Health Clubs: Sweating In Elegant Places

At Columbus Avenue and 67th Street in New York City, you can treat yourself to an herbal wrap at the Paul Labrecque salon, then dine in splendor on fennel-encrusted salmon in a setting created by the same restaurateur who owns the renowned eateries Nobu and Montrachet. If you wish, you can plan your 10-year-old's birthday at the kids' club, fax a memo in the business center, or send out your dry cleaning. Or you can simply stroll the 140,000-square-foot premises, checking out the granite and marble appointments, cappuccino bar, oriental rugs--and taut young bodies. Because--did we almost forget?--this is Reebok Sports Club/NY, the leading edge in ultraluxe fitness centers.

In the late '90s, extreme luxury is the lure to reel in well-heeled execs, and it'll soon be coming to a health club near you. Luxury is packing them in at the East Bank Club in Chicago, which offers gourmet take-out food and facials and leg waxing in the locker room. It's the draw at the Houstonian in Houston, whose executive-members-only building is being outfitted with CD players and TVs at exercise "stations." And it's the grabber at the Pacific Athletic Club in Redwood City, Calif., which offers Silicon Valley tycoons valet parking and in-chair massages at executive meetings (table).

The luxury strategy is so successful at Reebok Sports Club that there's a waiting list for the executive-membership tier despite its $2,200 initiation fee and $270 monthly charge. For that, you get a private locker and locker room, business-center access, and personal training.

Reebok's basic membership isn't cheap either ($1,200 initiation, $170 monthly). So is the extra stuff worth the outlay? If time is a deciding factor, it might be. Elite clubs that take care of executives' errands, lunch, and other daily details can "knock down the barriers" that keep them from scheduling fitness and health time, notes Maeve McCaffrey, a spokeswoman for the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Assn.

COOL OFF. But New York exercise studio owner Marjorie Jaffe feels that health-club frills have little to do with fitness. "I don't like cosmetic stuff," says Jaffe, whose Back in Shape studio caters to a prosperous crowd. Jaffe, 52, says she uses more traditional lures to attract older business customers: her choice of music (jazz, not funk), herself as a middle-aged role model, and extra ventilation (for menopausal women who get easily overheated).

Jaffe's approach has some resonance because health clubs have yet to sign up most affluent baby boomers., a marketing demographics service, surveyed households with incomes of $75,000 and up. It found that only 5% of adults age 40-49 and 3.9% of adults 50-59 belong to health clubs.

Luxury isn't the only attraction an executive will encounter in the search for a health club. Increasingly, health itself is the big pitch. About 350 affiliations between clubs and hospitals already exist, and facilities are getting ever swankier. Witness April's groundbreaking for a $30 million, 139,000-square-foot health and fitness center in tony, suburban Waltham, Mass., tied to New England Baptist Hospital. The Boston Celtics will practice there; so will dozens of orthopedists, cardiologists, and spinal specialists in medical offices in the building. The St. Louis-based developer, TBG, is also working on 16 other hospital-affiliated clubs, all aimed at appealing to $60,000-income-and-up households, all within a mile of at least 1 million square feet of Class A office space.

New England Baptist Vice-President Louis Woolf says his hospital has applied occupational medicine principles for 12 years to help keep Celtics players injury-free. Now, "we've taken that program and transferred it to the industrial athlete," he says. Peace of mind from the proximity to doctors is one element. Another is integration of medicine and lifestyle: Just as the hospital works to get injured Celtics back into the game, it will help club members burdened by cardiac or diabetic conditions get back on their game.

Whether your idea of luxury is getting a facial, securing dinner reservations through a concierge, or catching Antoine Walker at practice, there's a health club for you. Providing, of course, you've got the commitment and the bucks.

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