Health and Fitness: "I guess we try to give the members options, and music is always an issue." The jukebox contains 100 CDs with 14 songs each, so members have about 1,400 songs they can choose from.

3. Nontraditional open houses. Roger Harvey, Crunch: "We'll have tarot card readings, body-painting artists.... Those people are typically not expensive."

4. Theme classes. Gayle Winegar, SweatShop Health Club: "We had everyone come in beach attire in the middle of winter, or one day in December we have the staff come in pajamas."

5. Rotating art shows within the club with paintings set up by the cardio machines. Gayle Winegar: "We rotate the art every month or two. Not only do [members] get to look at the paintings longer than they would have in a regular art gallery setting, but they also end up buying it. And the artists know that. We also get 10 percent of the sale. So many clubs have vast spaces of white wall and a lot of cool artists in town."

6. Slot machines and promotional carnival wheels. Stephen S. Roma, WOW! Work Out World: "We allow people to spin [the wheel] and win prizes [from club T-shirts to free memberships]. It works really well if you don't use it too often."

Creating a Club That's Built to Please

With the emphasis on entertainment and convenience, many fitness clubs are catering to their clients' needs in a variety of ways. As clubs add everything from juice bars to banks(!), the idea of a gym as solely a gym may soon become defunct. A club as a multiple-source center, says Rudy Fabiano of Fabiano Designs International in Montclair, N.J., "is one of the ways that a gym can evolve."

"It works very well from a service point of view as well as an aesthetic facility," he adds.

As an architectural and interior design and consulting firm specializing in the health club industry, Fabiano Designs has been toying with different services that clubs can include. For example, imagine a club with a special room that stores a health and fitness library.

"We started thinking about where do people get their information about staying in shape," says Fabiano. "I thought, really, my gym should be able to provide me with this material."

"I could see something like that happening," says WOW! Work Out World's Stephen S. Roma. "We're very big on education.... We've done a library specific to the staff and the personal-training department."

But Roma does express some reservations about too many services. "With one facility I can make anything work," he explains. "But as you grow, it's going to be that much harder to be that involved with each aspect of the facility."

Fabiano, however, is emphatic about nontraditional service. "I think it's going to help evolve us. Less than 12 percent of the population work out and less than 20 percent have actually seen the inside of a health club, and we need to start trying to get that other 80 percent into the clubs."

To be sure, nontraditional services are already making their way into health clubs. For example, Peremel & Company Inc. and LifeBridge Health & Fitness have combined forces to open a financial center within the fitness center's Baltimore location. The partnership will allow club members to exercise financial options, as well as their muscles, during their daily workout.

According to Peremel and LifeBridge Health & Fitness, the center will feature three investment stations, each equipped with a PC and Internet access. Members will also have access to a printer, a fax machine, a courtesy phone and an ATM.

"Our members are very interested in the ability to continue to function in the business world, while in the club," says Jimmy Page, director of LifeBridge. "This partnership with Peremel will allow us to bring the latest technology from the financial side into our facility, providing our members with important information and a great deal of convenience."

And convenience is just as important to members as entertainment.

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