To run a successful towel program, you need tokeep your costs in check and have a good monitoring/inventory system in place.

Fitness centers that offer towel service all agree that it is a great customer service - one many members expect. However, facilities that have a successful towel program either charge extra for towel use, or figure the costs for towels and laundry into membership fees and their operating budget. If you don't accurately cover your costs, your towel program could be more of a time and money drain than the service is worth.

Why offer towel service?

Most big-box fitness centers don't offer free towel service, and there is a reason: cost. With their emphasis on profit, it doesn't make sense for these types of facilities to buy towels, launder them, keep track of them, and spend staff time collecting and distributing them. However, smaller facilities, or those that are higher-end or emphasize customer service, feel it is worth it for them to offer this service to their members. Matt Cofrancesco, director of sports and fitness at the Jewish Community Association of Austin, Texas, says, "We offer towel service because we feel it adds to the level of customer service that we provide. We do feel that the members expect this service, and many of them use it. It is a nice perk that members appreciate."

Tara Nultemeier, president/owner/operator of Peak Fitness Center, Steamboat Springs, Colo., agrees that offering towels is a service to members. "We offer towel service for convenience. Many of our members live far away, and are unable to go home to take a shower before they go back to work. I don't think that members expect it - they appreciate it," Nultemeier says.

Sonya Johnson, director of women's health programs, YWCA Bristol, Tenn., says offering towel service gives her facility an edge over her competitors: "We operate our All Women's Fitness Spa, which includes amenities such as private showers, a sauna and a steam room. It only seemed natural to offer towel service. Having a towel service does give us an edge over our competitors ... who do not offer these services or amenities. When you offer amenities like ours, we feel that having a towel service is something members expect and want."

Maintaining an upscale image is also important for Premier Fitness, Nanuet, N.Y. Says Co-Owner Brian Fahrenfeld, "Premier Fitness is the only upscale fitness center in Rockland County, N.Y. Having a towel service helps us achieve this upscale image."

Equipment cleanliness is another reason that fitness centers offer towels to members. If you require members to wipe down equipment after each use, it helps if towels are readily available. Says Jane Kupkowski, head director of Tiger Recreation Fitness and Sports at Hampden-Sydney College, Hampden-Sydney, Va., "[We] provide members with towels for friendly customer service, and also to maintain a clean environment for all patrons."

The corporate fitness center for NK Parts Industries, Sidney, Ohio, also provides towels to keep equipment clean. Says Fitness Coordinator Dwane Rowley, "We offer [workout] towels to clean the equipment after use. We feel it is a necessity to provide them for convenience, and [is] an easy way to promote cleanliness. The majority of our members do not bring their own towel, and they take advantage of this service."

Finally, many fitness centers continue to offer towel service to members simply because members have come to expect it. Says Bill Davis, owner, Fitness Inc. Health Club, Pocatello, Idaho, "Members have grown to expect some kind of towel service here at our gym." And Travis Trumbo, manager of Fuel Fitness in Springdale, Ark., says, "Towel service has been a hot topic at Fuel Fitness recently. We started out offering towel service only because we thought we had to. Almost all of the gyms that I have visited have offered towel service; therefore, I thought we needed to do the same. ... Now that we have, our members expect it! We have great members, but, in all honesty, they expect towel service, they don't appreciate it."

The scoop on laundry

Before offering towel service at your fitness center, consider not only the cost of buying/replacing towels, but also the cost of laundry, laundry supplies and staff time. The popular choice for facilities looking to save money is to do all of the washing/drying onsite. Says Cofrancesco, "Our expenses have dropped significantly since we switched from a towel service to doing our own laundry. We had been spending as much as $900 per month with the service. ... So, we purchased a washer and dryer, which are in a storage-type area behind our main reception desk."

Davis agrees that doing laundry onsite can help save money: "Towels are not cheap, especially when you include laundering them. We have a washer and dryer onsite, which makes it more cost effective." Fahrenfeld says that Premier Fitness has a 50-pound washer and dryer, which can handle close to 75 towels per wash/dry. At Fuel Fitness, its commercial-grade washer/dryer system cost $11,000, Trumbo says.

To keep laundry in a central location, Peak Fitness Center has its washer and dryer by the front desk, and towels are stored in a labeled cabinet next to the locker rooms, Nultemeier says. Other fitness centers keep their washer/dryer near the locker rooms. Says Johnson, "We purposely included a laundry area near our locker room in our building design to facilitate easy access for towel upkeep. We have a ... towel drop conveniently located near the shower rooms, where members can grab a towel, or place it in our towel drop for laundry." NK Parts Industries also has its washer/dryer near the locker rooms. "We ... have a washer and dryer in our utility room, located outside the locker rooms," Rowley says.

When considering costs for doing laundry onsite, keep in mind staff time. Cofrancesco explains that, at his facility, floor staff launder the towels as needed throughout the day, then welcome desk staff help fold the towels. Towels are stored in a cabinet at the reception area, and handed out by staff. Finally, towels are returned by members to collection bags located on the fitness floor and in both locker rooms, which have to be picked up by the floor staff.

Rowley says that, as part of NK Parts Industries' daily cleaning, fitness associates check the laundry hampers in the fitness center, recreation center and locker rooms on an hourly basis. After towels are washed and dried, they are folded and put out onto the fitness floor, where there is a shelving unit for them.

At YWCA Bristol, fitness staff members share in the responsibility of washing, drying, folding and shelving towels, and laundry is done at various times throughout the day. However, during busy seasons, "laundry is going from the time we open at 6 a.m. until we close at 8 p.m.," Johnson says.

