Training for Dominance

Strength, flexibility, and endurance are necessary for business success in Westchester’s competitive fitness market.

“There is a significant demand for fitness and building a healthy way of life in Westchester,” says Ryan Brister, director, Life Time Fitness. That must be why the county seems to have a health club, yoga studio, or boxing gym on every street corner. The county’s strong demographic and economic profile is the main reason Life Time not only joined the fray but intends to expand its presence here, Brister says.

From one end of the county to the other, there are uncountable thousands of independent personal trainers, studios for everything from aerobics to Zumba, boutique gyms in storefronts and strip malls, and some health clubs large enough to have their own ZIP codes. 

 Jeff London, personal trainer 

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At one end of the range are personal trainers like Jeff London, who worked for big-box gyms for five years before going out on his own last year, launching Quick Body Solutions. London, who lives in Yonkers, doesn’t have his own studio but has no trouble getting clients through social media. And while he’s cognizant of the competition, he’s not worried about it. “It’s difficult to find a good personal trainer,” he says. “The total number of them [working in Westchester] isn’t relevant.”

At the other end of the Westchester spectrum is Life Time’s 207,000 sq ft supercenter in West Harrison, which opened three years ago. According to Brister: “We are here for the health-and-fitness needs of the entire family. While some clubs may have a great cardio area, there’s nothing for you to do with your kids. Or, if your fitness passions change, you have to go to different studios or change clubs. We have it all under one roof.” 

A rock-climbing wall, multiple pools, tennis courts, specialized studios for yoga, Pilates, studio cycling, and seemingly as many cardio machines as Empire City has slot machines — the menu of healthful activities at Life Time would appear endless. Some 170 classes are offered every week, Brister says, and, “We even have fitness programming for ages 3 and up. We have childcare services starting at 3 months, and mommy-and-me classes for ages under 3.” The club also has a café and a separate bar/lounge area, just in case you want a cold brew after your workout.

Then there’s Planet Fitness, with six locations in the county — part of a new breed of low-price, high-volume gyms aimed at the 80 percent of the population who don’t belong to a health club, according to Becky Zirlen, Planet Fitness spokesperson. “Our broad appeal and ability to attract occasional and first-time gym users enables us to continue to target a very large segment of the population,” she says. “Because our clubs are spacious — typically 20,000 square feet — many are open 24 hours a day, and we do not offer nonessential amenities, such as group exercise, we have more space for the equipment our members use.” 

Really stuck in the middle is New York Sports Club, which has nine locations in the county that try to compete with both the $10/month price of Planet Fitness and the $150/month base membership at Life Time. Owner Town Sports International has been feeling the pain throughout its New York, Philadelphia, and Boston markets and has been reported to be exploring a possible sale since 2015.

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In-between the solopreneurs and full-service clubs are dozens of small specialists, like CrossFit Westchester, which operates two clubs, in White Plains and Pelham, and is looking for additional locations. The concept is one owner Chris Guerrero got into as an official affiliate of CrossFit, a franchise system built around a training method that’s growing in popularity. “We deliver functional training in a small-group setting,” explains Guerrero of his gym. “The idea is that by doing different exercises and routines, your body never gets used to it, and people don’t get bored.” When he first opened seven years ago, there were two CrossFit affiliates in Westchester. Today, there are more than 20.

There may be as many fran-chisors in fitness today as there are in the restaurant business. Planet Fitness, Orangetheory, UFC Gym, GymGuyz, Crunch Fitness, Snap Fitness — the list is long. Franchising is attractive for many reasons, including initial investments as low as $15,000, available financing, and various kinds of management support, such as marketing. It’s not a guarantee of success, however, since the franchisee’s fate is tied to the parent’s brand, and reputations count a lot in a personal-services business like fitness. Guerrero says he plans to stop using the “CrossFit” name because he feels the uneven quality of the experience from trainer to trainer within the system reflects poorly on his business.

