Walking through the front doors of some health clubs these days is more like walking into the lobby of a posh hotel or country club. That's exactly the “feel” some club owners are going for in a desire to make the fitness aspect of their health club just a part of the reason members return.

The clubs — some call them multipurpose clubs — often provide a sense of luxury not seen in many health clubs and they follow that through with added amenities. To be competitive and to lure people into a lifestyle that includes fitness, clubs are incorporating other parts of their members' lives into the facility. That means offering amenities such as dry cleaning, travel agents, restaurants, car washing, and various social options such as ballroom dancing and hiking or ski clubs.

At the East Bank Club in Chicago, members have more than tennis courts, racquetball courts, cardiovascular rooms and weight training rooms from which to choose. They also have a full-service restaurant, a salon, valet dry cleaning, several lounges and other amenities that make this four-story health center “the” place to belong in Chicago.

The Sport & Health Co. owns 28 clubs in the Virginia/District of Columbia area, six of which are upper end, multipurpose clubs. These clubs offer a mixture of amenities depending on the club. Amenities include manicures, ATMs, restaurants, dry cleaning drop off, shoeshines and meals to go. In the past, several of the clubs had valet parking and car washing services.

The Sports Club/LA clubs offer a variety of amenities depending on the club setup, ranging from banquet facilities at its larger clubs to dry cleaning, shoe shine, tailoring and a sports art gallery that features hand-designed tennis shoes by celebrity members, including Magic Johnson, Sting, Tiger Woods and Toni Braxton.

All these amenities require a large space in which to work, meaning multipurpose clubs generally run no smaller than 50,000 square feet, says Bruce Carter, founder of Optimal Fitness Systems International, a consulting firm specializing in startups, and Optimal Design Systems International, a design firm. The clubs also often need a larger membership base to make it viable, and members either pay a higher “gold level” membership fee for the amenities or they pay for them a la carte.

Either way, these higher-end clubs usually must be sited in higher-income locales where the members often are accustomed to finer things. For that reason, design plays an integral part in the multipurpose clubs. Higher ceilings, larger rooms, marble floors, exotic woods, plush furnishings and special design features all go a long way toward making a multipurpose club feel like the place to be for its higher-end members.

“We created clubs to feel, design-wise even, like when they walk through the door, they walk into a whole new environment,” says Nanette Patee Francini, co-founder of The Sports Club/LA. “We design them as a luxury resort.”

The Sports Club/LA, which started in Los Angeles in 1977, has grown over the years to 10 clubs, including the Reebok Sports Club in Manhattan.

“My concept was to create a warm space in the middle of the big city where people could come together and share a common interest and feel they had flown away for the day,” Francini says. Part of that resort feeling comes from a large, open, luxurious lobby area with high ceilings, marble floors and soft, monochromatic colors.

“There's wasted space, but it's there for a reason: wasted space connotes luxury. Narrow halls and low ceilings don't say luxury,” Francini says.

The Sports Club/LA clubs generally have lush landscaping using palm trees and high ceilings and skylights where possible. The club also employs exotic woods, stone amd marble. They often also have curved walls with a soft lilac on the soffet.

“So it feels like you bring the outdoors in,” Francini says.

The design at the six posh Cambridge Clubs in Canada run toward the Ralph Lauren, country club feel, says President Clive Caldwell.

“My idea is warm and cozy and clubby, but there's a million different ways to go about it,” Caldwell says of the designs.

In the past, gyms and fitness centers tended to be boring, Carter admits, explaining that club owners didn't see the need for good design to help motivate exercise. Now, particularly with these multipurpose facilities, Carter sees more clubs creating beautiful, exciting and fun places that people want to come back to. In fact, his company designed one multipurpose club with a waterfall in the center and a glass house for the cardio area.

“Clubs that are going to stand out are clubs that you walk in and go, ‘Wow! What is this?’” says Carter. “If it's the one-stop shop and it looks like that, boy do I want to come back.”

DESIGN CHALLENGE

While planning their upscale designs, club owners and their architects must design with a challenge in mind: how to make the amenities available to non-members without compromising the security of the club? Carter has worked with a club in New Jersey that has a women's only weight loss center, a spa and a rehabilitation center. Each has its own entry, but each is also connected to the fitness club.

