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Wed 10 Sep 2008 04:00 AM

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Keeping up appearances

How some simple layout changes and an awareness of the latest design trends can make your fitness facility both look better and cost less.

How some simple layout changes and an awareness of the latest design trends can make your fitness facility both look better and cost less.

It's time for the region's health club industry to sit up and take notice of global trends and developments in health club design. With industry experts in the Middle East admitting that the sector is behind most other markets - including the US, Europe, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand -  in terms of gym design, no longer is it acceptable to have rows of equipment crammed into small spaces with dark carpets, bright lights, basic TV screens and inadequate changing facilities. This defeats the health club operator's primary aim - to create a pleasant work out environment for their members.

A well-designed club, which should both look good and assist operations, is not just the responsibility of the club owner or operator, however. A working relationship between architects, specialist health club designers and consultants, interior designers, fitness equipment suppliers and the club management is required, and crucially this needs to be established from the outset of a project.

The design of the health club is the functionality. Don't think of the design as the finishing touches applied at the end.

This will be even more important in the future with international chains like Fitness First and Virgin Active raising the bar in the region, and fresh approaches at new hotels such as Atlantis, The Palm and InterContinental Dubai Festival City starting to redress the balance.

Leisure Manager met with representatives from each stage of the design process to understand their unique perspective on the challenges and opportunities associated with health club design.

It seems that with the right partnerships, the current trend for unimaginative, often dysfunctional design, can be reversed - without breaking the bank.

Work with experts

Whether launching a new health club or undertaking a refurbishment, the first priority should be to ensure that your architect has operational knowledge of fitness facilities.

If they do not, it is important to have a consultant or specialist designer on board in the early stages to prevent fundamental layout mistakes and avoid issues when it comes to equipment installation.

For this reason it's also good to have your fitness supplier involved too. Although suppliers may not be independent, warns Raymond Sport LLC managing partner Raymond Kelly, they should be able to contribute valuable knowledge of product storage fit out and operation.

"Involve the suppliers, but let a specialist health club consultant decide if he is comfortable with the supplier," advises Kelly.

"In this market in the past all clients have wanted to save consultants' fees and so they have patched together lots of conflicting view points, meaning the project offers only a fraction of the returns," he adds.

"Work with people who have the demonstrated expertise you desire and don't expect this to be without cost," says Kelly.

The region's major suppliers, including Raymond Sport, Technogym Emirates LLC, Al Kamda General Training LLC and Deltatrade Est, offer a range of design services for clients to draw upon, such as 3D overviews of the facilities, foot flow analysis, access control, signage recommendation and pre-opening fit-out. In each case, the service is maximised when the supplier is involved in the project at the early stages.

"It is important for fitness suppliers to be involved at the start of the design stage to ensure proper optimisation and allocation of floor space. It also helps to ensure that power points are arranged as per lay out design at convenient locations to make the work out environment more user-friendly," says Andy Dick, senior vice president for business development at Al Kamda.

For a higher level of design support, Body & Soul Health Clubs, which operates five family gyms in Dubai, offers a design consulting service through its team of in-house designers.

"We ensure that from a functional perspective, the layout and operational flow meets the demands of the users and offers the best possible experience," says Body & Soul general manager Rohun Bevan. "We have worked with many interior design and architectural firms in the Middle East and many do not have experience of operational functionality - that is where we can often positively impact a layout."One company addressing this gap in the market is Physical Advantage Fitness Solutions - best known for its Dubai beach bootcamps - which has launched a new Gym Design and Facility Management arm.

"As experienced trainers, we have been operating out of many gyms all over the world, so feel we have a point of difference and an innovative angle on gym design," says Physical Advantage co-founder and director of fitness operations Corey Oliver.

"We will have an affiliation with Technogym and Spa Resources International," explains Oliver.

Sometimes there is the space to be a little more adventurous and try something different. The industry is missing the guts to do this.

"We are currently partnering with a prominent developer in Dubai on creating eight fully functional state of the art wellness centres in the upcoming Business Bay area, which would essentially incorporate the gym and spa treatment side of things and be a first for any developer in the region," he reveals.

Another company looking to offer its expertise to the Dubai market is London-based Zynk Design, a specialist interior design company for health clubs.

For Zynk's managing director Stavros Theodoulou, good quality design is essential because it "enhances a consumer's relationship with a brand".

"The experience of a club is defined by its brand communication across all levels. The club's interior forms a major part of that communication by defining the operational structure and the ambience of the various spaces, which in turn define the brand values associated with that club. Put simply, great design enhances a customer's experience, often without them even noticing," asserts Theodoulou.

Define and refine

With this in mind, Theodoulou says that the first priority for any developer or operator embarking on a new health club project is to define your proposition.

"Know what your proposition is - are you going to encourage a fast turnaround or be a club that people can spend half a day at?

