Gyms Adapt to Make Space for Functional Training

It’s becoming essential for health clubs to offer a functional training boutique experience.

“It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”—W. Edward Deming

It’s becoming a truism in the mainstream club industry: to compete with the boutique, you must become the boutique.

It may sound like a Zen parable, but more owners of multipurpose and fitness-only IHRSA facilities are discovering that dedicating space for the use of functional training group classes is a winning strategy. These specialized workouts, popularized by studios, can attract new members, improve retention, and create fresh opportunities to increase non-dues revenue.

While co-opting the boutique concept is nothing new, the recent wave of functional training zone installations requires more thought, analysis, and planning. Instead of hosting the periodic functional training class, club operators are developing branded concepts that are set apart and distinguished from other equipment areas and service offerings.

“... more owners of multipurpose and fitness-only IHRSA facilities are discovering that dedicating space for the use of functional training group classes is a winning strategy.”

Redesigning the space itself may involve either a modest or a major investment. For clubs that need to make structural changes—e.g., removing racquetball courts—doing so may carry a significant cost.

However, the club operators and designers that CBI spoke to concur that the expense yields attractive returns. Some industry experts have concluded that, today, adding a functional training zone has become a virtual necessity.

“Today, it’s critical that club owners make functional training available to their members,” says Justin Honas, the director of procurement and design for Active Wellness, LLC, a San Francisco– based firm that manages more than 50 facilities. “We’ve found that creating open space with proper functional-training tools and storage—it’s a must!”

Weighing the Options for a Functional Training Redesign

In most cases, the decision to introduce a functional training zone is relatively simple. The challenge is determining how you’re going to do it. You’ll need to construct the physical space, select appropriate programming, procure the necessary equipment, recruit trainers, and, then, price and position your functional training services.

You need a plan.

“Thinking about the space or square footage required is usually not the best place to start when redesigning,” Honas says. “We like to begin by reviewing what we’re trying to accomplish in the space.”

Other design firms that specialize in functional training zones also recommend taking a careful, methodical approach. Among them is Optimal Design Systems International (ODSI), of Jupiter, FL, which is headed by Bruce Carter.

“I look at it from an owner’s point of view,” says Carter, who has more than 30 years’ experience in the field and once owned a club. “We’re big on the need for the design to follow the business plan, and for functional training to work with the overall offering and pricing structure.”

ODSI has worked with more than 700 clubs in 48 states and 33 countries, and Carter is convinced that, when considering a functional training redesign, operators should first weigh the various business-model options.

“It can be a fee model, a value-added membership, a studio model that involves selling class packages, or, simply, a retention and recruitment tool that everyone can use. Any of these can work—but, differently for different clubs.”

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Some operators provide a separate and distinctively branded boutique experience. For example, Jeff Linn, the executive director of the Weymouth Club, a 220,000-square-foot multipurpose facility in Weymouth, MA, recently collaborated with ODSI to create a functional training space in the club’s mezzanine area.

Over its 30 years in business, the club has implemented numerous design changes, and, while it’s always embraced group X offerings, Linn felt there was a distinct need for a dedicated space for studio-style, large-group classes. “It’s a critical menu piece that we see as important,” he explains.

The area was renamed The Mezz, and now showcases an assortment of programming, including HIIT classes, kettlebell sessions, and heart rate-zone training.

“It came out great,” he reports. “Aesthetically and functionally, it works very well.”

The space is marketed as “Team Training on the Mezz,” and classes are $99 a month on top of regular dues, but, Linn acknowledges of the project, “It’s a work in progress.”

Before the renovation, the mezzanine had been popular with older, longtime members, but Linn decided it was important for the club to capitalize on the value of its floor space, particularly given increasing competition in the marketplace. And some members are having a difficult time comprehending why they have to pay an extra fee for large-group training in The Mezz, when they don’t have to for other services.

