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There Goes the Sun

Indoor tanning as a profit center

As the half-naked days of summer give way to the windbreaker- and sweatshirt-donning days of autumn, bodies of bronze begin to turn a whiter shade of pale. And with the autum comes chilling fall breezes that could blow profit your way as throngs of members seek to restore the color to their once sun-tinted skin.

Many clubs across the United States - especially those located in the less temperate regions (which is most of the country, anyway) - are finding that indoor tanning services can be quite a money maker. Even if you live in the citrus-growing regions where the sun always seems to shine, indoor tanning can be a hot service. Many of the tanning set seem to prefer the controlled environment of a tanning bed or booth to that of the unfiltered malevolence of the solar menace in the sky.

Captive Audience
"Gym and health clubs have a completely locked-in audience for tanning," says Hal Shannon, owner of five Powerhouse Gyms locations in and around Kalamazoo, Mich. "The reason they're in here in the first place is to get in shape and look good, and tanning is all a part of that. It's a huge profit center. There's not a lot you can do once the people are in your club to earn extra money, except for tanning, clothing and vitamin sales. Tanning is No. 1, followed by supplements and clothing."

The majority of Shannon's tanning business comes from the members themselves, but he does a fair amount of sales volume with nonmembers. "We don't even have to market on the outside," he reports.

Members and nonmembers pay the same prices for any of a number of tanning packages the five Powerhouses offer. For 20 tans, individuals pay $55. For 10, they pay only $35. And then there's the one-month unlimited plan for $35.

Shannon notes that the majority of the 8,500 total members his clubs serve have used his upright tanning booths. "I'd say at one point or another, 90 percent of them have paid for tannin, but of course not all of them do it all the time," he reveals.

Many of the casual tanners will step into the booths just prior to embarking on a vacation to some sun-drenched resort. Why, you might ask, would they want to pay to douse themselves with UV-rays when there will be plenty of sun to go around at their getaway destination? Well, for one, Shannon says, it's safer to expose oneself to sun's rays if the individual already has some protective color.

Safer? That contradicts the logic of many who believe the words "tanning" and "safe" should not even be used in the same sentence. That, according to many indoor tanning proponents, is a myth. "Chances are better for getting skin cancer from driving a car in the sun than in a tanning unit," Shannon contends. "The very reason tanning places are so popular is that the machines help minimize the exposure to the rays."

Standing or lying underneath a bunch of ultraviolet light bulbs hardly sounds like an activity that would minimize exposure, but experts say the science is simple. There are two basic kinds of ultraviolet rays emitted by the sun: UV-A and UV-B. The UV-A rays, which are believed to be relatively harmless, serve to raise melanin to the surface of the skin, which causes tanning. The UV-B rays, which Shannon likes to call the "burn rays," are the harmful ones.

"The main reason people use the tanning booths is because they don't want to deal with the rays from the sun," Shannon offers.

When people stand out in the sun, they're exposed to both UV-A and UV-B rays. However, most of the UV-B rays are filtered out from the bulbs of indoor tanning devices. In fact, Shannon says, there's only about 3 percent of the B rays left.

And, in the outdoors, you never know exactly how much of the sun you're actually getting because it differs from environment to environment, according to John Sims, CEO and owner of the Charlevoix Clubs in Grand Rapids, Mich. "There are all sorts of ozone issues outside," says Sims. "There are different layers in different parts of the country to block UV rays from the sun, so you really don't know what you're getting outside."

Selling the Sizzle
Those are important facts club operators should pass on to members and nonmembers in the marketing of their tanning services. Shannon's five locations provide tanning brochures that educate prospective tanners on the facts and myths associated with the practice.

Sims' literature incorporates information gathered from his insurance compan - such as the effects of sun exposure vs. indoor tanning - which helps since insurance providers are perceived as authorities on health and safety issues. The information also is posted on the walls.

Word of mouth among members and nonmembers also helps spread the word about safety issues. That's the method that's worked best for Vermont Sun Sports & Fitness in Middlebury, Vt. "People in the club will mention something to someone who'll say, 'I heard it's not good for you,' " notes manager Jerrod Rushton. "But the education will be passed on where people will learn that the sun is probably going to do a lot more damage than anything a tanning booth will. We let them make their own decisions based on that."

