Reimagining Health Club Design: An Opportunity for Reinvention

In rethinking club design in the current environment, a range of new demands has come into play. But managing these new challenges can create the opportunity to reinvent yourself.

Beyond the shutdowns and difficulties in ramping up through fits-and-starts reopenings, COVID-19 has created a long-tail effect for every club. Certain changes will likely be with us on a permanent basis.

“Cleaning protocols will never be the same. The practice of filling spaces with as much equipment as possible to the point of overcrowding will be a thing of the past,” stated Interim CEO and President Brent Darden in a recent CBI interview. “Scheduling of services—classes, group training, childcare, courts, etc.—will be part of most clubs’ systems.”

In short, we all know you haven’t been able to simply turn on the lights and let members come back in. Several physical changes must first take place. Complicating reopening has been a lack of any centralized planning or guidelines. Each state has its own regulations, and, in many cases, those can differ by municipality. In addition, we’ve had to deal with surges that have caused reclosings, as illustrated by this The New York Times running log.

Clearly, it’s a tricky landscape to navigate. While facility design needs to take key issues, such as social distancing and optimized sanitation, into account, the related needs represent a greater breadth and depth of challenges that may not be immediately evident.

No Simple Fixes

It’s not just about moving equipment around and cleaning more carefully between workouts, notes Bryan Green, founder and CEO of Aktiv Solutions and its FitnessDesignGroup.

At the beginning and end of the day, “The Gym” is still a retail experience, according to Green. What has become abundantly clear over the last several years, well prior to COVID-19, is that consumers increasingly need to be incentivized to inconvenience themselves in respect to shopping experiences and services.

“Facilities that lead with the offer of engaging environment via esthetics, programing, or simply the facilitation of community, generate interest and build retention,” says Green. “Now, more than ever, we need to thrill the customer in terms of the value proposition of spaces for commercial exercise. COVID has taught us that delivering a balanced workout program or equipment offering is now available and affordable within the confines of one’s home. The club of the future needs to wow,” according to Green.

First, the new environment requires a comprehensive, effective plan to manage hygiene, new social distancing standards, and other issues for every facility. There are core questions that should be considered before undertaking any changes, including:

  • What steps must be taken to refresh and rebalance the existing fitness center floorplan and placement of equipment to facilitate new social distancing standards, especially when state and municipal standards vary greatly and can mean anywhere from 6 to 12 feet of separation between stations?
  • How will you implement essential hygiene modifications? How will you integrate surface hygiene program and air cleaning technology?
  • How will you manage traffic flow and scheduling to mitigate the load in certain areas?
  • How will you manage communication to all members and staff regarding hygiene protocol?
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Addressing those critical questions involves tackling a wide variety of supporting issues, such as identifying adjunct spaces for temporary or permanent expansion; creating safe outdoor exercise programming; adjusting directional signage; and more.

Fortunately, in some ways, industry trends have helped speed the move to spaces geared to those needs.

“If COVID has done something positive for the future expansion of the fitness industry, it’s created a greater education and awareness around the way that people benefit from movement-based modalities, like functional and body weight training,” Green says. “And prior to COVID, they were among the hottest trends in the commercial marketplace. Clubs were already clamoring to redesign spaces, open them up, take out equipment, make them more variable, and optimize them for movement. So, we were, in a way, primed for the shift.”

An Opportunity for Reinvention

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While Green labels the social spacing and hygiene changes engendered by COVID-19 “non-negotiable,” he sees adapting to them as an opportunity.

“Forward-thinking operators have the chance to either develop new models or refined spaces-within-spaces so that they’re going to be attractive to customers to really re-engage or engage in a new way,” he says. “They recognize that they’re going to have to reinvent themselves to remain competitive and have staying power.”

Making it work, he says, is all about adapting to what members want in their experience.

“People want to get out of their homes and back to the gym, but they don’t want to go back to the old gym. They want to go to the new gym,” he says. “They want to go to the gym of the future. And the gym of the future is experiential: open space, variable in training modalities, and omni-channel, all while maintaining the highest safety standards.”

The omni-channel aspect is about making your programming portable; extending it through digital content that allows members to work out using your guidance wherever they are.

The Right Plan for Your Facility

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If the task of incorporating all these elements into the right plan for your facility is daunting, Aktiv Solutions and FitnessDesignGroup can help.

“We utilize smart design to help operators create controllable, experiential environments,” explains Green. “We develop open and variable spaces by getting into the spatial plan, taking out equipment, opening up floorplans, and building guidance in terms of where people should be in those spaces and what they should be doing.”

To learn more about how Aktiv Solutions and FitnessDesignGroup can help you create a space designed to optimize the member experience while meeting post-pandemic design parameters, check out their “COVID-19 Gym Design Planning” page.

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Jon Feld

Jon Feld is a contributor to