- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 12, 2000

Calling the Sports Club/LA a gym is like referring to Michael Jordan as a basketball player.

The national health club chain, which opened its latest location in Northwest on Tuesday, flaunts the kind of amenities that would make Donald Trump's overcoiffed hair stand on end.

The $50 million complex represents the pinnacle of a fitness trend in the D.C. region and beyond health clubs where dumbbells are just the beginning.

Plenty of bare-bones gyms still exist, cramped quarters where stacks of enormous iron weights rule. More clubs, though, are reaping the benefits of going upscale offering Internet access, saunas and other creature comforts alongside exercise equipment to make working out less of a chore.

Nanette Pattee Francini, co-founder of the Sports Club Co., says her members demand comfort as well as the latest workout gear.

"You want them to feel like they came home," says Ms. Francini, a statuesque blonde whose visage screams both Los Angeles and fitness. "All the things that are ancillary to your workout just make you feel good."

But how many people have a concierge in their locker rooms or attendants to launder their workout clothes?

Located at 22nd and M streets, the 100,000-square-foot club has an array of conveniences that is almost embarrassing in its extravagance.

A waterfall runs behind the reception desk, and another decorates the sun deck.

Semiathletes can settle scores on one of two full-court gyms. Burned-out businesswomen can relax with acupuncture, massages and facials. Or they can chase away stubborn cellulite with on-site Endermologie machines, which knead dimpled appendages into smoother shape.

Members even earn frequent-flier miles while working out on certain machines.

Of course, such luxuries aren't cheap. The California-based company charges an initiation fee of $495 for the basic membership, plus $125 a month. Executive membership requires a greater sacrifice $975 for the initiation and $225 each month.

So far, about 2,000 Washingtonians have signed on.

"The members we have are high-end professionals. For some of them, [the fees] are a drop in the bucket. For others, it's their very last dime," Ms. Francini says.

She insists the fees are money well-spent.

"They're successful in every part of their life," she says. "It's not a whimsical purchase."

Lou Statzer, who is among the club's first wave of members, says the club made a memorable first impression.

"I joined the day after I saw it," he says. While the snazzy perks might attract some, this District resident points to its valet parking and child care services as major selling points.

"It seems like they have everything," he says.

Another local health club, the Washington Sports Club, can't compete, luxury for luxury, with Ms. Francini's brainchild. Yet it also offers fringe benefits throughout its locations to make shedding pounds more of a treat than a burden.

The bulk of the gym's cardiovascular equipment contains multimedia attachments offering CD, cassette and cable television access.

Don't expect a sweaty, stuffy environment. The gym's high ceilings and impeccably clean weight rooms belie the stereotypical gym scene.

Other local clubs provide equally amenable perks.

Fitness First, a Maryland-based chain of health clubs, offers fitness bikes that pit members against each other in simulated races. Tenley Sport and Health Club in Northwest provides reflexology, tanning beds, waxing services and manicures for its members.

Doug Jefferies, owner of two Results, the Gym clubs in the District, says the movement toward a refined workout experience is part of "the whole evolution of fitness.

"In the '60s and '70s, it was an activity people hardly did," Mr. Jefferies says. "It's not just getting on the treadmill and lifting weights anymore."

His two gyms offer naturally lit workout spaces and plush couches in its lounges.

The chain's third location, under construction in Capitol Hill, promises a day spa and executive business center, so members can send faxes and conduct other transactions between workouts. So far, 75 percent of those who have signed up for the new gym are opting for the executive package, Mr. Jefferies says, a sure sign people are willing to pay for those gym extras.

Not all health club flourishes last, though. Mr. Jefferies recalls the push toward oxygen-chamber suites a few years ago, where people exercised in environments with air qualities that made them tire faster. That fizzled. Other amenities won't, he predicts.

"Luxury and comfort is a new trend that's here to stay," he says.

Prices for several District-area health clubs pale next to Sports Club/LA's fees, though the figures vary.

Results charges a $99 initiation rate for a yearly membership, plus $64 a month dues. A representative from Washington Sports Club wouldn't give rates over the phone. Rates for the 22 Sport and Health Club locations range from about $60 to $140 a month, depending on the services offered, says Lisa Hymes, the company's director of marketing. The Center Club in Alexandria, Va., which also boasts a sumptuous workout environment, charges a $100 initiation fee and $80 per month, with the first month free.

Sports Club/LA's tony prices are reflected in the experience, but Ms. Francini's gyms can't be built just anywhere.

"You can only do it in major cities," she says.

Even then, pumping millions into a fitness center represents a sizable risk.

"You stick your neck out, but it pays off," she says, alluding to her company's $160 million valuation. Her firm is working on several new locations, which soon will bring its number of health clubs to 10.

An observer might pin the movement on the country's robust economy, but Ms. Francini, having survived in her field for more than 20 years, disagrees.

"We've gone through a few recessions, and it really hasn't hurt us," she says.

That's good news for exercise enthusiasts who like diversions while they sweat.

Takoma Park resident Elaine Rahbar goes to Rockville Sport and Health Club, which recently added Internet access for those using its recumbent bikes.

"It definitely makes the workout go by faster," Mrs. Rahbar says of the touch pad that allows Web surfing without mouse wires tangling up around the wheels.

Still, she insists, technology isn't the drawing card for the gym.

"It's just an added bonus. People are going to go regardless," she says. "To me, it's not important at all. My gym is low-key. That's what I like."

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