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Fitness Across America

Too often, the fitness and health club industry is viewed strictly by the bottom line or interpreted from company or industrywide trends. But there are plenty of other stories and trends to be found inside the four walls of almost any type of fitness club.

What better way to find those stories than to take a tip from the late John Belushi and the rest of his Delta House brothers and go on a road trip?

The editorial staff of Club Industry traveled by planes, trains and automobiles to visit various clubs from different regions around the country. Occasionally, they got lost along the way or found an empty club waiting for them and maybe found a toga party or two as well.

Tales of those visits — without the toga party stories — continue, ripped out of each staff member's own travel log.

This month, editor-in-chief John Agoglia, completes our trek with Part 3 of the journey chronicling his travels from the Northeast.

Day 1

As the alarm rings at 3:30 a.m. to make it to Logan Airport for my flight to Burlington, VT, I only wish I finished packing last night and got to hit snooze at least once this morning. But in the end, I'm pretty excited to get out and see what is happening in gyms across the Northeast.

After a relatively uneventful — if sleepless — hour or so flight and a rather painless stop at the Avis counter I'm off to visit my first club, Twin Oaks Sport and Fitness in South Burlington. Twin Oaks, part of a four-club chain that offers a multitude of activities for members who are far too often relegated to the indoors during the harsh winters — a common trait for clubs in the Northeast.

At first glance, Twin Oaks is not unlike many suburban clubs: roomy, minimally decorated and welcoming.

In reading a brochure while waiting for the club's general manager, I notice that the facility has a full complement of equipment, classes and other programming options. But perhaps the thing that sets Twin Oaks apart from other clubs is the concentration and emphasis it places on children. Sure, plenty of clubs in the area have increasing offerings for children such as daycare or camps and even programming, but how many run a private kindergarten or have acquired a performing arts center? Well, Twin Oaks has.

“Our Kids in Fitness program starts with kids at eight weeks of age and runs through a private kindergarten that serves about 80 kids from each of the towns of South Burlington, Williston and Essex,” says Michael Feitelberg, general manager of Twin Oaks. “It is a nationally accredited program that offers the same kind of curriculum as other pre-schools and kindergartens. But we have the opportunity to offer swimming, racquetball and a climbing wall. It is the opportunity to get young people exposed to health and fitness in a way they can't at a traditional preschool.”

That is not to say that the adult crowd is left out of the Twin Oaks Sports & Fitness experience as programming and unique offerings for adults are a high priority for the club.

“Whether it's been tennis lessons or personal training, different programming has remained strong and members seem willing to support those different products and those different options that they have,” says Feitelberg. “And looking ahead we're trying to tap into more programming within personal training. We're looking at more small group training, or women on weights or we're even offering an Olympic lifting series this fall for the first time. We are really getting into and seeing interest in a lot more sport-specific training, small-group training and team training in total.”

A quick drive into downtown Burlington from the luxurious Best Western brings me to the Fitness Center at Stephen & Burns. There is an interesting blend of small town, yet distinct urban feel to this part of Burlington as the mix of workers, tourists and transplants — many who are or have attended one of the area's colleges.

Owned by the Stephen & Burns Day Spa located upstairs from the center, the Fitness Center is an intimate, exposed-brick space that caters to the 9-to-5 crowd that primarily makes up the club's peak monthly membership total of about 800.

But sales and marketing director, Christina Sturges, believes the club could do a better job of not only keeping those numbers high during the slow summer months but also attracting more of the surrounding area's inhabitants.

“The people who live in and near town will work in downtown Burlington and join our fitness center and work out either on their way to work or right after,” says Sturges. “Our advertising to date has been just Burlington but not really the surrounding areas. I'd like to see us advertise to the local communities through the local community papers. I'd also like to see us have it on the city buses, too.”

Sturges would also like to see the club use its natural tie-in with the day spa to niche itself further from the competition.

