Club Industry: The Health Club Industry Needs Innovative Design and Programming Ideas

Club Industry: The Health Club Industry Needs Innovative Design and Programming Ideas

Very few people realize how closely programming and design are intertwined, but programming often helps dictate a club’s design.

As an architect, I get to see many projects as they are in development. Lately, I’ve seen few new ideas in programming or design. The economy likely has a lot to do with that. Trying new things when money is tight is a bit chancy for most people. However, many great ideas and companies started during a recession. As we consider what type of new clubs to build, remember that it is never a bad time to be bold enough to introduce new ideas to the market.

While judging a recent design competition for recreation projects, I found that a majority of the projects were the big multi-million dollar buildings that only universities and public dollars are likely to fund. Most of the projects used the typical large multi-sport club approach: aquatics, running tracks, large fitness floors, court sports and ample space for social and lobby activities. Most of them were really quite good, except that they offered little in the way of innovation.

In the midst of these ordinary projects, something remarkable caught my eye: the Deanwood Community Center and Library in Washington, DC. The project consisted of a full-scale library, gymnasium, large aquatics area, multipurpose rooms and an early childhood care center. It was an interesting and innovative pairing of healthy minds and healthy bodies.

Considering the environment in this neighborhood, the facility had an appropriate program mix that provided what the community needed and wanted, and it engaged the whole family. Will this project be a business success? I don’t know, but I applaud its planners’ willingness to look beyond the traditional offerings in order to expand the market base and reach a larger audience.

If programming is the engine that drives this industry, then this engine is currently running on two extremes: the full-service clubs and the clubs with limited offerings (fitness only, group fitness only, functional training only, women only).

The main buzz currently in the industry is the low-price models. The number of requests we get from mainstream clubs to design a low-price model is staggering. When Michael Grondahl and partners started Planet Fitness, the innovation was not only in low dues but also in creating a brand that gave the consumer what they were looking for: a no-frills, low-pressure, decent place to work out. By reducing overhead costs (i.e. the “frills”), the business model worked beautifully. This simple inspiration really changed the landscape of fitness offerings. Consequently, Planet Fitness has become the Wal-Mart of fitness and a huge success.

I can appreciate that this business model has worked well for Planet Fitness and the many operators who copied it. But who will truly advance this concept? The much-awaited big splash from Equinox— those hip style giants getting into the low-price game with the introduction of Blink—has yet to make much of a wave except to introduce nicer light fixtures. Copying may be good for business, but in the long run, it is bad for the industry. Success in one segment can lead to stagnation of more important, global ideas as people just follow the trends. Breakthrough ideas that could introduce more people to fitness are often neglected. Anytime Fitness, a group of 1,500 franchised key-card clubs, started as an idea that was so foreign to most people that they dismissed it as a flash in the pan. But the company has grown. Rather than stagnating, it is trying to use design to advance, improve and standardize its product while raising prices. (In full disclosure, my company was tapped to do the new designs for Anytime’s franchisees.)

That’s exactly what successful businesses must do: look for ways to innovate in programming and design to give customers what they want. Maybe these innovative ideas will only come every few years. Maybe doing something that has a proven track record is the way to develop clubs now. But I believe that the future is still wide open.

It will be interesting to see where our industry’s new ideas originate, what innovations arise, and equally important, who will have the vision that will drive the new club concepts in our future.