Mark Harrington didn’t realize it at the time, but the legal battles he fought in the 1990s would become a blessing in disguise.

In 1996, James Foster sued Harrington’s Boston-based Healthworks Fitness Centers for Women on the grounds that the clubs discriminated against men. Foster, a patent lawyer armed with a Harvard law degree, had filed similar complaints against New York bars that offered free drinks for women during happy hour.

A year after the Healthworks complaint was filed, a superior court judge ruled in Foster’s favor. Foster may have won the battle, but he did not win the war. A bill was quickly introduced in the Massachusetts House that allowed single-sex clubs to operate in that state, and in January 1998, Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci signed the bill into law.

“In a lot of ways, it was very positive for us,” says Harrington, who has owned Healthworks since 1977. “It brought attention to the niche we had, the significance of it and how important it was to a lot of people.”

Over the past two to three decades, the women-only club model has evolved from the circuit clubs popularized by Curves to multipurpose clubs that provide their members with services and amenities unique
to the women-only model. Operators at women-only clubs continue to hold true to their beliefs that women-only clubs are necessary for their members, be it on a social, emotional or religious level. These operators face challenges from coed club operators who see women-only clubs as competitors with an unfair advantage, as well as agencies and organizations who maintain that clubs that are either women-only or have women-only sections within their clubs violate certain statutes.

A number of challenges to the women-only model have taken place over the past 10 years in California, where clubs have been found to violate California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, or California Civil Code Section 51. The 1959 act outlaws discrimination by businesses in the state based on age, sex or race, among other qualifiers. Body Central (2006), Gold’s Gym (2007), California Family Fitness (2008), In-Shape Health Clubs (2011) and Lady of America (2011) have all been cited for violations in California. (See sidebar.)

CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE

STILL A NEED

Long after winning its legal battle, Healthworks continues its mission to serve women. The company operates five women-only clubs, two women-only nonprofit centers and one coed low-price club. Last year, the company was No. 44 on Club Industry’s Top 100 Clubs list with reported 2010 revenue of $23 million.

Like other operators in his niche, Harrington stresses the need for women-only clubs because they help remove barriers to women who may otherwise not join a club.

“The unintended consequences are very positive in that there is much more networking, and there’s more activities that men might not be necessarily interested in having,” Harrington says. “Women are still climbing that ladder to be equal. I think they feel strength at a women-only club.”

Other women-only club owners share Harrington’s sentiments about the need for these clubs. Lynne Brick is the co-owner of five Brick Bodies coed clubs and two Lynne Brick’s Women’s Health and Fitness Clubs in the Baltimore area. Her women-only clubs, the first of which opened in 1991, provide a social and emotional haven for women, Brick says.

“Our women’s clubs are the place where people go to not only escape the stress of their everyday life but also to really focus on putting on their own oxygen mask first,” Brick says. “Women feel so compelled to take care of everyone else besides themselves.”

Baltimore has one of the largest populations of Orthodox Jews in the country, so Orthodox Jewish women can exercise at Lynne Brick’s in more relaxed attire than their customary dress. Some Muslim women also benefit from a women-only setting due to religious requirements for their attire.

CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE

Being among only females also is important to some women in group fitness classes.

“Women want to belong to someplace that’s packed with women-only programming, everything from ‘pamper me’ weekends to pole dancing,” says Ann Gilbert, director of fitness for Shapes Fitness for Women, which has 13 clubs in the Tampa-St. Petersburg, FL, area.

Gilbert says group programming is vital to her clubs. About half of her members use group fitness, she says, and one recent Pilates class attracted 79 women.

“When they look through the doors and they don’t see that programming and if it’s not what’s sold during a tour or a needs assessment, then the women-only facility will struggle,” she says. “They’ll struggle just like any other competition.”

Women-only clubs also must provide a different type of customer service.

