When you sit in a prime location in the middle of posh spas, the last thing you want to be is the ugly stepsister on the block. That's the way that health club owner Pete Cicale felt before remodeling his club, Olympia Gym. His suggestion box was full of compliments about the staff's service and the equipment, but when it came to cleanliness, the comments turned negative. And it wasn't because Cicale didn't have a good cleaning crew; it was because the facility was old and his members were used to the sparkling granite floors and marble countertops of the $3,000 to $4,000 a year membership spas located in the upscale area.

Cicale's club needed a remodel. Most of that remodel came with the simple stroke of a brush. Instead of spending a million dollars on an architect, decorator, contractor and construction crew, Cicale hired an artist.

“By just hiring an artist, you can change a whole place,” Cicale says. The local artist played off the Greek and Olympic heritage in the health club's name by painting Greek figures on top of a faux paint finish and stencil work in neutral colors.

The health club industry spends 5 percent to 6 percent of gross revenues on remodeling each year. In fact, many designers, architects and even club owners believe that remodeling should be a continual process.

“The idea of renovating and/or adding on ought to be built into the club owner's thinking even as they think about where they are when they start the new facility,” says Gary Graham, principal at Graham/Meus Architecture in Boston. Club owners should talk about master plans and how their facilities can grow, building in flexibility for the unforeseen. And, Graham says, they should look at their next remodel after the paint dries on the last remodel.

If club owners occasionally take a fresh look around their clubs to view them as potential new members would, then they can see when the décor looks tired and it's time to do something. But, as Cicale learned, something doesn't always mean a complete remodel. Sometimes it's just a case of getting rid of the clutter on bulletin boards or moving furniture or equipment around. Graham recommends that club owners do some sort of project every few years, even if it's just a small project like adding plants in the front desk area or adding a fresh coat of paint.

“We are in a bit of a retail business,” says Graham. In retail businesses, the merchandising of goods is a key part of the success of a store, which means that in many retail stores the merchandise is occasionally rotated — little changes that can make a big difference.

Cicale made a few larger changes, too. He expanded the club's aerobic room and replaced the old floor with a wood floor. The locker rooms received new granite countertops, toilets, sinks and faucets along with new faux paint and stenciling.

“What is it to get someone to change toilets or put in new granite?” Cicale asks. “Not much.” In fact, Cicale accomplished the whole new look for about $200,000 — the largest part of that going to the new wood floor and sound-proofed walls in the 4,400 square foot aerobic room.

WHERE TO START

Franklin Fitness & Racquet Club, a 230,000 square foot club in Southfield, MI, has even bigger plans for a remodel. First opened in 1969, as a tennis club, Franklin Fitness expanded in 1975 to include 20 indoor racquetball courts. However, demand for squash courts has increased in the area since a Jewish community center eliminated all its racquetball and squash courts, according to Rick Brode, owner of Franklin Fitness. For that reason, Franklin is removing three tennis courts in order to make room for a double squash court, an area for physical therapy, a sales office and a nursery. The renovated area will also be home to a 10,000 square foot fitness center.

“I think we are bucking the trend to do the double squash court,” Brode says about the renovations, planned to begin this fall. “But in this market, that is a viable commodity.”

Renovations in other areas of the facility include adding space for circuit training and yoga, as well as a supplemental aerobics area. The spinning program will move to a space of its own, freeing up the racquetball court on which it had been located.

In general, racquetball popularity throughout the country has declined as group fitness has become more popular, meaning more group exercise areas and fewer racquetball courts are needed. Not only do today's group exercise programs often require more equipment — steps, balls, bikes, a sound system and more — than in the past, but they also need space for equipment storage.

While programmatic changes that change the function of a room tend to necessitate the majority of remodels, other clubs remodel simply to keep current and fresh. The front desk's importance makes it a popular spot for remodels. Graham says facility owners want to give the front desk the “wow” factor to impart an impressive first glance. Other clubs undertake front desk remodels to reorient the flow in the entry area, ridding it of bottlenecks or security problems.

Often, however, the first impression of a club occurs at the curb. The Franklin Club's plan calls for moving the entryway from the front of the building to the side. The club is in an upscale, family-oriented neighborhood, so the entry should reflect that, Brode says.

The designer for the project, Jeff Nichols, president of Nichols/Page Design Associates, wanted an entry for the club that would offer a sense of arrival when members drove up or dropped off their children.

“When you pull up into a first class hotel, it's not just a door; it's a real sense of arrival,” says Nichols. “It should be impressive and it should be an experience. It should grab you emotionally. You should get a wow.” Of course, that kind of arrival is for the upscale crowd. The lower income crowd or the Generation X crowd might not want such a grand arrival so entryways, and clubs in general, need to be designed with the right demographic in mind.

Whether members are GenX, seniors or families, locker rooms take a lot of abuse, making them a popular remodel subject. Saunas, steam rooms and people walking on the floor with wet feet can quickly deteriorate the materials in the area, meaning quality materials that lessen the chance of accidents must be used in these remodels. Rather than just updating the look of a locker room, some clubs are expanding them into executive locker rooms and charging more for the privilege of using them.

