The first thing to learn about history is that no one learns from history. In 1989, the economy was booming, but then in 1990, it went bust. Banks had made many bad loans, and their reaction was simple: The best way to stop bad loans was to stop loaning altogether. The club industry took a hit in that few expansions or renovations took place. Afterwards, the economy prospered, and conditions became better than ever for the industry.
That is, until late 2008 through last year when the economy dropped off a cliff again. Does that mean that the club industry will become better than ever once again? Pundits say no because the economy has taken too big of a hit for too long. Yet, they are not learning from history. Conditions always improve—and become better than before.
But even now as the economy remains stagnant, your business can’t afford to stay still. More than ever, your club has to provide a positive environment and experience to compete. This can be achieved by applying some of the lessons we’ve all learned in the last few years to updating the look and feel of your facility.
Reassess your priorities. In this economy, even those club owners who can afford to reinvest in their clubs need to be more creative and disciplined in spending those funds. Owners will have to justify every dollar’s ability to help get new members and retain existing ones. Operators will have to make better decisions and prioritize expenditures.
It’s time to step back and take stock of what’s important—the renovations planned before the recession may not make sense today. For example, on a recent project in New York City, the owners had previously identified their top priority as converting a space into a group cycling room, but after talking to experts and researching how many members would actually use the group cycle room (about 3 percent) they decided their money was better spent creating an awe-inspiring entrance and lobby that everyone—from current members to potential new members—would see.
Make your money work harder. One thing we’ve all had to learn during the recession was how to make a little go a long way. In terms of design, the most cost-effective way to achieve significant impact is through creative use of color. The largest statement of color in any facility can be made with paint—it’s an inexpensive and quick décor expression. Keeping up with the latest color trends will create an environment that is well received by the broadest market segment, and it will make your club seem immediately more up to date. The trend during the last few years (and probably for a number of years to come) has been earth tones—tans, rust, gold, browns and greens, perhaps because the concept of “going green” has gained in popularity.
Look on the bright side. While the economy is putting such a damper on so many aspects of our lives, the last thing your members need is to be confronted with a gloomy environment when they go to work out. In a time when people are cutting back on luxuries, offering a space that makes your members feel comfortable and good about themselves will help them justify the financial expense of belonging to your club.
One of the easiest ways to boost your members’ moods is through interior lighting. The psychological effect of lighting is one that the retail and restaurant industries have used to their advantage for years. Softer lighting conveys a feeling of warmth and can provide an environment in which your members look and feel their best when entering your club, while working out or when they are in the vanity areas. Consider installing dimmer switches in group exercise areas to give different atmospheres for each class, from soft and soothing for mind-body classes to bright and energizing for step classes.
Roll with the punches. The economy has been down for longer than most people have ever experienced, but I believe another golden age of the fitness industry is still to come. The American public’s need for our clubs is greater than ever and will only grow. What will make your club irresistible to those who need it? Your ability to change with the times will be crucial to your ability to survive and thrive.
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.