"Understanding your brand positioning helps with space allocation. For example, the trends for fast fitness involve lots of equipment and minimal showers as members are encouraged to change and shower at home," says Theodoulou.

"The design of the club is the functionality. Don't think of the design as the finishes applied to the end product. The design starts with the brand strategy, the customer experience and ends with the finishes, lighting and the music system. It's all connected and needs to be considered as a whole," he adds.

For example, Bevan explains that as Body & Soul branded clubs target the entire family, "we include more features such as youth areas, party halls, relaxation lounges, a coffee bar, TV areas and kids' crèches so the members can relax as well as be active".

Fitness First, which has recently announced a supplier partnership with Technogym, takes a different design approach to suit its business model.

TREND ALERT: Is your club up to date?

Stavros Theodoulou, managing director of London-based Zynk Design - which has worked on the Jumeirah Carlton Tower in London - highlights the key design trends for the health club sector:

Back to basics

We are encouraging clients to get ‘back to basics' by allocating space for one on one personal training. Think old school gym, bars, benches and mats, throw in a Swiss ball for core training and add free weights for personal training.

Natural not artificial

Gyms used to have bright, zingy colours to represent energy and activity. There is a move towards more natural environments using muted colours, natural stone and texture.

Flexibility of equipment

Most equipment now comes with its own entertainment system, which means that we don't have to have rows of kit facing the Cardio Theater screens.

Giving users choice is the key, let the user decide where they want to work out by placing groups of equipment in different areas. Let the user hide away, face a mirror or face everybody else. This also assists with the boredom as the member can change their sight lines and ambience with each visit.

Studios

With the popularity of yoga and core training, studios are also becoming more relaxed and earthy, again with natural materials and finishes. On the other hand combat training is still popular and the spaces need to reflect this. Ideally you would have two, even three studios for different activities. If space doesn't allow, a multifunctional lighting system can change the ambience of a space dramatically and add colour and contrast.

Lighting

With legislation on energy use becoming ever-tighter, there will be a greater emphasis on new technology, in particular that of LED lighting which has very low energy consumption but with the ability to add contrast and colour very easily.

Colour is important but colour change has had its day. Instead, let the lighting create different atmospheres at different times of day - a chameleon effect.

Technogym Emirates LLC managing director Christian Dietrich says: "Fitness First doesn't have space to play around with - this is a fact.

"The company will definitely try new equipment, but it has a certain design philosophy. They have a very solid operation and they've proven themselves so you cannot argue with that, but we do provide them with layouts and where we get the space we will make suggestions," he says.

"If you think in wellness terms, our corporate gym would not be as full of equipment. When I refer to wellness clubs, I am talking about a place that inspires members to stay for two hours. That is for someone else to do - it's not Fitness First's business model," adds Dietrich.

Once the proposition is identified, Bevan explains that health club design needs to achieve three things: a unique theme that will delineate from the competition; a facility that will incur minimal operational costs once open, and a comfortable work out experience for the user.

In terms of developing a unique theme, operator's can benefit from looking at trends internationally and in the region.

"The trend for the design of health clubs within the Middle East has recently leaned more towards adding a spa experience and greater variety for the clientele, so you see dedicated areas and rooms for personal training, Power Plate training, indoor cycling, pilates and other group exercises," says Dick from Al Kamda.

Bevan agrees, saying that Body & Soul members are demanding more group exercise space and that spa facilities can add a different aspect to a club's ambience.

"Spa services are treated as another revenue stream by owners. From a design perspective, the spa brings a passive component to a club that is the opposite to the normally active atmosphere. With this trend also comes the necessity for relaxation lounges, sleep rooms, and areas where users can de-stress," says Bevan.

Dick adds: "The client's expectation is for higher quality facilities with choice. The sector has moved away from filling up rooms with equipment and cluttering an installation with an exhaustive number of machines".

Specifically, says Theodoulou, gyms internationally are taking a fresh approach to CV equipment traditionally arranged in lines facing a Cardio Theater wall. This has been enabled by the addition of integrated television screens on the individual pieces of equipment.

"New entertainment systems on kit have freed up the restrictions of CV equipment in straight lines. We are still tight on space in Europe and clustering equipment takes up more space.  Choice is the key. Zynk pioneered the radial equipment layout with all of the equipment radiating from a central hub," explains Theodoulou.

Experimenting with layout will not only make the club look more interesting, but arranging the equipment in dedicated sections will also enable you to tailor different parts of the club to specific members, from those that are new to exercise to those confident enough to want to engage in a group cycling class in the middle of the gym floor.

"I have seen in the US recently that more facilities are using the gym equipment in a group class situation. This is proving to be popular and it's something we are considering in our clubs," says Bevan.

