For years, the success of many fitness facilities depended upon their ability to offer all the bells and whistles. This approach made it difficult for smaller independent club operators to compete with larger, better-equipped, multi-location operators. Having seen the writing on the wall, industry watchers predicted that large club operators such as Bally Total Fitness, 24 Hour Fitness, Gold's Gym and Town Sports International would gain a stranglehold on the industry. But, much like the Y2K phenomena, this prediction has come and gone without much fanfare. Instead, during the last few years, we have actually seen a massive rise in the small club category. Today, smaller clubs represent about 50 percent of the commercial fitness club market. How did this happen?

The small clubs' comeback occurred due to the onslaught of the fitness franchiser who chose to address the needs of the most dominant market force, the Baby Boomer. All around the country, express clubs, women-only clubs, Pilates studios, yoga studios and personal training studios opened without all the bells and whistles, but they were successful because they addressed members' needs.

So what's on the horizon? Will the large club chains return to dominate the industry landscape? Will the rash of fitness franchises continue?

Most of the changes above occurred because of the Baby Boomers. The question now is: as the Baby Boomers turn 61, what are their needs going to be? A good place to start is with a small three-club operation called Nifty after Fifty. This California-based group is owned by Dr. Sheldon Zinberg. Upon entering his club in Whittaker, CA, I noticed that his facility has no loud music, is spotless, and its reception area looks more like a clinic's reception area than a club's. When I walked into the fitness area, I was initially underwhelmed because it's just a square room with strength equipment along the side of two walls, cardio equipment along a third wall and physical therapy beds along the fourth wall. The center of the room is left open for classes and events. But, it quickly became apparent that Nifty after Fifty was a cross between a physical therapy clinic and a small fitness center.

What matters at Nifty after Fifty is not the sizzle but the clients' experience. It offers therapy for those who need it, and, for those in therapy, the transition to a fitness program is made easy. The club also offers a cognitive training center and a driving simulator for those who want to keep their driving skills and reaction time up to speed, so to say. This organization knows what their members want and gives it to them, just like the franchisors did with the time-based clubs.

So what does this mean for 2007 and beyond? The fitness market will always have large clubs, small clubs, multi-location operators, independent operators, specialized clubs, studios and big-box centers. Why? Because a client is out there for all of them. But as the population continues to age, we will see more and more clubs like Nifty after Fifty, GreatLife Center, HealthFit for Women & Seniors, Center for Active Aging & Healthy Living and Peoplefit.

Over the past few years, we have seen the industry shift, stall and churn with the typical bells-and-whistles model. During this time, a subset of our industry rose from the ashes by addressing the largest segment of the population's needs with tools and facilities that seem underwhelming. Now they make up half the industry. This demographic opportunity will continue for years to come, but the needs will be different as will the tools needed to properly serve the market. How you address these needs may dictate whether your business sinks or swims in the future.


Colin Milner is chief executive officer of the International Council on Active Aging. An award-winning writer, Milner has authored more than 100 articles on aging-related issues. He can be reached at colinmilner@icaa.cc.