Locker rooms used to be an afterthought for most clubs. Focused on the best and most advanced equipment and programming, many club operators of the past neglected their locker rooms, seeing them as just a place for members to change and shower.

Today, health club owners of both high-end and low-end facilities are giving their locker rooms their utmost attention. With competition tight in many markets, luxurious locker rooms that are customized to men and women are helping facilities retain members and sell new memberships.

“Locker rooms have pretty much stayed the same for a very long time, and they've been very similar in feel and look,” says David Phillips, interior designer for Fabiano Designs, an architecture, interior design and planning firm in Montclair, NJ. “Now, we're looking to explore the spa component and create a spa-like feel. We're treating men's and women's locker rooms differently.”

Because people expect better locker rooms, club owners need to spend their money there, Phillips says.

“It's where a member really scrutinizes,” he says. “A locker room is a necessity, but you need to have them come in and say, ‘Wow. I could stay here. I could shower here.’ We need to respond to that.”

Although some locker room upgrades can cost thousands of dollars, updating your locker room and making it more spa-like doesn't have to be expensive, says Michael Poris, principal of McIntosh Poris Associates, an architecture firm in Birmingham, MI. The firm recently designed the new YMCA Renaissance Center in Detroit, which was created as a corporate fitness facility for General Motors' headquarters. The 12,000-square-foot facility opened in January 2007.

Despite designing the locker rooms to have a high-end, corporate-like feel to appeal to high-level General Motors executives, the project came in under budget, Poris says.

“No one knows that we didn't have a big budget,” he says. “People look at it and say it's really nicely finished. We just dug deeper.”

The architects saved money by trading real wood lockers for oversized laminate lockers that look like wood, choosing European porcelain ceramic tiles that mimic expensive stone and installing posh white quartz countertops. These trade-offs allowed the firm to splurge on other locker room details, such as glass shower doors.

“The glass doors were definitely something we wouldn't compromise on,” Poris says. “The Y wanted curtains, but we wouldn't do that.”

Health clubs even on the tightest of budgets shouldn't compromise on what features they really want in their locker rooms, Phillips says.

“You should try to allow as much finance as possible to go into your locker rooms,” he says. “When it comes to touch and feel and sight in locker rooms, it's all about the experience.”

Gender Differences

Poris and management at the YMCA Renaissance Center also spent a lot of time discussing what is — and what isn't — important for the men's and women's locker rooms. The team discussed everything from who uses the locker room and when they use it to the number of sinks and lockers needed, Poris says.

The Y built the women's locker room with larger, more private showers with enough room for a small dressing area. The designers allotted extra counter space for women to blow dry their hair, put on makeup and get ready for their day. The men's locker room features extra-large lockers that are deep and tall enough to hold a suit jacket, additional average-sized showers and more sinks than the women's locker room.

Features customized to each gender are becoming more common in locker rooms, Phillips says.

“You want members to spend more time in locker rooms unwinding,” Phillips says. “To do that, we're definitely treating men's and women's locker rooms as different areas.”

Of the health clubs he's recently designed, Phillips says the women's locker room has become increasingly more social. A “lounge-like atmosphere” with comfortable seating is ideal, he says.

“Women should have plenty of areas where they can put on makeup and interact,” Phillips says. “Give them a place where they can communicate with other people. Make it friendly.”

At all The Sports Club/LA locations, the women's locker rooms have more vanity space, fewer sinks and large shower rooms for privacy, says Steven Wilson, spokesperson for The Sports Club Co., Los Angeles, which owns the clubs.

Adding fragrance is another easy way to elevate the space, says Raymond Connelly, principal at RFCY Consultants Corp., an architecture firm in East Brunswick, NJ. After polling 200 people, RFCY learned that most women liked the smell of lilacs. A sanitary spray is nominal cost-wise but creates a relaxing, post-workout environment, he says.

An abundance of accessible outlets in dry areas of the women's locker room are essential, Connelly says. In wet areas, Connelly places paper-towel dispensers to help with cleaning.

“If you don't think about [designing your locker room] the right way, it's just going to be a disaster for you,” he says. “Prepare early, so that later it's not messy for you.”

In the men's locker room, Phillips says more health clubs are going for a masculine, country-club look and adding lounge areas with 42-inch plasma TVs. Although men are usually less social than women, lounge areas can encourage interaction, especially if a big game is on, he says. The idea of a lounge can be taken even further by adding a hospitality bar with fresh fruit and cold water.

For an added corporate-like feel, the YMCA Renaissance Center ordered custom-made benches with padded tops for the men's locker room. The benches are moveable, making the space more functional and accessible, says Jennifer Ludlum, branch operations director for the YMCA Renaissance Center.

Budgeting for a personal shaving station can add another layer of sophistication in the men's locker room for less than $300, Connelly says. A separate shaving bowl along with supplies is a small yet personal touch that male members will remember, he says.