“We're launching a large corporate gifting program for the holiday season that incorporates gift certificates that would be good at the fitness center or the day spa and salons. And I'm going to be targeting CEOs or HR directors of companies that could use it for business clients, employees, etc.,” Sturges says. “There never has been much cross promotion between the two divisions — the most we've done is use some of the products or services for prizes for our member contests. This is a step toward more synergy.”

After leaving the Fitness Center at Stephen & Burns, my first day of visits comes to a premature end as a front desk worker at my last stop is surprised that the general manager even set up a 5:30 meeting since “he never stays past 5:00 p.m.” So I head back to the Best Western, some fast food in hand. Traveling is so glamorous.

Day 2

At least today doesn't start before sunrise, with only a 45-minute or so trip down I89 to Vermont's capital city of Montpelier in time for a 9:30 a.m. appointment, the first of three in two states slated for today.

With directions in hand I make my way smoothly to the First in Fitness location in Montpelier, which is tucked away next to the police station, court house and other municipal buildings.

In what is bound to go down as my second shortest visit in Vermont, I am told by one of the trainers that I am at the wrong First in Fitness. The people I am meeting with are waiting for me at the other First in Fitness in Barre, VT. Who knew there was another one?! Luckily for me, the First in Fitness in Barre is just a quick 10-minute ride.

Much like Twin Oaks in South Burlington, First in Fitness is a family-oriented club, although the demographics of the region are different than in northern Vermont as the area is made up of more manufacturing and retail businesses. In fact, the demographics between the two First in Fitness clubs are different according to the staff — the downtown club serves a more white-collar, business crowd, while this club serves their families with its pool, programming and extensive day care.

Another target group for this club — and perhaps a growing trend due to the impact of the Curves phenomenon — is female, with its women's-only center.

Not set up as a separate profit center — as most programming at First in Fitness, it is part of the regular membership — the women's center has a full circuit of strength equipment, several pieces of cardiovascular equipment an on-site trainer and the availability of other amenities at the club. The introduction of other women-only facilities hasn't seemingly dampened the enthusiasm for the center, which is quite busy for the two seconds the women allow me to peek in before shooing me away.

“We have two Lady Workout Express that popped up and two Curves that popped up. And you know, to be honest with you, we're thankful for them, because they're serving as a feeder program for us,” says David Pickel, executive director. “They reach that plateau and they're feeding us. Our women's program here has more numbers that they're around than it did before they were. Women are coming in and want the personal trainer back there telling them and helping them get through those sticky points.” Pickel adds that the women's center also works as a feeder to the general club as women begin to venture out for swimming, group exercise and other offerings when they begin to feel more comfortable in the gym.

An aspect of the small town feel from the club comes from the size of the community and the packaging of services to members where almost everything from yoga classes to some personal training services are part of the membership fee, which is the highest in the area.

That doesn't mean the club isn't charging for services and doesn't have successful programming. According to Pickel, its new Sports Specific Training (SST) program has done well since its inception.

“Our SST was a great success. We ran it for high school and college students looking to improve their performance,” Pickel explains. “If we're to do anything in the future as a real extra profit center, it'll probably be more toward the sports-specific training, because obviously, the kids are the ones who control where their parents' money is going.”

After visiting with the staff at First in Fitness I'm off to BodyTech Health and Fitness Club just down the road.

Set back a block or two from the main drag, the building is hard to find — as my driving past three times proves — and I finally give up and ask a woman sitting outside of a tanning studio who points out a building across the street.

“Isn't that a school building?” I ask.

“Yes it is,” answers the friendly woman. “And it is the gym you're looking for.”

The club moved into the Old Mathewson School Building in 1995 when the owners bought the retired school building when they were looking to make a fresh start for their last club, which was known as a hard-core gym that was all male.

“Originally, we were just a male club. We wanted to change it and make it more attractive to everyone, so we figured let's make a fresh start. We ended up changing our name and everything,” says Joanne Mugford who owns the club with her husband Jeff. “We're not at quite 50-50 yet women to men, but we are running about 60-40.”

The club owners realize they still have a way to go in making the club appealing to all as they look to add more aerobics rooms and a women's-only center in one of the many still-unoccupied schoolrooms. Additionally, new equipment is on the list as the still-hardcore-looking facility adapts to the owners' shifting perspective.

