Fitness firms find a niche

Steven Helmicki is passionate about helping people reach their fitness potential.

He helps star athletes make breakthroughs, and high school teams have excelled after using his exercise training system. But he finds he enjoys working with people from all types of backgrounds.

“The people who come to us, it’s a very eclectic mix,” Helmicki said.

His Elma-based business, Primordial Strength, is one segment of the nation’s vast fitness industry. The region abounds with fitness centers and gyms, catering to members’ diverse objectives, finances and time restrictions.

Gym memberships routinely spike as New Year’s resolutions to get in shape kick in. The challenge for the fitness centers is to capture the newcomers’ interest and keep them coming back to work out months later.

With so many fitness operations — whether individually owned or part of a chain — finding a niche can be daunting for owners. Some of them use atypical approaches to helping members get stronger and more fit.

Helmicki, a champion powerlifter, incorporated his business in 2007 and over the summer moved it from East Aurora to a new facility on Jamison Road in Elma.

Helmicki has worked with athletes to increase both their strength and speed capabilities.

In North Buffalo, Glenn Kaifas has watched his North Buffalo business, Fitness 360, take off since launching it four years ago. The center has already expanded twice as it continues to add features and programs.

Kaifas said he believes his personal trainers’ level of education — and his members’ interest in drawing on their knowledge — has helped drive the center’s growth. Nearly 40 percent of Fitness 360’s 2,000 members are involved in one of the center’s personal training programs, far above the national average for such enrollment, he said.

Kaifas said all of his trainers have a bachelor’s degree in exercise science, and most have a master’s degree in a related field. With that knowledge, he said, the trainers can develop specialty programs and the clients can feel secure about their safety participating in them.

When Fitness 360 opened in November 2007, Kaifas started a “Buffalo’s Biggest Loser” weight-loss program tied in with WGRZ-TV. Business “shot through the roof,” he recalled, and the program now serves people around the region. Three of his participants have each lost more than 200 pounds. The center has expanded its reach by conducting training programs for corporations.

Kaifas calls his center’s growth “somewhat surreal.”

“There are so many people out there that need help from someone they can trust,” he said. “We’re just trying to take advantage of that and make ourselves available.”

Reaching goals

Fitness 360 continues to venture into new areas. A year ago, Kaifas added a strength and conditioning program for distance runners. One of his participants lowered her marathon personal best time by about 30 minutes, just five months after entering the program.

Kevin Cunningham is a fitness industry veteran. After working at a big fitness center, he envisioned a different way to work with members, and he created KC’s Fitness about 20 years ago. He now runs it from inside the First Presbyterian Church on Symphony Circle.

Like many gym owners, he speaks with pride and enthusiasm about helping his members reach their fitness goals. Cunningham said he has come across good people working in the fitness industry over the years, but he thinks the industry, by and large, has let down its customers, with ad pitches about rows of high-tech workout equipment but not enough follow-through to help members achieve results.

Cunningham said he focuses on creating a setting where members feel welcomed, challenged in their workouts, and want to keep coming back for more. His gym emphasizes variety, offering classes in areas like boxing and mixed martial arts to help members get stronger in unconventional ways.

“I think people are more sophisticated,” he said. “I think people are looking for ways to get fit that hopefully have that sense of play, if you will.”

Cunningham said the low monthly rates some gyms charge can have an unintended effect on members’ commitment to working out. “It’s not a big [amount] to pay,” he said. “But what happens is, the gym becomes a little bit like the treadmill that you hang your clothes on in the basement.”

Fierce Fitness has bought and remodeled space on Ashland Avenue, where owner Giovanni Preziuso emphasizes strength and conditioning, and building core strength. “I think we have a very different approach,” he said.

It is the sort of functional training he wants members to be able to carry over to other parts of their life, whether to just be healthier or to perform better in a certain sport.

Preziuso’s gym does not directly employ personal trainers, but there are personal trainers available for hire who will work with members on site. His gym also plays up its accessibility. With key fobs, members can come in seven days a week, from 5 a.m. to midnight.

Nationally, the fitness club industry has been marked by a couple of recent trends, said Stuart Goldman, managing editor of the trade publication Club Industry.

One such trend is deals and consolidation among some of the big-name players. LA Fitness has just completed its acquisition of 171 former Bally’s Total Fitness centers.

The second notable trend is the growth of the low-cost, franchised chains. Those operations cater to customers keen on a low monthly rate for a no-frills workout facility, he said. “It’s an industry with a lot of different avenues.”

Opening a new center is a challenge, even for a franchisee using a developed business model, Goldman said. “It’s just so hard because you don’t just open up a club with any of their brands and just watch members come in.”

Club owners have to work hard at recruiting and retaining members, Goldman said. If members are satisfied and get into the habit of returning, they might pay for additional services, such as using a personal trainer or signing up for a class, and they are more likely to renew when the time comes.

Much competition

A survey by the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association said only about 15 percent of Americans have gym memberships. That leaves a huge pool for gyms to recruit from.

But Goldman said some clubs have found success by focusing on a relatively small but loyal clientele, rather than constantly pursuing new members to replace those who leave, revolving door-style, and ending up with the same net total of members.

New fitness centers continue to appear in Buffalo Niagara. Some franchised chains, including Fitness19, Planet Fitness and Snap Fitness, have opened locations here. The Ellicott Square Fitness Center recently opened downtown. And many other existing centers, including Buffalo Athletic Club and Jewish Community Center locations, have upgraded their equipment, facilities and appearance.

The Ellicott Square Fitness Center opened in October and has grown to about 80 members, said Kathy Pignatora, who co-owns the center with her husband, Neal, and William Paladino. “It’s certainly exceeded what I expected.”

Pignatora describes the format as a “hotel-style:” members use a swipe card to gain access during club hours, to use a variety of weights machines and equipment including treadmills and elliptical machines. The center draws a mix of people who live or work downtown, who are intent on getting in a quick workout, she said.

The center will soon offer some classes, and will connect a member with a certified personal trainer upon request. Pignatora said the club will add new features or equipment based on suggestions from members.

There is plenty of competition out there. As any gym owner knows, no matter how good the program or the equipment is, the place has to make money too over the long haul to survive. Cunningham said KC’s Fitness is profitable, but he said he is turned off by the idea of pressuring members to sign contracts.

“What secures my revenue stream is being good,” he said. “If we’re good, people will come back to us.”

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