People give many reasons for not joining a health club. Some say they do not have the time to exercise-but given that the average American spends 2.7 hours per day watching television, lack of time obviously is not a factor. Others say that expense is their main objection, but they do not hesitate to spend as much or more money on dining out as they would on a monthly membership, especially when there are so many low-priced clubs around the country today. Other people cite lack of energy, but this doesn’t make sense because exercise leads to increased energy levels.
All of these “reasons” are merely excuses that people give when the more likely cause for their reluctance to join a club is that they find clubs intimidating.
Much of what those of us in the club industry think is cutting edge can be scary to the uninitiated. Many prospective members feel overwhelmed by the apparent complexity of fitness equipment and worry about how they will look as they try to figure out how to use it, but proper club design can reduce the intimidation factor and make potential members feel more at ease.
A welcoming environment begins with the lobby—this area offers the first glimpse of your club and the experience that awaits within. It must offer a feeling of comfort so the nonmember feels embraced and safe as soon as they enter.
Using softer colors and lighting in the lobby offers an inviting feeling while bright lighting can be uncomfortable to the senses. An inviting seating/social area shows that the club is not just about the workout. Keep exercise areas away from the lobby so it doesn’t feel like equipment is in the lobby. That kind of design makes deconditioned people think that all eyes would be on them when they work out. Instead, use a water wall, Plexiglas partitions, tall plants or a wall with openings to divide your lobby from the exercise area. You don’t want a complete separation, but you need to define the two different areas. Your lobby should be upscale in finishes and furniture, and it should be clean and well maintained. If people are smiling, relaxed and friendly because they enjoy being in the space, it makes the lobby and your club less intimidating.
Cardio and strength equipment rooms also can be intimidating spaces. In many clubs, these exercise areas are situated in wide open areas, but this design typically is not a good idea. To attract the deconditioned, add more privacy for exercisers. Use small dividers to break up the space. Bright lights and lots of mirrors only remind people how bad they think they look. Fewer mirrors are better. If your cardio area overlooks a parking lot or shopping center area, never place the cardio equipment in the front window so people’s backsides face outward. Never place mirrors behind cardio equipment so it reflects people’s backsides. Consider adding a small lounge area on the workout floor. It will get a lot of use and be more inviting.
In group exercise rooms, it’s important to have some windows that let people see into the classes and to give the space a more open and spacious feeling. However, don’t design so many windows into the room that people feel they are working out in a fish bowl. Keep the number of mirrors on the walls to a minimum and make sure the lights can be dimmed.
High-end, spa-like locker rooms can feel like an indulgence for members before or after a workout, but too often these areas are a design afterthought. Make sure that instead of having just one open area, your locker rooms have smaller bays to allow for more privacy. Women’s locker rooms should always have at least two or three dressing booths. Never put in open shower areas with multiple shower heads in either locker room. Instead, consider putting a dressing booth in front of showers. Also, make sure traffic flow areas are at least five feet wide as people do not like brushing up against other people in locker rooms.
One of the biggest challenges for the industry is to address the factors that make clubs seem intimidating to nonmembers and members alike. Design can greatly contribute to the welcome feeling people have at your club. Look at your club through a prospective members’ eyes and consider what design elements would make them feel comfortable.
Bruce Carter is the president of Optimal Fitness Design Systems International, a club design firm that has created about $650 million worth of clubs in 45 states and 26 countries.