Taking inspiration from some of Life Fitness' club layouts in the UK, Nasser Obeid, commercial manager for Deltatrade Est - which distributes  Life Fitness in the UAE, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and Yemen -  explains what he describes as "a new age" of cardiovascular training design and layout - the Cardio IQ.

"The Cardio IQ and layout will allow your clients as they improve to progress from one section to the next decreasing boredom, increasing motivation and improving the exercise experience, resulting in increased retention," he says.

"This design and layout will improve your traffic and flow within your health club facility, decreasing the perception of overcrowding and increasing customer satisfaction," adds Obeid.

The ability to lay clubs out in this way obviously depends on the space available and the target number of members - reflecting the importance of  defining your proposition correctly at the outset- so it may be that elements of the idea are incorporated by operators in this region.

Top tips from the PT

With personal training able to bring in significant extra revenue, it's important to think about the club layout from a PT's perspective. Head trainer and director of fitness and operations for Physical Advantage - Fitness Solutions Corey Oliver says:

• The floor plan for the club should allow for a functional yet flowing and non-threatening environment.

• The club must be aesthetically appealing to the consumer where they can have a great workout but also relax and unwind afterwards.

• Offer user-friendly fitness equipment that is located in specific training zones for easier accessibility.

• Upon entering a gym the first area you should encounter would be the cardiovascular zone and/or the stretching/core training areas.

• Choose the correct flooring that will make your gym more adaptable to your members requirements.

To demonstrate the value of this approach, Obeid highlights an example of a European club with four rows of treadmills facing TV screens up on a wall, which had a membership retention rate of just 37%.

Obeid attributes this largely to members feeling bored and uninspired by the equipment layout. So more varied layouts could mean you keep your members for longer.

Learning from mistakes

There are other design mistakes that can affect either the timely completion of a health club project or its subsequent operation.

For example, every supplier in this region shares a similar gripe when installing equipment at the end of a project.

"Often doorways are too narrow, corridors have difficult and tight turns and mirrors are already fitted to walls - these all cause issues when you are carrying products in excess of 200kg. Finalising finishing touches is often better after the large equipment is in place," says Dick.

Bevan, meanwhile, highlights how design mistakes can negatively impact the user's experience.

"We find generally in the region that many facilities have major design faults when compared to Europe and the US."

The changing area is the one place your member is most likely to experience twice, so it must be given due consideration. Bevan says common issues are locker room layouts that transport customers coming from a wet area like showers, steam and spa pool through the dry areas.

"This results in the dry areas where lockers are placed and people change having wet floors," he says, adding that once people are in sports clothing the flow should take them into the workout area, not back into the main reception.

He also draws attention to group exercise rooms, pointing out that entrances should be placed at the back of the room so that latecomers will not interrupt a class that has already started.

The main problem is that often avoidable mistakes cost a lot of money just a year down the line, says Dick.

"Wrong allocation of dedicated work out space and inadequate changing facilities is quite frequent and always requires to be addressed, usually within 12 months, creating discomfort to both customer and operator. The above can be avoided by involving credible sources at the outset of the design and layout of the project," he says.

Bevan adds: "As clubs are increasing in size to accommodate more amenities, additional entry receptions have been designed. To man these extra reception desks is an additional and unwanted operation cost. It is preferable to have a single point of entry with internal promotional desks for members already inside the club.

"We often see retail displays and shops designed as an individual outlet that requires staffing. We prefer retail areas to be located adjacent to the reception so staff can promote sales and operators can reduce staff levels," he advises.

These issues aside, for Dietrich the most common mistake in the region is a lack of confidence to experiment with health club design and break the mould.

"The straight lines still dominate. Sometimes that's because of the layout of the room, but sometimes there is enough space to be a little more adventurous and offer something slightly different. The industry's missing a bit of the guts to do this," observes Dietrich.

"Also, there is a very traditional selection of equipment used. They only go to the extent of what they've seen or they know so we're missing a bit of education to get some more variation in there," he adds.

Dietrich hopes that the emergence of new fitness brands from developers like Emaar, Nakheel and Dubai Properties will change this trend.

"I don't consider hotels to be specialists in gyms, but now we are starting to see some specialists coming up to take a position in the market. Finally, there are a few independent gym operators coming to the scene and slowly I see some designs getting more daring.

"They are typically a bit more willing and eager to set themselves apart from what is already out there," says Dietrich.

"Once more clubs launch, people will want to differentiate themselves so they'll be looking for something else. It can be in many different ways, so let's see what they do," he concludes.

Top tips from the designer

Managing director of London-based Zynk Design Stavros Theodoulou says:

• Know your brand strategy.

• Define the customer experience and journey at the outset.

• Use the correct materials for ease of operation without affecting ambience.

• Get the lighting right.

• Use a specialist designer!

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