Tick, Tick, Tick...
A key to maximizing tanning safety is the time users spend in the booth or on the bed. Too much time can lead to a bad burn.

"We're very sensitive about the time, which we closely monitor," notes Sims. "With the high-profile bulbs, people are maxed out at 15 minutes [in the tanning machine]. We make sure the timers go off at about 14-and-a-half minutes. It's a safety issue. We don't want anyone to go over the line."

And as with anything mechanical, no timer is perfect. That's why Sims strongly recommends that you have a back up. "In addition to the timer already on the [tanning unit], I recommend you install a secondary timer that, when activated, both timers tick," he suggests. If one timer fails, the second timer will catch it. It's foolproof. You know sooner or later one timer's going to break."

Not only is time a safety issue, it's a marketing tool. The shorter period of time required to tan in a booth or bed than in the sun appeals to today's on-the-go individual. "Because of the year 2000 everyone's so into time," notes Sims. "They don't have time to do anything, but everyone's trying to do everything."

Giving people a quick tan, coupled with careful attention to educational and safety issues, seems to have worked for the Charlevoix Clubs. In 1998, Sims' tanning profits totaled $26,300, "over and above the expense of the beds." A conservative estimate would be that tanning has brought in an average of $2,100 a month. Not bad for a total membership of 1,780.

Charlevoix charges $2.50 per tan and offers some package deals that include body lotions and protective eyewear. It adds value to the services, Sims says.

"I'm having about 17 to 23 tans on average per day," he reports. But, he notes, that's the average spread out over 12 months. "During July and August, we're probably selling five tannings a day," he adds.

But it's not just UV-enhanced skin tones you're selling with these services. You're selling the club as a whole. Having one or two (or many) tanning booths or beds in your facility, says Vermont Sun Sports' Rushton, paints the club in a whole new light, so to speak.

"You're letting people know that you have more than just fitness in the club and that you're more of a multipurpose area," explains Rushton, whose club of about 900 members serves as many as 10 to 15 tanners per day. "People will see that you can do pretty much anything they need right at that spot. We don't really have to push that hard with tanning. We let it happen for us."

Tanning Tips

It always helps to take the necessary precautions before exposing oneself to UV-rays. Here are some tips Boston-based tanning center Tanning Etc. has to offer to make the activity a safe and pleasant one for your members.

* Advise users to clean their skin completely before tanning because some ingredients in makeup and other cosmetics can make the skin more vulnerable to burning.

* Users should moisturize their skin with lotions specifically designed for indoor tanning (see The Lotion Lowdown). This should be done before and after the tanning session.

* Don't allow users to step into a tanning booth or bed less than 24 hours after their last tan. Industry and medical standards recommend waiting 48 to 72 hours.

* When members and nonmembers are tanning nude, they should protect sensitive areas that normally aren't exposed to UV light. Advise them to expose the areas gradually by covering them halfway through sessions for the first three or four times they tan nude.

* Users should protect their lips with lip balm that blocks UV light.

* Sunburned individuals should soothe their skin with a moisturizer or aloe gel. They shouldn't tan until the redness completely subsides.

* Whenever users develops rashes, itching or other skin problems, advise that they seek medical assistance.

- J.C.

Lotion Potion

There are a number of lotions designed specifically for indoor tanning that you can sell, adding even more tanning revenue to your club. Tanning Etc., a Boston-based tanning center, separates them into four categories:

1. Moisturizers: Indoor moisturizers are different from the ones bought at the store. They contain ingredients specifically formulated to overcome the drying effect indoor tanning can have on the skin.

2. Amplifiers: These amplify UV light to speed up the tanning process. They help produce a deeper tan much quickly, keeping the skin moisturized.

3. Accelerators: The formula stimulates the production of melanin for faster, longer-lasting results while moisturizing.

4. Spray or mist: These are either amplifiers or accelerators in a spray form. Application is much easier and the light oil is absorbed quickly.

- J.C.

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