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Hotel Gyms Get Fitter: Most Properties See Modern Facilities as a Requirement

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As featured in The Washington Post
By Andrea Sachs, Washington Post Staff Writer – Friday, December 31, 2010

After years of neglect, hotel fitness centers are finally getting into shape.

In the before picture, we see a wimpy gym housed in a claustrophobic, overheated room sparsely furnished with a garage sale assortment of equipment. With rusting parts and zero ventilation, the facility could be ruled a health risk. But the dawning of the age of health consciousness has sparked an evolution of fitness centers, sending subpar gyms the way of the bedside ashtray.

“I’ve seen a huge change,” said Denise Austin, an established fitness expert who frequently finds herself working out in hotels. “Years ago, there was a small room that you opened with a card key. It would have a little treadmill, a few tiny weights, maybe a mat. And there would be one man in there. It was creepy. But now hotels are trying to make it a priority. They are building full-service fitness centers with spas and pools.”

Today’s fitness rooms are pumped up on adrenaline, replicating guests’ hometown gyms with highly advanced cardio and strength-training machines, separate areas for yoga and stretching, and classes for muscle and mind. Some hotels have even devised services to address the unique challenges facing fitness-minded travelers, such as remembering to bring their sneakers. But mainly, the upgraded facilities advance a central goal: to help guests comfortably maintain their routine away from home, thus avoiding bringing home extra pounds of baggage.

“Over the course of 20 years, fitness centers have gone from optional to required,” said John Sarver, director of design and development at Hotel Fitness Club, which creates hotel fitness centers and products. “The rooms weren’t matching what consumers wanted.”

Through surveys and studies, the industry has learned that travelers place a high priority on fitness centers and may pass on a property if it lacks one. Sarver says the presence or availability of a gym is one of the top three factors influencing booking decisions, after location and price, and is among the most desired amenities.

An April study conducted by D.K. Shifflet & Associates, a travel research and consulting firm, reveals the importance of exercise facilities: More than 25 percent of 405 business travelers said they would book a hotel if it offered a 24-hour fitness center. They won’t have to look far: In the American Hotel & Lodging Association’s 2010 Lodging Survey of 8,500 U.S. properties, 83 percent said that they have an exercise room/health/fitness facility, up from 79 percent in 2008, 75 percent in 2006 and 63 percent in 2004.

“For me, the gym is key. It’s more important than the room,” said Mark Holt, a Portland, Ore., guest who was using the gym at the Sheraton New York last month. “I go online, look at pictures and get an idea of what they have.”

These days, it’s easier to find a gym that matches your exercise goals. Many of the major chains are elevating their facilities while also standardizing them from property to property. Guests will find the same quality of equipment and programs no matter the Zip code. For example, in October, Sheraton rolled out its Sheraton Fitness Program by Core Performance in 100 hotels, with the goal of outfitting all its properties by year’s end.

“It’s a comprehensive approach,” said Craig Friedman, director of the Performance Innovation Team of Core Performance, which helped create the Sheraton program, “that helps guests feel like they have the same tools on the road that they do at home.”

The multi-pronged course, part of the company’s $6 billion overhaul, completely reimagines the chain’s approach to fitness. Among its renovations and innovations: upgrading the equipment; revamping the interior design of the fitness centers (the Sheraton New York, for example, features new linoleum floors that imitate blond wood); providing guests with sample workouts based on time and needs, available on its Web site ( www.sheratonfitness.com ) and in the gym; and stocking the front desk with gyms-in-a-bag for in-room sessions, complete with a half-hour fitness video.

For guests who tend to pack light or absent-mindedly (a.k.a. leaving one sneaker under the bed at home), the Westin, like Sheraton a Starwood property, has partnered with New Balance to create a free loaner program. (Fairmont has a similar arrangement with Adidas, available to its frequent-stay members.) Last year, 10 hotels started providing guests with a locker room’s pile of apparel, such as running shoes with disposable insoles, shorts, shirts, socks, capri pants and sports bras. Despite the visceral ick response (sports bra swapping?), the hotel has received encouraging feedback from guests who slipped on the communal togs.

In a fall survey, 60 percent of individuals who borrowed gear at the Westin Boston Waterfront and the Westin Michigan Avenue in Chicago said they worked out because of the program. In addition, 87 percent said they were more likely to stay at a Westin because of the perk.

“One of the challenges with travel is packing gear for exercise,” wrote one hotel guest in the poll. “Wish this was available at more locations.” (Your wish will come true by the end of 2011, when all properties will offer the service.)

Among the 65 respondents, the study found that 51 percent borrowed shoes; 46 percent a shirt; 40 percent socks; 35 percent shorts; and 9 percent a “tonic crop” (sports bra in non-New Balance lingo).

“Everyone’s looking for an edge,” Sarver said.

