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Hotels get creative with fitness offerings for next-gen travelers

A bouldering wall? Monkey bars? Pilates classes? Yes, that’s at your hotel.

Not long ago, the average hotel fitness center amounted to a few treadmills, a couple of elliptical machines, free weights and a television tuned to ESPN.

That’s not good enough in 2015.

With an increased appetite among consumers for fitness – and an increased urgency for hotels to differentiate themselves for a new generation of traveler – the concept of fitness on the road is in the midst of a revolution that reaches from stylish boutiques to the mega-chains.

The mere presence of hotel fitness centers is believed to be at an all-time high. According to industry trade group the American Hotel and Lodging Association, 84 percent of American hotels had a fitness center in 2014, up from 63 percent in 2004.

The growth is across the board: More than 90 percent of luxury and upscale hotels have fitness centers, as do 85 percent of midpriced hotels. Even 67 percent of economy hotels have fitness centers, and 35 percent of budget hotels. (When one in three of the very cheapest hotels have fitness centers, it’s clear that exercise is a mainstream amenity.)

But for many of those hotels, simply offering basic exercise equipment is no longer sufficient.

Among those in the midst of the revolution is the Marriott brand, which is building a massive new fitness center at its downtown Chicago location as a “proof of concept” before exporting the vision across the chain.

What was a relatively basic 2,200-square-foot fitness center will become 9,000 square feet by next year at a cost of about $2 million, said Thomas Robertson, general manager of the Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile.

“We’re working on expanding our fitness experience way beyond just square footage and exercise equipment,” Robertson said. “In order to do that, we have to have a much larger presence.”

The hotel’s swimming pool has been shuttered for the expansion, which will feature machines with up-to-date technology, yoga and Pilates classes, and classes aimed at families and children.

“We really believe that an enhanced, modernized fitness and wellness experience runs parallel to what customers want today and in the future,” Robertson said.

Fitness is “absolutely a focus” for the Marriott chain, said Jackie McAllister, a Marriott International vice president of brand marketing.

“It seems that every meeting I’m in, that comes up,” she said.

The corporate push has included guests at Fairfield Inn and Suites locations across the nation getting passes to Life Time Fitness upon arrival as well as a Kind bar (arguably a significant step away from the chocolate chip cookie of yore).

“Through the millennial mindset and next-gen traveler, there’s a large focus on wellness,” McAllister said. “We need to do more because they expect more.”

She promised “big news within Marriott” regarding its fitness programs during the next year but declined to provide details.

On the boutique level, Kimpton’s Alexis hotel in Seattle doubled the square footage of its exercise areas this summer by adding what the hotel’s general manager, Jenne Neptune, described as a “functional fitness room.” Created with input from a nearby CrossFit gym, the space includes a rock-climbing wall, monkey bars and hula hoops.

The more traditional cardio equipment – a treadmill, an elliptical machine and a stationary bike – sits in a separate room.

The next phase of the renovation will include video workouts for using the more creative equipment, Neptune said. An expanded and creative fitness center had become increasingly important, she said.

“Fitness has changed a lot in the last 10 years,” Neptune said. “What people want to do is more creative and engaging, and hotels have to change along with that. It’s something (hotel) owners are more willing to pay for because there’s value in it.”

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