HOSPITABLE, SERENE, AND SERIOUS
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
Many good things are missed because we forget to look up. I had walked by the Equinox Fitness Club countless times without noticing it on the second floor of a building two blocks from my studio on Miami's South Beach. The tall glass door under the minimalist EQUINOX sign off Fifth Street on Collins Avenue is slightly broader than two palm tree trunks and is not designed to attract attention. The uninformed passerby is certainly not aware of the uplifting atmosphere, broad welcoming concourse, and friendly staff waiting to greet members at the top of the stairs. But this time I had the Equinox address because I was determined to upscale my fitness experience.
I had researched the subject beforehand: Equinox was established in Eastchester in 1990 by the Errico family because brothers Danny and Vito Errico were unable to find a serious, full-service, upscale health club in their neighborhood. Their sisters Livinia, Fran and Terri soon chimed in with more openings. The Erricos targeted the market segment willing to pay more for first-class health and fitness services. With hospitality as its hallmark, Equinox revenues jumped from $4 million to $75 million in less than ten years. In December of 2000, North Castle Partners and J.W. Childs Associates partnered with Harvey Spevak and Equinox management to acquire Equinox for $200 million. Equinox opened 21 new clubs in four new markets thereafter and more than doubled its membership. Revenues grew from $63 million in 2000 to $168 million in 2005. In December 2005, Equinox was sold to The Related Companies, L.P., the most prestigious real estate development group in the nation, for $505 million. The marriage was made in heaven. Related had long provided fitness facilities in its sophisticated residential properties; now it has a company with a nationally recognized, upscale lifestyle brand for its partner and lead tenant appropriately positioned in new properties. Equinox, in turn, can waltz in and anchor its fitness centers in the most fitting locations.
The Erricos took a low-keyed approach to their well-heeled prospects, while many other clubs in the booming fitness market resorted to vulgar sales techniques to milk the mass market on high turnover, an approach that depends on dropouts yet still tends to overcrowding when overdone. As the day of reckoning approaches, the owners are tempted to grab the money and run. Indeed, I lost the anticipated benefits of a lifetime membership in a health club after the owners staged a big discount sale. When the winners of the blowout sales contest returned to the club from enjoying their vacation prizes, the operation had been shut down; members were dragging equipment out of the second-floor windows and down the fire escapes; teachers were on the sidewalk outside, recruiting students for classes elsewhere. To make matters worse, I lost an annual membership at a club down the street when it went belly up a month thereafter, taking its state-of-the-art pneumatic machines down the tubes with it.
I also checked out the pros and cons of Equinox on Internet consumer-rating sites: According to the positive reviews, Equinox Fitness Centers are upscale and least crowded, and are in good locations with ample parking. The typical Equinox environment is light, airy, and clean, and the music is great. The models are fit and the customers cute. However, Equinox is not a “social scene.” The staff is courteous and helpful, and the trainers are highly qualified. The bathrooms are spacious and have plenty of free hygiene products. Prospective members are not confronted by overly aggressive salespersons. In sum, Equinox is worth the money.
The negative reports were far fewer than the positive. “Steep fees” or “too pricey” was the main complaint, followed by dissatisfaction with personnel; to wit: rude front desk; rude bathroom attendants; bored and unfriendly trainers, disinterested and unexceptional staff. And I found two complaints about lost and found or stolen property. A gentleman claimed that it took him over a week to get his iPod back because an employee took it home and abused it. A lady claimed that her diamond necklace was stolen after she left it on a sink to take a shower; she blamed the usual suspect in such matters; to wit, the help, in this case an attendant who spoke broken English and who ran out of the locker room when confronted by the victim. The staff allegedly refused to conduct a strip search, and for some reason not a soul including the victim called the police – let us hope that the diamonds were made of glass.
My initial experience with Equinox was altogether positive and included finding a $100 bill in the middle of the gym floor – something can be said in favor of looking down as well as up, for several members had walked on it before I scooped it up. A visitor had inquired at the front desk about the C-note before I found it, but he had left the premises all ready, so I pocketed it, thinking, Gee, if I found a $100 bill every month, membership would only cost me $34 per month. On the other hand I might buy an iPod, a watch, fashionable workout clothes, and so on.
