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Ghosts of Health Clubs Past: Weighing the Value Proposition

By Jennifer H. McInerney

In his soon-to-be-published July Editor’s Welcome, CBI Editor-in-Chief Craig R. Waters calls me a “demanding, discriminating, and uniquely well-informed” consumer of health clubs. Since they’re coming from Craig, I’ll take these high compliments—and milk them for one more blog post about the club-shopping experience.

Now, I’m certainly not an expert, but I’d like to think that my six years working on CBI and my consistent club patronage over the years hold some value and merit. At the very least, you can view this as an invitation to peek inside one club consumer’s mind…and see how your own club measures up.

In the last 10 years, I’ve belonged to four different health clubs—all for quite different reasons (and I recently joined a new one…scroll down to read the blog post titled “In With the New!”). They’ve each had their strengths and weaknesses, some of which I didn’t even realize until it was time to go:

Close, but Impersonal: The first one I joined was a newly opened, full-service facility in Boston, and it was so close to my apartment at the time that it would have been silly to go anywhere else. It was the one period in my life when I actually went to the club at all hours of the day/evening/weekend—whenever—because I could walk there in under two minutes. I didn’t even have to fight for a parking space! But…it was really busy (long wait times for cardio machines), the classes were always over-packed (making cardio-kickboxing a little too dangerous), the emphasis seemed to be a bit too much on physical appearance, rather than on health and fitness, and I felt like just a number (no personal attention/the staff barely acknowledged members’ existence).

‘Driven’ Away: I enrolled at my second club shortly after I moved to a new residence. The club was almost everything I wanted, on paper: brand-new, women-only, lots of fitness classes of all kinds, soothing, laid-back atmosphere, a friendly, caring staff. The only problem was that it wasn’t near my home or my office. At the time, it seemed worth it to drive so far out of my way to work out but, as my life changed, I could no longer justify or endure the long drive to its inconvenient location. Plus, the dues were higher than I wanted to pay for the amount of time I was able to spend there.

Tennis, No One: While I was a member at the women-only club, my boss offered our staff a corporate membership to a coed tennis and fitness facility that’s right around the corner from our office. I wasn’t about to refuse, even though I don’t play tennis. The fitness center was nice enough, though small and cramped. It served a purpose on days when I wanted to squeeze in a quick, no-fuss workout. But it certainly wasn’t worth the high dues and, ultimately, we did not renew our membership.

Getting What I Paid For: My last club membership was also the cheapest, and for good reason: the machines were old, the amenities non-existent. But at least it wasn’t pretentious or exclusionary in any way, and it never pretended to be anything other than what it was—a place to pump iron and get the heart thumping. This utilitarian, no-frills atmosphere sufficed for about a year, until I gave in to my heart’s desire at a brand-new facility, closer to my office.

While it’s impossible for a club to be everything to everyone, I would suggest that the following considerations, at minimum, are on most prospective members’ checklists:

  • Friendly staff
  • Clean facility (including locker rooms!)
  • New(er), well-functioning equipment, and plenty of it
  • Creative programs, fresh offerings
  • Fairly/competitively priced dues
  • Central/convenient location

Would your club receive full marks?

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