“That's the way to do it,” says Carter. With this kind of design, some of the ancillary services can be easily accessed by those who don't want to use the fitness center, and yet the fitness center is accessible to them when they want to use it.

While ancillary services such as the full-service restaurant may be in plain view and the comfortable and posh lounge may be easy to spot, to find the fitness area at The Sports Club/LA, a member generally must walk through the lobby and turn a corner. When a member walks into one of The Sports Club/LA clubs, Francini wants them to be able to “take a deep breath and exhale.” Putting ancillary services toward the front helps accomplish this reaction, she says.

The fitness areas of the Sport & Health Co. clubs also aren't front center. Members must walk through a distinct lobby and lounge area with a “country club feel” to get to the fitness area, says Michael Meehan, regional manager at the Sport & Health Co.

Because Caldwell considers his business to be the hospitality business, as well as fitness and preventative health, he says that food, beverage and hospitality should be at the front of a club.

“It should be the first thing you see and the last thing you see,” Caldwell says.

At the Cambridge Group clubs, members first see a lounge area rather than the fitness area. “You won't find fitness in the front of the house,” Caldwell says.

However, Carter disagrees with this theory, saying that the fitness area should be visible from the door. While these multipurpose clubs are selling ancillary services, they are primarily selling fitness and well being, he says.

“When I walk in, I want to get caught up in the emotion,” Carter says. “I want to see what's going on in the exercise areas.”

However, placing ancillary products and services up front not only maintains a “special destination” feel to these clubs, but it helps the ancillary revenue-earning services and products succeed, Caldwell says.

RECOUP THE GREEN

The success of these services is important, particularly because of the cost to build these facilities and the need to recoup that investment. The Sports Club/LA facilities cost $50 million to build, according to Francini.

The cost is keeping the number of multipurpose facilities from growing quickly, particularly during the economic difficulties the country has faced in the last two years. But that doesn't mean they don't have a future. Carter says that once the economy rebounds, more of these clubs will be built.

“Is this a club of the future? Absolutely,” Carter says. “Fitness is the foundation, but it's fitness and social because the biggest problem that clubs have is getting people to stick with exercise.”

The revenue these ancillary services deliver is increasing. About 38 percent of The Sport Club/LA's revenues come from ancillary products, including private training.

“If you have a third of your revenue coming from something, though, what's ancillary about that?” Francini says.

For many of the multipurpose facilities, outside companies lease space from them to provide the amenities or the businesses pay the facilities a percentage of their profits. The latter method means multipurpose facilities only earn revenue on the rent paid to them, but by providing these services to their members, they may also gain members and member loyalty.

The Sport & Health clubs run their amenities as profit centers, which helps keep those services around when times get tough.

“If it is a profit center, then it never goes to the chopping block,” Meehan says. “If it isn't, then it can come and go and come and go.”

Meehan says to run a profitable restaurant, spa, dry cleaning service, car wash or any other service, a club owner must rely on the experts. The Sport & Health Clubs that offer laundry service launder the workout clothes of its members at the facilities, but those that offer dry cleaning services partner with a local dry cleaner and send the clothes to that cleaner.

“We run health clubs,” Meehan says. “Too often you have a club operator who wants to do what someone else does well.” It often doesn't work, he says.

THE FUTURE IS WALMART

In the future, the multipurpose facilities will expand to include additional amenities and ancillary services. Carter envisions facilities with health food stores, home exercise equipment stores, better retail clothing stores for exercise, chiropractors and other ancillary services and products that fit with the fitness facility.

“I see in the future where anything I want to do with fitness will be there,” Carter says. The trend has already occurred with Walmart where customers can buy their groceries, grab food at a fast food restaurant, stop at the ATM or talk to a loan officer at a bank, visit the optometrist, get a prescription filled at a pharmacy and buy jewelry.

That could increase the “destination” factor for these clubs, drawing even more people in. However, Francini cautions that fitness is the real reason for these clubs and to truly draw people into a healthy lifestyle, club owners will need to make fitness fun and recreational.

“The law of the universe is that people only want to do what's fun,” she says. “If you want people to embrace fitness as a lifestyle, you have to put it in that concept for them. Make it a lifestyle. So, you have to create a beautiful place, amenities they like and members they enjoy being around.”