I encountered the gracious hospitality Equinox has been best known for since its inception. In fact Equinox has been an uplifting experience for me ever since I was welcomed by the greeters at the front desk and was directed to membership advisor Chad Knopp. He treated me rightly, and people who treat me right are righteous as far as I am concerned. Of course I moaned about the $125 monthly dues plus tax, and then there is the $345 plus tax initiation fee, which is sometimes waived.
Corporate rates for five or more members are considerably less, around $90 per person, and there is no initiation fee. Corporate benefit managers genuinely interested in employee fitness and retention know that fitness club members are enthusiastic about leading a healthy life. Employees who enjoy the prestige of belonging to what Fitness Magazine called “the best gym in America” would undoubtedly be even more reluctant about taking a job elsewhere unless the competing firm provides the best benefits in all categories. Furthermore, the more serious approach to exercise one finds at Equinox serves to augment the muscular mentality of competitive corporate culture. Advocates of intense training insist that the fast-track to unlimited muscle growth is hard-core exercising without sitting around on the bench or chit-chatting and gossiping between sets, or walking around checking out the women, the sort of things that wimps tend to do instead of pushing themselves to damage their muscle fibers so they might grow big and strong. The rule that separates girls and boys, women and men, and one person from another, is to do two more reps when you feel that you cannot do any more; then and only then shall the fitness enthusiast surpass the pack in short order.
Socially inclined people and persons more interested in aerobic fitness and keeping trim and supple have their choice of several classes at Equinox to that end, such as Group Power Barbell, Ballet Workout, Cycling, Kickboxing, Capoeira, Budokon, Dance, Pilates, Yoga, and so on I noticed that the ladies preferred to take the classes when not working with trainers or taking advantage of the luxurious Equinox Spa, dubbed “A temple of well-being” by the New York Times, whereas the gentlemen tended to workout alone with the weights. Women were obviously more passionate about having a trainer at their service. Of course to have a trainer is a status symbol, for many highly successful people regardless of their gender have excellent trainers and coaches on their teams.
Incidentally, one million dollars is not a whole lot of money on South Beach. Local millionaires sometimes scoop up on the triple-discount sales at Macy’s, and they even stoop to shopping at the Dollar Store on Washington Avenue – prices were raised last year to $1.25, so we call it the Dollar and a Quarter Store. I am not a millionaire yet, and I selfishly wished for a price war between Miami Beach gyms when I dropped by Equinox and recommended to Chad that Equinox prices be cut in half to save Equinox from the “costs too much” objection. He took me for a tour of the facility instead, and invited me to try out the gym.
All the positives were there. The place was bright, clean, and spacious. The guests had good manners and were obviously there to get a serious workout: Members were not idling around the machines or engaged in loud-mouthed chats, nor were they strutting about putting on airs. There was no drooling over models or gaping at celebrities – a stolen glance out of the corner of the eye and a vivid imagination suited the occasion. The aggressive fellow found at every gym happened to be there, the one who wants the equipment you have just started working with, not the dozen alternatives around it, and he wants it right away, thank you very much, because he is on his circuit, so why don’t you hurry up or go use another machine – but never mind him.
No, ma’am, there is no vulgar social “scene” to speak of, and the absence of one is deemed to be a virtue among respectable people. I asked Chad if the high price was kept up for the same reason my Honolulu landlord said he had raised rents sky high – “to keep the riff raff out.”
“Mr. Walters,” Chad responded, “people pay a hundred-twenty-five dollars a month on cable or cell phone subscriptions. That is not a lot of money.”
“Well,” I countered, “I have rabbit ears and a Virgin cell that I seldom spend more than ten dollars a month on because I mostly e-text. I can’t stand all the yelling into cell phones everywhere for no reason at all except to stay connected, as if humans were apes grooming one another. Cell phones are my pet peeve, and I’m glad to see they are banned here. I love to watch TV and go to a movie on weekends, but I substituted physical exercise for Internet surfing.”
While I was trying out the gym I noticed that the black-shirted trainers were not walking the floor hustling training sessions or gabbing with one another for want of something to do, but were seriously engaged in training. A Level I trainer or two in blue shirts went about putting up weights, handing out towels and tips on how to work out, and it was they who were trying to drum up new business. “We do our best to sell our sessions,” I was informed, “because training is what we do, but many men at the gym are already set in their ways, and it’s not easy to sell sessions.”
