When Kansas University opened its Student Recreation Center in September 2003, Rick Sells predicted it wouldn't be good for business. He was right.
Sells, owner of Lawrence Athletic Club, said the recreation center took away about 1,000 members from his club, leaving a gaping $360,000 hole in membership profits. The club also lost one of its most valuable marketing tools when the federal government's "no-call" list went into effect.
After facing a $32,500 increase in maintenance fees over three years at the club's south location, Sells closed the branch.
It seemed the club might be on the path of other Lawrence gyms like Sixth Street Fitness and Total Fitness Athletic Club, both of which went out of business in the past few years. But Sells says it's not so. His club, he says, will bounce back.
Memberships were higher than ever in December and January, and Sells recently found out the athletic club's phone calls can't be stopped by the "no-call" list because his callers were not trying to sell anything. Rather, the club's callers offer two-week free trial memberships to Lawrence-area residents. Sells said inviting people to the club via phone leads to about five new members per 100 calls.
And some of Sells' depleted student members have found their way back to the athletic club, tired of dealing with their overcrowded, student-fee run fitness center. Most of them, Sells said, are women.
"It has turned into a meat market for them, and they don't like it," Sells said. "Here's what we're hearing; you can't get a workout without guys hitting on you the whole time. If you're on a treadmill, and you have to get off to go to the bathroom or get a drink you lost your treadmill.
"I'm not going to say they're flooding back. Where we had 1,000, we might have gotten 50 to 100 back. It's the girls that don't want to be bothered. I think it's a little more refreshing to them."
KU sophomore Imagene Crane said she's willing to pay the $70 a month for the membership she shares with her fiance to avoid the recreation center crowds.
"There's less people at LAC," she said. "It's easier to go when I want to and to use the machines. And parking is easier to. If I go to the one at KU at 11 a.m., people are in class so I have to look forever for a parking spot."
To lure students back to his gym, Sells has started running student-geared specials for tanning and membership.
Still, that trickle of students isn't making up for $360,000 in lost profits, something Sells said he knows he has to do. For now, he's had to raise membership fees. To counteract that hike, he's partnered up with athletic club owners across the state to work toward getting sales tax removed from gym memberships.
"The tax that people pay on their memberships here would almost buy them another month, so our philosophy is the governor has this new Get Fit Kansas! program, so make it easier for people because all of the sudden you just reduced the price of memberships," he said.
In 2006, the athletic club will face another potential blow when the Student Recreation Center adds on to accommodate its crowded students. But Sells remains optimistic about the future of his athletic club and said if Lawrence keeps growing the way it has been, the club will look for property in the southwest part of town and add a third gym - again.
"The reports that we're getting is that now from 2010, health clubs are going to be in the top 10 businesses in the United States. So the health club deal in Lawrence is going to stay. The rec center's not going to hurt us, and the only way it will hurt us is if the people of Lawrence are not willing to pay what it takes to keep a club open."