ArabianBusiness.com conducted a Q&A with leading hoteliers and fitness experts from thoughout the Middle East on the evolution of the hotel gym. While some of the discussion is specific to the Middle East, much of it can be applied to trends in other regions, as well. 

Q: WHO IS DRIVING INNOVATION IN HOTEL HEALTH CLUBS?

RAYMOND KELLY, manager at RS Fitness: Guests are driving innovation. Hoteliers are traditionally good at rooms and food. It is a select few hoteliers who understand the importance of fitness to their guests.

As the general population understands that stress and fatigue can be cured for free with exercise they have increasingly requested fitness facilities in hotels to the extent that today it is the norm, not the exception, for a hotel to have a gym. And in the future it will be the norm for a hotel to have an innovative gym.

TRACY MCCURTIN, hospitality sector manager & key account manager, Precor EMEA: Without question innovation is driven by the guests and consumers in general. Guests expect technology and innovation to be part of the everyday experience, they want quicker check in/out, better entertainment, efficient networks, and they want this reflected in their fitness facility.

JOHN YOUNG, senior vice president international CYBEX : We see guests demanding high quality entertainment options when they are working out on cardio products. With strength they are demanding the same level of innovation and quality of equipment as they get from their commercial health club experience at home.

Q: HAS SOCIAL MEDIA AND ONLINE CONNECTIVITY AFFTECTED HOTEL GYMS?

MCCURTIN: Social media is a driving force within the hospitality sector. According to a study by Cornell University, over 50% of guests book their hotel based on an online review as opposed to location, price or loyalty points.

The study also suggested that for every one star swing in a hotel’s TripAdvisor star rating, there was an average 10% gain in RevPAR. With more than 40% of business travellers considered health conscious, the hotel industry needs to get the product offering for fitness just right or it risks alienating this valuable group.

This includes fitness facilities with good opening hours, commercial grade fitness equipment where technology is integrated, good entertainment and the ability to track, record and monitor workouts on the road.

YOUNG: Some suppliers are providing connectivity, but we see this as very limited.  It seems to be a popular request from purchasing departments, but on the gym floor very few guests are actually connecting to online social media.  Asset management and managing programming through cloud based programmes is, however, going to drive the demands of purchasing.

KELLY: Yes social media and on-line connectivity has impacted the sector. ‘Connected’ fitness equipment is the future in standalone health clubs and in the major hotel chains.

Q: HOW HAS GYM DESIGN IN HOTELS DEVELOPED?

YOUNG: Gym design for hotels is being driven by the demand from guests — towels and green apples are not enough. They want a full service commercial health club experience that enables them to maintain their regular fitness regimes whilst away from home.

The fitness area is increasing in size, with distinct exercise zones such as cardio, functional areas, free weights, and some hotels provide areas with cardio products that are free of entertainment and noise.

MCCURTIN: Research and technology are the biggest drivers of gym design. In the past, most hotels and operators simply replaced the equipment they had like for like without really considering what is actually being used by hotel guests.

When equipment is networked it allows the operator to get real time information about usage trends, such as which types of equipment are most popular and what locations in the gym are more popular. Good design for hotel gyms should encompass the overall feel of the hotel, so the guest feels a connection between the experiences they have as they journey through the hotel into the gym.

Taking key elements such as the hotel’s signature colour and incorporating this into the gym will help create a fitness environment that identifies with the rest of the hotel.

MATTHEUS LOTTER, health club manager Talise Fitness, Madinat Jumeirah: Gyms have gone from being the conventional cardio and free weight design formats to now incorporating free zones, which allow people to do more innovative training like Vpir, Kettle bells, TRX and so on.

At Talise Fitness in Madinat Jumeirah, our health club caters to both styles of gym. We have the conventional cardio machines but also a section dedicated to TRX and free weights. We also have a High Altitude Suite to allow people train in a low oxygen chamber.

MICHELE MORO, managing director Technogym Emirates: Gym design has evolved a great deal in the last few years. Nowadays we suggest and guide clients to dedicate more space for functional training, cardio areas are not necessary anymore with a battery of treadmills and bikes facing a wall where there are screens.

The next step is to design a gym which goes beyond the physical aspect. You’ll have virtual gyms made by the connections of their users and members and their trainers, activities, challenges and initiatives all connected by a cloud-based environment. This will take the gym to a new borderless era and the original physical gym will become a hub from where guests start initial steps.

Q: WHAT ARE THE MAJOR CHALLENGES FOR fitness AND RECREATION IN HOTELS?

KELLY: Customer service is the number one challenge in hotel gyms. It starts in the recruitment process — don’t hire staff without a great attitude. All things being equal, staff with a great attitude will perform better than those without a great attitude.

That is easier said than done in the UAE hospitality industry where turnover is 30% and the costs of employment are high. It puts pressure on the organisation and the bottom line from the first day.

