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Hotel 'Health Club' Claims Can Be Misleading : Fitness: Guests are finding that ads often imply more equipment than is actually available. In fact, the 'club' may be just a stationary bicycle and a few weights.


It's one thing to want to stay fit at home. It's another to try to keep up the fitness discipline on the road.

In recent years, many hotels have opened their own fitness centers or health clubs. But they vary widely in size, sophistication and cost to guests. Even the definition of a hotel "fitness center" or "health club" varies.

What some hotels call a fitness center is nothing more than a converted closet with an inexpensive stationary exercise bicycle.

For example, the Sheraton Boston Hotel and Towers advertises a "health/fitness center." In reality, the "center" contains three Lifecycle machines, a set of Universal weights, a Jacuzzi and a large indoor/outdoor pool.

The Hilton in Santa Clara, Calif., claims that it has a health and fitness center. But when I called, the front desk clerk said that it "really isn't a health club. We have a workout room, a Jacuzzi, pool and a lovely lake with ducks." Unless the ducks are pressing 200 pounds, I don't know what this has to do with a health and fitness center.

"If you don't have a very good health club or fitness center," says Charles Ferraro, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts' vice president of operations, "your guests will know right away. A good hotel health club has become an expected amenity."

Indeed, many hotels have installed a wide variety of state-of-the-art exercise equipment. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they have good health/fitness centers. Many of the same hotels that have great equipment have little or no staff to operate or supervise the machines.

There are, of course, some notable exceptions. At the fitness center of Loews Anatole in Dallas, the trainer-to-guest ratio is roughly one to four.

Guests at The Inn at Spanish Bay in Monterey are taken through a one-hour workout at the Spanish Bay Club. "It's an effective way to get them in and out within their schedule and to expose them to cardiovascular and stretching exercises," says club manager Nicole Duffe. "We also emphasize flexibility. It's not just regular aerobic exercise, but long walks."

Trainers at the Spanish Bay Club take guests for walks along the famous 17-Mile Drive around Carmel. There's a beach run as well as a low-impact conditioning workout.

The Hotel InterContinental in New York recently opened an excellent health club. The hotel offers a wide selection of cardiovascular exercise equipment and weights.

Nearby, the Regency Hotel has a smaller facility, but offers a great stress-reducing approach: Guests receive boxing gloves and a punching bag.

Next weekend, the legendary Concord Resort Hotel in Kiamesha Lake, N.Y., opens an 8,000-square-foot fitness center.

"You need good supervision at a hotel," says Tom Pheil, health spa manager at Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel. "The biggest problem at a hotel health club is guest ego. That's the most important reason why a good hotel health/fitness club needs certified trainers to be there. We've had guys come in who have never rowed before on the machine and they put it on the Olympic level. Or people who have never exercised hard lose their balance and fall off the treadmill. It can be dangerous.

"In fact, there's a big difference between men and women hotel guests--the women aren't afraid to ask questions. When someone sits on the equipment backwards and then falls off, it's usually a man."

Some hotel managers, realizing that they know very little about fitness centers, will contract with an outside company to run the operation. One of three Plus One Fitness Clinics in Manhattan can be found at The Waldorf-Astoria hotel.

"Hotel guests don't have to miss their workout schedule on the road," says Waldorf-Astoria program director Ray Ebner. "And we walk around and randomly check pulse rates to ensure that people are not overdoing it. Everyone has the option of working with a personal trainer. If you're an avid runner, we'll even run with you."

One of the unspoken benefits of a hotel fitness center is that it offers guests interested in pursuing a fitness regime at home an opportunity to try different kinds of equipment before committing to a major purchase.

A key issue for hotels is whether the equipment is cost-effective. The capital investment required to build and open a fitness center within a hotel can be substantial. When the Four Seasons in Washington, D.C., opened its health and fitness club in March, 1990, it cost the hotel more than $3 million.

Until recently, many hotels were reluctant to add fitness centers, not just because of cost but due to low utilization.

"But that's all changed now," says the Four Seasons' Ferraro. "If anything, some of our fitness centers are getting crowded. We estimate that nearly 50% of our guests will use the fitness center at least once during their stay.

"And," he adds, "usually at peak times of the early morning and late afternoon."

When the Four Seasons Hotel opened in Los Angeles, Ferraro built a fitness center with two StairMaster machines, three stationary exercise bicycles, one treadmill and a few free weights. Today, the facility has four StairMaster machines, six bicycles and three treadmills. "And," he reports, "at certain times of the day, it's not enough."

The hotel even stocks an additional StairMaster machine that it will deliver to guest rooms upon request.

So when reserving a hotel room, don't just ask if the hotel has a health club. Find out exactly how the hotel defines those words.

Is the club free to hotel guests? Does the club have trainers to help guests work the equipment? Another essential question is whether the hotel offers outside memberships to locals. If it does, you could have a problem--the last thing you want to do after a hard day of work on the road is have to wait in line to use a treadmill.

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