By Scott Scanlon – Refresh Editor
Both familiar staffers at the front desk when I got to the former Buffalo Athletic Club Eastern Hills branch Saturday morning were a comforting sight. The 9:15 a.m. spinning class also was familiar. All 50 bikes were taken, as usual this early in a new year. Same instructor. Many of the same classmates.
Just about everything else was different in this new LA Fitness outlet.
The first Saturday of 2013, every piece of cardio equipment was taken at the same time. Only about one-third were in use when I walked in this weekend.
Last year at the same time, when I left spinning about 10:15, a yoga class was filtering out of the small fitness room on the second floor, most of the exercise equipment was in use, and the large fitness room was crammed with more than 70 people, mostly women, taking a cardio class with Mary Anne Cappellino, who left the club last week for a new job at the BAC for Women.
The same time the first Saturday of 2014, the small fitness room was dark. The nearby bulletin boards had been stripped of the group fitness class schedules and information tacked to them by former BAC instructors. The 14 people working out in the large cardio room were led by a new teacher.
There were about 10 people working out on the exercise equipment. I got right onto the crunch machine.
If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought most of my fellow gym club members had headed to Florida.
But the old days at the BAC are gone. They ended last month, after LA Fitness purchased the four BAC coed clubs a couple of days before Christmas. About half the instructors and several of the staffers at the ex-BAC Eastern Hills are gone, too.
I won’t get into the background here. You can read my Refresh Buffalo Blog post from yesterday here, in which I lay out my strategy for how I plan to decide how to approach my fitness club options during the next few weeks.
You can read the piece I wrote for Saturday’s WNY Refresh on how to choose a gym here.
If you’re looking around, you also might want to check out the websites from some of these places:
Most clubs in the region, big and small, also have websites that you can check before you walk into their doors.
One piece of advice I can give you is to shop around and ask to try out three or four places before you decide about where to join, if you’re not already locked into a place. There are so many options out there, and getting the best workout bang for your buck is worth a little extra effort.
Chris Salisbury, owner of Hive, gave me his sense last week about why the BAC sold off its coed clubs and kept its women-only clubs. He has no inside information, but is plugged into the greater WNY fitness community. What he said sounded sensible.
When he opened Hive in April 2010 on Transit Road near North French Road in East Amherst, there were four other fitness clubs along the stretch of Transit between his place and nearly five miles south at Main Street in Williamsville.
Today, there are 14.
The BAC, which hasn’t opened a new coed gym in the Buffalo area in more than a decade, saw a change in the coed market during that time. The growing number of small gyms that offer more personalized service started skimming off the wealthiest members, Salisbury said, and then the budget gyms moved in "and started to erode them from the bottom."
Then specialty fitness centers – think CrossFit, yoga, pilates, barre and spinning – also took a toll.
"The future of the big box gyms is now going to be determined by LA Fitness," which has more than 500 clubs and looks to double that number in coming years, Salisbury said.
Because the chain is looking for volume, its “cookie-cutter” clubs are designed to appeal to the greatest number of people.
LA Fitness needed to buy the BAC and Rochester Athletic Club coed facilities to gather the volume needed after committing to Western New York, Salisbury said.
BAC ownership won because it got a very attractive purchase offer from the West Coast chain, an amount neither company has disclosed. BAC can now focus completely on its growing womens’ clubs, and already is talking about expanding those options and renovating its existing spots.
LA Fitness wins, said Salisbury, because it knocks out its chief competition in the region and will skim off a significant number of former BAC coed members.
The YMCA and dozens of smaller gyms win because people are taking a closer look at them, including thousands of ex-BACers.
"I don’t think the consumer loses, either," Salisbury said. "It forced change. There’s so many options out there, there’s a right fit for everybody."
Are you thinking about joining a new gym? Do you recommend any questions I should ask LA Fitness as I work to decide whether or not to sign on to its clubs? If so, shoot me an email at the address below.
Meanwhile, I was relieved Saturday when my spinning instructor told me she planned to stay with LA Fitness. If the new regime allows me to try out a similar class at one of the new gyms they’ve opened in the region in the last year, they’d go a long way in making me feel better about the fitness changes I’ve been forced to endure in recent weeks.
I’ll keep you posted.