Worked Out

As gym chains like LA Fitness increase their Tucson presence, locally owned gyms brace for the consequences

Karis Stone, co-owner of Desert Health and Fitness, is no stranger to franchised fitness. Jazzercise and Curves for Women flank her East Broadway Boulevard club; two Gold's Gyms and one Bally Total Fitness operate within a four-mile radius. And with LA Fitness on the eve of opening its huge new location near Park Place Mall, "survival of the fittest" takes on a whole new meaning.

But LA Fitness can't steal Stone's contagious optimism. With an airy laugh, she says, "They (LA Fitness) are a totally different demographic. They want the people who want all the bells and whistles--less family-values type. We're more of a health club--mind, body and soul. ... We do anything to get you to your goals."

Stone--rumored to help dieting members shop for groceries--answers every phone call and greets every person who walks in her door during the course of our interview. One member brings her a gift of lavender bath salts. She's content and confident in the face of LA Fitness.

History says she hasn't a chance.

Desert Health and Fitness' former affiliate, Desert Sports and Fitness, sits abandoned on Ina Road, its vacant parking lot the chalk outline of a fallen fitness giant. It closed last year, shortly after LA Fitness opened its own Ina Road location. Desert Health and Fitness employee Alex Davidson, son of co-owner Kevin Davidson, believes LA Fitness "ran them out of business; they took all their members."

To add insult to injury, Entrepreneurial Magazine recently pegged "fitness" the nation's fifth-hottest franchising trend. Just this year, fitness franchises ballooned 30 percent. But independent health club advocate and industry specialist Mike Chaet has hope. In an interview with Club Business International, Chaet advises independent clubs to "focus on differentiation. Make sure that your club, your product, is different from the competition's, and ... make sure that the public recognizes that difference. Market your distinguishing assets."

Stone does just that. Her Web site reads, "Desert Health & Fitness is a friendly, no-nonsense, locally owned neighborhood health club offering a comfortable, relaxed and motivated environment for all ages and abilities." The LA Fitness Web site, in contrast, boasts of the "facelifts (they) give to existing facilities" and of having their "finger on the pulse of the aerobics revolution." Whereas Stone's Desert Health and Fitness plans to bring Tucson belly dancing, meditation and trans-dancing lessons, LA Fitness teaches Tucson kickboxing and pilates.

Stone claims, "If they (LA Fitness members) don't like the ... fact that they're treated like a number and not a name, then they can come to me, and I'll treat them differently."

The owners of FitCenter, a "mom and pop" club located near the new LA Fitness, attempt a different strategy: They cater to the distinctly older demographic neglected by LA Fitness. Their bulletin board showcases "Blood Pressure Club" flyers, a weight-room orientation and "movie night." Most importantly, FitCenter is wheelchair equipped and offers special-needs parking. The 90-degree pool spells relief for those with arthritis, and specialty classes geared toward those with osteoporosis and back, hip or knee problems set FitCenter apart.

Trendy versus personable; youthful versus accommodating. While Desert Health and Fitness and FitCenter certainly try to "market their differences," those differences may not be so clear-cut. Fred Turok, chief executive of LA Fitness, aspires to diminish such differences. In 2002, Turok told Club Business International, "We're moving more towards a focus on real people, as opposed to the 'body-beautiful' notion of fitness. The message is that ... we want to get to know the real you, understand what makes you tick, and help you set and achieve realistic goals." Turok goes on to reinforce that his "constant brand message is quality facilities, including pools, conveniently located and affordably priced."

Turok's sought-after "focus on real people" may not have been realized, however. In an industry touted for its high complaint resolution success rate (72 percent), the Ina Road LA Fitness has had three Better Business Bureau complaints filed against it. Though the complaints were filed in January, March and June of 2004; the BBB of Southern Arizona has only recently received a response from LA Fitness. According to Tim Johnston, vice president of operations for the BBB of Southern Arizona, "Most businesses respond within our time frame of 30 days. With larger companies, some things get lost in the shuffle of papers--the complaint sits around at their local office. ... They don't know what to do with it. Some (large corporations) are more proactive; they tell us where to send it (the complaint)."

A manager (who refused to release her name) at the Ina Road LA Fitness had no comment about the situation. According to her, only LA Fitness' corporate office has information regarding BBB complaints. The number she provided for "LA Fitness' corporate office," however, is nothing more than a recording that tells callers to take up matters with their individual club.

In contrast, Desert Health and Fitness' BBB record shows that every single complaint has been either resolved or addressed, and in FitCenter's 13 years of business, not one BBB complaint has been filed against it.

But if LA Fitness' East Broadway location is anything like its Ina Road counterpart, most people won't care so much about slow customer service; they'll be fighting over Cybex treadmills and stair masters hot off the assembly line, or relaxing in flat-screen-TV-equipped locker rooms and brand new hot tubs.

Even Chaet can't help but jump on the franchised fitness bandwagon. In his interview with Club Business International, he commends franchises for "elevating the (fitness) industry's level of expertise (and) familiarizing the larger financial markets with what we do. ... Large, well-financed chains tend to shake up the industry and keep it from becoming static."

Chaet goes on to cite the advantages that independent gyms have over franchised gyms. According to Chaet, independent clubs can respond to changes in taste and demand more quickly than franchised clubs. What's more, they're able to implement those changes faster, meaning the needs and complaints of customers rarely go unnoticed.

But Chaet's wise words aren't necessarily a balm to independent gyms' fears. FitCenter's assistant manger, Betsy Marrow, says, "We don't exactly welcome them (LA Fitness) into the market. One more way to split the pie is not a lot of fun; there's (already) a fair amount of competition on this side of town."

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