Swanky sweat: Charlotte’s gym scene goes upscale

As Charlotte’s gym count seems to grow comparable to that of its churches, fitness gurus are finding themselves with a plethora of new options – many with a lofty price tag.

From specialized gyms offering one type of class to one-stop fitness centers with an almost country-clublike feel, the city’s gym scene has moved beyond the YMCAs and 24 Hour Fitnesses.

It’s an industry that seems to indicate growing consumer confidence as the country rebounds from the 2008 financial collapse.

“What we are seeing post-recession is that there is growth in small clubs, low-priced clubs, boutique specialized clubs and then upscale clubs, while the middle market is not growing,” said Meredith Poppler, a spokeswoman for the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.

From 2009 to 2013, the number of health and racquet clubs in the U.S. grew by 8.1 percent, according to IHRSA. The average American reported spending $49 a month on a health club membership in 2012, up 14 percent from $43 a month in 2011.

Branding Fitness

In Charlotte, the arrival of specialized gyms has brought classes such as Flywheel, a group cycling brand started in New York City, and Xtend Barre, a Pilates-ballet hybrid that began in 2008. For these classes, participants can pay anywhere from $20 a class to more than $100 a month for unlimited classes.

“The type of studios that do one type of exercise and do it really well – people tend to gravitate to them because they know they’re experts,” said Shama Patel, who is opening a studio in Myers Park where she will teach AIR – a group fitness brand that incorporates aerial exercises on silk fabrics.

Patel created AIR at her first studio, Flex + Fit, which opened in 2011 in the Duke Energy Center. The space is currently under construction until the end of the summer, when it will be reopened as an additional Charlotte Athletic Club location.

While there are other types of classes that work with aerial silks, a gym that wants to teach the trademarked AIR class must pay a $40,000 franchise fee. Patel says the price tag is worth it. “AIR is different than any other aerial classes,” she said. “It’s very boot-camp-style. ... It’s people who are serious about their workouts.”

Shawna Baker spent $24,000 to earn the right to open an Xtend Barre studio in midtown. There are multiple studios in Charlotte that offer barre classes, including Xtend Barre’s biggest competitor – the giant of barre classes – Michigan-based Pure Barre. But Baker said the Xtend Barre brand is different. “They’re all different – even the studios,” she said. “Out of all the barre workouts, ours is the most dance-y.”

Xtend Barre started in Boca Raton, Fla. Baker brought the brand to Charlotte in May, when Xtend Barre opened in the Metropolitan. She said location is everything. “We’re definitely getting that upper-middle class – stay-at-home moms and people on their lunch breaks from work.”

Flywheel is different in that it operates as a corporation, rather than a franchise. There are 25 U.S. locations, including one on Providence Road in south Charlotte that opened in 2012.

Aleah Stander, Flywheel’s creative director of the Southeast region, said the Charlotte location is one of the company’s most successful studios. “Charlotte clients are always tagging each other on Facebook, talking to each other. ... It’s really been successful because there’s a sense of community,” Stander said.

The most expensive of all is Hilliard Studio Method, ringing in at $27 a class. Liz Hilliard, who created the trademarked class in 2008, co-owns the studio with her daughter, Clary Hilliard Gray.

“I know if you walk into my class, you’re saying, ‘It’s a $27 class – you better deliver,’ ” Hilliard said. “That’s my business model. I put a value on my work that I know is the true value.”

Hilliard said that the high price brings in a certain clientele – mostly women, and a lot of working women. To cater to professionals who travel, Hilliard offers online classes and DVDs available for purchase.

Banking on bankers

Charlotte Athletic Club offers another type of high-end experience.

After coming to Charlotte in the ’80s, the posh gym changed ownership and names until it was reopened in 2008 with its original Charlotte Athletic Club moniker. The veteran upscale gym is in the Bank of America Plaza, where manager Darrin Wilkinson said CAC sees most of its members.

With memberships running about $100 a month, the uptown gym advertises a one-stop shop for all fitness needs. Members can get a massage, take part in group fitness classes, receive personal training and even get their laundry done. “Some of our members stay for hours,” Wilkinson said.

From 30-minute lunchtime classes to personal lockers where members can keep their gym clothes, CAC caters to a working crowd – one that is easy to find in a city with a number of banks, Wilkinson said.

He anticipates the opening of the second CAC location to appeal to workers from inside the Duke Energy Center – Wells Fargo investment bankers and Duke employees.

Bankers aren’t the only ones attracted to the posh gym scene. CAC member Rus Blackwell, an actor on Cinemax’s “Banshee,” says the gym’s price is worth it.

“If I get in the car and forget something, they have it there,” said Blackwell, who said he once forgot a phone charger and was able to borrow one at the gym.

It’s all part of an experience that emphasizes convenience. “It’s hard enough to go to the gym already,” Wilkinson said.

“The amenities make it easier for me to fit in my workouts, particularly as a busy working parent,” said Andrea Smith, global head of human resources at Bank of America and a CAC member. “It’s just some time I can easily build into my busy day and make a part of my weekly schedule.”

But while actors and bankers may make more than the average Charlottean, Wilkinson said the gym has begun to attract people who may be a bit more frugal in their spending habits.

“We’re starting to see more people sign up who wouldn’t have imagined paying extra for a membership until they experience it,” he said. “They’re paying for the experience.”