“The good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”
– Billy Joel, “Keeping the Faith”
By Scott Scanlon – Refresh Editor
Never before has the Buffalo Athletic Club looked so good to so many people as right now, after the BAC ownership late last month sold its four coed centers in the local market to LA Fitness.
I’ve been a BAC member for nine years, and have worked out – not as often as I should have – at the Boulevard, Eastern Hills and Downtown clubs during that time.
Some LA Fitness naysayers maintain the owners of the giant chain likely will close one, or more, of those clubs in the coming months in favor of their existing clubs in Buffalo, Clarence and Niagara Falls. Maybe. Maybe not. It’s their prerogative. They had plans to open other clubs in nearby locations when they blew into Western New York to lay the groundwork here as part of their corporate expansion strategy. About a year ago, they opened gleaming facilities in Buffalo and Clarence, and the Northtowns location is less than a half-mile up Transit Road from the former Eastern Hills BAC.
Since the sale was announced, here’s some of what I’ve experienced, or heard about from fellow ex-coed BAC members:
• Standoffish, arrogant and clueless new staff people in the former BAC facilities (some were from L.A., and since have left town).
• A string of unanswered questions (including several of my own).
• A slew of BAC members choosing to bail on LA Fitness for the three BAC clubs for women, the YMCA Buffalo Niagara and the mushrooming number of smaller clubs scattered across the region. (Several senior citizens – some of whom have told me LA Fitness won’t honor their supplemental Medicare insurance gym benefits – have been among those who’ve left.)
What I’ve heard very little of is that change can be good.
And let’s be honest ex-BAC members. All was not always rosy at the coed clubs. Until recent years, the locker rooms were cramped at the Boulevard and Eastern Hills clubs, and they remain aged downtown. Staff politics and personality conflicts played havoc with some of the group fitness classes at Eastern Hills – the one with which I’m most familiar – for more than a decade. And a revolving door of staff members – some fantastic, many just passing through – made it almost impossible to count on the best possible workout. If you wanted one of those during the last year or so, you had to pay extra for a personal trainer.
Chris Salisbury is embracing the change, and not only because he’s collecting some of the unhappy ex-BACers at his club, Hive: The Lifespan Center, in East Amherst.
Salisbury spoke with me at length during an interview earlier this week for today’s WNY Refresh cover story on questions to ask when choosing a new gym.
Before now, the market was “cloudy,” Salisbury said. “This brought a lot of clarity overnight. People know exactly what LA Fitness is and what they’re not.”
LA Fitness clubs are, he said, fairly priced, with the latest equipment, sound personal training and a few other bells and whistles. “They’re a big ship,” he said, “and every club looks the same from Florida to Toronto.”
The BAC could afford to be more nimble because it was so much smaller, and could dabble in different classes and offerings, such as pilates and CrossFit. LA Fitness will be less willing to do so, Salisbury predicted.
A growing number of fitness trainers I’ve talked with since February, when The Buffalo News was getting ready to launch Refresh, have talked about how muscle confusion, changing up your workouts, leads to more strength.
Salisbury believes the latest confusion in the fitness market may just do the same for people who embrace it.
Like a good workout, it won’t come without discomfort.
“This forced change,” Salisbury said, “but I think it will be good for consumers. There’s so many options out there, there’s a right fit for everybody.”
Below is a list of clubs that existed along the 4.7-mile stretch of Transit Road between Main Street in Williamsville and North French Road in East Amherst when Salisbury opened Hive in April 2010:
1. Alessi Fitness
2. Pilates Institute
3. The GYM
4. BAC Eastern Hills
(Discover Golf was open about a half-mile east of Transit on Roll Road)
Here is the list that have opened since:
1. Platinum Fitness
2. Mind Body Flow Yoga
3. New York Sports Center
4. Buffalo Barre
5. Barre Centric
6. Pure Barre Buffalo
7. Body Blocks Williamsville
8. LA Fitness
9. Independent Health Family Branch YMCA (1.4 miles west on Main Street)
10. Catalano Personal Training (about a half-mile east of Transit at Roll and Harris Hill roads)
That was lots of competition for the BAC, said Salisbury, who said some of the smaller clubs chipped away at the BAC’s wealthier membership over the years, then LA Fitness grabbed many of its “hardcore lifters” with its newer facilities and equipment. BAC is left with what its owners called the most profitable part of its business: it's women-only clubs, which makes a decision of where to go next easier for female BAC members who never work out with their husbands or male friends.
One of the trends Salisbury sees in the latest big regional fitness shift is that consumers looking to get the most for a workout will probably need to pay more for it. Not good for Baby Boomers like me.
I joined the Buffalo Athletic Club in 2004, shortly after moving back to Buffalo from Central New York, where I worked as a reporter and editor for 15 years at the daily newspaper in Syracuse.
I did so after spending several weeks checking out several fitness clubs in the Northtowns, where I live, during a process similar to the one I lay out in today’s Refresh cover story, thanks to help from several of my fitness club sources.
The message from all of them was pretty much the same: You are in charge of your health and fitness. You can let doctors and gym sales staff push you around or you can put in a little work between the times you meet with them, and get better results.
I have until Jan. 31 to decide if I want to move my membership to LA Fitness. I took a quick tour of the chain’s Transit Road location in the Walmart Plaza and came away very impressed with the layout and equipment, its group fitness space and pool. The boyfriend of one of my girlfriend’s daughters has worked out in the chain’s Falls location for several months, and loves the place. He rarely has to wait for a machine, raves about the “gym etiquette” he’s experienced from other members and talks about the great atmosphere. He’s 29, a member of the 914th Airlift Wing and in great shape. He likes weights and exercise machines.
I put 29 in the rear view mirror nearly a quarter century ago. I like exercise machines, cardio equipment and, above all else, spinning classes. I have two daughters in their early 20s. They’re expensive. I’m frugal. Money always figures into these types of choices for me.
While in Central New York, I belonged to the Oswego and Fulton YMCAs when my girls were younger. I loved it, but I’ll be honest. I liked my kids when they were little but I’m not sure I want other people’s little kids running around while I’m working out. A tour of the Northtowns Y on Wednesday convinced me, however, that it’s worth a try. My girlfriend and I were given four guest passes.
During the next few weeks, I plan to try a few different places, even if I have to pay for the experience. I’ll keep you posted on the Refresh Buffalo Blog, and I encourage you to share your gym-hunting experience with me, whether it's current or happened years ago, either in the comment section of this story or by sending me an email at the address below.
Meanwhile, next weekend, I’ll share what I’m learning from senior citizens who are having a hard time dealing with the BAC-to-LA Fitness change because of insurance and cost shifts. The change in BAC coed club ownership has ruptured workout routines for some of these folks who have worked out together two or three mornings a week for more than two decades.
And I’ll leave you with a thought shared by both Salisbury and Olin B. “Buddy” Campbell Jr., CEO of YMCA Buffalo Niagara.
The real fitness goal in Western New York should be to get more people into more gyms more often.
“There’s plenty of market to go around,” said Campbell, to which Salisbury added in a separate interview, “In the end, you want everybody to get in shape, so the goal is to have every club bursting at the seams.”