“We aren't trying to do everything, we just want to do a few things well,” says Mugford. “I could probably picture in the next year or so new equipment, new cross trainers and adding to our demographics and membership base.”

After the tour of the spread out facility, including the Villari's Self Defense Studio upstairs — Mugford says they do some promotional work with the self defense studio and plan to rent space to other health and fitness companies — I realize I'm hungry and search out a sandwich.

About an hour into the two-and-a-half hour ride to Manchester, NH I really wish I had my new Metallica CD with me because the radio through the mountains is not reliable or playing anything nearly as good.

Again, I'm thankful that my wife, Janine, mapped out my trip with basically straight shots down major roads cutting down on my lost time and I make it to my appointment with time to spare.

My only visit in the Queen City, as this city located about 58 miles north of Boston is known, will be Gold's Gym.

This recently renovated club has been a work-in-progress since the current owners took over almost four years ago and it has resulted in a surge in membership during that time from about 600 members to almost 5,000.

“We have recently put in about $1 million in renovations so we hope to keep our members happy and make the club a special place for them to come and workout,” says owner Christopher Jordan who doubles as the Gold's Gym New England Alliance president. “We have great equipment and great programming and we have to keep the facility updated to keep our members happy and to complement those other aspects.”

Two of the biggest differences to come out of the renovations are a new women's center (there seems to be a trend here, I think) and a childcare facility to keep the young parents that are members — Jordan says the demographics for the club skew young, between 20 and 40 years of age — coming in despite the demands of parenthood.

“People are demanding more alternatives and options when they come to a club. We provide tanning, a juice bar, the women's center and traditional health club programming and equipment. Now we want to reach not only the parents, but the next generation of members,” says Jordan. “Here and in our Nashua (NH) club we are turning our attention to children. We think that the wave of the future is having computers in our daycare centers with activities for different age groups. Things of that nature along with exposing children to fitness and fitness programming can only help us continue to grow.”

After checking my atlas and Map Quest directions, I make my way to Portland, ME where I have several meetings set for tomorrow.

After checking in to the Best Western in South Portland, I grab some fried clams for dinner, ready to watch the best reality TV for the night. But a phone call from home puts an end to that as my wife says our son is in the emergency room and will be staying overnight. I pack in a hurry, check out and quickly start my three-plus-hour trip.

Day 3

After spending the night in my son's hospital room, my morning is spent calling several facilities in Portland, ME and Portsmouth, NH to cancel appointments for the day. The evening is spent settling Jake back into his room at home, and preparing for my flight to New York City.

Day 4

While sitting in airport traffic from Framingham, MA to Boston, I realize that the trip to the airport will take far longer than the 40 or so minute flight to the Big Apple — well, Newark, NJ, but I'll just be passing through the Garden Sate today.

This leg of the trip is a bit of a homecoming because I grew up in Brooklyn and worked for several facilities in the city as a personal trainer in the early- to mid-1990s.

My first stop in New York City is Mid-City Gym, where I'm meeting with an old acquaintance and the club's owner, Vincent Consalvo.

Celebrating its 41st anniversary Mid-City is unique for Manhattan, especially in the Times Square area where it resides, because it is as old school, bare bones of a gym you'll find — and it is successful.

Located in the basement of a building on 49th Street right off of 8th Avenue, Mid-City offers little in amenities and no group exercise program, but it has plenty of strength equipment and a profitable nutrition program and juice bar.

‘The juice bar, clothing and nutritional products — especially the Apex products — account for 25 percent of revenues here. In the gym in Bayone (NJ) some months it is up to 40 percent,” says Consalvo, who has owned the gym for 14 years. “It doesn't take the place of membership dues, but it makes a good day into a great day and sometimes it makes a horrible day into a saving grace kind of day.”

