DRAWING FROM BIRCHWOOD FARMS’ recent experience, General Manager John Foster provides these suggestions for other clubs looking to add a fitness center:
• Find the right dealer/distributor, and have a thoroughly researched facility plan and equipment-needs analysis.
• Don’t be afraid to utilize your supplier. The good ones obviate the need for consultants and are instrumental to a successful installation and operation.
• Until more fitness suppliers start to “get the club market,” you will have some trouble finding manufacturers and dealers that pay adequate attention to your needs. Fortunately for Birchwood Farms, Paramount and All Pro were ready, willing and able to step in.
• A smart understanding of club demographics will have an absolute impact on the success or failure of your facility; not “just any equipment” will do.
• Consultants are fine, but not necessary. A good supplier can perform the vital functions—but at the same time, the wrong supplier can get you into equipment that is not right for your club.
• A well-planned fitness facility is now a must for any club’s membership or marketing effort. It has not only become almost a “required spec” for any potential member, but a good one is a great showpiece for the club and its facilities.
Birchwood Farms’ unique membership profile created a variety of needs; it found one partner to help meet them all.
A few years ago, Birchwood Farms Golf and Country Club, in Harbor Springs, Mich., faced a considerable challenge: Its 35-year old clubhouse was in desperate need of a renovation. And while fitness was high on the list of what the club wanted to address when upgrading its facilities, the nature of its membership required a closer look at what might be most suitable for this particular location and setting.
Harbor Springs is at Michigan’s northern tip, but Birchwood Farms draws primarily from the Detroit area, some 250 miles to the southeast. The club markets itself as a private, 1,600-acre, year-round resort community, with 27 holes of golf on a property surrounded by natural woodlands and offering unspoiled views of Lake Michigan. The average age of its 760 members is 64, including many retired auto-industry executives and other, primarily seasonal members.
From its inception in 1972, the club has sought to provide all of its members with a first-class lifestyle opportunity. So when the membership approved a clubhouse renovation in 2005, a five-star fitness facility was a must-have.
It wasn’t as simple as adding a couple of machines and some weights, however. Because of the club’s location—the next nearest town is Petosky, nine miles away—there are not a lot of other health clubs or fitness facilities nearby. So Birchwood Farms’ new fitness center would most likely function as the premier facility in the area, drawing new members from all over.
As such, it would need to be flexible, accessible and user-friendly. Plus, given the nature of the membership, there would need to be a combination of cardio and strength-training equipment for users of all shapes, ages and sizes.
A member survey also noted a preference, especially among women, for personal training. So this, too, had to be factored into the equipment decisions that would be made.
As the renovation began, John Foster, the club’s General Manager, freely admits he “knew next-to-nothing about designing, specifying, and purchasing equipment for a fitness facility of this style.” So Foster took it upon himself to take a crash course in all things fitness, reaching out to his members and the supplier community with what was essentially a blank slate.
In order to achieve its goals, Birchwood Farms created a renovation committee. Fortunately, one of the committee members had previous experience working with Pentagon acquisitions. She helped Foster develop a “purchasing matrix” to guide him in developing requests for proposals (RFPs) for the fitness equipment that Birchwood Farms needed to buy. As part of the process, Foster sought a clear representation of price; orientation of equipment to membership (is it right for the demographics of the club?); availability of all components; and set-up and initial training of club personnel.
Each aspect of the RFP was given a color code according to its purchasing impact. But when it came to issuing the RFPs, the process proved much less colorful than originally anticipated. RFPs were sent to a number of potential suppliers and dealers, but only one replied.
Fortunately for Birchwood Farms, it proved to be the right one. All Pro Exercise of Farmington Hills, Mich., representing Los Angeles-based Paramount Fitness, proposed the right equipment, and right approach, to create a win-win for all sides.
The new fitness center’s footprint would be defined by the second-floor pro shop, which was central to the clubhouse renovation and addition. The new design called for an octagonal shape with two floors. The pro shop would occupy the first floor with a deck entrance, and the fitness center would have the same dimensions on the ground floor.
In the fitness area, the strength-training machines would line the outer walls and the cardio equipment would face a center island, allowing for simultaneous warm-up, circuit training, and specialized fitness programing.
Seeking true “gym quality” equipment that would stand up over time and require little or no warranty service, Foster happily accepted Paramount’s equipment. It was robust, easy to operate, and provided progressive resistance as well as good range of motion, without posing injury hazards to an older demographic.
Once the renovation was complete and the new facility opened its doors, the initial response was highly positive. Usage during the summer season climbed as high as 210 visits per week. Some of that stemmed from the newness and novelty of the facility, and activity has since leveled off to 140 visits per week, Foster reports. But it has held steady even in the winter months, when many of Birchwood Farms’ members fly south until spring.
Noting the membership’s stated preference for personal training, as well as the lack of competing fitness centers in the area, Foster decided to make Birchwood Farms’ new facility available for private sessions. The only rules were that the club would receive a percentage of trainers’ hourly fees, and all contracts would be billed through the fitness center. The program has helped to transform Birchwood Farms into a destination for those who want to blend a quality facility with personal attention.
For individual users, the club’s facility is open from 6 AM to 10 PM, with a security office on site that is manned 24/7. Given the average age of the members, 911 keys are provided on lanyards, to be worn during exercise when no one else is present. While not mandatory, they are a comfort, and provide another incentive to use the facility at all times and in all seasons. As a courtesy (and a small revenue producer), inexpensive earphones are also available for sale.
The benefits to members don’t end there. The renovation freed up significant space on the ground floor, and the club now plans to offer aerobics, pilates, and other exercise classes this spring.