The locker room is the heart of your club, vital to both member recruitment and retention. Unfortunately, though, clubs often overlook this crucial area.

Members don't.

The naked truth about the most overlooked area in clubs

“Members spend more time in the locker room than perhaps other areas of the club that get more attention,” says Greg White, general manager for the Cherry Creek Athletic Club.

More than just a place to hang clothes, a locker room can either attract members or drive them away. “That's an area where you can lose a prospect,” says Jim DeLaunay, the general manager of the Fitness Company's Headquarters Health Club, Morristown, N.J.

Indeed, locker rooms can be a differentiating factor for people shopping for a club membership. “Everybody's got the same treadmills,” DeLaunay says. “Everybody's got the same free weights…. It's the club location, the club's overall decor and the club's locker rooms that make the overall difference. As far as facilities go, I think locker rooms are the biggest variable in between clubs.”

You can determine whether your locker room is a positive variable by gauging the reaction of current members. Listen to complaints, but also keep an eye out for unspoken feedback. For example, how many people actually use your shower facilities? Do members run in and out of the locker room as quickly as possible, or do they relax, chatting with friends?

On average, only 25 percent of members use a club's showers, according to Bruce Carter, the founder of the Longmeadow, Mass.-based consulting firm Optimal Fitness Systems. It's a telling statistic that most people prefer to wash up at home.

Cleaning up the locker room's image is an important step toward increasing member retention and sales. The locker rooms should be a place where form meets function: Though a practical space for storing belongings or showering, locker rooms should offer a warm, welcoming environment.

“[Owners] don't pay enough attention to the importance of [the locker room] in their prospect's mind,” says Carol Nalevanko, the vice president of DMB Sports Clubs. “[Owners] are looking for functionality, not for feel.”

According to Carter, members want cleanliness, space and privacy in locker rooms — with cleanliness coming first. “Obviously this is a place where they're going to be most intimate with the club,” says Janet Woodfin, general manager of Crunch at 38th Street in New York. And filth makes intimacy unpleasant.

Since cleanliness tops the list of what members want, maintenance of the locker area should be handled on a continuous basis. Many clubs like to do a deep cleaning overnight, with multiple smaller cleanings throughout the day, particularly after rush hours. “Cleanliness — that's a 24-hour-a-day job,” says Nalevanko.

Crunch takes cleanliness — and safety — in the locker room seriously. The chain posts employees at each locker room to clean up as needed, and watch out for thieves. “One of our maintenance staffers is assigned to the locker room and serves as security guard and attendant,” Woodfin says. “They maintain the showers constantly and maintain any other cleaning duties in the locker room.”

In addition to cleaning locker rooms and preventing theft, locker room attendants can take instant feedback from members. “It's important to have individuals back there that can communicate [with] members,” says White, who assigns spot checkers and a rotating cleaning crew to the locker rooms.

Cleanliness is an obvious want for members. However, other subtler issues will also affect how members feel about a club's locker rooms. Gang showers may be an obvious no-no, but a host of other design elements can make your customers feel uncomfortable.

The problem with most locker rooms is that men design them, Carter believes. “I've always tried to think like a woman — and an overweight woman — just being in [this] business,” he explains. “Women don't like to feel like they're changing in a big room where everybody's looking at them. Especially overweight women.

“The woman who thinks she's out of shape, that's so embarrassing for her and that can last for years in [her] psyche,” he adds.

In order to be sensitive to your clients' needs, consider the following guidelines for your locker room's layout, courtesy of Carter. First, while the changing area should be large enough so that people aren't crowding each other, the space should be divided up so that the area isn't intimidating. For example, you could line up a row of lockers so they bisect the space in half, with changing areas on either side.

The shower areas should also be separate, according to Carter, with individual areas for toweling off/dressing (if feasible). Set apart the toilet facilities from the main part of the locker room, so incoming/outgoing traffic does not intrude on the members who are changing/showering. Likewise, the vanity area should occupy its own space, with plenty of counter areas and outlets available (particularly for women), Carter says.

Giving members ample space in the locker provides the privacy that people prefer. WOW! Work Out World in central New Jersey recognizes this.

“We put scales inside the locker rooms in as private a section as possible because we find so many people are vain about their weight and they don't want them in the public areas,” says WOW!'s Stephen P. Roma.

Although men and women both appreciate some personal space, more men tend to use showers, according to Nalevanko. So while the ladies' locker room may need more space for amenities, the men's locker room requires more mass area to accommodate showering and drying off.

Unfortunately, larger locker rooms come at a premium price. Still, clubs short on space can get more mileage from their locker room by paying attention to details and making the space as unique and comfortable as possible. For example, DMB Sports Clubs provides lemon or orange water, newspapers in a lounging area within the locker room, and televisions between all the hair drying stations.

Crunch also provides some nice touches. According to Woodfin, the locker rooms boast heated tile floors, which comfort bare feet and evaporate any excess water in the wet areas.

Heated tile floors may not be in your budget, but you don't always have to shell out money to make your locker room stand out. Some inexpensive locker room items include plants; softer lighting; new paint or carpeting; aromatherapy; pictures; fancier faucets, wall sconces, and other fixtures; and courtesy amenities such as soaps, shampoos, razors, conditioners, etc. Towels should be provided if your club can afford them, and many operators consider these items an essential expense, even if they lose money when members “borrow” these items.

“Our towels are provided free,” maintains DeLaunay. “That is a cost of doing business”

Carter agrees that towel service is a necessary expense. “It's a great thing to offer, but you're just going to have to spend money,” he says. “Especially when car wash season starts — April, May — towels just disappear.