Surprisingly — and maybe indicative of the changing demographics in Manhattan — Consalvo says that about 85 percent of the 800 members live in the area. But with a number of clubs within a few blocks' radius — in Manhattan, it seems that health clubs are as abundant as Starbuck's and Barnes & Noble, putting them on almost every corner — it is important to keep true to the roots of the gym, while still being inviting to all.

“People have asked us why we don't just become a free-weight-only gym since the machines like FreeMotion and Icarian don't get nearly as much use as the free-weights here,” Consalvo says. “But we try to be personal trainer friendly, beginner friendly and also be a club where people intimidated by free-weights can find some selectorized machines to use. But it is tough because you don't just want to become a smaller version of a big club or else they could go there. Our motto is the ‘last real gym’ so even though we look hard core, we are really a more serious gym for all people. And we are seeing more women and de-conditioned people coming in and joining.”

But that same competition for members also proves to be a staffing obstacle for clubs like Mid-City, and all other smaller businesses in the big city.

“A friend of mine owned a little hotel on this block and he had trouble keeping people on staff because they could go work for the big hotel chains, which were more glamorous,” Consalvo says. “I find that I have the same problem. I have to give the trainers a better cut than some of the chains do because of the glamour aspect of those clubs. Even the front desk staff, who are the most important people in the club, I give better compensation packages than other clubs just to keep good people here.”

Day 5

Following an early morning run in Central Park — one of the things I really miss about living in the city, along with 24-hour everything all within walking distance — and some breakfast, I make my way to the first stop of the day, which couldn't be more opposite to yesterday's.

It is my first visit to Chelsea Piers, at least the Sports Center Health Club. I've been to the bowling alley, Field House and taken part in some of the other activities available at this 30-acre waterfront sports village located between 17th and 23rd Streets along the Hudson River.

I easily find the Sports Center Health Club and make my way up to the reception area. The stark contrast to yesterday's visit to Mid-City is amazing. Whereas Mid-City has niched itself as a serious gym bordering on hard core, Chelsea Piers with its café, sundeck, day spa and more is an oasis in the city. It is also a place for serious sports and fitness training. And beyond that, the entire complex has served to build up a once rundown neighborhood.

“When we built this there was nothing going on around here and we act as the anchor for economic development for this whole area,” says Bill Abramson, first vice president of Chelsea Piers Management, while taking a break from his workout. “Then the galleries started to move in and then meat packing districts start to get developed and all these designer clothing stores and restaurants and clubs. So now, the community essentially has moved to us.”

Before this time of growth in the Chelsea area, Chelsea Piers didn't have to worry about a competitor down the street or around the corner. But, as is usually the case, as businesses and people moved to the neighborhood over time so has the club's competition. Maybe not on the block or down the street, but close enough for management to notice.

“The competition started, Equinox opened up, New York Sports Club opened up, New York Health and Racquet opened up a club. And then the McBurney Y moved to 14th Street and opened a brand new facility,” says Abramson. “They do a nice job, but they just can't compare with our facilities. And we're also very, very committed to programming. We have more than 150 classes a week, more than any other club in the city.”

But the programming alone isn't what makes Chelsea Piers unique in a city cramped for space. It is the mix of facilities housed within the Sports Center Health Club, such as an indoor “beach” volleyball court and huge climbing wall that members get for their $145 or so a month.

“This is a gym for really active people,” says Abramson. “It is like a playground, a playground for athletes.”

In fact, all of Chelsea Piers is a playground for active people with everything from ice-skating to adult gymnastics and golf available for separate memberships. And capitalizing on these visitors is something Abramson sees as a real goal for the health club.

“One of the things we grapple with is that cross marketing with ourselves within each venue. Because a lot of people come down once a week to play soccer in a league or basketball or ice-skating or roller hockey and they don't even know it's a gym here,” he says. “We have about four million visitors a year be it for leagues, team building a cruise or working at the TV station here. A lot of those people belong to a health club somewhere and we want them to come to the gym here.”

My next appointment is uptown at a hotel fitness center that is billed as more than a typical hotel gym. But with time to spare, I decide to walk part of the way to enjoy a nice day in New York.