“Customer service for a woman is a lot different than [for] a man,” says Cheryl Steele, who, along with her sister Michele Shea, owns The Fitness Club for Women, Wellesley, MA. “Women are a lot more emotional. You have to be able to really be sensitive and read what’s going on in somebody else’s personality and in their head to be able to provide that level of customer service. I know I’ve been to many coed gyms, and I don’t think that they do that.”

The club, which was featured last year on a reality TV show called “Wicked Fit” on the Style Network, attracts professional women and Wellesley College students, among other demographics. Part of its customer service offerings include seminars on women’s issues and a jewelry vendor in the club’s lobby.

Fitness Lady, which has served the community of Bossier City, LA, since 1991, also focuses on more than working out, staying fit and losing weight. It serves as a women’s resource center for health issues, says owner Kedgy Larson. Those issues focus on the mental, emotional, physical, social and spiritual aspects of a woman’s life. Services include helping women find the right type of shoes or bra to wear.

“You need to understand that there will always be and should always be a demand for women’s fitness centers.” Larson says. “Women deserve to have issues addressed that are important to them, and in a coed facility, that has been either very challenging or non-existent.”

CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE

GROWTH FOR OPERATORS

Some women-only clubs have found success in California despite the legal challenges to other women-only clubs. Total Woman Gym and Day Spa, whose roots go back to 1965, has 13 locations in Southern California. The Westlake Village, CA-based company recently announced that it plans to open five to eight new locations each year, including expansion into Northern California.

“They do a great job with their marketing, and they do a fantastic job recruiting,” says Lin Conrad, the executive director of California Clubs of Distinction, a nonprofit trade association that promotes the growth of clubs in California and is a regional affiliate of the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association. “They have programs that people want. They don’t advertise that they exclude men.”

Other women-only clubs are growing through franchising. Lucille Roberts, New York, has almost 50 corporately owned clubs, but it opened its first franchise club in Pennsylvania earlier this year. Last year, it announced plans to open at least 50 franchised clubs in the South. The company ranked No. 32 on Club Industry’s Top 100 Clubs list last year with $35 million in 2010 revenue.

Elements, a women-only chain based in Miami Beach, FL, is expanding in South Florida, New York, Boston, Atlanta and Los Angeles. Company growth includes franchising, conversions and acquisitions.

CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE

CHALLENGES FOR SOME

Not all women-only clubs are experiencing growth. Curves, Waco, TX, created a new type of women-only club in the 1990s when it opened its circuit-style model, spawning a slew of similar models. Many of its imitators failed because of poor business decisions and a lack of franchisor support. Curves, which reported $1 billion in 2010 revenue, has had its own struggles, too, as the company experienced a drastic reduction in the number of franchisee-run clubs during the past five years. At the beginning of 2007, Curves had nearly 7,800 clubs. Today, the company operates 4,000 clubs in the United States and Canada and between 3,000 and 3,500 clubs in the rest of the world.

“In the U.S. and Canada, to a certain extent, we focused a little too much on growth in the early days, and we want to kind of bring that back and make sure we’re totally focused on quality and on providing the best possible solution to women,” says Mike Raymond, former president of Curves and now a special advisor to the company. “And if that means we have fewer clubs, we’re entirely content with that.”

Curves is branching beyond its circuit club model and is focusing on women’s health issues with its custom magazine for members called Diane, named after co-founder Diane Heavin. Late last year, Curves rolled out its Curves Complete product, a daily weight-loss program produced through a partnership with the Cleveland Clinic that focuses on diet, exercise and behavior modification.

“I think there’s no question that the need is still there [for women-only clubs],” Raymond says. “You look at any statistics on overweight or obese women, and the need has never been greater. What we believe was good enough five years ago is not good enough today. We’re focused on providing women with a complete solution to their weight-loss needs.”

Challenges to women-only clubs likely will continue, as will the support those clubs receive from their members. Harrington says he received 1,000 letters during the Healthworks case. He admits the story grew too big for his comfort, but the end result—the law that protects women-only clubs in Massachusetts—has benefitted the model.