“People walk off with [towels and other amenities] like crazy,” he adds. “I don't care if it's a rich area.”

This type of pervasive “borrowing” discourages some clubs from offering free amenities. “We supply all the soap products and we don't go beyond that because every time we try, the stuff walks,” says Roma.

If you want to provide extra amenities for members, but theft and budgets are issues, consider charging members for the services. While some operators oppose using the locker room as a profit center, it can't be denied that this area can garner a tidy sum.

“There are some clubs that do $100,000 a year just on [permanent] locker and laundry services,” says DeLaunay.

Cherry Creek Athletic Club offers members a “Gold Room,” a private, locked area with full-size combo lockers, higher-quality towels and a laundry service. The member who opts for this feature pays $36 a month.

Cherry Creek didn't originally introduce the concept to make money, but the Gold Room has proved to be very successful. “It's not really a profit center, although [the rooms] are full and there is a waiting list,” White says. In fact, Cherry Creek will be adding more of these Gold Rooms to accommodate member demand.

Even if you don't charge for locker-related services, the locker room is worth the extra investment. Operators need to be aware of the impact the locker room has on their members' overall view of the club. “If you can't stand up to everyone's expectations in the locker room, then you're probably not living up to expectations in the exercise rooms,” remarks Roma.


Men Are From Mars, Women Have Nicer Locker Rooms

Gender design issues in the changing areas

Forget feminism, the new “sensitive” man and changing gender roles. All locker rooms are not created equal. As it stands, the women's locker room tends to have more amenities, extra space and privacy, and more attention to detail.

“Women want a beautiful environment,” says Bruce Carter, founder of the Longmeadow, Mass.-based consulting firm Optimal Fitness Systems. “They really want that decor. The women, they want privacy. So do men, but the women want it more.

“Women, more often than men, will take the locker room into consideration when deciding to join a health club,” he adds.

To make their females members happy, the New Jersey-based WOW! Work Out World chain features private dressing areas and drying areas by each individual shower. WOW! also offers two private changing rooms for members who don't feel comfortable undressing in front of others.

“Guys are obviously very different than women with how private they need their areas to be,” explains WOW! President Stephen P. Roma. “I think our emphasis is really placed on the women's locker area.”

According to Carter, clubs should provide women's locker rooms with extra space and countertops — to give them room to put on makeup, do their hair, etc. Other features to invest in: a hair bar with lighted mirror and extra floor-length mirrors throughout the locker room (instead of just smaller mirrors above the sinks). In addition to their practical use, mirrors are inexpensive design elements that can create the appearance of extra space within the locker room area, Carter says.

With all of the attention given to the women's locker rooms, you'd think guys would be jealous. Perhaps the only reason men are not feeling short-changed in this gender pandering is because they most likely have not ever had occasion to step into the women's locker room. Still, that doesn't mean guys wouldn't appreciate some extra pampering in their locker rooms.

“What women want, so do guys,” says Carter. “It's just guys, we don't admit to it.”

Prime Time Crime

Protecting locker rooms against theft

The good news is more and more exercisers are losing weight in health clubs. The bad news is they may also be losing their money. And credit cards. And jewelry. And…

Think theft can't happen in your club? Think again. “As much as anybody would like to think their club is the exception to the rest of the world, the reality is they're not,” says Jim DeLaunay, the general manager of the Fitness Company's Headquarters Health Club, Morristown, N.J.

Warnings posted on the Danvers (Mass.) Police Department Web site claim there has been a “recent increase in thefts from health club locker rooms. Lockers are being entered while the victim's out on the floor exercising, playing racquetball or some other activity.

“The thief will enter the club using a temporary pass or a one-day pass,” the warning continues. “Once inside, they'll act as though they're a club member. With no one in the locker room, they'll open lockers, stealing only credit cards. Lockers can be opened using a special tool without leaving any signs of forced entry. Many times they'll steal only one credit card, leaving hundreds of dollars behind.

“By stealing only one card the victim does not notice anything has happened. The victim does not become aware that their credit card was stolen until they go to use it, the credit card company calls because of several large purchases in a row, or until their monthly statement comes in the mail.”

How can clubs protect their members from theft? Besides posting warning signs and selling locks, clubs can assign attendants to monitor the locker rooms. They can also provide safe boxes at the front desk.

In addition, clubs should carefully match faces with members at check-in time, as well as make a copy of all guests' driver licenses. Furthermore, clubs should encourage all guests to use locks.

“It's amazing what people leave in unlocked lockers,” says Bruce Carter, founder of consulting firm Optimal Fitness Systems (Longmeadow, Mass.).

Unfortunately, locks don't guarantee complete safety, which is why club owners should warn members not to leave valuables in the lockers in the first place.

Naturally, in the event of theft, staff can report suspects to the authorities, but Carter tells of a club owned by mafia affiliates who handled things in their own way.

“Their men's locker room was getting hit left and right,” he explains. “So they illegally put a camera in the men's locker room. They found out it was their nicest, most trustworthy member.”

In the end, the club never contacted the police. The affiliates made the member an offer he couldn't refuse: Pay up or else. He avoided the consequences (concrete sneakers, perhaps?) by taking a second mortgage on his home, Carter says.


Behind Closed Doors

Members may complain about unclean locker rooms, but how many of them actually make a mess? Send us stories about members who misused your locker facilities, and we'll publish them in an upcoming issue. Write to us at: Letters to the Editor, Club Industry, One Plymouth Meeting, Suite 501, Plymouth Meeting, PA 19462. E-mail: jjanda@primediabusiness.com. Fax: (610) 238-0992.

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