I arrive at the Le Parker Meridien Hotel and spend a good 10 minutes searching the lobby for a sign pointing out the health club. Finally, I find my way to the elevator that will take me down to the Gravity Fitness Center. Owned by the hotel and managed by American Leisure Corp., the club is certainly more than a typical hotel gym with its stylish décor and full complement of equipment, programming and even racquetball courts and innovative classes, such as movie screenings during an indoor cycling class. And it has worked hard to let people know that it is more than a hotel gym.

“The brand is important. We have worked hard with aggressive marketing using everything from pizza boxes to more to let people know that Gravity is more than just a hotel gym,” says Wayne Brown, sales director for Gravity Fitness. “And it is working. We do about 350 workouts a day in this facility and hotel guests work out free, but nine out of 10 people you see here at any given time are members and not hotel guests.”

And building that kind of business is not easy for any club, especially one not only tucked in amongst the 12 to 15 other fitness-related studios in a two-block radius, but one also tucked away in a hotel.

Jeremy Brutus, general manager, says the service the club provides its members is a key.

“We take service seriously. We try to give out five-diamond service that we have learned from the hotel industry and we feel that Gravity should be the model for all health clubs, not just ones in the hospitality industry,” says Brutus. “I think that the fitness industry in general can run in the hospitality industry.” Brutus adds that the club takes service and retention so seriously it has hired a full-time person to just perform follow-up calls on new and missing members.

Day 6

After a fairly quiet night in my Times Square hotel room, and an anonymous early morning workout at a club not far from where I'm staying, it is time to make my way to Hoboken, NJ — just a short trip across the Hudson.

Known more for its nightlife and restaurant scene — not to mention being the birthplace of the great Frank Sinatra — I am surprised at the number of juice shops, health food stores and other health- and fitness-related operations mixed in among the bars that will be hopping tonight.

There are only a couple of health clubs located in this pseudo-suburb of Manhattan, but the competition extends far beyond the 1.8 miles of land that makes up this densely populated town. And with the population of Hoboken continuing to rise as prices in the city — where many of Hoboken's residents work — soar, the Hudson Athletic Club targets potential members even before they move in.

“Hoboken is about people moving in without cars. So what we typically do is we set our sales process and our prospecting around reaching them before they move in. So we give memberships to all the major realtors, and then they give us lists of names of people who've either inquired or are moving in the area,” says Doug Talmage, general manager. “And then we give them a welcome to the neighborhood invitation to come down to the club so that we hit them first because if you hit them with a good impression right off the bat, then you're going to have a head start on your competition whether it is the club down the street or one near their work — and we do compete with New York for our members.”

But while competing with New York clubs, Talmage, who has a long history with several of Manhattan's bigger names, has learned that a smaller club in a transient town such as Hoboken, marketers need to stay on their toes to get members in as turnover is almost unavoidable.

“The average length of a membership I think is around five and a half, almost six years — we typically see probably half that. We have to be particularly sharp with our new memberships,” he says. “We've had to do large grassroots marketing, more than I've ever done in the industry just because we're a single location club and don't have a big brand name. We're along the main strip, which helps us. But we're also located on the fourth floor with no storefront visibility. So we have our challenges, but we've managed to grow to 7,200 members.”

But it takes more than just having realtors, bartenders and wait staff handing out flyers to build a solid membership base, it takes equipment, programming and other aspects of a solid fitness operation. It also takes knowing your market as Talmage found out the hard way.

“I come from Crunch Fitness where it's flamboyant, where its programming is off the wall, where it's the crazier you get the better your programming goes,” recounts Talmage with a chuckle. “I came over here and I think maybe I'll try the same technique in a suburban market that's not that far away from New York. It seems to me like it could be the same type of marketplace. We offered African dance, urban rebounding and different types of floor training and I got my head handed to me a couple of times.”

Now, Hudson Athletic Club concentrates on the basics when it comes to programming such as an extensive yoga program, and nutritional programming, which has been a big winner for the club.