I encountered an ambitious Level I trainer working the floor, Simon Arzu, an ice skater and sports fitness trainer who had just descended from New York with an engaging smile and college-educated street smarts. He said he was keenly interested in the music promotion business but he wanted to stay involved in the fitness business and have Equinox for his home base. I asked him about the various certification programs available for fitness experts throughout the country; he immediately referred me to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, the National Strength and Conditioning Association, ACE, and the Aerobics Fitness Association of America, in that order. I asked him if those organizations provided everything the competent trainer needed: “Well,” Simon said, “it’s a business.”
I reviewed NASM, FSCA, ACE, and AFAA marketing literature of. The institutions provide valuable services and their importance shall undoubtedly grow as the states legislate and enforce the occupational certification of fitness trainers – of course continuing education credit will be required. Equinox already requires trainer certification as a prerequisite of employment. Needless to say, the courses, materials, and tests are expensive. There is ample opportunity for profits and nonprofits alike to prosper in the certification business. But I found the certification programs lacking in an important respect: the education they provide is mostly virtual, not quite real; that is, conducted on the Internet or through CDs and manuals – sporadic workshops are held in various cities. Of course the main objective of the certification institutes is to prepare the student to pass multiple-choice tests and obtain a certificate.
Online education is certainly a boon to people who do not have access to real classes, but we want our surgeons to have an exhaustive hands-on education before we go under their knives. Now the Equinox brochure states that every Equinox trainer “undergoes rigorous education in our exclusive Equinox Fitness Training Institute (EFTI). It provides our trainers with the scientific knowledge and practical expertise to help clients meet their goals.”
I buttonholed Robert Young, the local operations manager, at the front desk, and asked him for a copy of EFTI’s curriculum and schedule of regular classes in the science of fitness. Bob is a personable man who looks much younger than his years. He is a competitive swimmer and tennis player with over twenty years of experience with sports education, not to mention his modern dance background. Furthermore, he is a patient listener, or at least he tolerated my long-winded, enthusiastic suggestions on how his business should be run. He could not say much about EFTI, he said, as it was a pilot program and information about it was being kept under wraps for competitive reasons.
“Well,” I said, “the pilot is going in the right direction, and it’s time to let the cat out of the bag. Any dancer would seriously doubt whether anyone could become a great dancer without regularly taking dance classes for many years. All the CDs and dance manuals and other tools in the world do not a dancer make. To master the art of dance, the dancer needs the personal presence and guidance of experienced masters. Where would the dancer be without the eagle-eye and daily corrections of Teacher? Most likely he would be self-deceived. Luigi used to tell us that if you do things wrong long enough, wrong feels right. As for workshops here and there, dancers call them master classes for good reason. They are of scant benefit to the student without a dance foundation to begin with. Hopefully EFTI will become the best hands-on fitness academy in the nation if not the world.”
“Okay,” Bob responded to my jawboning, and suggested in a pleasant tone, “Now go work out.”
I confess that I enjoyed hanging out at the Equinox front desk more than I enjoyed getting a serious workout, and that brings me to the allegation that the Equinox front desk is staffed by rude people. One might suppose that a classy gym would have snooty people at the front desk for good measure. Au contraire. I approached the front desk and told Gary Carlile that I had heard a rumor that Equinox front-desk people are rude, and I wanted to know if the rumor was true or not. After speaking with him at some length and observing him engage with over a dozen members, I concluded that the Equinox front desk at South Beach is more than courteous: it is downright friendly and informative. Gary attributed that to the pleasant South Beach environment. Of course the nature of the sort of public encountered can influence how that public is treated: we do have rude publics and unfriendly front desks to match. Still the burden is on business to do the best it can with what it has at hand. The most successful South Beach businesses cultivate the practice of Guestology; that is, treating customers as if they are preferred guests in their home. Leading businesses pay professional shoppers well to covertly test the quality of their customer service.
All the above brings me to the bottom line. I can not say that the Equinox pricing is too high, for cost is relative to income and I have not analyzed the financials. I can say that Equinox is quite busy but not too crowded after work at $125 a month for individuals and $90 a month for group members. I shall not say that anything is wrong with Equinox, although I could make a dozen lengthy suggestions for improvement. Every fitness organization has its own character, and I tend to appreciate them all. All in all, the Equinox milieu may be fairly characterized as hospitable, serene, and serious.