Germ Concerns in Health Clubs Heat Up Due to H1N1


OVERLAND PARK, KS — A typical club gets about 350 visitors a day, according to industry statistics. That's as many as 700 hands touching the front desk, lockers, equipment, the drinking fountain, handrails and both sides of the front door. That's a lot of places for germs to land and spread.

Forty percent of 600 health club members polled in 2007 said they were concerned about the spread of germs at their health club, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association's (IHRSA) "Guide to Health Club Cleanliness." Fifty-six percent of those polled expected their club to be germ free.

Germ free may be hard to live up to, but with recent publicity about the H1N1 virus, more club operators are focusing on offering clean facilities.

Nic DeCaire, owner of Fusion Fitness Center, Newark, DE, has made cleanliness a priority at his club since he opened five years ago. He posts signs about wiping down equipment and provides bottles of hand sanitizers and paper towel dispensers with bottles of cleaners. His staff also wipes down equipment every few hours.

Mike Gardner, sales manager at Naperville, IL-based 2XL Corp., which makes GymWipes products, says that club owners should take H1N1 seriously because they must be concerned about liability if an outbreak is traced back to them. In addition, staying ahead of the virus and keeping a healthy membership base can offer marketing opportunities.

“Members tell their friends that their club is the neat and clean one rather than the alternative around the corner that is bare bones and doesn't invest in club cleanliness,” Gardner says. “A clean club retains members, period.”

Mike Hanes, marketing director at Gojo Industries Inc., Akron, OH, also says interest in cleaning products is high. Gojo makes Purell hand sanitizer along with shampoos, shower products, hand washing soaps and hand wipes. He wouldn't share specifics on sales, but he says that the company has never seen a sales period like it has had since April 2009.

“Anytime headlines are being grabbed by this kind of a microbe, germ or infection, there's going to be an immediate question in the mind of operators about how to respond,” Hanes says.

Club operators can decide to ignore it, or they can get out in front of it, he says.

Members' expectations of their club are higher now than 10 years ago, Hanes says.

“Health clubs are centers of wellness,” he says. “They have a role to play in arming members with information and tools to be able to fight against those things.”

Bruce Sherman, president of GymValet, Beachwood, OH, says interest has increased in his company's products, which include the GymValet system, towels, sanitizing solution, spray bottles, trigger sprayers, dilution containers for mixing cleaning solutions and complete Purell systems. However, the recession has made operators hesitant to invest in more cleaning products.

“I just don't think it's reached critical mass where people are seeing their members get sick,” he says. “I don't think it's sent people over the edge.”

Despite that, Sherman says that his sales in 2009 were “nicely above” 2008 sales.

Gardner agrees that the recession has affected business.

“The recession is still hitting all of us, and the club owners, like any business owners, are watching their pennies,” Gardner says. “H1N1 has helped offset the recession-caused decline rather than cause a major increase.”

Club owners spend about 2.9 percent of their revenue on housekeeping, according to the IHRSA report, which also found that the more money club operators spend on cleaning, the higher their retention and revenue growth becomes.

Sherman says that he wishes club operators would do more to protect their members.

“What I find is that members are generally more interested in and longing for better cleaning solutions than many club operators are willing to put out,” he says. Some club operators won't put out sprays or wipes for members because they say it implies the club is not clean, Sherman says, but a club's cleaning staff can't clean each piece of equipment after each use, so that can lead to questions about how clean the equipment is.

Some equipment manufacturers are getting into the clean act. Life Fitness now offers two products, Pure Green 24 and GymWipes, that it recommends to clean its products, according to Samantha Wade, brand manager.

“In the era of H1N1, the gym members are more concerned about spread of virus and bacteria, and we wanted to be able to offer this to gym operators to offer that clean and safe environment to gym members,” Wade says.

Testing by the engineering department at Life Fitness showed that these two products did not damage Life Fitness equipment as neither have bleach or alcohol in them, two chemicals that can take off finishes, affect colors and make plastic brittle, Wade says.

Life Fitness recommends that a club's cleaning crew use the Pure Green 24 product and that clubs set out the GymWipes for members to wipe equipment.

“There's a psychological benefit to offering an opportunity to members to wipe down,” Wade says. “They just feel like the gym and the equipment are cleaner. That goes a long way.”

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