Do we need more gyms?
That’s what many folks wondered when Life Time Fitness announced plans to open in King of Prussia and also the former Macy’s building in Ardmore’s Suburban Square. Add those to the Life Time club that opened this past spring in Fort Washington, and the company’s regional expansion seems excessive.
Life Time’s out-of-town executives know that this area is already chockablock with not only gyms but also barre, spinning and yoga studios—and they intend to blow away the competition. Billing itself as an upscale healthy-lifestyle company, Life Time uses the term “athletic resort” to describe its facilities. “We are a fitness-oriented country club for the entire family,” says Lance Vugteveen, general manager of the KOP club.
In early spring, Main Line homes received magazine-style promotional pieces filled with stylized photography printed on impressively thick paper. Next came word that the KOP club had a membership waiting list. Just like that, Life Time went from being excessive to exclusive.
Opened in June, Life Time’s KOP location is a 135,000-square-foot facility with basketball and racquet courts, personal training, group classes, a child center, a café and a spa. The outdoor pool area—complete with water slides—covers an additional 56,000 square feet. The Fort Washington center opened in May and has the same features but is smaller, clocking in at 115,000 square feet, with another 35,000 square feet of outdoor pools.
Life Time’s regional debut was in Mount Laurel, N.J. That 102,000-square-foot gym opened in 2015. Mount Laurel, Fort Washington, King of Prussia and Ardmore form a ring that, as Vugteveen explains, was planned to cater to members in Philadelphia’s upscale suburbs.
The four gyms have different designations. Mount Laurel and Fort Washington are basic-level clubs, with single memberships priced at $99 per month. KOP is one step up and currently priced at $129. KOP membership entitles you to use the other gyms, but not vice versa. “Diamond,” Life Time’s highest tier, is reserved for Ardmore, slated to open by the end of 2017.
Vugteveen says the Ardmore club will not have pools or courts for basketball and tennis, so how is it better than the KOP gym? “Ardmore will have additional exclusive offerings, but it’s also about the location,” he says. “Ardmore will have a boutique feel and be very upscale.”
Ardmore has a problematic history with gyms. Philadelphia Sports Club and the Main Line YMCA abandoned their Ardmore locations, both of which were a hop, skip and a squat away from where Life Time’s club will open. “Our businesses are founded on customer service, including hiring experienced team members,” Vugteveen says. “Everything we do is aimed at creating a high-end health resort. We won’t fail.”
It’s hard to argue with Life Time’s success. The company operates 124 centers throughout the United States and Canada. But will its aggressive expansion steal members from the area’s existing gyms? Tim Rubin isn’t worried. The owner of the Sporting Club Main Line in Bryn Mawr says his gym has something that can’t be bought: local roots. “Many gyms and boutiques are part of larger corporations or franchises,” Rubin says. “We’re family owned and local. Generations of families belong to the club. Trainers and staff have not only been with us for decades, but have true and lifelong friendships with members. We are not just another ‘fitness formula.’”
Paul Meshyock, general manager of Club La Maison in Wayne, echoes Rubin’s emphasis on local ties. “We’re now in our 35th year of building healthy lifestyles,” Meshyock says. “That’s 35 years of commitment and charity to the Main Line and surrounding communities. We’re proud of our past and excited for our future.”
Both gyms are upscale and modernized, thanks to recent and extensive renovations. They have a lot of the features that Life Time promises. “We have an entire integrated-wellness division with physical therapy, massage therapy, nutrition services, clinical personal training and even mental-health counseling,” Meshyock says of Club La Maison.
While the Sporting Club has those services, Rubin emphasizes that fitness is his facility’s priority. “Our programming and offerings are representative of the fact that we do not strive to be another trendy, luxury boutique or big-box gym,” he says. “We are solely focused on exercise as a means to a healthy, happy lifestyle and what that means to each of our members. The bedrock of our programming is providing true, serious, results-driven workouts.”
While Club La Maison, the Sporting Club, and the area’s other gyms and studios have devoted followings, Vugteveen says the demand for KOP memberships is the highest he’s seen in the eight years that he’s been with Life Time. “There was a waiting list just to get information about the King of Prussia club,” he says. “When we opened the preview center in January, we had 3,000 people on that list.”
More than 1,000 memberships were sold by the end of March, three months before the gym opened. Vugteveen expects that the KOP club will average 5,000-8,000 members.
Who’s the biggest winner in the Main Line gym wars? Local residents. Not only do they have more choices, but fitness centers are sure to be vying for their memberships.