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Would you work out with this crowd?

Niche marketing can attract or discourage clients, but gyms are doing just that.

May 12, 2003|Jeannine Stein | Times Staff Writer

In Los Angeles, a city where appearances count, many people choose a gym that fits their lifestyle -- or the lifestyle they'd like to have.

Gyms have worked hard to establish definable reputations. There are gyms that appeal to singles in their 20s, hip actor wannabes, power-hungry entertainment execs, muscle heads and stay-at-home moms. While these niches make it that much easier for the fitness-minded to pick a club, they can also promote stereotypes that could alienate customers.

Publicist Amy Prenner, 31, has sampled a number of clubs around town and effortlessly riffs on their status. "Crunch is definitely a place where actors go when they get their first pilot," she says. "It's very scene-y. Bally's is for the person who knows they need to go to the gym, but they don't like the glitz and the glamour. Bodies in Motion has great boxing classes, and the Sports Club/LA -- I hear the membership is pretty expensive, but it's a trade-off. You can work out and have your own mini-spa too."

These days Prenner can be found working out at Pro Gym, a small, independent Brentwood facility. Despite its celebrity clientele, she says it's a low-key place where "people don't point at you if you're famous."

Establishing a recognizable position in the market is almost essential, especially in a city like Los Angeles, says John McCarthy, executive director of the Boston-based International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Assn. "With there being a lot more to choose from," he says, "the customer is beginning to get more selective, and they are looking for the gym that fits them, or the image of themselves." Gold's Gym cemented its status in the 1977 film "Pumping Iron," which made a star of Arnold Schwarzenegger and turned the gym's original Venice location into a fitness landmark. Although Gold's continues to draw on its reputation as a bodybuilder's paradise, not every branch has that same cachet. The Hollywood location lures above- and below-the-line entertainment industry types, and the downtown site draws lawyers and businesspeople.

"We started out with hard-core bodybuilders and had to overcome that stigma but at the same time keep our edge," says Derek Barton, senior vice president of marketing. The company did that by "reaching out to the masses" with the promise of getting in fantastic shape, but with a "conscious effort to keep our roots and not run away from what we're known for."

Images of bulked-up physiques still linger in a few minds, but Barton doesn't see that as something that might keep people away: "When I offer to give someone a pass to the gym, they say 'Thanks, but let me get in shape first,' " he says. "I think that's a wonderful thing, as long as they look at us as an aspirational brand."

When New York-based Crunch opened on Sunset Boulevard in 1996, the perception among Angelenos was that this was a place to find innovative classes in a hip atmosphere, says club spokeswoman Dayna Diamond. Even securing the right location was paramount. "To be in the thick of it," she says, "is the only place it would really work."

Crunch's edginess was emphasized in commercials featuring a guy in a bunny suit, not people working out, and through publicity-grabbing classes such as Cardio Striptease and Circus Sports. The club insists it's not taking the cool factor too far and alienating possible clients who might consider themselves too unhip to even crank up a treadmill. "We've stayed true to our philosophy of making fitness fun, and people who come here want an environment that offers diversity," Diamond says.

Like Crunch, the Sports Club/LA established its reputation early on, but focused on offering spa amenities and classes galore in a chic, spacious setting. Founder and Executive Vice President Nanette Pattee Francini says she's "happy with the reputation we have as a luxury sports and fitness complex. If you're trying to change your reputation, frankly you might be in a little trouble."

But that's just what Bally Total Fitness is attempting to do. This nationwide chain of health clubs headquartered in Chicago has a television ad campaign showing young, attractive hard bodies intensely exercising in gyms that could double for nightclubs. Those are interspersed with commercials featuring chart-topping singers such as Kylie Minogue and Justin Timberlake. Yet a trip to any Bally's reveals no mirrored disco ball and a clientele that reflects a wide demographic.

"We are trying to reposition ourselves a bit," says John Wildman, chief operating officer. Traditionally, he says, the company has gone after 18- to 34-year-old "athletics." "This is a place where they can have fun staying in shape in a high-energy environment," he says.

But, adds Wildman, because practically the entire fitness industry is also competing for that desirable population, Bally's started reaching out to the "open and ables," those receptive to the idea of exercise but who don't work out on a regular basis. Bally's might not have much company; McCarthy predicts the bulk of the industry will continue in the niche-making mode. "There's plenty of market out there," he says. "All these companies are in the brand-building business, and they're more serious about it now than they ever were before. This process is just beginning."

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