An enthusiastic, long-time member invited her neighbor as a guest to her club. The neighbor had lost weight and wanted to start exercising. Although she had visited a club a few times before, she had never signed up for a membership. A few days later, the member took her neighbor into the club and showed her all the wonderful, high-tech equipment and the group exercise class schedule. After the tour, she was shocked when her friend said she needed to think about it. A year later, the neighbor began using a treadmill in her overcrowded garage.

Obviously, the neighbor saw something entirely different at the club than her fit friend saw. All of that wonderful equipment was not so wonderful to her. In fact, it scared her because much of it was for fit people, and she felt out of place.

More of the unfit/deconditioned crowd are coming to clubs than ever before. The growth of 30.6 million members in 1999 to 41.3 million members in 2004 is primarily from the unfit market. Yet, the vast majority of Americans who need clubs the most don't join.

A first impression depends on many things, including gender. A recent study by the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association and George Washington University on why people don't join health clubs found that women believe a club can improve their appearance, self image and health, yet once they visit a club, they feel less in control in that environment. Men, on the other hand, feel like they are more in control in a club environment, yet they are not as optimistic that a club will help them reach their goals.

Other studies have shown that when people walk into a club, they take a mental picture of what they see and feel and begin to make judgments within seconds. This visual experience quickly leads to an emotional response. Smiling, welcoming faces bring favorable emotions; unfriendly, frowning faces bring unfavorable emotions, even if a word hasn't been spoken.

What else makes up the visual environment? The décor is first — either beautiful and welcoming or boring and intimidating. If lighting is too bright, it can be overwhelming, especially if it puts exercisers on display. Softening the lighting and creating a somewhat restricted view of the workout areas can do wonders for the first impression.

In a recent issue of Forbes, an architect spoke about a new $2 billion casino he was designing in Las Vegas. He mentioned different design cues he learned to work with such as the use of earth colors (they create an inviting positive energy), the use of curves (it softens the space, and people want to see around the bend) and the James Bond principle, which limits the use of mirrors (most men in a casino think they are James Bond until they see themselves in the mirror and realize that they are not, and then they stop spending).

Should clubs have mirrors? Definitely not where people see themselves as soon as they walk in. Most guests are not happy with how they look, and they probably do not want to be immediately reminded of it. However, putting in no mirrors is probably going too far; the fit market is used to them and expect them.

Mirrors or no mirrors, one of the most significant things club owners can do is to learn what people's (members' and non-members') first impressions are when they come into their facilities. Facility owners should look at their clubs from the viewpoint of a person who wants to make a change but who is still uncomfortable and therefore reluctant to take action. Favorably planning for every experience that that person goes through will motivate more people to want to take the positive steps they need to take to improve their health.


Bruce Carter is the president of Optimal Fitness Design Systems International, a club design firm that has created about $420 million worth of clubs in 45 states and 26 countries.