Gyms, spas stress value of fighting stress in hard times

As cash-strapped customers cut spending, spas and gyms are doing all they can to keep a place in people's budgets.

Beyond deep discounts, some are adopting a recession spin: touting services as stress reducers, not indulgences, and highlighting the economic benefits of "wellness."

A Gold's Gym program — deemed "Fat-O-Nomics" — centers on money people can save by shedding excess weight. One stat: Being 50 pounds overweight burns nine extra gallons of gasoline per year.

"The cost of a lot of goods has gone up," spokesman Dave Reiseman says. "We're aware that there are stories out there asking, 'Is the gym membership worth it?' "

The Westin New York in Times Square has turned layoffs into sales opportunity. A "pink slip pick-me-up" spa promotion gives 20% off a facial from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily.

"If you're unemployed, you need a pick-me-up — and you need to look good on your interviews," spa director Nicole Morris says.

As spa owners "feel the pinch" of consumer cutbacks, they're also all aggressively touting good, old-fashioned discounts via e-mail blasts and website updates, says Larry Oskin, spokesman for the Day Spa Association.

Businesses listed on website SpaFinder's directory service are slashing prices, President Susie Ellis says. The number of discount deals offered on its website and in its e-mail newsletter is up 25% to 30% vs. a year ago.

Spa and health club sales for 2008 aren't in yet. But on the gym front, signs of trouble started last year. Membership dropped in 2007 for the first time in more than a decade to 41.5 million from 42.7 million in 2006, says the International Health Racquet & Sportsclub Association.

Debbie Goldman of Manhasset Hills, N.Y., is keeping up her gym routine, but saving. She was an off-and-on-again member of upscale gym chain Equinox for more than 10 years, but when she got her $1,500 yearly renewal bill in September, she decided it was "too extravagant in these times." She opted for an LA Fitness chain offer of two years for $1,200.

To cater to current clients — and lure new ones — Equinox is one of the gyms playing up "mind-body balance" in stressful times.

Equinox has run full-page newspaper ads and updated its website to promote "mind over madness." Say the promotions: "In these changing times, make a renewed commitment to yourself to lead a healthy life." Each has a list of healthy endeavors — such as meditating and eating well. Of course, exercise tops the list.

Recent ads from rival gym chain Town Sports International proclaim "Protect your most important asset. Your health." They also touted an initiation fee cut to $59 from $149.

Says Town Sports marketing chief Sean O'Hearen: "We're trying to encourage our current and potential customers to focus on things they can control. Your health is one of them."

Botox providers are also doing all they can to keep their bottom lines looking good.

To lure cash-strapped clients, plastic surgeons and dermatologists have rolled out promotions for the wrinkle-reducer, including a recent "Boootox" special for Halloween.

Botox injections typically cost about $500 per site — such as between the eyebrows — according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. It says demand is firm but vulnerable. Botox-maker Allergan reported third-quarter sales up 7% to $318 million, but short of analysts' expectations.

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