“We always look at the trends and what some of the successful companies are doing. And we've been able to do a couple of good things before some of our competition,” Talmage says. “For instance, we added a weight management nutrition program and within the first month we went from a profit center that was $0 to doing $10,000 a month.”

Stopping at one of the many smoothie shops along the strip heading back to the PATH train, I realize in a strange coincidence that after speaking with someone with a history at Crunch Fitness, the chain's Lafayette Street location is next.

Known for its edgy programming and hip style, there is perhaps no better location for Crunch in New York City — if not anywhere in the world — than the East Village, which is long known for its eclectic inhabitants.

“We get it all in this club. I mean right now if you take a look around there are different sizes, shapes, different styles all working out side by side,” says Jane Montoya, general manager, whose enthusiasm matches the energy of the club. “We truly live the company's no judgments motto here. We get all these different people in and the best thing we can do is make them feel comfortable so they'll come in and get the results they are looking for.”

And to help members get those results, Montoya believes that it takes more than innovative programming such as striptease cardio and disco yoga, although it doesn't hurt to have an eclectic schedule.

“In a neighborhood like this it helps that we can offer something like disco yoga to someone that wants to try something different with their yoga practice. Or a class where they read poetry — sometimes their own poetry — while they do their yoga,” she says. “We have the edge for it. There are a lot of clubs that can't offer that to the members.”

But, Montoya cautions me not to think of Crunch as just a trendsetter as people come to her location to workout first and be hip second.

“We have a strong personal training business here. People love the boxing ring up on our third floor and the cardio equipment and free-weight areas are always hopping during prime-time,” she says. “But with competition everywhere you need to add a twist to the whole health club experience so people don't lose interest. And that is what we are special at, adding that twist.”

Day 7

I have time to sneak one more visit in before heading home. Today's visit is interesting on a number of levels. It is my first chance to sit with someone on the club-level at New York Sports Club (NYSC), but it is also the first chance I've had since 9/11 to head down as far as Wall Street to see the lingering affect of that fateful day.

There is a strange feel to the area. One of caution mixed with normalcy. There are barricades surrounding buildings with military and police personnel carrying automatic weapons standing on guard. Yet, at the same time these men and women pose for the constant stream of tourists looking to have their picture taken with them.

With its stone front and wood-trimmed interior, the building that houses the NYSC could easily be mistaken for any of the financial companies surrounding it. And I find out that it is with good reason as the building was a bank prior to the club opening in 1996. In fact, the location was used in filming bank scenes in the movie “Ghost.”

Formerly in the shadow of the Twin Towers, the financial community that surrounds this bank-turned-gym has seen a tough couple of years and the NYSC has been there through every phase.

“Up until 9/11 there was a time where you just open your doors and members would basically come in and out. Not expecting much, just looking to get a workout,” says the location's general manager, Michael Valentino. “It's still the place where they'll come in and get a workout. But they're definitely looking for more interactive stuff as far as being more demanding with trainers. More demanding with the club as a whole as far as what we are offering them.”

And after a lull in the months following 9/11, Valentino has seen the members return along with the businesses in the area over the past year or so as companies moved back to the neighborhood.

“We have more than 6,200 active members right now. About 85 percent of our membership is corporate, so we are really a weekday club,” he says. “Monday through Wednesday we're running anywhere between 1,500 to 1,200 visits. Thursday, it's around about mid-900s. Saturday, it is still around mid-600s or 700s. These are really good numbers, especially when you can walk five minutes in any direction and find another top name health and fitness club.”

And offering month-to-month memberships makes keeping members from taking that walk all the more challenging.

“The opportunities for our members to go elsewhere really keeps you on your toes. For starters, you have to at least provide a consistent product — that means, a clean space, top-level equipment and programming and most important, top-level staff,” says Valentino. “If you do those things, retention is not a problem.”

Hopping in a cab to LaGuardia Airport, reflecting on the trip and the truly dedicated and excited fitness professionals I've had the chance to sit with over the week, makes me realize that there is much more to this industry than numbers on a balance sheet. I'm looking forward to next year's trip. But right now I'm looking far more forward to going home.

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