Nichols also suggests paying special attention to the areas in which members gather. Being a member of a club is not just about exercising; it's also about socializing. Members appreciate a nice place to gather and socialize, and they appreciate that area being comfortable whether that means oversized couches or round tables with comfortable chairs. For owners, that means paying special attention to the décor in these areas and making constant small changes — moving a plant around or adding artwork to the walls.

“Artwork, furniture, plants. That can mean a lot,” says Nichols.

GET OUT THE PIGGY BANK

As costly as it is to remodel, it can be even costlier not to remodel if members go elsewhere for classes not offered due to space limitations, or a more comfortable or dynamic facility. Brode's renovations will cost about $4 million, but he says the expense is worth it and necessary to retain current members and attract new ones.

“If you sit still, you're dead,” says Brode. Brode is financing the renovations through the club's own revenues and through a loan.

Club owners generally finance renovations in one or a combination of three ways: cash from operations or owner, bank loans or a partnership with the landlord in which the landlord helps pay for part of the renovations. Some clubs have also offered “bonds” of sorts to members to help pay for renovations, but some industry observers believe this option should be a last resort because they can be seen as a sign that the club is in trouble.

A well-run business should be setting aside money each year for future remodel projects, says Graham. Smart operators put an annual replacement/maintenance amount aside so that over a period of five years, they can afford to do some improvements.

Cicale found a creative way to finance his project. Because his club was small and the money needed was minimal compared to many remodels, Cicale was able to get a home equity line of $250,000 at 4.75 percent. The best part of the deal is, he can write off the interest. However, the down side is that his home is collateral for the loan, so if the business fails, Cicale's house is gone, too.

Regardless of how the projects are financed, club owners should get a sense from members about what they want in the club. Club members often have strong feelings about what changes they'd like to see, but many clubs don't take enough time to talk to club members to find out what they want before making changes. Cicale and Brode both informally polled members before embarking on their changes.

However, Graham cautions against focusing too much on members' comments. “I would think it is smart to be aware of members' needs and desires, but I don't know if it's a great idea to do a lot of polling and focus groups,” says Graham. “You may be raising expectations that you can't meet.”

OPEN FOR BUSINESS

Significant renovations require many considerations, not the least of which is how to maintain operations during the remodel. Cicale was able to complete his remodel with only one class cancellation. He did this by having the artist and floor installers work after hours.

“It took a while, but I didn't care because every time the members came in they would see something different,” Cicale says. That created excitement at the facility about seeing the end product.

Brode plans to keep his club open during the projected nine months of renovations, perhaps just closing off the tennis courts during their transformation. Once that area is completed, the new space will open and the downstairs will undergo a remodel.

However long it takes, the end result is worth it gauging the reaction of Cicale's members.

“Members are very happy because they feel like they just joined a new club,” Cicale says.

That psychological boost along with the programmatic boost that remodels can offer, go a long way in keeping health clubs fresh and visually appealing to members as well as functionally and programmatically up to date. Not bad for a little nip and tuck every few years.

Tips for Working With a Designer and Architect

  • Make sure you've checked out references before going with a designer or architect. Find a club or other place you like and ask for the name of the architect or designer. Ask how the facility management likes the end results.
  • Have an honest, candid interchange between the designer, architect and owner.
  • Give specifics on the scope of the project, paying special attention to what is included and isn't included in the fee.
  • Don't keep the budget a mystery from the designer or architect. They need to know the numbers so they can work within them. Also, keep them updated throughout the project so they know if plans need to be revised.
  • Have a clear picture of what you want accomplished. State your clear goals up front.
  • Start to plan for the remodel earlier than you think you need to because things always take longer than you think.
  • Get an idea of how much financing you can get before talking to architects and designers so you know how much you can spend.
  • Work with the architect or designer to determine the budget for the project. Trying to determine this on your own could lead to underpricing materials, labor and other items.
  • Keep up a relationship with the architect. You must continually keep your offerings fresh and a close relationship with an architect that knows you and your club will make future remodeling less painful.
  • Look for an architect with experience designing health clubs. With experience brings knowledge of what materials work and what materials don't work in a health club.
  • Don't choose a designer or architect based solely on price. “That's the kiss of death,” says Jeff Nichols, president of Nichols/Page Design Associates. “There are a lot of people in the profession that are licensed but have no talent.”
  • Choose a designer with talent, commitment and an understanding of the industry and its needs.
  • Avoid trendy designs that will be outdated quickly. “A club is a long-term investment,” says Nichols. Good design that avoids trendiness and targets the market will be easily updated with just a few changes over time. That will make future changes less costly and less disruptive.
  • Keep in mind when you think your next big remodel will be. If you plan to do one in two years, but the carpet in the locker room just won't hold out until then, you might consider putting in lower grade-quality carpet that will hold you until you recarpet everything in two years.