YOUNG: Hoteliers do rooms really well, they can have challenges making their F&B outlets compete against the local offering, and when it comes to managing the health club, it is still viewed as a cost centre with not a lot of understanding around the look, feel, and customer journey.  User flow patterns tend to be unsophisticated and staff managing the fitness rooms are still often attendants rather than qualified fitness instructors.

MORO: The major challenge is the number of hotel owning companies and investors who tend to see the gym simply as a room that they must have to comply with their rating level, rather than an important and integral part of the guest experience.

As part of this challenge the ROI of the gym is typically lower than any other facilities and amenities that hotels offer. We believe that the fitness and wellness component of the hotel experience can generate a strong added value to the guest’s stay and therefore business for the hotel.

MCCURTIN: One of the major challenges is keeping up with the changes in technology and trends. Some hotels will replace their fitness equipment every seven to 10 years. Given the changes in technology a facility like this will not meet the demands of their guests.

Those hotels that opt for a networked fitness experience, such as Precor’s Preva Networked fitness, have the opportunity to constantly change the features and functionality of the equipment through free software upgrades and apps without further investment.

Q: IS IT BETTER TO HAVE MANNED OR UNMANNED GYMS?

KELLY: It is a question of market. Personally I like to be welcomed, it’s a customer service thing. Hotels are reporting great profits so a manned gym, even if only one man, is an opportunity to engage with a paying client. If I check in late and the gym is unmanned I would prefer to be given the opportunity to exercise in an unmanned gym than to be told that it opens at 7am.

MCCURTIN: The factors involved in making this decision are based on firstly, what service levels your guests are expecting? I don’t think a five-star plus hotel can have an unmanned facility, and secondly, whether the facility is commercially independent. If the hotel does offer outside membership then being manned is important to retain those members, but also to ensure a safe and secure environment.

LOTTER: Manned gyms are better in my opinion as many people need guidance in what to do or help in how to achieve their results. Building relationships with your clients will make them stay loyal and keep returning.

YOUNG: It depends on how you position the facility and your level of hotel. Unmanned gyms are extremely popular all over the world (such as budget, 24 hour facilities such as Snap, MCfit).  For a hotel gym, guests should expect to experience the same quality of service in the gym as they get from the front desk or housekeeping. This is not often the case.

Service levels in the gym are often poor and don’t help the hotel in the guest experience.  Many hotel fitness staff are attendants at best and are not qualified or trained to be able to match the same levels of hospitality service in other parts of the property.

Q: HOW SHOULD HOTELS ACHIEVE ROI ON THEIR health club?

MORO: The gyms that have direct interaction with guests leave better positive memories. Therefore, functional training and connectivity that allow for word of mouth or social network sharing opportunities are key as guests will advertise your hotel for you. All in all, invest in the right people and their training, invest in technology, innovation and design, and your guest and bottom line will be happy. If you compromise you’ll also compromise those results.

MCCURTIN: Future proofing your gym facility will mean a higher initial investment, but will be more cost effective in the long term. This means buying equipment that is technology-based and has networking capabilities. Buy good quality commercial equipment, invest in good flooring, lighting and design features as these will all add to the longevity of your facilities. Track how many people are using your facility and make your purchase decision based on this.

YOUNG: Provide a commercial fitness centre-type environment for hotel guests to work out, and open up the facility to a limited outside membership to drive additional revenue.

LOTTER: By having a member base within the facility, you cover costs and the industry is very profitable, if managed correctly. Building a member base also adds to the feel and ambiance of the club.

Q: WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES AND DISADAVATAGES OF PERSONAL TRAINERS IN HOTEL GYMS?

YOUNG: For the hotel gym environment I don’t see the need for PTs (personal trainers).  Guests paying a good rate to stay at a property should be provided with a competent and experienced level of instruction on the gym floor. They should not have to expect to pay for personal training.

Personal trainers can provide a good level of service, interact with the guest and of course be a source of additional revenue for the hotel, but I don’t see the hotel as a place for PT instruction.

KELLY: Gyms, even hotel gyms need great, qualified, personal trainers.

The disadvantages are, well they are human, they cannot work without rest and so if you come to rely on them you need back up, cover during vacations, illness etc.

MCCURTIN: One of the key advantages of personal training is that there is the clear link between investment and return. Traditionally personal training is the second highest revenue generator, second only to membership fees.

PTs are often motivated to engage with members and guests, therefore the guest experience is often a higher quality. A primary disadvantage is that there needs to be a well organised booking process that allows guests access to PT and their profile prior to checking in. Hotels need to be creative and offer packages for night stays that include a PT session.

MORO: The advantage is to provide a personalised services to a guest who needs special attention, help, or a tailor-made solution. If done well it generates a positive experience and the consequences are obvious. I don’t see disadvantages of offering PT, while I see many potential disadvantages of not providing it or to provide it poorly. Do not improvise PT, the effect could be really negative if not properly handled.

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Tags: fitness
Photo Credit: The gym at the Serena Beach Hotel, Mombasa. John Hickey-Fry / Flickr.com