With a steady growth in membership and, therefore, increased competition, potential wellness center owners must attempt to set themselves apart. However, somewhere along the line, many operators are still missing the boat on the opportunity to capture this ever-growing market. Facility design and equipment selection are two areas greatly under-appreciated by many new and/or expanding wellness centers.

            Member retention and attrition, facility utilization, revenue per member and member satisfaction can be positively or negatively affected by facility culture. Due diligence in the initial design of the wellness center can go a long way in establishing strong, committed members. Consumers are much more conscious of not just price but also the value proposition a membership provides. Taking advantage of facility components and cultural themes is an easy way to make your facility unique and interesting to these potential consumers. For example, consider incorporating distinctive materials like suspended bamboo inside or decorative "landscaping" outside your Pilates/yoga area. Remember, branding is imperative to providing a consistent message to both current and potential members alike. Branding your center is, however, not limited to providing standard services alone. Reaching a level beyond your member expectations is important. For instance, the spa service area should include warm decor, comfortable furniture and bedding, soft, comforting music, while also enhanced with pleasing aromas. The spin studio should create an environment of activity through strategic lighting, murals and/or monitors depicting cycling events and trail rides. The mind/body studio should do more than just provide classes. Consider incorporating eastern themes of earth and water to enhance the unique experience. Finally, the locker rooms should be spacious with warm colors. Have a relaxing social area, and provide simple refreshments and television entertainment. No other area demands more attention. Make no mistake about membership, retention and overall profitability; it's always about the experience!


Strategic Selection

            Equipment selection is another consistently under-rated aspect of center design and planning. Do the services and equipment detract or enhance the center's philosophy and culture? At least 80% of a typical hour that a member spends in the facility is devoted to a treadmill, elliptical, bike or some type of strength piece. According to IHRSA, the average equipment purchase per center in 2004 was $65,422. With so much revenue allocated to updating or adding to current selections, wellness center owners can little afford random selection. The following are a few basic considerations when working through the sometimes tedious selection process:


Purpose and the Potential Customer Is the facility a training studio, a boutique health facility or a multi-purpose wellness center? Is the market mature, athletic, or does it require youth friendly services? All of these may require different user considerations.

Space How much can fit in the space while still meeting comfortable circulation needs? As you work through selection, begin with the standard ACSM recommendations

and then, modify as needed. If separated or split-level, expect different space needs for cardiovascular equipment (25-45 square feet per piece) than you would for strength (50-65 square feet per piece). A rough measure for consolidated space is 60 square feet per piece. Take your total fitness floor square footage and divide by 60. This calculation will be the initial piece estimate.

 Form versus Function Are the aesthetics or functionality of the pieces more important? While a particular piece of equipment might not be updated with tubular steel or an integrated screen, its ergonomics and biomechanics could be more consistent with the center's demographic and fitness philosophy.


Cardiovascular -- Components should include a simple, sleek design with rounded edges and an efficient profile. The console should be well lit and provide clearly defined function keys. Self waxing belts/decks, easy glide tracks and seats as well as program variety should be offered. Most manufacturers are providing some form of after-market entertainment with attachable brackets. Only a few have attempted incorporating integrated screens. Ensure that a television malfunction does not affect the entire unit. TechnoGym and Nautilus are two manufacturers who report that they have successfully done so.

 Selectorized Strength -- Most manufacturers are converting to tubular steel frames to enhance their equipment's visual appeal. Easy entrance and comfortable setup is important. The ability for the member to adjust the seat position and pin placement without getting out of the machine is a valuable aspect. Lift-and-lock or one-touch hydraulic seat settings, shrouds, contoured seat padding and smooth joint movement are all musts. Strength equipment is advancing in its versatility as well, as evidenced by the emergence of the "functional" cable system. The need for the large cable cross station, which assumes a great deal of floor space, has faded.

 Cost List price is always negotiable. Volume purchases are the first key to preferred pricing. If equipping a new center and considering an entire product line, many manufacturers may see the opportunity for a "showcase" facility and may be more willing to consider reductions. However, to do so, you may have to concede having some pieces you would otherwise not choose.

 Durability Durable cardiovascular equipment is critical. Consider established brands with a minimum of three years of production as well as a responsive and experienced service staff. Many manufacturers offer both commercial and light commercial products. The daily utilization should drive your consideration. Regardless of choice, appropriate warranties on wearable parts should be addressed with strong consideration of term extensions. A simple tip to delay wear and tear is to rotate pieces. Members choose the pieces they use by location on the fitness floor (i.e., under or not under a fan, in or out of the sun, with or without a TV, etc.). By rotating cardio, usage is more evenly distributed.

Service Commitment to follow-up and proven quality care are imperative to customer satisfaction. Sooner or later, equipment in your facility will be out of order. The question is, for how long? Be preventive versus reactionary with your equipment repair schedule. Make sure to implement a preventive maintenance program and/or service log. Follow up regularly and insist that manufacturers and/or the service companies you use are committed to respond to your service needs within 24 hours. 

            But let's not forget about the smaller pieces that affect the versatility of the fitness floor as well. Resist-a-bands, Swiss balls, foam roles and stability pieces used to be restricted to group exercise classes, medical rehab and sports conditioning settings. Today, they are invaluable tools for any facility's trainers and members alike. While most of these items are individually inexpensive, they experience high wear and tear. To prevent unnecessary turnover, consider more commercial grade tubing and exercise ball material. Look to vendor providers, such as Power Systems, Perform Better, OPTP and Fitter International, for such accessories.  

            Once a particular manufacturer and line of equipment has been chosen, matching that equipment to promote branding through aesthetics should be the next objective. While all manufacturers have standard color pallets to choose from, it does

not guarantee consistency. Consider color matching your equipment to the center's décor. For an additional fee, most manufacturers will duplicate a color of choice. If an existing facility is simply adding equipment, color coordinating to the exiting pieces is a great way to keep the fitness floor looking and feeling seamless. Also, remember to try the equipment you're considering. Manufacturers should be able to direct you to local facilities with their line(s) of equipment. Using potential pieces first-hand is a must. For larger and more costly purchases, ask for vendor references that have had the equipment longer than six months. Speak with the facilities' fitness directors or owners about functionality, delivery and installation service as well as member preference.


 Look for the sixth installment of our 9-part Wellness Center Development series in the August issue, covering the grand opening and pre-sales.


            David Atkinson, CPT, CSCS, is the Director of Program Development for Cooper Ventures. For more information on his worksite wellness consulting services, visit www.cooperwellness.com.


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