At The Sports Club/LA, all men's locker rooms are equipped with additional sinks for shaving, and extra care is given so that both the men's and women's locker rooms feel like home, Wilson says.

Room for All

The YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit recently opened the 99,000-square-foot Boll Family YMCA in downtown Detroit. It features high-end locker rooms, Ludlum says.

“Even though the Y is family friendly and recreational, we still want good quality, and we want it to look nice,” Ludlum says. “It doesn't even compare with older Ys, of course, but I bet it stands out with any other facility in the area, too.”

Although the JCC Association does not have a template for locker rooms, it recommends five separate rooms: adult men's, adult women's, youth boys', youth girls' and family changing rooms, says Anthony Slayen, continental health and fitness consultant for the JCC Association.

Some Jewish Community Centers are upgrading their locker rooms. JCC Metrowest in New Jersey is renovating its locker rooms, and the Alper JCC in Miami has upgraded its locker rooms to create a more spa-like atmosphere, Slayen says.

Small touches such as upgraded shower heads, hand-held shower heads and steam showers can make all the difference, one decorative plumbing manufacturer says.

For example, to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, a fitness facility must have a hand-held shower head, the manufacturer says. However, instead of buying the cheapest one on the market, he recommends investing in a good-quality shower head with good spray. Hand-held shower heads, which are perfect for women who want to shower or shave their legs but don't want to get their hair wet, are popular in Europe and are gaining usage in the United States, he says. Cleaning and maintenance staff can also use the hand-held shower heads to wash shower walls and floors.

Another manufacturer of stand-alone steam showers says more health clubs are investing in spa-like amenities, such as steam showers. Steam and other specialty shower heads can be good for loosening tight muscles or for children and seniors who need a soft spray.

Rain shower heads are another big trend. Although a luxurious spa may pay $5,000 for a rain shower head, clubs can get a quality one for $300 to $400, one manufacturer says.

“Clubs spend all their money on equipment and other things, and don't think about what they're doing in the shower,” the manufacturer says. “People want to take a good shower, and they remember a good shower.”

High-end facilities are providing even more lavish locker room details. Some facilities are investing in more than just individual showers by including individual mirrors in their locker rooms. In the future, Phillips expects to see individual vanities and sinks in locker rooms for further personalization.

Spa features, such as cold plunges, are back in vogue in health club locker rooms, says Sam Elsheikh, senior principal for Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative, an architecture firm in Denver. So are steam rooms and saunas, he says.

Some facility owners hire a locker room attendant to cater to members' locker room needs, such as shining shoes and doing personal laundry, Elsheikh says.

However, not all locker room amenities have to be expensive. Simply providing blow dryers in the women's locker room and having trash drops cut into your countertops can be small yet important details that set a locker room apart, Connelly says.

At the YMCA Renaissance Center, staff members keep the locker room stocked with basic amenities, such as lotion, deodorant and large shower towels, Ludlum says.

“Having the amenities available has been a nice feature, and members are wowed by it,” she says. “It's so minimal in expense, and it sends a good message to the public that we care.”

Attention to the locker room's layout is also key, Connelly says. To create more areas of privacy, many facilities are forgoing the usual T-shaped design and going with more of an L- or C-shaped design, he says. Choosing natural colors that are soothing is another easy choice, Connelly says.

As is lighting, says Donald DeMars, president of Donald DeMars International, a design and development consultant company in West Hills, CA. DeMars prefers indirect lighting in locker rooms because it's less commercial and more inviting, he says. While working on Sportcity in Mexico City, Mexico, DeMars mounted the lighting on top of the lockers, casting the light up onto the ceiling. The ambient light that bounces back from the ceiling and onto the lockers creates a warm, desirable glow in the dressing area, he says.

Trading Spaces

Costs of amenities vary, depending on which amenities facilities invest in and the quality of those amenities. For example, a steam shower can range in price from $2,500 to $10,000. However, the best way for club owners to decide how much to spend on their locker rooms is to know their memberships' expectations, design experts say.

“Look at your members' demographics,” Phillips says. “What cars are they driving? What restaurants are they visiting? What resorts are they going to when they're vacationing? Then exceed that expectation of quality they're used to.”

At high-end Sports Club/LA locations, locker rooms have carpeted floors, warm lighting, marble and granite countertops, and spacious lockers. The facilities also boast high-end toiletries and an on-site spa.

“The locker room is very important when you are running a luxury sports and fitness club, as it's part of the first experience a member has after entering the building,” Wilson says.

Quality locker rooms can also help attract new members and keep current members happy, Poris says. The YMCA Renaissance Center's locker room and overall club design helped it sell 800 memberships, which was 200 more than the facility's original goal when it opened in January, he says.

A great locker room is essential, Phillips says.

“If you're making the locker room a part of members' daily routine, you want them to decompress in the locker room,” he says. “Give members an opportunity to change their clothes and feel good. If they feel pampered when they left, then they're coming back.”

For more manufacturer information on locker room design and amenities, go to: www.fitnessbusinessprobuyersguide.com.