On a bone-chillingly cold night in January, the idea to have a late-night, early-morning workout crossed Bryan Nelson's mind.
Having seen a sign trumpeting the new 24-hour policy at the Towson branch of the Merritt Athletic Club, Nelson cruised to the Mylander Lane facility at 11 p.m., an hour after the former closing time would have prevented the Glen Arm resident from attempting such an endeavor as recently as two months earlier.
"I've been a part of Merritt since right after I was born," he said. "My parents brought me when I was a kid, back when it was a Nautilus club and then the Merritt Racquet Club. I work a lot of odd hours, and a lot of late hours on the weekend. Anyway, I used to go to the Canton Merritt when I lived in Mount Vernon, and it has been open 24 hours for awhile now."
Still, Nelson said he has not been on a regular workout schedule lately.
"I like to do a lot of things at night, and I like being here when it's not so crowded," Nelson said, adding that he acted after he saw a sign noting the facility's new hours. "So, I kind of came here on a whim tonight."
Unlike Nelson, Joe Major, the general manager of the Towson branch of the Merritt Athletic Club chain, is an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of guy, yet it's his job to help the Towson health club to join seven of its seven siblings — including the Timonium Merritt in the Cranbrook Shopping Center — by offering a round-the-clock format. As of last New Year's Eve, the Merritt club in Eldersburg became the final branch of the chain to come on board, ensuring that all members have access to and egress from all nine Merritt facilities whenever they feel the need to drop by.
In a growth industry, athletic clubs are hoping to continue to woo more customers to their products, and boasting more convenient hours, including by staying open 24 hours, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
According to report provided by the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, from 2013 to 2014, the U.S. club industry posted growth in revenue, memberships and number of facilities. In 2014, total memberships worldwide exceeded 54 million, up from 52.9 million in 2013. In the U.S., increases in memberships outpaced the growth in the overall U.S. population, 1.6 percent to 0.8 percent.
In the IHRSA report, what the organization terms "24-hour key clubs" are included as a key factor in the industry's plan to keep club members happy. That is the goal not only for Merritt clubs, but Anytime Fitness and Spunk Fitness, all 24-hour clubs in Baltimore County.
Mark Miller, Merritt Athletic Clubs vice president, puts it another way. "Our goal is to be the best part of our members' day, every day," he said. "And while trying to be more convenient by staying open later and opening earlier, we just said 'Why not stay open all the time.?' It just made sense."
The reason Towson and Eldersburg were the final two Merritt branches to make a change — more than two years after the original plan was implemented — were purely logistical, Miller said.
"We just had to configure some things differently," he said, such as wiring for the electrical entrance system, installing security cameras and hiring more staff.
Cost not a factor
According to Major, the cost to the club of remaining open 24 hours is not onerous. The most significant expense is to pay for one manager and one staff member to pull all-night shifts, increasing the payroll by a meager two percent.
Major stressed that, despite the new hours, the 2,100 Towson Merritt members' dues, which range from $150 for a family of three to $79 for a single person per month, will not increase.
"It's a new experience for all of us," said Major, 50, who moved from his native Buffalo to Baltimore a year ago to take over at the Mylander Lane facility. Towson Merritt. "People have really embraced it. We've gotten about 99 percent favorable reviews."
The Towson branch of Anytime Fitness bills itself as "the world's largest 24-hour gym and coed fitness center chain." The club, and the Merritt, are the only 24-hour accessible clubs in the area. While the Merritt is staffed 24 hours, Anytime Fitness personnel are not on site before 10 a.m. or after 7 p.m.
Nevertheless, security is a strong suit at the York Road facility, Anytime Fitness manager Rebecca Campbell said
"Members gain access with a key fob," she said. "And there's sensor that can detect if someone is trying to come in with a member or following closely behind."
Campbell added that other precautions, such as security help buttons and security cameras, keep patrons safe.
In addition to on-site staff available to monitor members coming and going, The Towson Merritt employs cameras and a bar-code swipe entry system.
Inside, the staff member at the reception station looks at the name of the person swiping the card to make sure he or she is a member.
Spunk Fitness, which located near the Golden Ring Mall, also is staffed 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, an arrangement that owner Bernie Caplan said does not increase his overhead costs by more than five percent. Nor does it increase usage much; less than five percent of club members take advantage of the round-the-clock option, he said.
"After work, from 5 [p.m.] to 8 p.m., has always been prime time," he said. "There's some traffic in the morning before work and there's another bump around lunchtime. But we're at our busiest after work. Still, we want to make it as convenient as possible for our members, for shift workers and for people who want crazy hours.
On a recent night at the Towson Merritt, a smattering of late-night users lifted weights and used a variety of cardio devices and weight machines. Neither the club's five-lane 25-yard lap pool, nor its adjacent warmup pool are open overnight.
Towson University students Kez Hall, 22, and Sara Ballerstadt, 23, were among the users.
Both women said they found the new hours and the spacious room in which to work out refreshing. Hall cited how crowded the student gym at the college can become.
"It's better for me to come here and work out rather than staying in my dorm room and eating chips," Hall said with a grin.
Ballerstadt, who is working her way through college delivering pizza, said that she was always in a hurry to get to the gym before it closed.
"I don't have to rush anymore," she said. "Now, I'm super psyched to come in and lift weights."
The facility has other advantages, she said.
"If you like it quiet and like being by yourself and getting your own space," the overnight is a perfect fit, she said. "Or maybe you're self conscious and don't want to work out around anyone else."
Major said he is confident that the chain has made the right decision in opening 24 hours.
"In the short term, we might take a loss," he said. "But the good will we have shown our members makes it worth it. We want to be a little of something for everyone. For the mother who needs to use the kid zone during the day, for shift workers, night owls, or on that odd occasion when you can't sleep, we're here for you. Now, there are no excuses for missing a workout."