Philadelphia Magazine Feature

Inside Look: Newtown Athletic Club’s $8.5M ‘Big Build’

The gym’s four-acre expansion is underway, with big things in store for the NAC and Bucks County.

Online Article: http://blogs.phillymag.com/bewellphilly/2012/10/26/look-newtown-athletic-clubs-8-5m-big-build/

When I pulled into the parking lot of the Newtown Athletic Club last week, it looked more like KOP three days before Christmas than a suburban gym on a rainy Friday at 9:30 a.m. The place was packed. Had I just found Fitness Mecca?

The 125,000-square-foot megagym—with what feels like acres of parking lot to serve it—certainly makes an impact. Pulling up, you feel like you’re walking into a big office park that’s buzzing with lycra-clad activity. But what you’ve actually stumbled into is an enormous gym known around Bucks County simply as “The NAC,” one that’s more lifestyle centric (according to its own tagline) than simply a place to sweat for an hour.

The reason I’d made the 40-minute drive in bad weather was to check out the progress on the gym’s latest expansion project: a four-acre (yes, it’s defined by its acreage) outdoor aquatics resort, complete with separate family and adult-only pools, a clubhouse cafe with a bar (poolside liquor service—hollerrrr), two water slides, a lazy river, and a 22-person hot tub. Adjacent to all of this is the gym’s new field house, a multipurpose athletic facility bigger than a football field where teens and adults can get sport-specific training in baseball, football, soccer and more. The space can also be used for events, like bridal shows, flea markets and other expo-type functions; there’s already been some interest in hosting an antique car show there.

The new field house, pictured, will be bigger than a football field.

Surveying the build—which is currently a hole in the ground, some steel frames, and a heckuva lot of dirt—from a third-story window inside, owner and president Jim Worthington told me the price tag: $8.5 million. “When we build this,” he said, “we’ll have completed a 30-year plan.” In that time, Jim has taken the NAC from a basic brick 15,000-foot squash facility on three acres to this 125,000 megaplex on 20 acres with Pilates and yoga studios; an airy, natural-sunlight-soaked cardio theater; three-lane indoor track; six-lane indoor pool; and perhaps the nicest spinning studio I’ve ever laid eyes on, complete with a projection screen to play videos of mountainous routes so you can visualize your ride as you go. All this, and now an outdoor pool complex.

“I had a gut feeling,” said Jim, fresh from a workout sporting a bicep-baring tank and shorts, and a sipping a protein smoothie. “We spent $16 million expanding during the recession. When everybody else in the industry cut back, we went the opposite direction. And it worked—our membership has grown.” It currently stands at about 12,000.

By the looks of the parking lot, I was convinced all 12,000 members decided to show up when I did. But inside, once you’re past the frenetic front desk and its adjacent onsite salon/spa and cafe, the facility is large enough that you never feel like you’re on top of anyone else. I’d be surprised if members ever have to stand in line for a treadmill, even at peak hours.

The “Big Build,” as NACers call the latest construction project, is like the icing and cherry on top of the gym’s push toward total wellness lifestyle. It’s a way to draw new members, yes, but more than that, it’s a stab at getting current members to stick around longer—both on a given day (i.e. “I’ll go for a run, grab a shower and a smoothie, then lounge by the pool for the rest of the afternoon”) and for the long haul. For Jim, it’s all about membership retention, the only two words that seem to matter in the gym industry. How do you keep people interested and engaged so they keep coming back?

Answering that question is like finding the Holy Grail—and Jim thinks he’s found a pretty good recipe that works. Sure, there’s the flash of the state-of-the-art facilities and equipment and the endless fun you can have going around and around in a lazy river (am I right?). But more than that, he says, it’s about connecting with people and making them feel like they’re part of the community, too.

This is where Joel Eckert comes in, perhaps the most visible NAC staffer and, by Jim’s account, the most beloved. Joel’s job is this: to keep members happy. To get to know them. To help them feel engaged. To make sure they’re getting everything they want out of their NAC experience. Joel is in charge of member relations.

“Until we get every member integrated in the facility where they feel like part of the community, I won’t be satisfied,” said Jim.

His latest (potential) investment toward that end is an electronic system whereby, when members scan their club cards, the system automatically flags them (or not) if they haven’t used the club in, say, three weeks. It sends a text message with the person’s name and photo to Joel or another member-relations staffer on duty. Then it’s Joel’s job to seek that person out (hello, needle; hello, haystack) and chat them up, maybe offer them a free massage or a discount at the cafe—anything to make them feel like they’re a valued club member. Jim is still deciding if he wants to buy the technology for the NAC. But once he pulls the trigger, it’ll be implemented in no time.

As for the Big Build, that project is slated for completion by next spring. And construction, Jim says, is on schedule. Just don’t expect him to stop there—he’s already cooking up plans for what to do with the undeveloped field across the street.

“We haven’t closed a day in 30 years. It’s hard work and long hours, but my heart is with this,” he says. “I’ll never stop thinking big.”

NAC memberships start at $99 a month for adults and $183 for families. Members will experience an increase in monthly dues—the numbers aren’t finalized yet, but projections are between $5 and $45, depending on the membership type—when the outdoor pool is complete in May 2013.