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Health Clubs Push Novelties; Members Jump

January 6, 1995

To keep financially fit, health clubs are offering a lot more than exercise.

The East Bank Club in Chicago bills itself as a health club. But after working out there, members can get their hair done, buy clothes and sit down to a four-course meal. At Saw Mill River Club in Mount Kisco, N.Y., activities include personal-finance seminars led by real-estate and investment experts. And from coast to coast, health clubs are touting a variety of services not even remotely related to fitness.

The shift comes as the health-club industry seeks to revitalize itself by courting members over age 50, instead of just young adults and baby boomers, and it comes none too soon. The number of clubs fell to 11,655 in 1993, after more than doubling to 13,000 between 1982 and 1989, according to American Sports Data Inc., a Hartsdale, N.Y., research firm. Membership was flat from 1989 to 1992, at around 16.5 million, but grew to 18.2 million in 1993, as the industry ventured beyond its traditional line of business.

``Clubs today are increasingly seeing themselves as retail and personal-service businesses,″ says Rick Devereux, director of operations at International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association in Boston.

Fitness centers have long operated small pro shops selling tennis balls, headbands and workout clothes. But the new businesses go well beyond sports.

At East Bank, 40 percent of the club’s $25 million in annual revenue comes from its retail and service shops, up from 33 percent three years ago. The club last year added a carwash and a beauty salon, complete with a cosmetics counter and manicurist. A dry-cleaning shop is in the works for this year, and the club’s clothing shop was recently expanded to make room for a shoe section and magazine rack.

East Bank’s peripheral businesses either lose money or break even, says Betty Sacks, the club’s director of services. But they have helped keep membership steady, even though the club’s initiation fee jumped 25 percent to $1,000 two years ago and monthly dues, now $110, rise $5 a year.

Health clubs like Crunch Fitness in New York increasingly are becoming retailers. Members have to walk through the clothing shop to reach the workout area, and 40 percent of clothing sales are to nonmembers who enter the club just to shop. Moreover, the club this year plans a series of shows on the cable channel ESPN to plug a new line of fitness videotapes and Crunch-label apparel, including jeans and shoes, says Doug Levine, president. He says Crunch’s clothing sales accounted for about 40 percent of the club’s profit in 1994, up from 20 percent the year earlier.

Most fitness outlets, however, still put most of their muscle behind exercise. To better cater to members, they are increasingly contracting with physical therapists and personal trainers. The Houstonian Club in Houston, for instance, now has 20 personal trainers, up from six three years ago.

In addition to bringing in extra revenue, club operators say these specialists help members make sense of the volumes of exercise and fitness information floating around. Ken Pollard, a trainer at Cooper Fitness Center in Dallas, says clients often ``come in and hit you with a lot of questions in some kind of panic″ and need to be reassured.

Such expertise is especially helpful to older members, whom clubs see as a largely untapped market. Saw Mill, for instance, expects to begin advertising soon in apartment complexes that rent exclusively to people over age 50. The club is also planning to lower the minimum age to 50 from 60 for the ``silver circle″ discount membership, which reduces the monthly fee to $80 from $114 and cuts the initiation fee in half to $150, says Jim Martin, Saw Mill’s director of sales and marketing. Mature adults, a growing segment of the population, are exercising in increasing numbers, says Mr. Martin, who projects that in five years as many as 40 percent of Saw Mill’s members will be over age 55, up from 30 percent today.

To be more appealing to those over 50, Saw Mill also has quadrupled its sessions on outdoor walking and yoga in the last two years. In Dallas, Baylor Fitness Center offers 30 water-aerobics classes a week and is looking at expanding them.

Even Bally’s Health & Tennis Corp., a unit of Bally Entertainment Corp. that primarily serves the young-adult market, last year doubled to $7 million its budget for treadmills and stationary cycles, recognizing rising demand for cardiovascular health among older members, who aren’t as worried about their waist size. At the same time, it cut funds for weight-training equipment such as barbells, says Sandy Silver, vice president of marketing.

Information sessions targeted to older members are also on the rise: Cooper Fitness this year started lunch-time discussions on such topics as breast health and how to purchase medications.

Among the more offbeat offerings at other clubs: book clubs and bus trips to shop for antiques.

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