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Tools and Knowledge 

For 20 years and counting, Paul Bruno and Cliff Bergeron, owners of five Downtown Fitness Centers (1 Canal Place, 525-2956; 1400 Poydras St., New Orleans Centre, 569-9985; 614 Canal St., Meridien Hotel, 527-6750; 500 Canal St., Sheraton Hotel, 525-2500; 301 N. Hwy. 190, Covington, 985-893-4777), have been in the health club business, and during that time few things have stayed the same. Once-popular exercise trends have given way to new ones, equipment has become safer and more effective, the number of women working out in Bruno and Bergeron's clubs has caught up with men, and in the last year alone, the partners have gone from having two clubs downtown to having four downtown and one on the Northshore. What has remained constant is Bruno and Bergeron's commitment to building their business by taking a "hands on," personal approach that sees clients all the way from the initial orientation to the club through each following stage of their fitness development. Simply put, knowledge is power at the Downtown Fitness Centers.

"The reason people feel comfortable in our clubs has a lot to do with the way they're laid out," says Bruno. "We know exactly who is in the club; the staff can scan the club to see how people are working out and give them help. We're out there on the floor making sure people use the machines in the right way." In fact, each new member is given four to eight free personal training sessions, depending on their fitness level and requirements. Cards with individualized workout programs also are filled out to assist clients with continuing on their own, though help is always available.

Bruno and Bergeron opened their first downtown club, featuring racquetball and located in One Shell Square, in 1979. Nearly a decade later, they opened the first Downtown Fitness Center on the third floor of Canal Place, where they offer Nautilus equipment, free weights, and group classes such as yoga, kickboxing, cycling and step to a clientele made up primarily of people who live or work in the Central Business District, the Warehouse District and the French Quarter as well as out-of-town visitors.

"We have a very diverse membership, but we treat everyone the same," Bruno says of the Canal Place club. "We also have a lot of corporate memberships. If a company sees the light, they know they can help with absenteeism and stress levels. A lot of firms pay for all their employees. It's a wonderfully progressive attitude to take. And we offer special corporate rates."

Three years ago, Bruno and Bergeron took over the health club in Le Meridien Hotel, and this year they assumed operation of the club in the New Orleans Sheraton and opened a brand-new club in the New Orleans Centre shopping mall, giving the downtown crowd lots of exercise choices. "Each club has its own unique atmosphere," says Bruno. Both the Sheraton and Meridien clubs have equipment and pools, and the specially designed New Orleans Centre club is the most spacious of Bruno and Bergeron's downtown establishments.

The latest addition to the partners' growing stable of clubs was opened on the Northshore last September. A former World Gym, a national chain known for attracting a clientele of serious body builders, the 14,000-square-foot facility has plenty of weight-training equipment and space. But Bruno and Bergeron have made cosmetic updates and added classes such as group cycling in order to bring in a broader range of members. The Northshore club even provides babysitting services for those who squeeze in a workout with their kids in tow.

As in the other clubs, giving clients a good, working knowledge of how to use the club for maximum benefit is top priority. "We love showing people how to work out," says Bruno. "Our philosophy is to give the right information so people can be successful. There's so much misinformation out there."

At the same time, Bruno says now more than ever, people are getting the message about the importance of working out. Memberships among women are up; the ratio of men and women is now 50-50, having evened out from a 60-to-40 ratio. Bruno attributes part of that to the fact that fewer women feel intimidated in clubs like his, which make every effort to eliminate the fear factor through proper instruction. In fact, he says personal training is more popular than ever as members seek out instruction that is tailor-made for them, whether they're interested in weight loss, toning or gaining strength. And for those interested in becoming members, there's an added incentive to do it before the end of the year: during November and December, joining fees will be donated to Covenant House.

"We used to work out for vanity," says Bruno. "Now we work out for longevity. Many clubs have the necessary equipment, but it's a matter of creating the atmosphere where people feel comfortable and have convenience."

click to enlarge Paul Bruno helps a customer with a workout at his Canal Place Downtown Fitness Center.
  • Paul Bruno helps a customer with a workout at his Canal Place Downtown Fitness Center.
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