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Not Your Ordinary Gym: Luxury Sport Clubs

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WASHINGTON, Apr 25, 2004 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- Resplendent in cream-colored marble tile, furnished with high-end amenities and equipment and patronized by elite clientele, Sports Club/LA at the Ritz-Carlton is far more than a gym -- it's a power-players' playground and a glitterati oasis.

Calling it a mere gym would be like calling the White House a house.

"We offer our members more than just a place to work out with a pro-shop, boutique, cafe, bar, destination cityspa, dry cleaners, day care and more, The Sports Club/LA isn't just a sports & fitness complex, it's a full-service 'urban country club,'" said Carrie Foster, spokesperson for Sports Club/LA--Washington, one of 10 clubs in The Sports Club Company family.

The Washington club is definitely a venue for the political elite, including George Stephanopoulos, pundit couple James Carville and Mary Matalin, talk show host Larry King, and President Bush's daughters Jenna and Barbara. Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., and wife Luann Bennett are members, and Washington Mayor Anthony Williams works out there, as do visiting dignitaries who stay at the Ritz.

Among other things, the club is quite aware of the long Washington workweek. "The key to our members' happiness is to provide a clean, luxurious escape from the chaos of 'Workaholic Washington,' offering personalized and professional attention to our members' fitness, nutrition and personal needs and goals, whether it's losing weight, building muscles, reducing stress or satisfying hunger," Foster said.

After (or instead of) working out, members can choose from several diversions. The Sidewalk Cafe's lunch menu features nouveau delicacies like chili tofu and seaweed salad. Some of the designer dainties in The Shop C.I.T.E. boutique included pink parachute capris and coordinating halter, and a lacy mauve camisole. Oh, and they sell exercise-appropriate clothing, too.

The Splash Destination CitySpa offers members high-end skin-care products like L'Occitane and Jack Black, and several pampering treatments including one for those who've thrown out a shoulder playing golf. The Roche salon allows someone to move gracefully from a hard workout to a perfect manicure. Those who just want to relax can hit the sundeck, graced with a cascading waterfall. There is also a laundry service, daycare, and a bar, where members can hold parties and fundraisers.

Commenting on the trend in such high-end fitness centers, business strategist Matthew Luban said these types of clubs provide "top-end equipment, training, staffing, and facilities which include pools, spas, permanent lockers, and dining. This is usually wrapped in a brand image which is carefully cultivated for exclusivity, 'coolness' and high quality."

Luban also noted the importance of delivering a certain promised quality to the well-heeled members that join high-end fitness centers.

"The most important thing for health club businesses to consider when targeting this demographic is that no matter how much advertising and brand building you do, these people make their own judgments of quality from experience. If your product does not deliver on the promises that are made, the business will quickly fail," said Luban, head of NY-based Strategic Advisory Services, LLC.

And probably among the most demanding of customers are the rich and the famous who don't want an average workout spot.

According to most accounts, at the Washington Sports Club/LA the clientele hold a casual attitude toward celebrities. Though in most venues movie stars are like magnets, people seem to know instinctively that it's not appropo to bother anyone in this gym. "Mayor Williams comes in and works out, but no one walks up and says, 'Hey, Mayor Williams,' or anything like that," said Foster. But the plethora of bodyguards probably helps stave off fawning fans from many celebrities.

Movie stars nearly always come in with a bodyguard in tow, Foster said. Britney Spears worked out accompanied by two burly guards, and rapper 50 Cent had four guarding him in the weight room. Dignitaries from the World Bank or IMF also bring bodyguards.

Lots of celebs who stay at the Ritz work out in the club. George Clooney spent many evenings there playing basketball when working on a series about K Street lobbyists. Martin Sheen and others of the "West Wing" cast have been seen playing basketball at the club. Michael Jordan would come in once or twice a day, usually in mid-afternoon, while he was a player with the Washington Wizards -- but never play basketball.

NBA stars seen at the gym include Charles Oakley, Alonzo Mourning and Jason Kidd. Other celebrity sightings include Steven Spielberg, football legend Joe Namath, fitness guru Denise Austen, rapper Missy Elliott, Jules Asner from E!, talk show host Montel Williams, soccer star Mia Hamm, tennis stars Billie Jean King and John McEnroe, and Eagles band member Don Henley.

Some celebs have the gym come to them. Renee Zellweger asked that a yoga instructor come to her room at the Ritz, and when the Rolling Stones were at the hotel, Mick Jagger had exercise machines brought to his suite.

The decor, with potted palms, light wood and other nouveau design elements, adds to the ambiance. "We designed the decor to be luxurious and recreational, like a resort hotel," said Nanette Pattee Francini, co-founder of The Sports Club Company.

No grungy metal lockers in this club -- wooden lockers adorn these locker rooms. The attendant will ask if you want a top- or bottom-level locker. And the executive locker room is an oasis veiled behind frosted glass doors -- so coveted that there is actually a waiting list for the men's executive locker room.

"The executive membership provides the utmost in luxury, privacy and convenience for our members. An executive membership includes a separate secure locker room with personalized lockers, private sauna, steam room and showers, 24-hour return laundry service, robes, slippers, a luxurious lounge with fresh fruit, beverages and cable TV," Foster said.

Though there's lots to do besides work out, people do work out and work out hard at the gym, on Cybex and other top-of-the-line equipment. The gym purchases the best machines rather than stick with a particular line of equipment, and replaces some machines as frequently as once a year. Flat-screen televisions grace the treadmills. Members can sign up for one of the more than 100 exercise programs such as belly dancing, Pilates and BalleCore, a combination of yoga, Pilates and ballet. A class called Face-Val-U teaches members facial exercises that help reduce wrinkles and slow down aging. And exercise is only part of the program -- a nutritionist helps members achieve their fitness and health goals.

Members can indulge their competitive urge and also stay fit during pick-up basketball at lunch or in the evenings, or in one of the club's corporate leagues.

Assistant Fitness Manager Heather Burn said that the club looks for trainers with national certification and/or a degree in the field.

"We look closely at well-rounded and outgoing personality, too, because the finest customer service is key for our members," she said.

All these perks don't come cheap. Just the initiation fee is a reported $1,350 for the Executive class membership and $600 for standard gym membership. For the monthly fee, Executive memberships start at $230 a month; standard health club memberships start at $120 a month, and squash court memberships start at $140 a month.

Luban noted that while luxury gyms may charge more they also take bigger financial risks.

"This is a high-fixed-cost business where most of the investment is up front in equipment and in real estate, so for mainline providers, the incremental cost of additional members is extremely low, and their incentive is to manage down staffing levels to maintain profitability," Luban said.

"For the players at the top end of the market, not only is the fixed cost much higher, but they maintain staffing proportionate to membership -- for instance, one trainer for X members, one janitorial shift per X member visits -- to ensure the member's experience in the club. This is a higher-cost model which creates entrance into new markets much more risky," he added.

Though they're expensive, luxury gyms are probably the fastest-growing sector of fitness clubs, Luban said. "The top end of the market is likely growing much faster, as not all of the major metropolitan markets have been penetrated by the high-end providers."

So, it would seem, there are still more luxury gyms to come as this trend in high-end fitness clubs continues to grow.

Copyright 2004 by United Press International.


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