“Members don’t understand it,” he says. “We’re branding The Mezz as a separate space, and how it’s positioned, how it’s priced, and how it’s presented as a menu option—all of that’s going to evolve.”

Consider Your Club’s Culture & Experience

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The possibilities of increasing the value of square footage and boosting ROI are attested to, as well, by a functional training zone project developed by the FitnessDesignGroup, the design arm of Aktiv Solutions, based in Santa Monica, CA.

The group, founded by CEO Bryan Green, offers comprehensive plug-and-play packages for creating functional training zones. One of its most ambitious undertakings was a redesign for Zenergy Health Club & Spa, a high-end multipurpose facility in Ketchum, ID.

The task involved removing squash courts, and replacing them with Pivot, a branded studio concept. From a cost-benefit analysis perspective, the leap from racquet sports to functional training was an easy call, Green reports. “If a racquetball court was seldom used, then you’ve gone from accommodating one or two people per hour to eight to 12,” he suggests. “You can make a case that you’ve created a much greater revenue opportunity for the operator.”

One of the virtues of functional training-specific areas, he notes, is the incredible flexibility they afford. “They permit a generalized free-play approach with respect to concept and design, even in spaces as small as 100 to 150 square feet,” he says. “The space can be unsupervised and have all the functional-training tools required for a great movement-based program. Or it can be a specialized venue, one in which the tools, the rigging, and the instruction, either live or digital, are specific to signature programming.”

Since every club’s needs and dreams are different, Andrew Gavigan, Aktiv’s director of education, sits down with operators to help them create a functional training program that works for their members and market.

“We help them figure out what the model is going to be,” says Gavigan. “I fly out for a six-hour session. We talk about the product, the physical design, the exercise experience, and who’s going to lead the class.”

Aktiv also is able to assist with equipment and programming decisions.

The business’ brand, business plan, overall offering, and pricing structure, and the zone’s aesthetics, functionality, and “fit” with the rest of the facility are among the many factors informing the equation.

“We tell operators that their zone has to deliver a message to their clients that enhances their culture,” Gavigan says. “The way we see it, culture and experience are the real product that we’re producing.”

The Aesthetics of Functional Training

A functional training space has to reflect a club’s business plan and help achieve its goal. Beyond that, it needs to address the expectations of an increasingly savvy and demanding clientele, not only with respect to health and fitness, but also with respect to design and aesthetics.

Immersed in stunning, high-quality graphics, in print and digital formats, and exposed to the energetic, cutting-edge looks created by boutiques, consumers now assume that every aspect of a club will embody design sophistication.

Popular studio concepts get lots of mileage on social media, particularly when they sport a dramatic and dynamic appearance. As a result, clubs are putting more thought into design to attract fitness influencers on platforms such as Instagram, a development that’s been dubbed the “Instagram effect.” According to one report, users search for “fitness” on Instagram more than 180 million times a day.

Visually appealing spaces increase brand value and help motivate members, especially group X devotees. Aesthetics, designers agree, add tremendous value to a functional training zone.

“Visually appealing spaces increase brand value and help motivate members, especially group X devotees.”

“A great way to get that energy started, before the first exercise is performed, is through design,” says Honas. “Lighting and color schemes play a large part. You can also introduce energy into a space with floor and wall graphics and TV monitors. Monitors can be used, among other things, to display small-group training schedules, or to facilitate virtual exercise, heart-rate training, or other types of workout sessions.”

One aspect that impacts aesthetics is storage, since the space should be as clutter-free as possible. Some functional training programs call for the use of exercise bands, kettlebells, medicine balls, and other paraphernalia that can easily become eyesore obstructions. Most equipment and design companies offer racks and other storage options that maintain order and are attractive. (For a complete list of firms that provide functional training-related products and services, visit Club Business Exchange site.)

“If you have a corner with enough room for someone to swing a kettlebell, you can have a functional-training space,” says Honas.

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Jim Schmaltz

Jim Schmaltz is a contributor to IHRSA.org