From the smallest to the largest, all these businesses are competing for a share of a fairly narrow segment of the population who often don’t want to be there in the first place. Only about 18.5 percent of the American populace belongs to a health club, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). Considering that we all have bodies and are bombarded with a constant stream of messages to take better care of them, that’s a fairly discouraging level of market penetration.

A wide array of group-exercise classes helps Club Fit recruit and retain members.

“Movement and activity — if you’re not doing it, is very difficult to get started,” according to Mark Cuatt, general manager of Club Fit Briarcliff. “The challenge is for us to get people to create that habit.” And that’s not easy. “They have to find the time; they have to change their habits; and it really doesn’t feel that great when you’re first getting started,” he notes.

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The IHRSA reports that nearly 30 percent of club members quit in a typical year for one reason or another, including moving to a competitor gym. It’s tough to build a sustainable business, with that kind of turnover. 

Still, hope springs eternal in the hearts and business plans of entrepreneurs who see healthy lifestyles and physical fitness as good for their own bank accounts, as well as their clients’ waistlines. According to the US Census Bureau, the county had 192 fitness and recreational sports centers, with 4,630 total employees, in 2014. That figure sounds somewhat understated when you consider that there are a dozen fitness studios and gyms within just a two-block radius of City Center in White Plains. 

It also doesn’t include other competitors for the fitness dollar — or at least the customer’s time on the treadmill. Nearly every multifamily housing development opened in recent years has its own fitness center, as do many parks and town-rec departments, like in Harrison, which has two. Westchester Hills Golf Club added one last year, joining a lengthening list of private clubs offering the amenity. Burke Rehabilitation Hospital offers a fitness center geared toward adults over 40, and then there is a plethora of other nonprofit facilities, like YMCAs, which also offer fitness options.

It adds up to a tough market. Ten years ago, I wrote an article about the industry for Westchester Magazine that featured 13 different fitness facilities in the county. Today, only seven of them are still in business, although most have been replaced by another version of the same. The ones that disappeared were all on the small end of the scale and lacked the resources to weather economic ups and downs or changes in consumer tastes. As Brister puts it, “Fitness is trendy. That’s why as many boutique studios are closing as are opening right now. As soon as one trend has ended, something else has started.”

As in most industries, size begets resources in the fitness world. Club Fit, which has two locations that offer everything from aquatics to racquet sports for a large, active clientele, invests heavily in technology to retain and attract members, according to Cuatt. “In 2015, we put in the MyZone heart-rate system,” he notes. It uses wireless and cloud technology to monitor members’ physical activity in and outside the club and also measures calories and time exercising. An innovative use of the system in classes, for example, allows each person’s heart rate to be shown (anonymously) on a wall display so that they and the instructor can see how they’re doing in relation to the entire class. “That provides more consistency around that style of training, which gives better results,” Cuatt says.  

 Ryan Brister, Director, Life Time Fitness

Joseph Netrda and his partner, Michael Paccetti, expanded their nine-trainer studio, Dynamic Personal Training in Scarsdale, to meet the demand for small classes and personal training in sports specialties like boxing, soccer, and golf. They’ve survived and thrived for 14 years by nimbly changing with the latest fitness trends and relying on strong word-of-mouth. “We’re blessed in that we have a strong referral system,” Netrda says. “About 70 percent of our clientele comes from referrals.”

The field won’t be shrinking anytime soon. Among other operators with expansion plans, Life Time will be opening a new, intimate gym and spa at Chappaqua Crossing next year. Much smaller than the West Harrison campus, the 40,000 sq ft facility will include a café and spa, along with fitness facilities and a children’s play area. Brister believes the second facility will enhance the brand. “Our real estate team is still excited about Westchester,” he says. “We’re continually looking for more places to grow.”

Clearly, the market shares their sentiment. 

When he’s not at his desk writing about business, Dave Donelson works out in nearby White Plains.

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