10 Considerations as you Search for the Perfect Gym Location

We’re about two weeks away from officially hitting eight years of operation here at Cressey Sports Performance.  With close to a decade of gym design and maintenance under my belt, I've assembled a comprehensive list of “must-have” attributes that Eric and I recommend you look for while in the process of designing a fitness facility.  Whether you are looking to open your first facility, relocating an existing space, or introducing new locations to your expanding empire, this list should guide you as you hunt for real estate.

Please note: this list is in no particular order, as each point is of equal importance to us.

1. High Ceilings & Natural Light

I regularly preach the importance of starting small as you search for and select the space for your first gym.  The idea of having an expansive space with state-of-the-art equipment is obviously enticing, but will expose you to considerable risk before generating sufficient revenues to counter the costs.

Finding a space with high ceilings and plenty of natural light can make all the difference in making a small unit feel larger than it is.  Should your training or business model change in a way that might require some unique usage (like deciding to install a pitching cage), high ceilings will give you flexibility. 

Our second facility had a fantastic footprint and adequate dimensions, but limited natural light. Limited to a pair of small skylights, 3-4 inches of snow would completely eliminate any available daylight.  While we rarely complained about the lack of natural light while paying rent on this space, it would be difficult to go back to that setting now that we’ve discovered the positive influence natural light has on the overall mood of our staff during long days on a training floor.

2. “Relatively New” Construction

One portion of the building in which CSP-Mass sits was built roughly 50 years ago.  The other was an addition constructed in the 90’s.  Other than a slight increase in ceiling height from old to new, there is minimal indication that one part of the building is roughly 30 years newer than the other.  However, upon relocating in 2012, we learned that newer construction could be considerably more efficient than the old when it comes to utility expenses.  

When we doubled our square footage in 2012 (7,600 square-feet to 15,100 square-feet), I anticipated a proportionate increase in utility expenditures; what I saw was about a 20% increase.  I'm chalking this up to better-insulated exterior framework and more efficient heating units and overhead lights in the newer part of the building. 

3. Clean Sight-lines

In facility design and layout, Eric has two firm rules: The first is quite simple: no mirrors.  The second? Enable a clear line of sight from CSP Coach to CSP Athlete from any location on the training floor. In theory, any coach should be able to provide coaching instruction on the fly from across the room thanks to clean sightlines from one end of the space to the other.   

In order to comply with this mandate, the location you choose will need to be laid out in a square or rectangular format. Stray, and dimensional limitations will make this rule nearly impossible to follow. 

4. Ample Waiting Space for Parents

We once operated a gym without a waiting area for parents…and it didn’t go so well.  We were happy with our training space, but the lack of a place for parents to kill time ultimately led to their habit of wandering the gym floor.  The presence of a parent within the gym alters the experience for both the athlete and the coach.  This being said, we are also cognizant of the fact that parents pay the bills.  We owe it to them to provide some room to read a book, check email, or even fall asleep on our couch (which happens more often than you’d think).

The convenient thing about waiting space is that it doesn’t necessarily need to be located within your gym.  If you secure a location that has access to ample common area space, you may be able to direct parents there.  All that matters is that you give them an option that isn't waiting in their own car.

5. Sufficient Parking

The appropriate amount of parking at your location will depend on foot traffic, and the demographic of your clients.  Are your clients driving themselves, or getting dropped off? Do these parents linger, or leave only to return for pick up?  Your setting will impact who drives (urban versus suburban), among a variety of other factors. 

I have seen as little as a single parking spot per 1,000 square feet of gym, to the opposite scenario of unlimited parking.  There is no standard number of parking spots I’d recommend.  Instead, I’d suggest that you think long and hard about the best-case scenario as it relates to cars visiting your business and use this figure to determine your needs.

With tons of fitness alternatives available to your current and prospective clients, the last thing you need is to lose them due to avoidable parking limitations.  Make it easy to train with you.

6. Community Restrooms

You know what isn’t fun at the end of a long day?  Cleaning toilets.  One of the best decisions we have made as a business has been selecting a location that has access to community restroom space.  Rather than hire a cleaning crew of my own, or putting my staff to work on restroom maintenance, I happily pay my CAM (Common Area Maintenance) charges each month and let the landlord worry about keeping toilet paper stocked.

I should note that the property layout we access here in Massachusetts is not universally available.  After months of searching, Eric was unable to identify similar options during the location search in Southern Florida.  He ended up converting an office environment into a training space, which required the installation of showers.  His most useful advice:

“Don’t sign off on securing a space that will require you to pull building permits.  Extend your search as far as you have to in order to avoid the hassle.”

7. Building Super/Property Manager?

Our greatest ally here in Massachusetts is the Property Manager, Bill.  He constantly has his finger on the pulse of the building and is the guy who gets things done.  Need an additional key for a new employee?  Bill’s your guy.  Looking for someone to help you get up on a ladder to change a light in the middle of the gym?  Bill’s got you covered. 

The best part? This is Bill's only property. He isn’t bouncing from one location to the next.  My concern with outsourcing your property maintenance is that you will never find someone with the same loyalty and dedication to craftsmanship.  Find yourself a location that comes with a Property Manager like Bill and make sure to throw him a gift during the holidays and a new tee shirt whenever your gym gets a fresh shipment.

8. Availability of Signage

Not every gym can be a destination training facility, so it is important that you have some level of street-front visibility.  We are very fortunate at CSP in that we generate nearly all of our leads through word of mouth and inquiries resulting from our web presence.  However, if our livelihood were dependent on generating a large volume of walk-in inquiries, you can be sure that we’d identify a spot that is easily seen from the street and our signage would be memorable.

As you look at your options, make note of how and where the tenant’s business names and logos are displayed.  Are they all simply listed in alphabetical order on a huge sign?  Do they all have their unique logo and branding competing with one another resulting in a chaotic mess of colors, fonts and images?  Is every tenant allotted equal real estate on the sign out front?  Are there opportunities to expand your visibility?

The general public’s initial impression of your business usually results from your signage. Whenever possible, make sure that your company name or logo is presented in a professional manner.  You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

9. Minimal Local Competition

Just because you think your coaches and programming are better than those available at the local CrossFit, doesn’t mean that it is a good idea to set up shop in the same plaza.  The closer you are to alternative training options, the more likely they are to find their way on to your clients' radars.  It’s a good idea to do a thorough market analysis. Understand the age of competing businesses and their foothold within the community.  “We’re just better than they are” is no excuse for negligence, and it will cost you.

10. Appropriate Adjacent Tenants

Much like it is best to avoid options that are geographically close to competing businesses, it is important to avoid setting up shop adjacent to businesses that will conflict with your message.  More specifically, your gym doesn’t need to operate alongside a liquor store or cigar shop.  You don’t need fast-food options staring your clients in the eye each and every time they leave the gym.

Your “perfect gym” is more than just a great layout or any single one of the points listed above.  It is a combination of factors that will result in one particular location being the right fit for you and your business.  It will be difficult to check off each of these points during the search process, but I'd encourage you to strive for as many as possible to ensure a positive outcome.

Next time…

In my next post, you've theoretically found your ideal gym location, and you need to begin the rent negotiation. I’ve worked with my landlord to outline the critical (and often overlooked) questions to ask as a prospective tenant.