As with other parts of club and resort operations, the growing trend with fitness centers is to make more things available to more people, in line with the changing demographics of both existing and new club members. In the fitness area, that means going well beyond setting up second-hand equipment in a spare room, and maybe sticking a mirror and a TV on the wall. Now clubs are adding full-service fitness centers—even spas—to give members a more complete place to enhance their lifestyles.
“Now it’s a family-driven decision. It’s not male-driven anymore,” says Steve Tharrett, who left Club Corp last August after a 20-year career that ended with him serving as Senior VP of Athletic, Tennis and Golf Operations. When he left, 42 of Club Corp’s 90 clubs had fitness centers. And among those that still didn’t, they consistently ranked as the top feature requested by members over the last three years.

For women, reports Tharrett, who is also a past President of the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), one of the primary driving forces now to join a golf or country club is the availability—and quality—of a fitness center and spa. And with the PGA-backed push for golf-specific fitness programs that put a much greater emphasis on muscle flexibility (vs. just pumping iron for brute strength), club fitness centers are also becoming more of a draw for men—but only if they are properly equipped for this new trend.

Making (Not Just Any) Room
The biggest challenge for most clubs is finding enough space to meet these ever-expanding needs. In a presentation on trends in club fitness and spa amenities, made at the Club Man­ag­ers Association of America (CMAA) 2005 Con­ference in New Orleans, Chris White of WTS International said a minimum of 1,200 sq. ft. is needed to make a club center credible.
To fill this space, White adds, the goal should be at least 12 to 14 pieces of cardio equipment and a similar amount of circuit strength training equipment.

While this may prompt gasps over the potential costs, remember that the sure way for a fitness center not to get used is to make it a stark environment devoid of fun, inspiration or motivational support. Remember, too, that affluent club members who are interested in staying fit probably already have access to a treadmill in front of a TV—if not at home, then at a health club down the street. To convince members—existing and potential—that their fitness dollars and time are better spent at your club, you have to provide a better value and experience.
To zero in on how your fitness center can provide a distinctive edge in these areas, start by carefully analyzing your membership to look for potential marketing niches. Do you have a heavy concentration of senior members? Teenagers? Women?

Surveying the membership at large will also yield valuable information, especially if you go beyond the usual questions about their preferences for type of equipment, location of the room, hours of operation, etc. Make it your mission to find out all the ways in which members are currently trying to stay in shape, and probe into how they would prefer to exercise if they had unlimited resources at their disposal. Getting these answers up front can prevent a lot of unnecessary expense for space and equipment that won’t get used (the responses may even redirect your thinking to reemphasize other fitness-related parts of the club, such as tennis, swimming, walking or aerobics classes).

Don’t Toss the Weights
One piece of good news for clubs looking to take fitness centers to the next level is that White still champions free weights, which many clubs already have. “They generally aren’t as much of a liability as people think,” he notes, because companies that insure fitness centers expect to see free weights in the gym and include them as part of the underwriting structure.
And it makes sense to start with free weights as an important part of how to meet members’ expanding needs. According to the IHRSA, free weights are the fastest-growing equipment category, ahead of circuit weights and cardio equipment.
But here, too, it’s important to be aware of how even this “basic” part of fitness training is changing. While plate-loaded strength training is still common, there is now growing interest in pneumatic equipment that allows for even finer adjustments in resistance. Some companies even offer machines with “negative resistance” that helps users go through a range of motion—a nice feature to offer senior members, or those recovering from injury or suffering from a disability.

Not Just Lockers
As you’re determining where your fitness room will go and what it should include, don’t forget its close physical connection with other parts of your club—in particular, your locker rooms. The changing areas now used by golfers may not be up to snuff for a full fitness offering, especially compared to what your members may be used to at outside health and athletic clubs. And you don’t want to deter use of your center because members are forced to walk through more “formal” areas of the club in workout attire.

This adds to the case for designing the fitness center in a way that effectively incorporates existing locker room areas. Dumping equipment in a currently unused room won’t likely have the same high-quality results as a renovation carefully planned with the help of an architect. And if a sauna or steam room will be part of the fitness mix, you’ll need to have one each for men and women, or at the very minimum provide separate but equal access to a common room from each locker area.

If You’ve Built It…They Still May Not Come
Once your new fitness center is open, remember that you’re going to need to go beyond just telling members that it’s available. “Nationally, 80 percent of people value exercise, but only 20 percent actually exercise regularly,” says White. People need support to get in shape, and you have a great opportunity to provide it, because your club already plays a big role in many of your members’ activities.

Cross-marketing is an easy way to build a club fitness program. Get your club chef involved in creating and marketing healthy menu options. Get your golf and tennis pros to coordinate with the fitness director to first create sport-specific exercise and training programs, and then actively help teach and supervise them. Have personal trainers refer members for massage. With a little creative thinking, you can find ways to integrate the fitness center into club culture and greatly increase its revenue potential. The Kansas City CC built massage awareness with chair massage demos outside the pro shop.
Promotion of your fitness center should actually begin well before it’s completed. That tactic worked well for many of the clubs that Tharrett worked with while at Club Corp. He created a pre-sale office that sold pledge cards and was able, in most cases, to get members to upgrade their memberships even before the doors opened.

Which brings up another key point—don’t assume you won’t be able to charge members extra for the use of your fitness offerings. Experience has shown that members are often willing to spend an additional $20 to $40 a month for the convenience of having a top-flight fitness center on club grounds.