No Sweat Spirited Competition Keeps Area Health Clubs Focused on Their Market

We’re all familiar with the common phrases associated with getting in shape: keep at it. Slow and steady wins the race. Always go the extra mile. 

Those in the health and fitness industry utter those words every day, but not always in reference to the health of their clients. They use them when talking about their industry, too.

The business of fitness is a booming one, as more Americans resolve to improve their physical health, and greater attention is paid to the long-term benefits of regular exercise. And although the approach may vary at each location, area health club owners and managers say sticking to proven strategies and playing to their clubs’ strengths are the ingredients for success in a saturated market.

The fitness landscape of Western Mass. is no exception to the national trend; an online Verizon Yellow Pages search of health clubs within a 50-mile radius of Springfield, for instance, returns 109 results, excluding personal trainers, organizations with accompanying fitness centers, and specialized gyms, such as martial arts, yoga, and Pilates centers (with every listing included, the number rises to 265).

With so much competition, area health clubs have the formidable task of constantly competing with neighboring health clubs that are often only a few blocks away, as well as concentrating on their own business and the changing needs and wants of their members.

To do that, owners of private gyms and franchises as well as managers of larger chain locations say that defining their niche within the local health and fitness scene and never losing sight of it is of the utmost importance; everyone’s fitness goals and personal choices in regard to where, when, and how they want to work out are different, they say, and capitalizing on that is the most effective way to stay ahead of the competition and, more importantly, to stay afloat in a crowded sea.

Essentially, three major types of health clubs make up the industry – franchises like Curves, that are small in size, relatively simple to set up, and have low overhead; privately owned gyms of varying sizes; and large chains that rely on high volume and low prices to attract and retain customers. This group includes outfits such as Workout Plus, which opened a year and a half ago on Allen and Cooley streets in Springfield. YMCAs and fitness centers that focus on specific services like yoga or Pilates also factor into the mix.

Running Down a Dream

Ellen Bellicchi, owner of F.I.T. Females in Training in Springfield, is a 25-year veteran of the fitness business. Over the years, she has seen health clubs come and go. But every year, staying on top of new trends in fitness, upgrading equipment, and maintaining competitive membership fees gets a little harder.

“This is the most competitive market that I’ve ever seen,” she said, noting that currently her women-only gym is sandwiched between two new facilities – Planet Fitness on Carando Drive and Workout Plus, and she is feeling the heat.

Although F.I.T. offers programs that are more specialized and tailored toward the varied needs of women, she said the presence of any competition, especially large gyms that offer low rates, affects business.

“We’re not like those places, but it’s all about how much pie there is to cut,” she said.

Gary Libiszewski, owner of Asylum Health and Racquet on Route 20 in Palmer, is also a 25-year veteran of the health club industry. He echoed Bellicchi’s sentiments, saying when he first opened a club in Western Mass., he was quite literally the only game in town – there was another gym in West Springfield, and a third in Charlton, Mass., but that was his only competition.

“There were just the three gyms and a YMCA within a 40-mile stretch,” he said. “Recently, people have become more health conscious and that is spurring a lot of clubs to open – everywhere.”

Libiszewski said he’s seen this before – 10 years ago, and 10 years before that, and he suspects the trend of ebb and flow within the industry will continue. He added that the health club industry is one that sees shifts and changes about every six months, reflecting the changing demands of fitness clients.

“People tend to look at the health club industry as a nice investment and a nice way to turn a profit, but you have to know the business to be successful. The industry changes all the time because people are always looking for new things – new classes, machines, amenities, and programs. Only the people who know what they’re doing are going to survive.”

Often, survival for those in the health club industry, especially for smaller clubs, is contingent upon supporting and marketing what makes that fitness center unique.

In different cases, that could mean catering to a specific population or, conversely, expanding services to meet the needs of a varying group of people.

Bellicchi said her gym’s all-women environment is still a draw for new and returning customers, and she is careful to underscore the benefits of such an environment whenever recruiting or advertising for new business.

“That’s our niche,” she said. “I think women get more personal attention here than they might at a ‘big box’ gym, where inadvertently, men really dominate. At larger gyms I think women tend to stay in their comfort zone – only getting on a treadmill or a bike, and staying there. Here, they are more likely to try out new machines because there’s no competition and they don’t feel as intimidated.”

To promote that benefit, which is less tangible than a new row of cardio machines or tanning beds, Bellicchi said she relies on internal promotions, referrals, and strong renewal sales in addition to more traditional print advertising.

“It’s hard to know where to put your money when it comes to advertising, so it’s best to stick with what you already know works well,” she said.

Going the Distance

Jeff Cullen, manager of Workout Plus in Springfield, agreed with Bellicchi’s marketing strategy.

“We constantly pay attention to what we do right,” he said, noting that convenience is the biggest selling point for the chain. “Catering to families, good hours, keeping a clean gym, having a trained staff that know their roles … all of those are things that people look for and appreciate, and we just keep on top of things every day to make sure it’s a good environment.

“We constantly pay attention to what we do right. Catering to families, good hours, keeping a clean gym, having a trained staff that know their roles … all of those are things that people appreciate, and we just keep on top of things every day to make sure it’s a good environment.”

“That helps with referrals and word-of-mouth advertising; I’d say that’s actually our strongest growth factor.”

Cullen said it’s no secret that Workout Plus is a high-volume, low-cost gym, and it is managed as such. He also maintained that many people prefer that type of environment, and in any health club, there will be some similarities in marketing and advertising initiatives – few businesses have the same level of success with word-of-mouth and referral programs that most fitness centers enjoy, and all gyms capitalize on that.

He added that retaining those customers and recruiting more of the same, rather than trying to shift the gym’s focus to target an entirely new group, is key to maintaining strong business.

Workout Plus could, indeed, be described as the ‘Home Depot of Health Clubs,’ Cullen said, and he has faith in the business strategy that stems from that description.

“I think eventually, health clubs will be as prevalent as convenience stores,” he said. “We have a specific formula that works to attract a lot of people, achieve high volume, and offer a discounted price. Before we open a club in a new location, a demographic study is done to ensure we will have a certain number of potential customers within a three-mile radius and that the median income is at a rate that would suggest people will have the money to buy health club memberships.

“We can’t make people come in,” he added, “but we can do the work before a new location is even opened to ensure that we’ll have a running start.”

And even as new clubs open and siphon business away from existing clubs, Libiszewski said staying true to time-tested tactics is the best strategy. He also felt the pinch after a new entity – the newly built Scantic Valley YMCA on Boston Road in Wilbraham – opened for business last year.

“It was a real kick in the groin at first,” he said. “But lately, it’s been an asset. The YMCA is the best place for some people, and others are finding that here is better for them – we’re primarily an adult facility, we are for people who are serious about fitness, and we aren’t overcrowded.”

Amazing Race

Libiszewski said he’ll continue to focus on his business more than that of his competitors, and is confident that this will create the staying power he needs.
“This isn’t a sprint,” he said. “It’s a marathon.”

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