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Confessions of a Total Failure

Despite the best efforts to turn a doomed project around, Elevation's shuttered steam rooms are a monument to failure.

I was on a local radio show recently, and the DJ asked if I had ever implemented anything at my health clubs that was a total failure. Happily, I came up blank. Over the years, I've tried many things that haven't worked out, but nothing came to mind that was an all-out, what-were-we-thinking, you've-got-to-be-an-idiot failure. Later in the day, it dawned on me: our steam rooms. Even today, they sit as a monument to failure. Let me explain.

Leaky logic

Elevation's main location underwent a major expansion between 2005 and 2007. We doubled the size of the facility, added a pool and upgraded everything. We even built a steam room in each locker room; we've just never used them. Why? They leak. And, we've since learned that everyone's steam rooms leak.

The rest of our renovated facility has proven quite sound. I was intimately involved with every activity that happened during the project. While it may sound odd that a health club owner put himself in the middle of virtually every decision, it served us well. By the time we were done, I could explain the intricacies of natatorium vapor barriers. I understood how a six-figure, world-class dehumidification system worked. When ducts had to be re-run, beams placed and air handlers repositioned, I participated in the decisions. I did that with everything ... except the steam rooms.

"Steam rooms are easy!" I was told. "You get your tile guy and your plumber together and you buy a steam generator." So, that's what I did. Oops!

The stains in my cardio room's first-floor ceiling revealed the problem: My second-floor steam rooms leaked. The plumbers pointed at the tile guy. The tile guy wondered about the drains. We re-did some tile, added more layers, patched what we could. Everyone was willing to keep trying to get it right, but a) these were the same people who couldn't do it right in the first place, b) men working in the women's locker room are not especially welcome and c) I became convinced that the rooms would never really be sound and reliable.

Looking for solutions

After-the-fact research supported "c." Doing what I should have done years ago, I started talking to everyone I could find. I called general managers of world-class destination spas. One told me, "Our steam rooms are fine. We just have to re-grout them at least once a year." (That's "fine?") Another told me how her facility's steam rooms didn't leak at all, "except through the windows."

I spoke with a vice president of a nationally known health club chain. He said, "We don't build steam rooms. They leak." (Now you tell me.) I've read trade journal articles that matter-of-factly state, "The cause of steam room leaks is the daily expansion and contraction of the grout as the room heats up and then cools down." There was no solution to the problem, just a statement of fact.

I've spoken with several manufacturers of industrial epoxy products that can seal "anything." They want $10,000 per room (!) in labor and materials, and some will not even guarantee their work.

If the only solutions are $20,000 and up, we figured our best bet might be to turn the rooms into dry saunas. We'd be out the same amount of money, and at least we'd be able to sleep at night knowing that our building was not being destroyed.

Constant reminders

So, my steam rooms remain shuttered. There are signs on their doors explaining that the steam rooms may never open - explaining the depth of my failure. We've lost only one or two members who feel they were promised something we never delivered. To other members, it's just a bad joke, one I hear all too often ("Steam rooms opening soon?"). I try not to think about the money and time we wasted, or the money, time and inconvenience that awaits us to do something with them.

There you have it: my most abysmal failure. If you have a story of an abject business failure that you'd like to email me, please do! I promise your story won't be published without permission, but I might feel better.

And, if you know how to keep a steam room from leaking, can you let me know?

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