One of the latest trends is pairing fitness centers with full-service, pamper-me spas. Due to the layout, guests must walk by the massage rooms and counters brimming with products to reach the cardio machines and weights, a temptation as strong as a slice of red velvet cake. At the Grand Hyatt DFW in Dallas, for instance, the top-floor 24-hour gym is connected to the spa. Even without an appointment, guests can decompress in the sizable steam room after an intense session involving treadmills or ellipticals, new circuit machines or a complete set of free weights. (If that’s not enough, enter the squats zone, with mats, or use the foam roller, body bars and stretch cables.)

The Grand Hyatt’s program also illustrates another burgeoning trend: combining forces with established fitness companies and experts. With the new Stay Fit@24/7 Hyatt gyms, available at properties in North America and the Caribbean, Gunnar Peterson, trainer to hot celebrities, shares fitness tips that we can only hope Kim Kardashian follows, too: “If you only have 30 minutes,” he says in his online suggestions, “try this mini-routine: start with the Life Fitness chest press, followed by the Life Fitness leg press, followed by crunches on a stability ball. Repeat that sequence three to five times. With your remaining time, do the elliptical cross-trainer.” Repeat and watch your B-list body become an A.

Gansevoort Miami Beach brandishes the David Barton name in its fitness center, which shares the same address. For $16 a day, guests can perspire with the beautiful stick people in a 42,000-square-foot space with ocean views and a live soundtrack by international DJs.

“The top brands are really making great strides in expanding their fitness programs,” said Jim Kaese, co-founder of the Athletic-Minded Traveler, an online travel and fitness Web site that includes reviews of hotel gyms. “The smaller hotels are following suit.”

Compared with higher-profile chains, independent inns, bed-and-breakfasts and other alternative lodgings are at a slight disadvantage. With smaller budgets and fewer guests, these properties typically approach their fitness amenities more conservatively. In other words, you won’t find a fitness concierge joining you for a breakfast of frittata and broiled grapefruit. However, the little guys aren’t abandoning their exercise-minded guests, either.

If a hotel doesn’t have the real estate to build an on-site fitness center, it may forge an agreement with a local gym that allows guests day usage. For example, the Auburn Travelodge Inn and Suites in Washington state offers a free pass to the local Bally, and guests at the Egerton House Hotel in London gain free access to the LA Fitness South Kensington, five minutes away by foot. Even some hotels with fitness centers provide travelers with the option of a more robust facility: The Holiday Inn Halifax Harbourview in Nova Scotia comes with a small fitness room with a few cardio machines and weights, but for an Ironman workout, guests can muscle up at the Dartmouth Sportsplex across the street.

The advantage of the partnership: Guests have at their disposal a full-service facility that is part playground, with aquatics, racquetball courts, saunas and more. The con: the inconvenience factor.

“There’s nothing I hate more than working out, then having to ride the subway back to the hotel sweaty,” said Kurt Broadhag, president of K Allan Consulting, which advises lodgings on gym layout and development. “It’s so nice to hop on the elevator, work out, then go back to the room to relax.”

Kaese, however, has noticed a decline in hotel-gym marriages, as the properties turn their attention inward. “Partnerships with nearby gyms is decreasing,” he said, “because a lot of hotels are ending up renovating their own fitness centers. . . . Hotels are blowing out walls and elevating the whole fitness experience.”

Sarver, the gym designer, said properties are growing their fitness rooms from 300 square feet to 400 to 800 square feet. “Rooms are bigger in the economy, mid-tier sector,” he added.

With more space, you need more equipment, and hotels are investing in the most technically advanced machines on the market. The cardio machines, for instance, come with personal viewing screens that allow guests to select from a variety of exercise routines and/or zone out with their favorite soap opera or sports team.

“The change now is technology,” Sarver said. “It’s about the console with space for an iPod and other entertainment features. It will go beyond TVs to touch screens and an interface that syncs with your phone. You may be able to step on the treadmill, put in your name and password, and track your progress no matter where you are staying.”

Hotels also recognize that not everyone has the knees for running and that some people want a kinder routine. They are adding lower-impact elliptical machines and recumbent bikes and creating distinct areas for strength training with resistance bands and stability balls, stretching and core training for abdominals and lower back.

Despite the growing trend in hotel fitness centers, we are still finding tiny rooms with treadmills that, with a wrong step, could land you out the window. Like hotels, fitness centers have their quirks. For travelers who ask about the fitness center before they ask about the room rate, Kaese has created a database of hotel gyms, including quippy reviews. Of the Ritz-Carlton Boston Common, the site says: “One of the best stay and sweat options in the entire U.S. and certainly Boston’s best hotel gym.”

Looking at the reviews, one realizes that while hotels have made some impressive progress, they are still miles from the finish line.

Case in point, the Grand Hyatt in San Francisco’s Union Square: “A few good machines inside the hotel gym, but certainly have seen better Hyatt StayFit workout experiences.”

“It isn’t as fast as we’d like,” said Friedman of the advancements. “But it’s coming.”

This could be the hotel industry’s New Year’s resolution.