Survival of the fittest: Local gyms fight to compete with UMass Rec Center

By Justin Gagnon

The Leading Edge is a fitness center located just a mile down the road from the University of Massachusetts’ Recreation Center. It’s only been two years since the Edge opened, and due to its success, a second location opened a few exits down the highway. But on Dec. 4, 2009, it met its match.

When the Rec Center opened its doors for the first time, the Edge, along with its $29.99-per-month membership fee, was faced with a nearly impossible task – compete with a bigger, state-of-the-art facility in a much more convenient location.

Oh yeah, and it’s essentially free to the 20,000 or so students living in the area. Students do pay for access to the center as a part of their required fees to attend the university, but there are no “monthly bills” to speak of.

In 2003, the mega-franchise Gold’s Gym opened a branch in what probably seemed like an ideal location – a mile from a huge state university that lacked an adequate fitness center. In 2008, the owners wanted to “be recognized in the community as a locally-owned gym” and so they ditched the popular name and became The Leading Edge, according to a press release.

Posted in the Edge’s window along with a letter to former members, the press release noted that after ownership problems, a decrease in membership and the waning economy, owner Joanne DeLong was left with no option but to close the gym on Oct. 20, 2010.

“We anticipated them closing…we had heard rumors maybe a year ago,” said Western Mass. Planet Fitness Operations Manager Matthew Rogers.

Planet Fitness, located behind the Wal-Mart in Hadley, Mass., was hit “pretty hard” by the opening of the Rec Center initially, but according to Rogers, has since managed to do rather well for itself by offering a menu of incentives and by changing its target audience.

“Since [the Rec Center] has opened up, we’ve been slowly growing back,” Rogers said. “Even though it initially hurt us, we’ve continued to grow and grow and grow by focusing on the residential community more.”

In focusing on a new demographic of members, the Hadley Planet Fitness has become truer to its creed.

“We’re the ‘judgment free zone’ in the sense where we cater to the average person,” Rogers explained. “I think perhaps with the students, [the residential community] was a little intimidated at times; it was busy and it was difficult to use some of the equipment.”

According to a few UMass students, this is exactly the problem with the new gym on campus. Just as Hall of Fame baseball player Yogi Berra once said, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

Sophie Aronson, a sophomore at UMass, opts to go to Planet Fitness. As a part of her friend’s membership, the two can go to the gym together at no extra cost.

“The Rec Center is nice, but it’s always super crowded and everyone stares at you,” she said with a laugh. “It’s not always easy to get there during the day if you live off-campus, and the parking is terrible.”

She thinks, however, that the free tanning included in $19.99/month Black Card memberships is the main bait that draws students to the off-campus gym.

The frills of an all-inclusive membership weren’t enough to keep all students going to Planet Fitness. A large handful chose to leave their monthly membership bills behind and now work out at the Rec Center full time. Rogers estimated that after the new gym opened, the Hadley location retained only 80 percent of its student memberships.

Lindsey Leiman, a UMass senior, was formerly a member at Planet Fitness, but after finally visiting the new facility and finding the perfect parking spot, she converted.

“I didn’t even see the inside of the Rec Center until a month or so after it opened,” she said. “I kept going to Planet Fitness just because it was what I was used to, and parking by the Rec Center seemed like a disaster. But when I walked inside, I was pretty angry at myself for not checking it out sooner.”

If both gyms were free, Leiman said that she would probably alternate between the two because they both have their pros and cons, but she said she would ultimately choose the Rec Center.

“It has a wider variety of machines and equipment than any other gym I’ve ever been a member of,” she said. “Plus, it has free classes. You can’t really beat that. I guess the entire package being free doesn’t hurt either.”

Justin Gagnon can be reached at [email protected]