Keeping track of towels

If you offer towels to members, one of the biggest challenges is keeping track of them. Whether members intentionally walk off with them, or simply forget they have them, towels are lost in large numbers every month at almost every fitness center that offers them. Says Fahrenfeld, "Keeping track of towels has been one of our greatest challenges. ... We started on the honor system, then noticed that we kept adding a case of towels or two per month. We knew that towels would either get damaged or stained, but not missing at the rate they were."

Trumbo agrees that keeping track of towels is difficult. "I know we lose, at the very least, 15 to 20 percent of our towels every month," he says. "We have a huge problem with theft. I hate to call it that, but, when your towels disappear the way ours do, it can't be by accident. As soon as we start running low, I order more. It's never-ending," Trumbo says. Kupkowski explains that "sometimes patrons forget to leave the towels at the facility."

Any way it is said, towels disappear and need to be replaced. Facilities have their own ways of either keeping track of the number of towels, or simply ordering more towels on a regular basis. Says Cofrancesco, "We don't really track individual towels. We buy replacements as towels wear out or disappear. We order five dozen towels every couple of months." Johnson says that, at YWCA Bristol, they replace towels about every 18 months.

Rowley explains that, when NK Parts Industries' fitness center opened, it purchased 1,000 towels, and put out 500 for use. "We use a visual inspection system to determine if we need to put more into circulation. If our inventory is low, we will purchase more," he says.

Tiger Rec keeps track of towels in more detail. Says Kupkowski, "We count the towels on a weekly basis, making sure we have the proper amount for the hours in operation and our peak times of usage. [We] replace towels twice a year (600 towels)."

For fitness centers that want to keep towels from being taken from the fitness center, there are systems that can work. Premier Fitness has a card system. Explains Fahrenfeld, "Since we incorporated our towel card system, towel losses have slowed down. Members receive a towel card when they join the fitness center. When they would like a towel, they have to leave the card at the desk, in exchange for the towel. Once they are finished using the towel, they put the towel in the bin and get their card back."

However, monitoring towels can take staff time, and create lines during peak hours. One option is to have a towel "round-up" a few times per year. During the round up, members are encouraged to return towels, no questions asked, that were taken from the facility. Signs can also work to remind members that the towels do not belong to them. It can say something like, "Workout and locker room towels are the property of XYX Fitness Center. Please return them to the proper bin before leaving the facility."

Towels that make it through the many months in the fitness center get worn and need to be replaced. Many facilities reuse them as cleaning rags, or donate them to local pet grooming businesses, animal shelters, car washes, janitorial companies or any other business that needs worn towels. Says Nultemeier, who purchases new towels about once every four months, "I donate the towels that are getting worn out to different places in town. Some use them for cleaning cars and some use them for their horses. I have never had to throw any away."

Charges and costs

Providing towel service to members obviously costs money, and many fitness centers may ask, is it worth it? If you are a service-oriented facility, and charge more for membership, free towel service may be worth it. Otherwise, many facilities charge extra for towels, or have a good system in place to keep track of them.

Cofrancesco estimates that the monthly costs associated with the towel service at the Jewish Community Association of Austin are around $125. This includes buying laundry supplies and replacing towels. However, the facility does charge $1 for shower-size towels (small workout-size towels are free), and it has a system for checking out towels. "Towels are checked out and paid for at our Welcome Desk. We collect cash, and we also offer pre-paid towel punch cards in $10, $20 and $50 denominations. The cards stay with us, and we punch them each time the member requests a towel," Cofrancesco explains.

Fitness Inc. Health Club charges a rental fee of 50 cents each for towels. Says Davis, "Some towels never come back, but [with the rental charge,] the service pays for itself."

Fitness centers that don't charge members for towels need to have a way to recoup costs. Says Nultemeier, "We do not charge extra for towels. ... [However,] our membership prices are higher than our competitor's." Johnson says that towel service costs at YWCA Bristol are figured into membership rates and built into the yearly budget. "We do not charge extra for towels, ... [and] members feel like they are getting a better value when towel service is included in the membership," she says.

Kupkowski also says that her facility provides towels free of charge, and budgets that into the cost of running the facility. "It is worth providing the best customer service for our campus community," she says.

Premier Fitness incorporates costs associated with the service into its initiation fee. Says Fahrenfeld, "Our towel program cost us $1,000 a month. Cost includes detergent, brightener, bleach and softener. We feel that, for the $59 per month that we charge for membership, we are giving members more than they would expect for this price."

Rowley says that NK Parts Industries looks at the costs as an operating expense. However, by re-using towels to clean, instead of buying paper towels or cleaning wipes, the facility saves some money in the long run.

Without charging extra for towels, some fitness centers wonder if the service is worth it for them. Says Trumbo, "We do not charge for towel service, and we don't recoup costs in any way. We don't even know the true monthly cost. The reason I would like to see Fuel discontinue towel service is because we put too much time and effort into the process. We do a towel run every 30 minutes, run the washer/dryer every 30 minutes and are constantly picking up soiled towels from all over the gym (especially the men's locker room). This keeps our staff busy doing towels, instead of [focusing on] more important matters."

Service with a cost

Most fitness centers that offer towel service to members realize that the extra costs are part of doing business. Towels will be lost, and those costs have to be figured into total costs when considering offering the service. Also, the costs for laundry (machines, electricity, water, detergent), and the cost of time for staff members need to be figured in. If service is part of your motto, towel service, along with other amenities, is something that members may expect. However, if you offer "affordable" membership rates, or a no-frills atmosphere, your members will likely understand that towel service is a perk, or something that costs extra.

Johnson says that offering small things, like providing towel service and other amenities, can make a big difference in attracting and retaining members. However, other fitness centers find that the costs outweigh the benefits. If you don't currently offer towel service, but are considering it, take everything into consideration first, and talk to other fitness center managers who have a good system in place.